The first time they met, it was when he caught her. She'd been diving toward the portal, she remembered, and then there was a thump as her body hit the ground. She was pretty sure she hadn't exactly been in her body at the time, though.
"Who are you?" asked the man who cradled her in his arms as if she was lighter than air. If he was alarmed by her presence, his voice didn't betray it.
"Buffy," she answered. No descriptor, no last name. Though she added, "I think I'm dead."
"I can assure you," he began in the same tone as before – bland, yet somehow comforting – "that you are not."
"Oh, okay," she said, and closed her eyes. "I need to rest now."
* * *
The second time they met, she was lying in a bed and things were beeping all around her. "I'm fine," she kept protesting. "Honestly, don't I look fine? Old yellow-eyes over there said I'm not dead, and I don't get sick."
"Data?" the red-headed doctor turned to address the yellow-eyed man who hovered behind her. "Could you please ask your young friend Bonnie – "
"Buffy," he corrected, at the same moment as Buffy herself.
"…Buffy, then – what kind of a name is Buffy? – to cooperate? I can't let her leave sick bay until I clear her of antibodies for - " She was cut off by an electronic chirp. "Buffy," the doctor asked, startled, "when were you born?"
"Winter," she answered, intentionally obtuse.
"Of what year?"
"Oh, that…" and she tossed off her date of birth, never expecting the reaction she got.
"How did you come to arrive here from the twenty-first century?"
She shrugged as much as anyone can when they're supine. "Ran. Jumped. Fell. Woke up when he caught me." She leaned around the doctor to address her rescuer directly. "Nice catch, by the way."
The third time they met, she tried to stake him.
"Buffy," he asked, all the while holding her arm away from him, "I must ask why you are trying to…stab me with wood."
"I'm not stabbing you; I'm staking you. It's my thing," she said. "Me, slayer. You vampire." Her words came out in a silly sing-song tone, as if she were drugged. She struggled against his grip, but it was firm.
With his free hand, he touched the metal badge on his chest, and spoke into the air. "Data to Dr. Crusher. I have apprehended your missing patient. I believe she is having an adverse reaction to the immunizations you administered." He waited for the tinny acknowledgement then added, addressing Buffy, "I am not a vampire."
"Sure you are," she said, straining against him. "Glowy eyes, pale skin, low body temp, no pulse. Never seen you eat. What else could you be?"
"I am an android," he said.
"An – what?"
"Android," he repeated. "In your vernacular, a…robot."
"Do you happen to know a creepy guy named Warren?" she asked, narrowing her eyes in suspicion.
Data assured her that he knew of no such person.
* * *
The fourth time they met, she was more herself and he was sitting across a table while she pigged out on a chocolate sundae. "Chocolate," she said, "is one of the life's most perfect foods."
"I have never tried it."
"Wanna?" she asked playfully, offering her spoon.
He obliged her by taking a bite. "It is…very chocolaty," he said, not wishing to disappoint.
"See? Told you." She took another bite then asked casually, "So, you can't get sick, or get hurt, or die, right?"
"I cannot get sick. I can become damaged, but it is difficult. It is unknown whether I will eventually cease to function."
"Die," she corrected.
"Buffy, I am a machine."
"This I know. But I also know you have a soul. People with souls die. Even if they are made of wires and strings and stuff."
"How do you know I have a soul?" he asked, wide-eyed and daring to believe her. He refrained from pointing out that string was not among his core components.
"I don't know how I know. I just know you do. It's a thing."
He allowed her to eat more of her ice cream before asking, "A 'thing?'" He paused, processing her statement. "As staking vampires is also a 'thing?'"
She looked at him for a long moment then put down her spoon, and introduced herself - properly this time - "Hi, I'm Buffy, the vampire slayer." She stuck out her hand for him to shake, and when he clasped his pale gold fingers around it, some spark struck them both. "Look it up," she continued softly, reclaiming her hand. "Slayer, comma, the."
* * *
The fifth time – well, they'd already met.
Data had done the research, knew who she was, knew she had to go back. They were walking toward the observation deck. "The Watcher's Codex says you were… Or are… Or will be…" He stopped and explained, "Verb conjugation can be challenging when time travel is involved."
"Even for you?" she teased.
"Even for me," he confirmed. "Buffy, you must return."
"I know," she said and her eyes betrayed a mixture of profound exhaustion and wistful sadness. "I can feel them. Will, Xander, even Tara – they're pulling me back."
"It is your home," he reminded her. "And you are needed there."
"Yeah, kinda know that, but…it's nice here. I like it. And you."
"I have become fond of you, as well, Buffy." He did not bother to explain his version of fondness.
"I have noticed that your current tone of voice combined with the look on your face generally means you wish to ask a question. Please, just ask."
But she didn't ask him anything. Instead, she stood on tip-toe and kissed him.
"Buffy, why did you do - ?"
She cut him off with a gentle finger to his lips, smiled a secret smile, and turned away. In the next instant, the corridor was empty.
Years later, he would find the echo of her answer in his memory.
"Because I wanted to."