Title: Off the Beaten Path

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Rating: PG-13/T

Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not.

Summary: Buffy tilted her head to see who else was insane enough to attempt the long hike on a ninety-plus degree day. 1500 words.

Spoilers: Post-series for Buffy, no comics; general Eureka (haven't seen S5.)

Notes: Challenge fic. Why yes, I have been hiking recently, how did you guess?

When she'd decided to finally start following through on her promise to show her sister the world, Buffy had expected that Dawn would eventually pass her up and leave her behind- but she'd kind of thought that would be in a metaphorical sense, not a literal one.

She stared down at her athletic shoes for a long moment, wondering if the grit that had sifted into them from the mountain's scree slope was worth removing her shoes to dislodge, or if she was better off waiting 'til she reached the bottom again. From the way her feet were complaining she was guessing blisters might be involved, and while Slayer healing might take care of them virtually overnight- there were a lot of hours of hiking still ahead of her that day. Putting shoes back on over blisters was never, ever a pleasant experience; she remembered that well from her cheerleading days.

She wriggled her toes inside their imprisoning fabric again, then gave herself a pass and leaned back on the rock she'd chosen for a rest break. A quick swig from her second liter of water that day refreshed her a little, but Buffy knew she'd probably also need to eat an energy bar before she went very much farther. She was so used to being able to do things physically that none of her human-standard friends could that it hadn't quite occurred to her that a Slayer's metabolism was built for short, repeated bursts of insane effort- not the long term endurance challenge of multiple miles of steep mountain climbing.

She glanced up at the final stone pinnacle of the mountain looming above her, searching for the slight shape of Dawnie scrambling up the last several hundred feet worth of talus blocks with Kit and Carlos, and shook her head. Buffy was a city girl, not a mountain goat; but 'climb to the top of a mountain' had been on Dawn's bucket list, and when she'd found out Kit and Carlos had survived Sunnydale to go to school in Oregon, the whole thing had sort of snowballed into a 'but you promised' of epic proportions. So there she was, sitting on the shoulder of a mountain, waiting for enough of the fatigue toxins to clear out of her legs for her to inch her way after her sister up to the summit.

"Ugh," she muttered to herself, rubbing at her sore calves. "This so isn't how I pictured this going." She very nearly wished that she'd brought a friend of her own along; she'd have been a little less embarrassed to be left behind if she'd had someone a little less crazy enthusiastic to keep her company.

The crunch of stone and soft earth under high-traction soles echoed up the trail from a little further down the mountain, dragging Buffy's attention away from her own aches and pains, and she tilted her head to see who else was idiotic enough to attempt the long hike on a ninety-plus degree day. A strange sight greeted her eyes: a guy wearing only shoes, a sunhat, and a pair of very brief running shorts, with one of those water-pack things Dawn called a Camelback slung over his shoulders and a trekking pole in one hand. He had a dab of bright sunscreen on his nose, short, pale hair visible beneath the hat's rim, a slightly cock-eyed smile, and an air of energetic enjoyment that made her feel instantly weary.

Maybe she had W-worded without noticing it; sending her someone twice her age with Dawn's same enthusiasm in response to her unformed complaint seemed like something one of Anya's old compatriots would have found entertaining.

"G'day! Beautiful day for hiking," he greeted her in a noticeable Australian accent, giving her a friendly nod as he strode deliberately and easily up the steep path.

"Beautiful day for swimming in the lake," she corrected him with a wry smile, nodding over his shoulder to the wide, blue jewel cupped in the valley far below the mountaintop. It looked almost tiny from their vantage point, but oh so tempting nonetheless as Buffy sat there and baked in the hot sun. "Aren't you, um, a little underdressed for this?"

His grin widened, and he paused in his hike as he reached the part of the path nearest her chosen resting space, where the slope momentarily became almost level before surging up at an even steeper angle. "As close to au naturel as one can get under these conditions," he replied cheerily.

It was like being told not to think of an elephant; she immediately pictured his wiry form entirely in the buff at the suggestion. He was built more like Spike than Riley or Angel, totally firm despite his comparatively advanced years... aaaand, that was entirely too much time spent ogling a total stranger. "I've heard of nude beaches, but not nude mountains," she said wryly, fighting back a blush.

He smirked at her, shrugging his shoulders. "Depends on the mountain," he said.

And now she was picturing it again. She shook her head, blinking that image away, and reached for the first question that came to mind.

"Wouldn't you have been worried about sunburn? Or mosquitoes?" she asked. It seemed like every time she'd stopped moving for more than half a second down below the tree line, the little pests had swarmed her like demon women on Xander. The way the backs of her arms were already itching, she could only imagine how their bites would feel on more, um, sensitive portions of the anatomy.

He reached up with his free hand to show her a tiny aerosol cylinder tucked in a coin-purse sized pouch dangling from the strap of his Camelback, shaking his head. "Combination solar and insect repellent, made to my own formulation. I was a bit more worried about the pinnacle, actually. Look at the angle of her!" He turned to gesture upward with his trekking pole. "Didn't fancy scraping the old fella if I happened to take a stumble."

Buffy had no idea how to respond to that. "Well, I hope you have fun, then," she said lamely, gesturing to the next sharp switchback of trail cutting between patches of boulders and low scrub above them.

He didn't show any sign of taking the hint, though. "This isn't fun, it's research!" he replied brightly. "I once tracked a polar bear across the Arctic tundra, dived with great whites off The Barrier Reef, and hunted with the prides of the Serengeti; all on the clock. And there've been several reports of unique species here, you know. Right in my back yard. Talking of which... I see you're on your own at the moment; I don't suppose you'd care to join me for the remainder of the invigorating ascent?"

Unique species? Really, that was his line? She rolled her eyes, but had to admit the conversation was a lot more entertaining than just sitting there having a solo pity party. "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is staging a revolt," she replied, wrinkling her nose but half-willing to be persuaded.

"If you made it this far, you can manage the rest," he said, in a wheedling tone. "You think it's a bonzer view from here? It's nothing to what you'll see up there. There's nothing like standing on a summit and knowing you've conquered everything she could throw at you."

She blew out a breath, stirring the loose hair that had escaped her ponytail, then slung her backpack back on and offered him a hand. "All right, all right. I suppose I should make sure my sister doesn't do anything particularly teenager-y up there, anyway."

He took the hand, grin widening as he assisted her to her feet. "I'm sure she'll be fine. Jim Taggart, by the way."

"Buffy Summers," she replied, keeping her grip gentle as she regained her footing. "Nice to meet you."

"Same to you," he said, agreeably. "Well, then, Buffy; onward and upward!"

And off they went up the trail, Jim staying just behind her as they climbed, narrating about the types of rock and the Latin names of every plant still visible at that level. Which was probably just as well; given her reflexes, anything that took her down was likely to knock him off the mountain with her anyway, but she really did not need the view up those miniscule briefs bobbing just ahead of her all the way to the top. The scenery all around them, and the pinch of her shoes at the heels, were distracting enough as it was without adding that into it.

But then again... she imagined herself describing that scene to Dawnie later, and had to swallow back a snicker. Blisters: four. Mosquito bites: dozens. Mountains climbed: one. Free show from a random co-hiker: totally priceless.

Buffy smiled over her shoulder at her new friend, then turned her attention forward and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.