Scenes On a Basketball Court

Summary: Xander goes to see Riley in the aftermath of Faith's activities in Sunnydale. Follow-up to "Accept No Substitutes."

Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters portrayed here, they remain the property of their respective owners/creators.

Rating: PG, for themes.

Time Frame: A few days after "Who Are You?" (This is your spoiler warning, folks).

Archiving: Be my guest, but e-mail me (eilandesq@aol.com) to let me know. . .I like to know where stuff I write ends up and I might want to see what else you've got.

SCENES ON A BASKETBALL COURT

"Look, I'm aware I haven't been the mostest best friend to you when it comes to the whole Angel thing, and, um, I don't know, maybe I finally got the Chanukah spirit."

--Xander, "Amends"


Riley lay on his bed, staring at the ceiling. Forrest had come by earlier that day, asking how he felt and wondering if Buffy had damaged him by fooling around with him while he was still healing. He had demonstrated the degree of his recovery by snarling at Forrest and springing to his feet as he forcibly expelled Forrest from the room, after which he locked the door and retreated to his bed. He was contemplating getting up and turning on some music when he heard a soft knock at the door.

Riley was in no mood for company, and he expressed that sentiment by snarling, "Go away!" at the closed door. After a moment, the knock came again, more insistently. Riley stormed over to the door and yanked it open, preparing to verbally eviscerate whichever of his squadmates was insisting on disturbing his privacy, and was startled to see Xander Harris quietly waiting outside of the door. Riley was startled into a polite greeting: "Uh. . .hello, Xander. What's going on?"

Xander gave Riley the once-over and noticed his face was flushed with anger, and his state of disrepair indicated that he had not left the room for some time. He held up a basketball and suggested, "How about we go shoot some hoops at the university gym?"

Riley raised an eyebrow at the invitation. He knew Xander as one of Buffy's friends, and they had had limited contact, including a few moments where they were less than friendly after Maggie had tried to kill Buffy and during his withdrawal from the drug regimen. They had basically mended fences after the two of them and Buffy had confronted Adam and he had returned from the hospital, but he still felt a vague dislike for the younger man for no reason that he could put his finger on. He coughed nervously and replied, "Uh, thanks, Xander. . .but I'd rather be alone right now-"

Xander frowned and responded, "Look, Riley. I know better than most people what you're going through right now. . .Faith is kind of like a hurricane: you try to survive the best you can when she's around, then you pick up the pieces afterward. Buffy's been a mess the last few days, and Willow's doing the best she can to help her out. . .I know you've got friends here, but they don't seem to be on board with all of this. . .and I thought you might want to talk to someone who's been there and done that." Riley didn't move, and Xander nodded and concluded, "If you want to talk, I'll be at the gym." He turned to go.

"Wait." Riley called out, causing the younger man to turn back. He frowned and considered the situation. However he felt about Xander, he did seem to be trying to help: the least he could do is listen. He sighed and continued, "Give me five minutes to get ready." He closed the door, causing him to miss Xander's small smile of triumph.



*****

The ball gracefully arced through the air and went through the hoop without so much as nicking it and bounced several times before Riley walked over and picked it up. He bounced it to Xander and called out, "Your turn."

Shaking his head and muttering, Xander walked to the spot where Riley had just shot from, some forty feet from the basket. A few minutes of one on one basketball had convinced both men that, even with Riley's injury slowing him down somewhat, the situation was irredeemably inequitable. Riley had suggested Horse as an alternative, and Xander had agreed, only to find that Riley was a deadly accurate shot; still, Xander was good enough himself to make it interesting, and the less strenuous situation had let him talk to Riley more readily. As they played, Xander filled Riley in on the story of how Faith came to Sunnydale, and the events that had followed. He carefully avoided mentioning Angel in the course of the story, and made only a token reference to the fact he had slept with Faith. He had just finished telling how Buffy had put Faith in a coma when Riley sank the forty foot jump shot, and as Xander tried and failed to duplicate the feat, receiving an "S" in the process, Riley frowned and commented, "Damn. . .guess I should paid more attention to Buffy's warnings about her. . .we're lucky she didn't decide to do more damage when she was here."

Xander nodded and replied, "She had a lot of opportunities to kill one or more of us. . .guess she just wanted to pass the time while she waited to get out of town. . .I still can't get over the fact that she came back to rescue those people in the church. . .I guess on some level it's 'once a Slayer, always a Slayer.'" He noticed that Riley was silent, and prodded, "What's wrong?" as he retrieved the ball and tossed it to his opponent.

Riley scowled as he attempted a simple free throw and missed it, graphically demonstrating the degree of his distraction. As Xander walked over to the line and prepared his own shot, Riley replied, "I just feel stupid that she was able to fool me so completely. She was acting oddly, but I put it down to stress. . .after all, with both Faith and Adam to worry about, anyone would be a bit unnerved. . .I think I should have known it, damn it!"

Xander sank the free throw, then moved to the three point line and sank another shot before replying, "Riley, she had us all fooled. . .it's not like she was acting like a homicidal maniac. Buffy's been known to act a little weird when she's stressed out. . .other than that cheap shot she took at my. . .er, performance abilities, which in retrospect should have been a tip-off, she seemed normal." He frowned in consternation as he tossed the ball back to Riley, then continued, "We're just lucky that she dropped her guard in front of Tara, or we might never have caught on." He frowned again as he thought of Willow's new friend: she seemed nice enough, but there was something vaguely unsettling about how she behaved towards Willow. . .it seemed like hero worship, or something else he was unable to identify.

Riley mused about Xander's comments as he sank the three point shot and tossed the ball back to the younger man, then decided to ask, "Uh, Xander. . .did you and Buffy ever, well. . .you know. . ."

Xander attempted to score with an overhead bounce and failed, then turned to Riley and replied, "Ah. . .no. Don't get me wrong. . .I've been interested, but Buffy made it clear a long time ago that she didn't see me in that way, and I think I've learned to deal with it." He scowled at a sudden thought, then continued as Riley sank his own bounce shot, ending the game, "It would have been nice if we had, if for no other reason than if we had gone together and broken up that it might have put her off that Parker jerk."

Riley stopped short in the act of offering to shake Xander's hand at the conclusion of the game and laughed out loud. At Xander's quizzical glance, he explained, "I finally figured out what it is I don't like about you! You look like that SOB Parker Abrams. . .I'm sorry. . .that's not your fault." He smiled coldly and continued, "When I first was interested in Buffy, I remembered that he had gone out with her and asked him about her. I'll spare you the details, but suffice it to say his response caused me to knock him on his ass with a good right cross."

Xander grinned and commented, "Mr. Finn, you have officially become one of my favorite people in the whole wide world." He gestured to a nearby bench, and they both sat down, toweling off the sweat from their earlier exertion, and Xander noted that Riley still looked troubled. He asked, "What's wrong?"

Riley looked haunted, and it was a long moment before he replied, "I think you've probably guessed that I slept with Faith while she was playing body-snatcher."

Xander nodded, suppressing a shudder and thanking all of the benevolent forces that might be out there that Faith hadn't decided to come to him instead. He looked compassionately at Riley and replied, "I won't lie to you. . .that won't be easy for her to take. . .but she knows that you weren't intentionally betraying her. . .she'll get over it."

Riley nodded and replied, "I know. . .but it's worse than that." He took a deep breath, then elaborated, "I told her that I loved her that night. . .for the first time."

Xander felt a pang of sympathy for the older man. * No wonder he's feeling guilty * He exhaled and responded, "That's bad. . .but, again, not your fault. . .I would suggest that you take that little tidbit with you to the grave. . .and let Buffy know exactly how you feel about her at a future date." He smiled ruefully and concluded, "It's not as if Faith is likely to come back to rat you out. . .and she didn't know that it was the first time, anyway."

Riley nodded and replied, "You're right. . .thanks." He shook his head and commented, "I can't get over how Faith reacted. . .she freaked out when I told her that I loved her. . .she got out of bed and started babbling about how it was all meaningless. . .I remember thinking that it was like she'd never heard anyone say that to her before."

Xander felt a pang of loss, then responded, "She may never have, Riley. . .not from someone who meant it." He took a deep breath, trying to compose himself, then continued, "Riley, until it was obvious that she had really gone over to the Dark Side, I desperately wanted to think that Faith was all right. . .that circumstances and general stress had made her do crazy things. Riley, Buffy has been the center of my life since I met her: she is the one who gave my life meaning beyond hanging out with my best buds and dreaming of getting out of the boring small town I happened to be born in. But she's not perfect: she can frustrate the hell out of you at times, and I've been angry beyond belief at her more than once. . .and it has caused me to say things to her that should have been unforgivable. But she has always come around, and she has chosen to forgive me, for which I am eternally grateful. I just hoped that Faith had the same resilience that Buffy had. . .and I ended up being disappointed."

Riley could see the desolate expression on Xander's face and decided to change the subject. He looked over at Xander and commented, "Buffy told me the whole Halloween story about you and that Ethan Rayne guy we turned over to the MPs. . .just what did you pick up in the way of military skills?"

Xander winced and replied, "Mostly basic stuff. . .weapons skills, counter-surveillance methods, tactical and strategic theories. . .things along those lines." He made a face, remembering the embarrassing incident with Harmony, then continued, "When I took the summer off, the skills seemed to get rusty pretty quickly. . .so I've been trying to train and practice a bit when I've had the chance, but I still need a lot of work to really get back up to speed. . .and I need to get it done: it could be important later on."

Riley smiled and offered, "I can help you out with that. . .I think I'm a couple of weeks yet from being O.K. to work out with Buffy again, and it would be good to get some work in with someone who can't kick me twenty feet across the room. . . and once I'm feeling better, we can still get some time in. . .you're right, with Adam and who knows what else out there, we should all be in peak condition. Sound O.K. to you?"

Xander nodded and replied, "Thanks. . .that would be a big help." He frowned and changed the subject again: "Look, Riley, I didn't mean to make it seem just now that Buffy's a basket case: she's not. But she's been under a lot of stress over the last four years, and sometimes it affects how she reacts to the rest of us. She can be terribly inconsiderate at times, but never malicious. If I had to choose one person in the world to watch my back, it would be her, and I'd say the same thing if she didn't have her powers. As much as she drives me crazy sometimes, I can't imagine my life without her in it any more. Just be patient with her, and it will work out."

Riley nodded and replied, "Thanks, Xander." He checked his watch and commented, "I'd better get back to shower and change. . .I've got a briefing at 2000 hours." He turned to go, then turned back and asked, "Xander, if Buffy dropped me tomorrow, and decided it was you she wanted, what would you do?"

Xander was startled by the personal question, and looked at the older man for a long moment before turning to stare at the empty bleachers next to the court and replying, "Last year, or even a few months ago, that question would have been easy to answer, Riley: I would have fought through the Master, Adam, and a horde of Apocalypse demons to be with Buffy. But now, I can't help but wonder if it just wasn't meant to be." He laughed and elaborated, "After the whole Parker thing, Buffy had a long talk with me, during which she pointed out that I tend to end up in relationships with women who. . .let's just say that they have issues. She thought it might be from some deep need to come to the rescue. . .she could be right, or it could just be fate's nasty way of letting me know that I'm not meant to be with Buffy. The point is, right now I'm with Anya, which has its ups and downs, but I'm ready to let it run its course before I even think about Buffy again. . .assuming that she decides that she was wrong about me all along." He laughed and commented, "Of course, it's easy to turn down an offer that I know I'm not going to get. . .you can relax, I'm not plotting to steal your girl. . .not that it would matter if I was: Buffy makes her own choices."

Riley laughed and replied, "You're certainly right about that." He extended his hand, and Xander clasped it firmly. Riley nodded to Xander and left the gym. Xander smiled in amusement, waited until he was sure that Riley was out of earshot, then called out, "You can come out now, Buffy."

A gasp came from beneath the bleachers, along with what sounded like a muffled curse, and Buffy walked over to Xander with an annoyed look on her face. She stopped in front of him and asked, "How did you spot me? I thought that I was at my stealthy best."

Xander laughed and replied, "You were as quiet as a mouse, Buffy, but that soldier package I picked up courtesy of Ethan Rayne included counter-surveillance techniques, and besides, that outfit you're wearing isn't exactly Stealth Girl wear." He looked pointedly at the light blue top and skirt Buffy was wearing along with a white sweater, then concluded, "I spotted you just before I finished giving Riley the info on Faith."

Buffy winced, then replied, "I thought that I should avoid dark colors for a while until the whole Faith thing got to be a little more past tense. . .which deprives me of some of the best of my wardrobe, damn it." She brightened and commented, "At least I fooled you for a little while. . .I was going to visit Riley when I saw you walk in with that basketball, and I followed to see what you were up to. I heard you invite him here and why you did it. . .thanks, Xander: he seemed to be in a much better mood when he left." She raised an eyebrow at him and asked, "Since when do you play fix-it man for my love life? It's one thing to bring me back from the dead, or to save me from being blown into chunky salsa, but this is a little out of the ordinary for you, Xander."

Xander looked away for a long moment, then replied, "I thought that since I spent so much of my time bitching and moaning about your last serious relationship, the least I could do is lend a hand when I actually liked the guy. . .and I liked him a lot more when he admitted to punching that Parker guy out."

Buffy giggled briefly and replied, "Me too. . .it was all I could do not to yell, 'Way to go, Riley!' when I heard him say that." Her face turned downcast after a moment, and she went silent.

Xander quickly divined the problem, and put his hands on her shoulders, causing her to look up. He smiled sympathetically and commented, "I'm sorry about what Faith did, Buffy. I was busy being glad she hadn't involved me in it. . .then he dropped that little bombshell."

Buffy blinked and nodded before replying, "Yeah. . .it would have been nice to hear that myself, rather than having it wasted on freaking Faith out. . .just another reason for me to kick her ass when I find her." She smiled wanly and continued, "I'll head over tonight and let him know I'm doing better, then maybe I can hear it for myself." Abruptly, she laughed and asked, "The Master, Adam, and a horde of Apocalypse demons, Xander?"

Xander laughed himself, then replied, "All right, I admit that Dead Boy came to mind more readily than Adam, but I gather you haven't told him about Angel yet, and I didn't want to raise any questions that you weren't ready to answer."

Buffy looked at him with an inquisitive look on her face and replied, "Yes, I noticed that. . .I'll have to tell him sooner or later: it won't be good if Angel shows up here again because of some big threat to the world and they end up meeting each other then. . .but I need more time." She smiled at him and concluded, "Thank you for giving me that time." She reached out and squeezed his hand, then turned to go. After a moment, she paused and turned back to him, asking, "Xander. . .when you answered Riley's question about your feelings about me, was the answer intended for me or him to hear?"

Xander met her inquisitive gaze with a poker face as he walked up to her and took her hand, raising it to his lips for a gentle kiss. He released her hand and replied quietly, "I wouldn't dream of prejudicing the jury by answering that question, Buffy." He turned away and left her there glaring at his back in exasperation.

When he was gone, Buffy sighed. Riley was in love with her, and Faith was gone, but her life remained as complicated as ever, even with Xander actually being helpful regarding her love life. Chuckling at the perversity of it all, she exited the gym, leaving it bereft of the players in the drama that had played out there that day.




As always, comments are welcomed and desired