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Final Exam
(Learning Curve: The Hard Earned Wisdom Remix)

by M. Scott Eiland

Fandom(s): Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Word Count: 1,777 words
Rating: PG13, for themes
Disclaimer: I don’t own these characters or settings — I'm just taking them out for a spin.
Original story:Learning Curve

Xander heard the doorbell ring, and took a moment to make one more brush stroke before walking over to his phone and looking at the screen. His right eyebrow went up in surprise, and he smiled slightly before walking to the front door and opening it. He smiled again before greeting the arrival: “Hi, Leigh.”

“Hi.” Leigh smiled at him, and walked over the threshold without hesitating — she knew that even in broad daylight on an open porch no invitation would be forthcoming. She looked around and commented, “The accommodations are a bit more comfy than what I remember from the last time I saw you.”

Xander smirked. “That’s grading on a curve, but yeah — the accommodations are definitely twentieth century, at least.” They were standing in a medium sized house on what had once been a farm off of I-5 in Oregon. It was sparsely furnished and the only remaining large structure on the property — with nothing but a perimeter fence and flat dirt between the house and the highway and the neighboring properties. No one was going to sneak up on him there unless they were really good at it or Xander was busy. He looked at the Slayer and commented, “Still — you had to come a long way from Cleveland to find it. What’s up?”

Leigh was silent for a moment, and Xander took the time to examine her minutely. She didn’t look any older — two years and an odd number of months was trivial to the Slayer metabolism, if they managed to survive the other hazards of the interval — and the only physical sign of the passage of time was a faint scar trailing down from just above her right elbow to her wrist. He looked at her and commented, “How long did the poison lay you up for while the wound was healing?”

“Two months — but it was dead before I started healing.” Leigh’s voice was rueful, yet proud — and it made Xander smile again to hear it as she finished, “And why does anything have to be up? Can’t someone come by and visit their old teacher?”

Xander gave her a look, and Leigh shrugged and added, “I had an assignment in the area, and you were on the way. It’s not like you’re hiding out here.”

“True — trying to hide from Willow is like trying to hide sunrise from a rooster, and I actually know for a fact how hard that is now.” Xander wasn’t buying the cover story, but he didn’t see the point in forcing the issue. He looked at her again and noted, “You look a lot more comfortable than the last time I saw you.”

“I had a lot of questions I still needed answered when we last saw each other.” Leigh replied thoughtfully, looking back at Xander with a faint smile. “They’ve been answered.”

“Meaning you met those three people I was telling you about?” Xander asked, studying Leigh’s expression as he did so. “Those answers wouldn’t be in the Council’s library no matter hard you looked for them.”

Leigh seemed to squirm a bit without moving, and hesitated before replying: “Yeah, I met them — though it took me quite a while to catch up to all of them. None of them were too talkative until I mentioned that you had described each of them without using their names — after that they were ready to talk up storms. They also mentioned some very interesting details about you.” She smirked and commented, “If you were still isolated from modern civilization I’d have brought a box of Twinkies to get your attention, but you’re close enough to home now that I suspect you have a ten year supply stashed away in case civilization ends.”

“One year, and I had them in Scotland, too — before that it would have been a tad much to stash in the camping gear.” Xander laughed, then added, “But I doubt that was the most interesting thing you heard from those three.”

Leigh nodded reluctantly, and elaborated, “It gave me a lot of perspective about what the old Council must have been like — and made me feel a little bad about how frustrating I found the new order even after working with you.” Xander nodded encouragingly, and Leigh added, “It’s amazing you all held together as well as you did — even Faith saw the light after going bad and tried to make amends on her own before having to tap back into the fight.”

“Faith was a tough case — and I’d be lying if I claimed that all of my issues with her were completely resolved.” Leigh could hear the sadness in Xander’s voice, but he shrugged as he added, “Same’s true for Buffy and Willow — and I’m sure all three of them have their own issues with me, even if they won’t say so.”

“And Dawn?” Xander flinched, and Leigh grinned wickedly as she chuckled, “You didn’t think they’d leave that part out, do you?”

“She tasered me while I was driving a car we were both in.” Xander mumbled, with a defensiveness in his voice that made Leigh grin, then look at him pointedly. Xander saw the look and sighed as he allowed, “Which might have been a not completely unreasonable reaction to my chloroforming her after Buffy asked me to get her away from the Hellmouth.”

Leigh nodded solemnly. “And you really expected that to work?”

Xander shrugged. “Deep down, I think Buffy knew that nothing was going to keep Dawn away. We had to try, you know? And if you’re about to point out that makes me a big old hypocrite with all my complaints about being kept fray adjacent — which I’m sure they told you about — then guilty as charged.”

Leigh shook her head in amusement, then saw a half-open door with the smell of paint coming from it. “What do you have going in there, Xander?” she asked.

Xander turned and saw where she was looking, then replied, “Oh! My new hobby. Come and take a look.” He led her through the doorway and flipped on the light switch.

Leigh saw that the windows had been blocked with heavy curtains to keep all of the light out of the room except for the overhead lamps, and that there were several paintings on easels along the walls. She looked closely at them and was immediately fascinated. No one would mistake Xander’s talent as being world-class, but all of his subjects were immediately recognizable — and portrayed in ways that captured each of their subjects well. Buffy Summers glaring intensely at an unseen enemy. Willow Rosenberg with her hands raised to cast a spell — her hair blown about by an unseen wind and a visible glow in her eyes. Faith Lehane in motion, a foot lashing out as a wicked smile crossed her face. Dawn Summers, sitting at a computer desk and smiling at the artist with a warmth that Leigh had a feeling was reserved for him alone. And … Leigh gasped as she saw the almost finished painting on the far wall: it portrayed her looking back at the artist in the waiting area outside the tiny structure in Scotland, her expression hopeful, yet with a touch of regret. She turned back to Xander with a questioning expression, and Xander looked embarrassed as he replied to the unstated question: “Hey, that’s just where I happened to be right now.”

Leigh sighed and shook her head. “Xander, you ass — why don’t you just come back in already? You’re already gradually spiraling in closer and closer anyway, and we both know you’re going to be there if anything really bad happens.”

Xander sank down into a nearby armchair, and Leigh walked over to stand next to him, waiting silently for his response. After a moment, Xander looked back up at her and whispered, “I’m not sure I can — it’s been so long now, and they’ve moved on with their lives. I don’t want to mess them up, and I don’t want to be grabbed and bundled in cotton once they’ve got me back there.” He sighed, then added, “I’ll think about it, OK? Now go off and get your mission done, and you can come back when you’re done and we can talk about it some more.”

Leigh shook her head in annoyance and replied, “You are my mission, you big jerk.” She leaned down and kissed him gently on the lips before leaning back to observe the reaction.

Xander smiled slightly, then looked up at Leigh and commented, “You know, I’m pretty sure the last time we talked I mentioned that I had concerns about this sort of thing.”

Leigh smirked and replied, “Oh, that wasn’t a pass — that was a reminder that there were a lot of different reasons people wanted you back. Also, if I tried to grab you up for myself without bringing you back to Cleveland first, Dawn would probably murder me.”

Xander laughed nervously. “Still?”

Leigh shook her head and pointed at the portrait of Dawn: “What do you think, genius?”

“I was hoping that she had the sense to find someone a lot better suited for her given a few years — and I was pretty much hoping the same for you, too.” Leigh chuckled and shook her head, and Xander sighed: “Figures. Well, we can’t have the best up and coming Slayer we’ve seen in years go back to Cleveland a failure, can we? It would make my skills as a guru look rusty.” He looked at her with a pained expression and asked quietly, “Are you sure you really need me there? I still get reports monthly — Slayer Central has been doing better than ever since you arrived, and almost completely without my input.”

“If you died tomorrow, we could get by without you — no question about it.” Xander winced at the blunt reply, and Leigh added, “Thank goodness we won’t have to. Plane tickets are ready out of PDX for the day after tomorrow, afternoon. We’ll get everything packed up and let a shipping company get it back to Cleveland. We can spend the rest of the time hanging out and you can tell me where I went wrong with that demon that laid open my arm.”

Xander shook his head. “Nope. Not going to critique an experienced Slayer who obviously has her act together. You can spend the time telling me what’s gone on there the last two years so I can look less clueless when you drag me back in by one ear.”

Leigh laughed, and Xander joined her for a moment before they left the room to start packing.


REMIX AUTHOR’S CLOSING NOTE: A bit short compared to the source material, but — as the geography and Leigh’s lampshading indicated — Xander was talking himself into coming back gradually, and the paintings done from memory just provided illustrations for the state of his mind. Leigh (not to mention Buffy, Willow, Faith, and Dawn along with probably a few dozen miscellaneous Slayers and WC personnel) had simply decided that they were tired of him dithering about it.

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