Rose was angry.
She was allegedly on Earth, but the creepy town in which the Doctor had landed them resembled something out of a horror movie and she was keeping an errant eye about for cornfields.
Eerie silence abounded, the streets were all but deserted save a few individuals who moved with a great purpose which she could not discern, and she had absolutely no idea where she was going. The blasted Doctor had sent her for takeaway, gesturing vaguely with one hand the direction in which she was supposed to go.
Well, she had gone and there was nothing. Most of the shops were closed for the evening, which was rather bizarre, considering her watch told her it wasn't yet nine o'clock. She paused in her steps and frowned, trying to remember if she had adjusted it to the proper time zone. California, right? She was sure she had. So where was everyone? And why wasn't she in Los Angeles stalking eligible movie stars?
She was just about to give up when she rounded a corner and spied a café with the lights still on. The Espresso Pump. Well, she doubted they had chips, but she could certainly do with a coffee. Though perhaps caffeine wasn't a good idea. Her nerves were already on edge.
She sighed. Sod it. She'd find something edible on the TARDIS and the Doctor could just get his own damn takeaway. Not that he ever ate. Which meant he wanted her gone for some reason. She grunted. Well, that certainly wouldn't do. What was he up to now, and why wasn't she a part of it? She spun on her heel and crossed back in front of the alley she had passed moments before, this time hearing a distinct rustling.
She knew she should just keep going, she really did, but she couldn't help herself. She slowed and peered into the darkness.
"Hello?" She winced at her own stupidity. Why not just strap on a pair of pumps and hang a VICTIM HERE sign from her neck?
And had that really been her voice? She hadn't thought it so high.
With every fiber of her being she realized she should start running now, but what if someone was hurt or in danger? She couldn't just walk away. She reached into her jacket and gripped her phone tightly in her hand, her index finger hovering just above the key to speed dial the TARDIS.
"Everything all right?" she called.
Her knee flexed, ready to spur a sprint the likes of which she hadn't undertaken in, oh, thirteen hours, when she was startled by a loud clang followed by an indignant meow.
"Fucking cats," she mumbled lowly as her breath caught in her throat.
"What do we have here?"
Rose set her jaw, annoyance temporarily overriding fear. Why couldn't dodgy guys come up with better lines? Why was everyone so desperately unoriginal? She glared defiantly at the source of the voice and her annoyance fled into the night, as she herself should have done several minutes ago.
What was that, and why did it have fangs? Better yet, who the hell cared?
She took off at top speed.
His return to Sunnydale had been met without pomp or even circumstance, and Xander was feeling very much put out by his lack of a life.
The road trip had been a complete disaster, his car was once again in ruins, and the absence of Cordelia was a torturous reminder of his pathetic attempt of a stab at normalcy. Buffy and Willow had started college, Giles had staunchly committed himself to establishing some nebulous goals, and Joyce's active dating heralded a distressing lack of freshly-baked cookies.
Why had he bothered coming back? His friends consistently brushed him off like dandruff; he had no job nor any prospects, though his slightly charred diploma all but guaranteed him a position at any establishment which required the wearing of a paper hat; and next month he was expected to begin paying rent for a dank tomb which flooded on a regular basis and smelled like rotten eggs.
Someone left my cake out in the rain, he absently sang.
Had he been drunk when he had convinced himself they needed him?
Well, no, because he didn't drink.
Delusional? Quite possibly, perhaps stemming from a withdrawal of energy from a point of mystical convergence.
Snazzy balls of pollen which had made him do the wacky? Alas, there had been no wacky of late. Or if ever, if he discounted Faith, which he was apt to do. How depressing. Perhaps there had been wacky and he had just forgotten? He wouldn't put it past himself.
I'll never have that recipe again. Oh no!
Stupid male strip clubs with their stupid disco music.
He sighed and continued trudging wearily about the cemetery, tuning out Buffy and Willow's strange chatter regarding people about whom he neither knew nor cared. The life of a townie was pitiful and, as much as he wanted to blame all and sundry, he knew the fault laid solely on his shoulders. No one had made him slack off in school. No one had made him cheat on Cordelia. No one had asked him to come back.
So why the hell was he still here?
He frowned and considered the question. He was just going through the motions, and he suspected Willow and Buffy were doing the same. Oh, he knew that they had missed him and were happy he was back, but to what end? His phone never rang, he didn't go out, and his social calendar required iron supplements. Was this it? Was this his life, running and cleaning up after girls who were half his weight and twice as powerful? For the first time since Buffy had been outed as the Slayer, he was having doubts about continuing at her side, and while his conscience scolded him for even contemplating leaving, a greater part silently screamed for freedom.
He chided himself. He was being ridiculous, pouting just because he was bored. Still, he couldn't help but question his worth in this fight. He wasn't trained, and while he was now better at defending himself in demonic skirmishes, he relied too much on Buffy to keep him alive. Was that fair to her? She had more important things on her plate, and what if the next time she was saving his ass, it cost someone else their own? He was more a hindrance to her than a boon. As for Willow, she was off learning words and theorems he couldn't even pronounce, let alone comprehend; she was settled and happy with Oz, and had Buffy as co-BFF. Giles needed him for little, other than fetching donuts or other prepackaged foodstuffs, and while his self-confidence often languished on the railroad tracks, Xander knew he was worth more than that.
He shook his head in a futile attempt to clear it, wondering where Buffy and Willow had gotten to. He sighed again, realizing that while he had been daydreaming, they were probably off saving the world yet again from some big nasty with horns, and tongues in strange places. He tried not to be bitter that they hadn't bothered waiting for him to keep up.
He shoved his hands in his pockets and continued trudging forward, mulling over his options. He could stay and continue to be petulant and miserable, spending his days watching the others go about their business and fumbling through his nights as cannon fodder. He could accept that this was his chosen lot in life and just suck it up and deal with it.
Or he could leave.
But where would he go?
He doubted Cordelia was pining away for him in L.A., and he certainly wasn't anxious for a sequel to The Deadboy Years; his car wouldn't get him much further than the corner gas station; and his wallet had more moths than Charlotte's web.
He was so consumed with his inner whining that he missed the panicked scream and its purveyor until she ran into him. He managed to remain standing, a feat which surely deserved to be rewarded with Twinkies at a time to be determined later, only for his breath to be pulled from him when Hot Mystery Chick grabbed the lapels of his jacket and yanked his head down to hers.
"It has fangs!" she bellowed. Her eyes, the color of burnt honey, were huge, terrified, and pissed off.
Acting on instinct rather than knowledge or common sense, he pushed her behind him with one arm while withdrawing his stake with the other, and before he thought better of it, he punched out and dusted the vampire. Xander considered the empty space where the vampire had been standing, before looking down at the pile of ash now at his feet. He then looked at his stake, looked back down at the ash, looked up at the sky, and wondered how the fuck it all had happened.
He was so buying a Lotto ticket after this!
"Thanks," the girl panted.
He stared at her.
She frowned and narrowed her eyes. "Hello?" She waved a hand in front of his face, puzzled by the lack of reaction. "Are you all right, then?"
He blinked. "That was a vampire."
She snorted. "Kinda figured, yeah. Fangs, yellow eyes, tried to bite my neck." She gave him a wry smile. "It all just screams vampire, don't you think?"
He furrowed his brow and suddenly experienced a case of retracto-neck, his head slowly pushing itself back as far as it would go. He worried it might snap off and roll down Main Street into the Espresso Pump before remembering it would faze no one in Sunnydale save himself, but perhaps it would incite more of a response than this lady was having at almost being sucked dry.
"You aren't surprised?" he demanded.
Wait. Had he just squealed?
Hot Girl shrugged. "Not really."
"I've seen all kinds of things."
That was a little evasive for his tastes, so he splashed her with holy water and awaited an indignant squawk or the screams which came with sizzling flesh. One could never be too careful. Especially when one was Xander Harris.
"I'm melting!" she shrieked, bringing her hands before her face.
He soon realized she was laughing at him, and he was surprised when he himself began chuckling. "Sorry. Couldn't take any chances."
"That's all right," she grinned. "Holy water, yeah?"
He nodded hesitantly. Who was this chick?
"Are you really okay?" he asked, concern marring his features. "It didn't hurt you?"
She shook her head slowly, considering the question. "No. I'm fine, thanks."
They looked at each other for a moment and Xander felt a blush creep up his neck as he began shuffling his feet. He saw the slow smirk dawning on her face and resisted the urge to punch her arm and run away.
"I'm Rose. Rose Tyler."
"Xander Harris." He refrained from asking if he might nibble on her lips, which were really quite spectacular.
"Xander, is it?" She nodded. "I like it."
Rather than dance a jig of glee, he took a shot in the dark and changed the subject. "London?"
She smiled. "That's right. How'd you know?"
Because, sadly, it was the only city in England he could actually remember. "One of my friends – well, he's kind of like our dad – he's from London." He shrugged, figuring it best not to add that her Cockney accent reminded him a little too much of nutty Drusilla because, whoa, buzz-kill. "I've met a few English people. Hey! What's the deal with the tea, anyway? I mean, I've tried to get into it, but sometimes only coffee will do, you know? And tea is just so…tea-ish. Ever try that herbal stuff? Tastes like steeped lawn clippings. Yuckness."
"Sorry, I tend to babble. Usually someone shuts me up right about now. Or even before I start." He frowned. "Oh, yeah, she moved."
"She?" At his nonsensical mumbling, she discreetly dropped the subject. "So. Vampires." She waited a bit, but when no commentary was forthcoming, she pressed the point. "You fight them?"
"Huh? Oh." He fidgeted. "Not really. I just help the girl who does."
Rose quickly appraised him, believing he did a lot more than just help, and she was more than curious about this girl. "Well, thanks again. For your help."
He grinned. "No problem." Again, seriousness reasserted itself. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"Oh, I'm fine," she said, rolling her eyes, "now that my heart's not jumping out of my chest."
He nodded. "Where are you staying?" He slapped a hand to his forehead. "That sounded like a come on, didn't it? I swear I wasn't hitting on you!" His eyes widened. "Not that you're not gorgeous!" He sighed. "Oh, man. Um, I think I should walk you back. Not that you can't take care of yourself! Just…it would make me feel better to know you got home safely."
Charmed, she tilted her head and held out a hand, smiling softly when he blushed and took it.
They both turned at the screech, and Rose felt him stiffen.
Buffy and Willow came to an abrupt halt before them, staring unabashedly at the woman with their best friend, before pointedly noting their joined hands. Rose sensed that Xander was about to pull away, so she grabbed his hand more tightly and dragged him toward her.
"We heard screaming," Willow panted, her fatigue catching up with her as she doubled over, her hands on her knees.
"Oh, yeah," Rose nodded, narrowing her eyes at the two girls, guessing one of them was the supposed vampire fighter, and trying to discern which one it was. "Sorry, that was me."
Buffy raised a brow. "And who are you?"
She would be the one. Annoyed and rather affronted by the imperious tone, Rose saw the girl's quirked brow and raised her a curled lip. "Rose Tyler."
Buffy looked at her, then to Xander, and finally to Willow. "Demon?"
"Hey!" snapped an irritated Xander. "She's not a demon!" He turned to Rose. "Are you?" he nervously asked.
She poked her tongue out between her teeth in a crooked grin, her nose scrunching. "Nope. Holy water, remember?"
"Yeah. I knew it," he smiled. Wow! That tongue thing was awesome. He turned to glare at Buffy. "I'm getting better at spotting them!"
She rolled her eyes.
"But what happened?" Willow asked.
"I was being chased by a vampire," Rose explained, "and then I literally ran into Xander, here," she patted his shoulder, "and he killed it." She looked up at him. "It's dead, right?"
Buffy snorted. Xander and Rose scowled.
"I can kill vampires," he insisted through ground teeth, "and I don't wait until they kill other people before I do."
Buffy's eyes widened as all color drained from her face.
Rose noticed the effect of his words and wondered about the story behind them. Interesting. Actually, this whole night was interesting...in a rather horrifying way.
"Why don't you look at the dust at your feet if you don't believe me," she added rather snidely and with a triumphant gleam in her eyes, pushing the dagger in even further. She really didn't like this girl.
Startled, Buffy looked down, and slowly her cheeks began to pink. "Oh."
"Yeah," Xander said. "Oh."
"Uh huh. I'm not completely useless, you know."
"I know that, Xander," she quietly said.
"This is the person you help?" Rose asked him, her tone all but demanding an explanation for why he did so.
He nodded. "This is Buffy, and my best friend, Willow."
Willow smiled and shook Rose's hand, while Buffy smarted at the noticeable lack of 'best friend' title affixed to her name. She silently congratulated herself on once again effortlessly sliding her size seven into her mouth. Maybe that could be her major. She sure didn't know what else to pick.
"Nice to meet you," Rose said blandly to Buffy – disbelieving that anyone would actually be named something so ridiculous, and more grateful than ever to Jackie for being somewhat normal – before looking back to Xander. "Just how many girls do you have?" she grinned. "There's these two, plus the one who moved, right?"
He blushed more deeply. "Cordelia. She moved to L.A. after we graduated."
"I see." And she did, especially after noticing how Buffy and Willow grimaced at the name. Well, that practically begged for commentary. "Cordelia. Pretty name. I'm sure she's lovely." As Xander continued to blush and the girls continued to scowl, Rose felt pleased with herself indeed, but decided it best to keep things on course. "So. What is this place, anyway? Of all the nutters I've met, never was one a vampire."
"Welcome to the Hellmouth," Xander and Willow intoned.
"That certainly sounds grim," she said after a beat.
"Vampires, demons, witches. We've got them all," Xander nodded.
"You've no idea," Willow snorted.
Rose nodded politely. "Well, it was nice to meet you," she curtly said to Buffy, "but Xander was about to walk me back." She turned on her heel and began tugging him after her.
"We'll just go with you," Buffy rushed to offer.
Oh, she was quite sure they would.
The Doctor was rummaging about beneath the console, aggravated by how much he missed Rose. The girl had only been gone for a half-hour and already he was at loose ends, calibrating instruments which were in fine working order. It was absolute rubbish how much and how quickly he had come to depend on a frustrating and often annoying teenage human female.
The TARDIS offered a whirl of disapproval at his savage thoughts.
He rolled his eyes. Fine. So he missed her. What of it? She had been there – forced her way in, really – when no one else had been, and had brought him out of a pit of despair so deep, he might never have otherwise escaped.
Fantastic girl, really. And there was nothing wrong with admitting it. Especially since no one was around to hear it.
He quickly finished tuning the struts of the thermodynamic regulator and was a little chagrined Rose was not about to ask if he had fixed the flux capacitor, whatever that was supposed to mean.
Right! So, what next?
Where had she gotten to, anyway? How long did it take to fetch chips?
He snorted. She had probably run into some adorable American boy with floppy hair and doe eyes. Most likely they were blathering on about the unfortunate haircut of some ludicrous film actor or bouncing around to the tuneless melody of a ridiculous pop star.
And he was most definitely not jealous. Because that would be pathetic.
He suddenly discovered he was singing about an umbrella, ella, ella.
He grimaced and let loose a string of curses which would have made even Jackie Tyler blush. He climbed back up to the console and stomped about, looking for something else to do. He wasn't going off in search of her, as it would lead to yet another long discussion about how he didn't trust her and how sorry she was about what had happened with her father and with Adam.
He wished she'd just shut up about it all, really. The mess in the church had been just as much his fault as hers. If he had taken even a moment to tell her what she needed to know, it all could have been avoided. He had told her he had forgiven her and he meant it. Why couldn't she just accept it? Did she really believe he was going to drop her back home?
Well, perhaps he had issued that threat once too often. She probably thought the next time she dropped a plate, she'd find herself dumped on the estate grounds. Maybe he had been unfair. Yes, he wanted her to be more careful and to use the intelligence he knew she had, but he didn't want her to walk about on eggshells and worry he was going to turn her over his knee and spank her.
He shook his head.
And as for Adam, that little bastard, he was just as furious as Rose. He wasn't mad at her; he was pissed off that he had so egregiously misjudged the twerp. Although it had reminded him that a keen intellect was not a harbinger of basic decency, a lesson which he really shouldn't have required. And perhaps reminding Rose every other minute about the entire disaster didn't necessarily communicate that he didn't hold her responsible.
If only she wasn't human! If only he wasn't forced to use bloody words.
He sighed again. He really missed her.
Missing Rose and making unnecessary repairs to the TARDIS was almost enough to dismiss the little voice in the back of his head that said something was terribly wrong. Not with the ship or with Rose or with the universe, but with this excuse for a town. He didn't know what it was. He couldn't put his finger on it, but if he could, he would have to wash it.
Even more disconcerting was that the TARDIS herself seemed ill at ease. But then why had she brought them here?
Rose didn't relinquish Xander's hand as they walked back toward the TARDIS. She was lost in her own thoughts and only half-heard what the others were discussing, though she managed to cover by asking appropriate questions and nod or exclaim at the right moments, a technique she had learned at the foot of her mother.
So, not only were vampires real, but you could kill them with sunlight, beheading, or a stake through the heart. She was only surprised by just how unsurprised she was. And how refreshing that the films managed to get something right for once.
Oh, well. If she could believe in Time Lords and Daleks and tree people, why should vampires be any different? Demons? She flashed on Cassandra, who must have qualified as such in some capacity. Why not?
As she listened to Xander explain the concept of the Hellmouth, with additional copious detail helpfully provided by Willow, she wondered how much the Doctor knew of it, before deciding he must have known everything, which of course begged the question of why they were there. Then she began to worry about Jackie and Mickey, for surely vampires weren't confined to just this one location. She'd have to brief them on her next trip home, which she hoped was soon.
"We're heading for Main," Buffy noted. "Where are you staying?"
Rather than answer questions she wasn't ready to have asked – and just to irritate Buffy even further – Rose looked up at Xander and smiled. "So what's your story? You at university?"
"Uh, no," he said, dropping his head. "School's not really my thing."
She shrugged. "Mine neither. Didn't even try for A-Levels. Got a job, then?"
The corners of his mouth pulled upwards. "Guess that depends on what you consider a job." He had something which demanded his attention every day. At least for the rest of the week.
She saw the pain of assumed failure in his eyes. "Get a paycheck?" He nodded, and so did she. "Then that's a job. No shame in doing hard work. I used to work in a shop, myself. Was tedious and completely pointless, but it paid the bills." She smiled. "Hey, someone's got to, right?"
He smiled and nodded, gently squeezing her hand.
Stoked by a jealousy which was at once familiar and foreign, Buffy couldn't resist throwing in her two cents. "Well, Xan, you could always go back to stripping."
He halted in his tracks, his back to her.
"What!" Willow shouted.
"Oh, shit," Buffy hissed. She began apologizing profusely before he could even turn around, and when he didn't bother, that's when she knew she had not only crossed the line but obliterated it. "I'm sorry, Xander," she whispered. Christ, what was wrong with her?
He sighed. "Buff, I know you're still hurting over Angel. I get that, okay? No matter how much I wish I didn't." His shoulders sagged. "And I know neither one of you liked Cordy, but what's this about? I'm not even allowed to talk to another beautiful woman?"
Ah. Rose nodded to herself. This Buffy had apparently just gone through a breakup, to which she could definitely relate. She glanced quickly at Willow, for some reason assuming the girl was in a relationship, and deduced that Buffy was anxious for her other friend to remain single if only so they could experience it together. A bit selfish perhaps, but entirely understandable; after all, misery loved company, right? She decided to cut Buffy off before the girl could even posit an answer.
"So I'm beautiful."
At his blush, it was all she could do not to give him a cuddle. He really was a sweet boy, and something about his shy awkwardness coupled with his dogged determination to help others reminded her of the Doctor.
That, and the ears. Both Xander and the Doctor had ears so large, she was surprised moons weren't orbiting them. Not she minded, of course; after all, the size of a man's ears…
She snapped out of her happy naughty thoughts and tuned back in as Willow began interrogating Xander about being a gigolo while Buffy attempted to shut the girl up by continuing to babble apologies. Rose rolled her eyes and repressed a sneer. Americans!
"Oi! So he danced on a stage! Who cares? Nothing wrong with a good-looking bloke using what Mother Nature gave him. No one was hurt, so what's the problem?" When neither answered, she forged ahead. "Besides, it's not really any of your business what he does, is it? I mean, neither of you is his girlfriend, right?"
She didn't understand this instant protective streak she felt toward Xander, but it was real and it was there, and her instincts were rarely wrong; they often got her into trouble, but she had never regretted following them. Regretted the consequences, sure, but not the impetus.
In the face of that logic, all fight left Buffy and Willow's sails.
"I feel like I'm in Pretty Woman," Xander said.
Rose looked at him, lips twitching. "Are you calling me a prostitute?"
He paled and spluttered. "What? No! Of course not!" He shook his head before ducking it. "It's just that, you know, that part at the end? Where Richard Gere asks what happens to the princess after the prince rescues her?"
"She rescues him right back."
He nodded. "That's kind of what this feels like."