Xander Harris wasn't known for having good instincts. Actually, the instances where he'd fallen prey to his bad instincts were much more notable. Like the time he almost ended up as lunch for a very large insect disguised as a pretty woman, who, in all honesty, was too old for him anyway. He just wasn't great at distinguishing a bad vibe from a good one, or picking up on the world around him. But when he spotted Riley Finn walk into the Bronze, order a drink, take one swallow, and then walk out the back exit, his instincts told him that something was wrong.
"What's up?" Willow asked, nudging Xander's elbow a little.
"Huh?" He said too quickly, head snapping around to face Willow, "Uh, nothing."
Willow frowned and glanced over his shoulder, searching for something that she thought might have caught his eye.
"It's nothing, Will." He said again, smiling this time. She cocked an eyebrow but turned back to Buffy, who had been in the middle of releasing some of her frustrations from the past week. Things at home definitely weren't perfect; there had been a lot of pressure on Buffy to handle the everyday things that their mom was usually in charge of doing. Neither Buffy or Dawn wanted her to be on her feet too much.
"Dawn's making things even more difficult for me. She claims she doesn't have enough time to help out, but I know for a fact that she doesn't have that much to do. She's not the one slaying vampires every night," Buffy wrung her hands in her lap. Xander tried to pay attention, but his gaze slowly returned to the door that Riley had unceremoniously thrown open and fled through a minute ago. There was no sign of him now.
"Hey, Buff," Xander butted in, cutting Willow's comforting speech short, "how's Riley been?"
The girls both responded with a confused look at him and then at each other before Buffy decided to say anything.
"He's fine. I mean, I've been pretty busy lately but he understands," Buffy explained. Xander could tell that he and Willow weren't the only ones Buffy' was trying to convince with that statement, but he kept his mouth shut. He didn't blame Buffy, not completely. He sure as hell knew that things had not been easy for her. But Riley had been suffering because of it, too.
"I'm gonna grab some fresh air. Be back in five, " Xander grinned at the girls and slipped off his chair. They waved, still a little confused, but he waved back and headed for the exit without an explanation.
He didn't really know what to expect. He glanced down the street, seeing only couples and friends hanging around with drinks or talking loudly or both. No Riley. He strolled casually into the back alley, as quiet as possible, knowing that vampires weren't unaccustomed to showing up at the Bronze to cause trouble late at night.
Then he saw him, backed up against a wall. A woman stood before him, her body pressed into his, one hand gripping his arm tightly. Riley's eyes were closed, leaning heavily on the wall behind him. Xander felt like he should leave, a heavy feeling in his stomach. He stood there for a moment, frozen, telling himself to turn around and get back inside. Then he noticed the smear of blood along Riley's jawline. Then he noticed the fact that the woman with the tangled, strawberry-blond hair wasn't kissing his neck; she was biting it. Her hand flew to the side of his neck that her teeth weren't currently attached to and squeezed hard.
Xander stood in shocked silence while his brain relapsed for a moment, then found himself scrambling for a piece of wood sharp enough to kill her. He grabbed hold of a splintered bit of crate near his foot and sprung out of his hiding place. The vampire girl wasn't quick enough; she spun around just in time to take the make-shift stake through the heart, then crumble into dust. Xander stumbled back a few steps, dropping his weapon and taking in a sharp breath, feeling the adrenaline seep out of him.
Riley slumped and slid to the ground, eyes only just flickering open.
"Woah, there," Xander rushed forward, reaching out to shake Riley's shoulder, "Hey, man, you okay?"
Something bubbled out of Riley's throat—laughter maybe—but he didn't speak. Just sat there, head lolling a little. Xander felt like maybe Riley had had something more than just that one swallow of alcohol, but then it occurred to him that maybe he'd lost a lot of blood, which, in this situation, was very possible. The thought made him feel sick.
Xander pulled the collar of Riley's sweater away from his neck, inspecting the bite marks. Blood trickled slowly from the wounds, but overall it didn't seem too severe. The rest of his neck, though, was covered in splotches of red and small purpling fingerprints.
"How long did she have you for?" Xander asked, "I thought that whole military training thing was to prevent you from getting bitten."
Riley huffed and tried to sit straighter. He still seemed weak.
"She had a tight grip," He mumbled, words a little slurred.
"Yeah, well, be thankful I had a tight grip on a pointy stick." Xander said. He took Riley's arm and heaved him up, which Riley objected to with a pained groan.
"How do you feel?" Xander asked. Riley snorted, struggling to stand even with Xander to lean on. He threw an arm around Xander's shoulders and, after a moment, clumsily gained his footing.
"Oh, peachy," He grumbled.
Xander started to urge them into a walk and Riley did his best to follow. They headed in the direction of Xander's waiting car, just outside the Bronze's main door.
"She sure roughed you up, huh? Vampires don't tend to do this much damage when they suck your blood, do they?" Xander tired to laugh a bit, to make things seem okay, though he was sure they weren't. They received a few curious glances as they passed by some clubbers getting some air, but thankfully avoided any direct questions.
"I guess I just got lucky," Riley said. He chuckled a little too, albeit weakly. Xander rummaged in his pocket for the keys. The car was close now. Xander yanked open the passenger door and Riley slapped a hand on the top of the car to keep himself upright.
"Here," Xander muttered and took Riley's arm, giving him enough support to bend carefully and sink into the waiting seat. A raspy 'thanks' slipped out of Riley's mouth as he leaned his head back against the head-rest and tried to hold still.
Xander clambered into the driver's seat and started the engine, eyes darting for a second to Riley's shaky form. Xander had never seen him like this; frail and tired, barely able to breathe without wincing.
They pulled out onto the street and Riley cast a side-ways glance at Xander.
"What?" Xander asked, picking up on the look.
"You're not gonna tell Buffy about this, right?" Riley asked.
Xander bit his lip, brow furrowed as he stared out at the road.
"Why shouldn't I?" He asked, hands suddenly tighter on the wheel, "I mean, she should know about a vampire attack. She should know that you got attacked."
Xander peeled his eyes away from the wind-shield to look at Riley. He frowned and looked away again a second later.
"What's going on, Riley?" Xander pressed, because something was off. Something was way off and he knew it from the beginning.
"I'm verging on unconsciousness?" Riley retorted. Xander shook his head.
“I'm being serious,” He said.
“Nothing's going on, Xander,” Riley sighed, “Focus on the road.”
“I'm not letting you off that easy. Vampires don't tend to get the better of people like you very often,” Xander said, voice firm, “You're gonna have to tell me what was up back there.”
Riley didn't say anything. Just sank back in the seat and stared out the side window. Xander didn't bother prying anymore. He knew Riley wasn't going to talk, at least not yet.
Once Xander pulled off onto his street, Riley finally decided to speak up.
“Graham's house isn't far from here,” He said, “Just another block.”
Xander glanced at the clock radio. It was almost 12.
“You can stay at my place tonight,” Xander said, purposefully avoiding Riley's eyes.
“Seriously? You're that determined,” Riley asked, “Xander, listen—,”
"No, man," Xander cut him short, pulling into the parking lot of the apartment, "Something's going on, and, for the good of your neck, you're gonna stay here tonight."
Xander killed the engine and shoved the keys into his pocket. He glanced at Riley, who was focused intently on the dash in front of him. His mouth was set in a hard frown, half from the pain and half from frustration.
“It's late. You may as well suck it up and come in,” Xander said with a shrug and climbed out of the car, slamming the door with finality. Before Riley could formulate a new argument, Xander was throwing open his door and basically dragging him out into the cold night. For the sake of avoiding anymore bruising, he went along with it.
“Whatever you say, Harris,” was all he could muster.
The apartment was warm and welcoming when they finally made it through the door. Xander flicked on the lamp by the couch while Riley took off his shoes by the door, then stood there, uncomfortable and unsure of what he was expected to do. Xander waved his hand in a vague gesture that Riley assumed meant 'sit down', so he settled on crumpling into the brown, leather chair in front of the TV with a groan.
“Where's Anya tonight?” Riley asked.
“Out. With a demon friend,” Xander trudged over to the freezer, kicking off his shoes as he went. He rooted through the mess of pogo-stick boxes and frozen pizzas for an ice pack.
When he returned with the first-aid box from the bathroom, Riley looked almost asleep, settled deep into the chair with his head tilted back. He started a little when Xander drew up a chair in front of him.
“Here,” He said, passing over the towel-wrapped ice pack. Riley took it with a shaking hand and pressed it gingerly to his head. Xander wondered if hauling out the entire ice cube tray would be wise once he considered the amount of bruises Riley must have obtained.
“Do you need some water? A blanket?” Xander asked as he fiddled with the clasp on the first-aid kit.
“No, you've done enough,” Riley said, his eyes closed beneath a pinched brow.
“I only just started, you dummy,” Xander said and—after rummaging through the box for a moment—pulled out an alcohol cloth from the package. He reached out tentatively and swabbed at the bites. Riley flinched, his eyes flying open before slowing drifting closed again.
“Sorry,” Xander said quickly, then pulled his hand away. Red spotted the cloth in his hand.
“Shouldn't you be use to this kind of stuff? Being a military man and all that?” Xander asked, balling up the used cloth and attempting to toss it in the garbage bin across the room. He missed.
“In my defence, I didn't see that one coming,” Riley said, cracking open an eye.
“Sure,” Xander drawled, his voice dripping with sarcasm, and Riley shook his head, the corner of his lip twitching into what could almost be called a smile.
“Alright, I'm going in with the cream,” Xander warned before squeezing a dollop onto each of the wounds. He tore the wrapper from the biggest bandage he could find and pressed in onto Riley's neck, rubbing his finger along the edge of the fabric to hold it in place, skimming Riley's skin.
“You should know I've never done this before,” Xander leaned back to inspect his work, “I'm usually the one getting stitched up, but I honestly don't think it looks too shabby.”
“Better than it was,” Riley agreed. The cream, at least, was soothing the bites. He reached up to switch the ice pack into his other hand, but it feel with a thud onto the floor. His hands were still trembling.
“Sorry,” He said but Xander was already bending to pick it up.
“No problem,” Xander mumbled and pressed the cold pack to the opposite side of Riley's neck, where the bruises were the darkest.
“Do you want me to...”, Riley started, holding his hands aloft for a second, unsure of what he should do.
“I got it,” Xander replied. Riley felt a little uncomfortable, but he let his hands drop. Xander seemed confident enough.
"Look," Xander started after a few moments of silence had passed between them, “I know Buffy's been pretty busy lately. And I know you're upset that you couldn't help. I'm just trying to give you a chance to let off some steam. If you can't tell Buffy, then why not tell me?”
Riley fidgeted, and let out an exasperated breath.
“You're really not gonna back down, are you?” Riley asked.
“I'm really not,” Xander replied.
“The thing with Buffy—I don't know. It just feels like I can't help her, like she doesn't need my help,” Riley said, exhaling heavily. Xander nodded in encouragement for Riley to go on, then moved the ice pack down a little.
“She's stronger than me. Smarter, too. It's like she's on a completely different level and I don't think any amount of trying can get me there. It sounds awful, but I want her to need me,” Riley continued. He eyed Xander carefully.
“I know how it is with Buffy. She is on another level, definitely, but you're not the only one trying to reach her,” Xander said after a moment's thought. It was meant to be a comfort, but Riley looked even more disappointed.
“But hey,” Xander said quickly, “I, myself, am on a level way beneath Buffy. I'm like, one of the lowest rungs on the ladder, so if you need someone to talk to, I'm your guy. It's a proven fact that going down a hill is way easier than going up. See what I'm saying?”
Riley furrowed his brow and let out a breathy laugh. It ended in a flinch. Xander bit his lip.
“That's actually an offer that doesn't sound half-bad,” Riley said finally, and his smile was sincere this time.
“Good. And, besides, I don't really have a lot of male friends, other than Giles. And he's old and British and reads a lot, so we don't actually have much in common. It'll be nice to have some real guy-on-guy time,” Xander said, and immediately regretted his choice of words. He pulled the ice pack away from Riley, raising his hands in a non-threatening sort of way.
“That came out wrong,” Xander said quickly, eyes wide. Riley grinned, and Xander actually felt his cheeks go hot.
“Don't worry about it. If guy-on-guy time is your thing, then that's your business,” Riley said and burst out laughing as Xander stuttered and flailed.
“Time for a new topic, I think,” Xander grumbled, “Maybe we should get back to the whole vampire thing?”
Riley's laughter died out a little, but it didn't feel like he was trying to completely block Xander out anymore. A wall had come down between them, or, at the very least, was crumbling.
“It's crazy and stupid. You need to know that up front,” Riley said, voice low.
“Crazy and stupid is nothing new for me,” Xander said, leaning forward in his seat to press the ice to Riley's neck again. Riley tilted his head, not bothering to argue.
“I needed to be needed. Buffy didn't need me. Didn't even bother to tell me what was going on in her life and I- I turned to vampires. They need blood; I have it. Letting them bite me, it made me feel needed,” Riley explained and Xander could hear the disgust in his voice. He kept his expression serious, eyes lowered.
“The good feeling didn't last long, though. As soon as they were done, I felt guilty and weak, obviously. But I went back anyway,” Riley went on.
“I'm not proud of this. I know it's wrong and I know I was putting myself in danger, but that good feeling—the idea that I was essential in those few seconds—that was enough. It was like I was addicted,” Riley closed his eyes, thinking back. Shame twisted in his stomach. He jumped when he felt the cold of the ice pack against his arm. He blinked and looked down at Xander's hand wrapped carefully around his wrist.
“I know it's hard, to feel like you can't help or that you aren't of use to anyone,” Xander said quietly, his smile strained. He stared down at the bruises on Riley's arm, “But, there will be a time when they'll need you, and when that time comes, you realize how important you are. How important you are to them. You just have to be patient, because people need time to deal with things on their own before they reach out. We're kinda weird that way.”
Riley exhaled, slowly, thinking. He'd been an idiot, he knew that, and here was Xander Harris, making sense of every tangled and twisted up thing that had been plaguing his mind only an hour ago.
“So,” Xander said finally, moving the ice up his arm, “Am I right or am I right?”
“The second one,” Riley said, and Xander smirked.
“So no more spontaneous blood donations then? You swear?” Xander pressed.
They didn't speak for a minute for two; Xander kept his focus on his work and Riley sat with his eyes closed, acutely aware of Xander's fingers against his skin, how careful they were. Xander's thumb rubbed idly at the knob of Riley's wrist for a moment longer before he removed the ice. He stood then, cocking his head to the side as he reviewed Riley's injures.
“Well, looks like my job here is done,” He said loudly, like he was trying to cover something up. He returned the ice pack to the freezer and dropped the first aid kit on the counter. Riley raised himself from the chair, rubbing gently at the tense muscles in his shoulder.
“The couch is all yours,” Xander grinned. He disappeared into the bedroom and returned a minute later with his arms full of blankets and pillows, “This should get you through the night.”
Riley nodded, standing awkwardly by the chair as Xander set up his make-shift bed. When he was done, he turned to Riley. He hesitated for a second, then stuck out a hand. Riley reached out and took Xander's hand firmly in his own. They shook, slowly, and let go, a tension in the air that neither could place.
“Night,” Xander said.
“Good-night,” Riley replied.
In the morning, Xander found the couch empty, Riley's shoes gone from beside the door. He returned the first aid kit to the bathroom, and the blankets and pillows to their place in the bedroom closet. He clicked through the multiple worried messages that Buffy and Willow had left on his voicemail and threw some bread into the toaster. It wasn't until he plopped down on the couch, wondering when Riley had left and where he might have gone, that he noticed the note stuck to the table-top. It was written on Xander's hot-chili pepper stationary, the one that he kept in the kitchen by the phone. On it were two words, followed by a capital R: