Set in Season 4; The Initiative

*****

"Graham, what do you think? Mattressable, nes'pas'?"

I looked up, and then I saw her. Sweet Jesus, I saw her.

It had been four years since I last set eyes on Buffy Summers, but if it had been forty years, I would never have forgotten her. It's hard to forget the person who saved your life.

Forest continued talking, which in itself was nothing new. The new part was that he was trying to trick Riley into admitting that he had a crush on Buffy. One look at Riley and I knew that the man was gone. I didn't dare look back up at Buffy, because then I knew that I wouldn't be able to look away again. One glance would have to be enough for me; one brief glance had been enough to tell me that that same intangible air still surrounded her. One brief glance had also been enough to tell me that she was as lovely as ever.

I drifted from the conversation, but the guys were used to that. After all, I was known for my taciturn and silent nature. Well, to the guys in college anyway. It would probably shock them out of several years of growth to know that I had been both Class Clown and (to my eternal horror) Homecoming King. Of course, the Homecoming King part had mostly been because of Mandy.

I wondered if she remembered me. I felt her gaze drift over me in a random sort of way, but as I snuck a look, I saw no spark of recognition in her deep eyes. Not that I really expected it. Making a connection between the cool and collected college junior and the shit-scared high school senior was something that would have challenged my own mother.

"She just always seems so distant." Riley was griping. Realizing that I had been unusually silent - even for me - I piped in, "Maybe she's Canadian."

Riley and Forest both flashed me uncertain glances. The poor plebeians didn't understand the joke, didn't really understand that it was a joke. After all, I didn't joke. Not after that night, anyway. Anyone I used to know in high school would've taken the bland delivery as part of the joke and fallen backwards with laughter.

But then, that was before that night.

I managed to forget about her until later in the lounge where Riley and I were tossing around a frisbee. Riley was shocking Forest with a story about how Buffy had told off the Evil Bitch Monster Of Death. Riley was impressed as hell, Forest was floored, and I was pretty much accepting - she had always been someone to stand up for those who couldn't. I could've told them stories about Buffy that would've done more than just impress them. After all, she had stood up to more than just a bitchy prof.

I could tell that Riley was ready to deck Parker, because I was about a second behind him. The only reason Riley got the jump on me is that I was trying to find just the right moment and the perfect angle to shatter the bastard's face. It would be pretty hard for him to bad-mouth her with a jaw wired shut. It was the least I could do for Buffy, literally the least.

Riley's punch had been spontaneous, but still a nice neat one. No wild swinging, just a good wind-up and delivery. He'd had training, after all. But I remember how Buffy had punched that vampire, and I couldn't help but compare the punches, and realize that Riley came up far short. Hers had been vicious, but at the same time there was a very deadly grace in her every step, every kick. When I fight, it's dirty and efficient. The guys wonder why I never train in front of a mirror, and the answer is that I always see what she had looked like, and it's pretty damn discouraging.

Mandy thought that Buffy was an angel sent to save us. A month after the attack she joined a nunnery to spend her life giving thanks to God. Different strokes for different folks, I guess. We were too much alike, I guess. Deep down neither of us really believed that we had deserved to be saved. Lots of soul-searching had followed the attack, while Mandy was still in the hospital and my arm was still in the cast. We knew what would've happened if Buffy had arrived just a few moments later. Mandy nearly died anyway - losing almost two quarts of blood will do that to you. And the one working on me was having fun tearing me apart. I still remember how he laughed when my arm snapped. Like it was the biggest joke in the world.

There were four of them, one of her. Anyone else would've taken a moment to weigh the odds, but she just jumped right in. The two on Mandy got facefulls of holy water, burned them like acid. She managed to take out the one that had been waiting his turn for me, then it got ugly.

I saw the blood on her when it was all over, and it wasn't all from the vamps. She picked Mandy up like she didn't weigh more than a cat. I was out of it so badly that she had to stuff my good hand into the space between her belt and her jeans to make sure I followed her. Took us both to the hospital, then disappeared.

I'd never felt helpless before. When I got to college and Walsh offered me a part in her special squad, I made sure that I'd never feel that helpless before.

I saw her again at the party. Well, the back of her anyway. Not that I'm complaining, of course. Forest started hassling Riley again about how Buffy had probably run off to have sex. I could've corrected him, of course. The kid with her had been Xander Harris, and the two were probably running off to stop whatever it was that Walsh was sending us against. But who was I to correct Riley's thinking? A relationship between those two would be too weird for words.

But again, the old guilt popped up. "I like her," I said.

Inwardly I cringed at having to sum up what should've been a four-page ode of praise into one tersely casual statement. But Forest and Riley might've caught on that I had known her before if I was more gregarious. Call it the downside of being monosyllabic.

"What kind of girl would be interested in a guy who acts all Joe-Regular by day, but all demon hunter by night?" Riley bitched as we walked down to collect gear. I was glad that the muted lighting hid my brief grin.

"Maybe a peculiar one."

They thought it was a joke, of course. A pun on all of Riley's little descriptions of her. But it wasn't of course. And was I risking a lot by actually encouraging my buddy's interest in a girl with a night-life that was easily as weird - if not more so - than his?

Hell yeah. And the point just pounded itself home later, when I saw her outline in the hallway of the dormitory as she wiped the floor with Riley, who was the best fighter in the entire operation, while still holding back so as not to hurt him. Even as I struggled to focus my vision after the flare blast, I could still recognize her.

After all, I had once recognized her through a sheen of my own blood and tears.

I just hope that Riley doesn't do something stupid and hurt her. Because friends or not, what I owe to her is a debt that I couldn't repay if I spent my whole life. Riley's action saved me from having to tear Parker limb from limb, but I'd hate to have to break the nose of a friend.