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Summary: Ethan Rayne comes looking for Xander over a year after the infamous Halloween. The only thing no one knows is why. Not to mention, what does Xander dreams have to do with all of it? YAHF

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Cartoons > Avatar: the Last AirbenderthegoodfightFR1821216,5801515874,41311 Jun 1028 Sep 11No

Chapter 21

A/N: OK, so those two chapters that I had ready? Well, it turns out they work better as one big chapter, so here they are! It may be a while till I get another chapter up. This semester is really doing a number on me. So, bare with me. Thanks again to Greywizard for the beta help and to all of the reviews. If I forgot to respond to any, sorry! As always, feed back is always good and this story is not finished or given up on. Enjoy!

Chapter 21

“{You’re doing it wrong,}” Azula said, watching from a nearby rock, sitting on it as if it was a throne.

“{Last time I checked, you’re only good at destroying things, so you’ll forgive me for not caring all that much about what you think,}” Xander snapped back, redoubling his concentration on the water near him. “{And I didn’t ask you for your advice.}”

She looked off to the side, making it clear she was no longer interested. “{Have it your way. But don’t blame me when she beats you. Again.}”

Growling in frustration, Xander ignored the young woman’s comments and rushed forward bringing some of the water from the pond towards him in the process. He had barely sent a jet of water at Buffy before she was almost on top of him, sidestepping the attack and coming at him. He ducked and dodged the kicks she delivered, but he was getting frustrated and, admittedly, sloppy. Each time he and Buffy squared off, it was taking less and less time for her to put him down. As if on cue, Xander felt his legs get swept out from under him.

“Damn it!” Xander snarled, slamming his palm onto the ground.

“Xand, maybe we should take a break,” Buffy offered, offering him her hand.

Forcing himself to take the hand and not be a complete idiot, Xander angrily nodded. “I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with me. I know I’m better than this. It’s like there’s this…this block or something.”

“You do seem a bit…distracted,” Buffy said hesitating slightly.

Shooting a dark look in Azula’s direction, Xander muttered, “I’m fine.”

“You don’t expect me to believe that, do you?”

Turning away from her, Xander clenched his fist, trying to quell the dark emotions welling up inside of him for what seemed like the umpteenth time that day alone. The training was supposed to help him let some of the stress and anger out in a healthy way before he ended up losing it and destroying Giles’ apartment. There hadn’t been much time for any training, no proper training anyway, for a few weeks now. He was ready to snap and everybody knew it.

He felt someone squeeze his shoulder. Reaching back, he felt Buffy’s hand and gave her a gentle squeeze back. Relaxing his shoulders, losing some of the tension in his muscles, he turned back around.

“Sorry,” he told her. “I’m not at the top of my game, huh?”

“Understandable.” Buffy paused, seemingly deciding on if she should say something or not. Dropping her hand from his shoulder and tucking them into the pocket of her sweat pants, she made up her mind.

“Xand, no one expects you to be completely OK, yet,” she said speaking softly. “After everything that happened…” She paused stopped, trying to find the words. “I know that he isn’t your favorite subject, but when I lost Angel last year, when I had to stop Acathla and sent Angel to hell, I was a wreck.”

Xander tensed up for an entirely different reason this time. “Um, no, it’s fine. Angel’s, you know, he’s alright, I guess,” he said, hoping to cover it up. The last thing he needed was to have that talk with Buffy right now.

With a small bitter chuckle, Buffy shook her head and ignored him. “I mean, I ran off to L.A. and changed my name. If that doesn’t scream complete and total mess, I don’t know what does.

“But, my point is that it takes time. I know I don’t know exactly what you and Faith were, or if even you know what you were, but I know she meant a lot to you. Don’t try to push it away. Whatever you’re feeling let it happen.”

“I’m fine with what happened,” Xander bit out. Nodding over to Azula, not caring that she was watching, and probably listening in, he added, “It’s her that I’m not fine with.”

Buffy nodded in understanding. Xander knew that the Firebender had taken it as something of a hobby to poke and prod Buffy in just the right ways to irritate her to no end. Well, that was when she chose to actually speak English, anyway. Azula was constantly calling into question her tactics when it came to patrolling, her training sessions with either Giles or Wesley, or simply making a comment in just the right way. In perfect Azula fashion, it never once sounded petty, just mean and, when they thought about it, right. Everything she said to Buffy, every critique and criticism, were all true. She made insights into plans and into maneuvers that none of them had seen or had thought about. It only made her all the more annoying, at the best of times. On several occasions, Buffy had to be stopped from attacking the other girl, who merely stood there, smirking, never making a move to stop or retaliate against Buffy. She would walk away after that, leaving an infuriated Buffy with no outlet and a lot of frustration. But, no matter what, Azula’s comments where always taken into consideration, often times being implemented completely or worked in somehow.

Xander wanted desperately to leave her alone, to get some time away from the girl who had killed Faith, even if possibly in self defense. The fact of the matter was that no matter what happened, no matter how many times Azula didn’t slit one of their throats when given the chance, he couldn’t take the chance that she wouldn’t. Rarely did he leave her by herself. The first two weeks he absolutely refused to have anyone but himself or Buffy watch her. After a time, he had allowed Giles and Wesley stay with her, preferably together and armed, to watch her. Not that the weapons would have made that big of a difference if Azula did want to attack, but it made him feel better knowing they had at least a small chance. Still, he couldn’t let her out of his sight for more than an hour at a time without fear gripping him. So he took her everywhere with him, all the while being torn up inside by her presence. The way she moved, spoke, sat down, even breathed. It all got under his skin and made it almost impossible to control his emotions.

“I can feel her, you know? Watching me, marking down everything I do and cataloging it and filing it away for future use,” Xander said in a harsh whisper, seeing Azula lean back slightly on the rock, looking to all the world to be examining the water in the lake and not the pair of them.

“We could have left her back at the apartment,” Buffy offered. The two looked at each other. “Right, OK, so you couldn’t have left her there, I guess.”

“You think I like dragging her around with me?” Xander hissed. “I can’t stand her!”

“I know, I know,” Buffy replied placating. “You want to watch her, I get it. But watching her is getting in the way of everything else. Trust me, I get how she can get to you, I’ve wanted to throttle her on more than one occasion. But, you keep talking about how she’s this master tactician or something, right? Well, what if this is her plan?”

“Her plan? To annoy me to death?”

“Well, yeah.” Seeing his confused look, Buffy explained.

“The more time you spend with her, the more you’re messing up. You’ve said it yourself, you’re not at your best. You haven’t had a full night’s sleep since she’s shown up, you fall asleep while researching and while we’re on the subject, your attitude isn’t fairing so well either.”

“Anything else you want to say or is the intervention over?”

Folding her arms over her chest, Buffy jutted her chin out. “I’m trying to help you, Xander. Maybe if you listened to me for once when I said that, you wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“Oh you think you could have done any better?” Xander snapped. “You think I should just let her wander around on her own? Leave her with Giles and Wesley who wouldn’t last five seconds if they’re lucky? Or how about your mom? Think she’d be up for-”

His sentence was cut short by Buffy’s fist coming at him. Like any good fighter would, he came up with the stunning plan that she wouldn’t see coming and blocked it with his face. ‘Ha! Bet you didn’t see that one coming, did you?’ He mentally taunted lying on his back and letting his vision return to normal. All in all, it could have been a lot worse. His nose wasn’t broken or even bleeding. Considering she probably could have punched through his face if she really wanted to, this was comparable to a love tap. It didn’t make it hurt any less though.

“{You really have a way with people, Avatar,}” Azula told him idly. “{You also let your guard down. Sloppy.}”

“{I didn’t ask your opinion!}” he snapped, for the second time. Looking back at Buffy, he found her reaching out her hand to him. Reluctantly, and with a bit of shame, he took it and let her help him up, again.

“More pleasant conversation?” Buffy asked with a sideways look at the Firebender.

“Annoying commentary is the last thing I need right now,” Xander said, thankful to have a moment to brush himself off.

“Look…I’m not trying to attack you.”

Xander raised an eyebrow and watched her smirk sheepishly.

“OK, OK. Despite what I just did, I’m not looking to attack you. I’m just…worried. We all are, Xander.”

Before he could reply, Azula cut him off, this time speaking so Buffy could understand.

“They have every reason to be worried,” Azula said, sliding off the rock and walking towards the pair. Instinctively, Xander moved himself slightly in front of Buffy while turning to face the Princess.

She stopped several feet away before continuing. “Alexander here knows perfectly well what I’m capable of, and I, him. In my short time here, I can tell that none of you can say the same about either of us. Meanwhile, I know all of you, perfectly.”

“I know full well what he can do,” Buffy retorted, her voice taking on a dangerous tone.

“Oh, I have no doubt that you know it intellectually, or as much as someone as yourself can know anything in that regard,” Azula told her with a small shrug. “You’ve seen him exert himself with tremendous displays, I’m certain. All the while thinking that this was merely the exception to his power when, in fact, they are the norm.”

“I know Xander better than you ever could,” Buffy said, taking several steps forward, only stopping when Xander put his arm out.

“Do you?” Azula said with a smirk. “Leaving that aside for the moment, let’s say you do. Then you are either an ignorant mongrel or think so little of him that you disregard his advice. Either way, your foolishness is going to cost you.”

Excuse me?!?”

If he could have, Xander would have Earthbended a wall between the two women. (Dear God, he needed to start training in Earthbending). All he could do was put both hands on Buffy’s shoulders to hold her back, hissing, “{Azula, cut it out!}”

His grip had about as much success as expected and he soon found himself being pushed forward as Buffy stalked towards a waiting Azula.

“You want to repeat that?” Buffy asked dangerously.

“I said that you are an ignorant barbarian mongrel and should listen to the advice of someone that knows better than you.” Azula didn’t bother speaking in hushed tones, or even look out of sorts. Her voice was clear and her body language screamed confidence.

“Xander,” Buffy said after a full two minutes of staring the other girl down, “move.”

“{Azula, stop it! We talked about this,}” he yelled at Azula. Turning back to Buffy, he said, “Don’t do this. She’s goading you, and you know it. Don’t listen to her, don’t play her game.”

For a moment, it looked as if she might listen to him. Un-tensing the muscles in his arm, Xander let out a mental sigh of relief. Something must have changed though, or more likely, something that Azula did while his back was turned must have set Buffy off.

Slipping out of his grasp, the petite blonde shoved him out of the way knocking him to the floor. Despite the rough landing and rolling along the floor for a moment, it was relatively gentle. Looking up, he saw something that he really wished he would never have to see. Buffy was attacking Azula.

Despite her enhanced speed, strength, and preternatural fighting prowess, Buffy wasn’t raised as a warrior. Sure, she had been turned into one and had a supernatural advantage in that department, but Azula was different. From an early age, Azula had been trained both physically and mentally to be a not only a fighter, but the best fighter. While everyone knew that the girl was a prodigy at Firebending, doing amazing things with the art, they often forgot that she was just as intelligent and versatile in most other forms of combat and strategy. While she had never once sparred with Buffy herself, she had witnessed her sparring and training with other people, most specifically, Xander himself.

It was then than that Xander realized his mistake all too late, his words to Buffy glaring at him like a spotlight. All this time while he had been bringing Azula with him everywhere, he hadn’t been keeping her out of trouble or making sure she wasn’t planning something, he had been giving her access to everything she would need. She saw how they interacted, how they trained, how they fought, and what they knew. Without ever laying a hand on the Slayer before, Azula had already worked out a plan for fighting her and he had given her all the opportunity she needed to come up with it.

Buffy had been used to fighting opponents that could do some fairly interesting things. She had fought against Xander on several occasions and had come to understand how fighting a bender worked. You got in close and pushed the advantage till you got them off balance. It was what she did every time she fought against him and to be fair, it worked almost as often as it didn’t. But, that was against Waterbending and Airbending, two arts that preferred to fight from a distance whenever possible. Firebenders were another story altogether.

If Buffy was surprised by her first two jabs being pushed aside casually, she didn’t show it. As Buffy pushed forward, Azula matched her step for step, moving back and moving just far enough so each of Buffy’s punches missed by a hairbreadth. The leg sweep that was sent her way was too fast to be dodged completely; at least that’s what Xander had thought. With what could only be described as a perfect back flip, Azula managed to not only keep herself from being hit, but put a few feet of distance between the two of them.

Watching her land in a crouch, Xander took one look at the predatory smirk on her face and started moving. Jumping up, he started to pull a large amount of water from the lake, rushing to intervene in time. The barricade of water he threw up almost wasn’t fast enough to stop Azula’s attack and, as he was about to find out, was sure as well not thick enough to completely do the job.

Intense blue flame sprung forth from Azula’s fist as she punched forward, sending the fire rushing towards Buffy. Fire and water met, exploding in a burst of steam. The blast from the sudden evaporation of the water was enough to send Buffy to the floor, which was just as well. The heat from the steam was enough to burn any exposed skin. Unless, of course, you happened to be a Firebender or an Avatar who had been expecting such a reaction.

With one quick move of his hands, Xander dispersed the steam from the area and simultaneously brought more water to him, encasing both forearms in the liquid as was his preferred way to start any fight. It gave him both the benefits of being able to lash out and defend, depending on what the opening move allowed. Fighting Azula, of course, meant being on the defensive.

Two blue balls of flame came flying. The blast of air from a double kick extinguished the fire, but only left him open for her follow up. A short stream of fire came rushing at him and it was only pure luck that he was able to dodge it, hoping that Buffy wasn’t behind him. Xander, deciding to go on the offensive, used the water on his arms to send out three disk of ice about the size of a Frisbee, if a bit thicker. He would have preferred to make them thin enough to cut her, but he had no delusions about the person in front of him. She would block and break them at that width. If they were a bit heavier, she would be forced to move out of the way, buying him a few seconds at most, but seconds that were badly needed.

The three disks flew straight and true, for all the good it did. The size did absolutely nothing. Azula blocked the first two with a fire shield from each forearm, sweeping them in front of her with practiced ease. The third, she didn’t even bother blocking. Kicking her right leg up high, she brought it back down, smashing the ice into several pieces. Not one to waste any opportunity, she sent out a vertical arc of fire with the decent of her leg.

Pulling more water from the lake, Xander blocked the fire before it fell on top of him and quickly redirected the water to hit Azula from both sides, one going high while the other went low. It should have amazed him how Azula simply spun in midair between the water, but it didn’t. For some reason, the only thing he could think of was, ‘Typical.’ That was, of course, before she let loose with a blast of fire from her feet as she spun, the concussive force of it sending her flying backwards.

As if in slow motion, Xander watched the blue flame come towards him. He was still in the middle of his failed attack, his control and movements centered on the two separate and large amounts of water. There was no way he’d be able to bring the water to him in time. Likewise, dropping the water and either calling more water to himself or a gust or air. Hell, he wouldn’t have enough time to get out of the way. As the fire rushed forward, he started the futile process of erecting an air barrier knowing full well it wouldn’t be up in time.

Without warning, he found himself tackled roughly to the ground by Buffy. The jet of fire missed completely, hitting a tree at the beginning of the clearing by the lake with explosive results. Bits of smoking and flaming wood and splinters showered the area. Not that a few bits of burning wood where anything to worry about compared to what was sure to happen next.

Again, he felt himself pulled in one direction and found himself rolling in the dirt once more, this time with Buffy keeping herself close and moving with him. This time, the miss was so narrow that the heat of the flame hitting their previous spot was enough to singe the hair on his arm.

Buffy quickly rolled off of him and made to go left only to find herself cut off by a thin stream of fire blocking her path. With two more similar moves, Azula had completely boxed her in. Any direction she went to go in, Azula would send a short salvo of fire in front of her. Almost as if to prove her point, the Firebender punched out both fist producing another blast of fire on either side of Buffy before kicking out, shooting a small flame at the other girls feet, forcing her to jump back to keep from getting burned.

While Xander hated letting Buffy be a distraction, it gave him the time to center his mind and gather himself. Before Azula could do anything else, Xander drew more water to him, compressing it while swinging his arm upwards and away. The thin, hard, wave of water rushed forward, forcing Azula to jump away, spinning in much the same way she had before, letting his attack pass by harmlessly. Landing, she let loose with another volley of fire, this time with two separate blast, one to Buffy and the other to him, forcing Xander to block for himself or move and defend Buffy. Instead, he leapt high into the air, sending out a gust of wind strong enough to put out both of her flames. Unfortunately, it also knocked Buffy on her side at the same time.

While in midair, he sent a pair of air blast, hoping to at least push Azula back a bit. Instead, she moved out of the, pressing forward and headed towards him. When he landed, he immediately began dodging and dancing around her attacks. Every punch and kick accented by a burst of blue fire. Without being able to get off the defensive the best he could hope for was to tire her out, which wasn’t the kind of plan that had any hope in succeeding. Every so often, she would make sure to spin and send a bout of flame at Buffy, forcing the Slayer to stay away, before turning back to him.

In a matter of seconds, Xander found himself trapped with his back painfully pressed against the very rock Azula had been sitting on. With two fingers pointed at his throat, the Princess produced a flame as intense as any blowtorch keeping just far enough away to keep from burning him, but only just. Just as quickly, she snapped out her other hand, stopping Buffy on her tracks with the same type of fire coming from her other hand. This time, it was pointed at eye level for the shorter girl.

For a moment, the only sound that Xander was able to hear was the tiny roar of the twin flames, the only thing he could feel was the searing heat that threatened to blister the sensitive skin on his neck near his jugular. Hard amber eyes found his and, in an instant, the noise and sensation were gone.

Both flames were put out with a flick of her wrist as Azula calmly turned to Buffy.

“You are strong, I’ll give you that,” Azula said lightly, continuing to stare Buffy down. “But you are severely outmatched. Alexander tried to tell you this, has been telling you this, and yet you and those around you continue to ignore him. When a subordinate fails to listen it is not a mistake when something goes wrong, it is ignorance and foolishness.”

Azula motioned to the area around her, her movements slow and graceful, as if trying to show a child something obvious. “Since you can’t trust his words, then try and believe your eyes. This is but a small portion of what I am capable of. You will do well to remember that, barbarian.”

Xander, unlike Buffy, didn’t need to see what the Firebender was talking about. From just a few moments of what probably amounted to a light sparring match for her, Azula had done serious damage to the area. Though the fires were, thankfully, small, they continued to burn. The ground had several deep troughs burned into them. No less than three trees were beyond salvaging, one of them was no more than a smoldering stump. Water soaked the ground making it look as if the pond had somehow overflowed, the ground quickly becoming soggy and muddy. One rock, smaller than the one that Xander was still pressing himself against, had had the top of it sliced completely off, the stone only now beginning to go from an angry red to a relatively more cool burnt color.

It only just clicked in his head that Azula hadn’t been trying to kill him or Buffy. Hurt, possibly, but not kill. For Azula, this was an object lesson, one that she felt those around her, save himself, needed to be taught. Namely, that she was something to be feared, and rightfully so. It was a sobering thought, knowing that had she actually been trying to do them in, it was a highly likely that both he and Buffy would be nothing more than a burnt, oily, greasy, smudge on the grass.

With a few casual movements, Xander began quenching the open flames. Another forest fire or two and people would start to think that he was an arson. As he expected, Azula didn’t lift a finger to help put out the fires she so easily caused. Instead, she stood by the largest fire, the one by the burnt out tree stump keeping him from dousing it. Buffy, well, she wouldn’t be much help in this situation anyway, so he didn’t bother moving her from where she stood. She wasn’t frozen or awed, not that he could tell anyway. The way she stood, looking at the burnt and slightly ruined landscape, she seemed humbled if anything. That and she now seemed to be showing a healthy amount of tension around Azula.

Speaking of which.

“{I should lock you away somewhere for what you just did,}” Xander said standing next to her. Despite speaking in her native tongue, he kept his voice low not wanting Buffy to hear him.

“{They tried that. It did wonders for my social skills.}”

“{I mean it, Azula. You attacked me, you attacked my friend, and for what? To prove a point? To show how scary the big bad Fire Nation princess is?}”
He turned, facing her fully. “{Bending isn’t natural here if you hadn’t caught on. Nothing that any of us can do is natural. Do you have any idea what would happen if someone, someone who actually had any damn power or authority saw us, saw what we could do?}”

Turning her head, she raised an eyebrow. “{All research into this town shows that they wouldn’t notice a herd of wild Komodo Rhino’s stampeding through the streets. The people here are even more brain dead then the peasants back home. So much going on around them and none of them have the slightest clue. Is it any wonder that they are food for the creatures that inhabit this town?}”

“{That isn’t the point!}”
he yelled. “{They’d kill us on sight. They’d round us up in the town square and burn us at the stake. I’ve seen it!}”

Maybe it was the fire casting a slight shadow on her face, but the smirk she gave him sent an involuntary shiver down his spine. The girl was beyond creepy at times. “{They can try.}”

“{You’re good, but not that good.}”

“{I’m better than anything this world has to offer. Better than you. Though you’ll forgive me for not being surprised at that.}”

Despite the truth behind her statement, Xander tried to spit out a response. When none were quick enough, Azula dropped her smirk and looked at him dangerously.

“{You fight like a mongrel dog that has learned a few new tricks, constantly waiting for the approval of its owner. You fight like one of them, always on their terms. You may control two of the elements, but you are far from their master. If it weren’t for the fact that you are the only hope I have, the only link to my world, I’d kill you before you could ever sully the art of Firebending.}”


“{Several times you came at me as you would a non-bender. Every time you spar with the Slayer you let her set the tone of the fight. You lack the heart of a bender, the heart of a true warrior. You could easily overpower and outfight any opponent this world has to offer, and yet you hold back.}”

In a flash of insight, Xander held his tongue. He went over the fight in his head as well as his last few sparring sessions with Buffy and he realized one frightening fact. Azula was right. Sure, he knew that the girl had a way with seeing to the truth of the matter in an overly direct way. And, yes, she stated her opinions with such disdain for those who hadn’t seen what she had seen that it put Cordelia to shame. But all of those times, even knowing that she was technically correct with what she was saying, he always seconded guessed it because, well, it came from freaking Azula. But now, with this small revelation, he didn’t feel anything negative towards her or what she said. It just dawned on him that what she had told him was true.

Was it because he was so used to that way of fighting that he just let his bending fall into that style as well? He had always taken opponents on one at a time, mostly keeping them busy enough for Buffy or someone else to come along and finish them off. Air could certainly be used to taken on multiple opponents, it was one of the arts greatest strength, but rarely did he use it that way and he still was used to trying to bring fights into more personal ranges than distancing himself from his opponent.

The same could be said about Waterbending. It was graceful, but powerful. The whole damn thing was about movement and redistribution of energy, of knowing when to go with the current and when to steer it. Instead he fought like a tree, rooted to the spot while he flung water whips around like branches in a breeze. Very few times did he ever actually move and bend water while sparring, and one of those times was that evening on the beach so he could show everyone what he had been holding back.

Could he even fight like that at this point? Was this way of doing things so ingrained that even with his now natural ability to move like the elements he commanded he was forced to fight like he couldn’t do more than those he was fighting? The jumping and constant motion of Airbending always seemed to call to him, but now that he thought about it, he only did as much as was needed. He suppressed the urge to take to the sky or to move about and use the wind to speed him along. It was, as he had just realized, even worse when he was using Waterbending.

“{You know I’m right,}” Azula told him, her voice neutral. When he didn’t respond, she continued. “{While with those…people, I wasn’t only studying them and pretending to offer my assistance, I was studying you. I watched how you interacted, how you carried yourself, and I’ll admit something to you.}” She paused, almost as if for dramatic effect, which Xander wouldn’t have put past her. “{I didn’t understand.}”

Xander asked surprised. As far as revelations went, this one was kind of anti-climatic. “{You didn’t understand? What was there to understand?}”

she replied. Her eyes never wavered from his and she continued to speak in the same steady, almost monotone way. It was almost more creepy than when she was being angry. “{You, the Avatar, had more power than anyone else that I have seen in this world. Granted, you aren’t at your full potential, but you still had more than enough in way of ability to do away with anyone who stood in your way. But all I saw was a boy hiding who and what he was. Cowed into keeping it a secret because of how others viewed him and constantly being put down by those below him.}”

Her voice grew harder, her eyes narrowing. “{You have no concept of who you are, of what you represent. My people, my culture, my world rest inside of you and you act like nothing more than a chittering monkey, at best!}”

Xander exclaimed.

Before he could protest any further, she started speaking again.

“{The Avatar is better than this, better than how you are acting and worth far more than the work you put into it. You don’t train nearly as much as you should and you lack anything that even resembles focus.}”

He knew that what she said was right. Logically, it made perfect sense and what he should have done was walked away, thought about what she had been saying, and see exactly how true her words really were. That was the adult thing to do, the mature thing.

One thing about Alexander LaVelle Harris that could never be said was that he was mature.

The punch was all power and little skill. It was akin to a truck rumbling down the street. There was a lot of warning. Hell, he actually pulled his arm back, which he hadn’t done to throw a punch since his melding with the Avatar and actually learning how to fight. But, just like a truck, it didn’t much matter how much attention it drew so long as it went in a straight line it was going to do damage and his aim was damn good. His knuckles, white from clenching his fist so tight, were lined up perfectly with her nose. A dark part of his mind was already reveling in the feel of her skin splitting open and the sound of her cartilage breaking under his hand.

His fist, unfortunately, wasn’t a truck. Trucks don’t get deflected by the forearm of a svelte, albeit unbelievably toned, girl. Trucks also didn’t have joints that could be manipulated.

Unlike the moves of an Airbender or Waterbender, Azula didn’t work some complicated lock or twist. Her moves were rough, hard. Once she deflected his punch, she grabbed his wrist with the hand she blocked with and pulled down. Her left elbow came down like a falling brick, smashing the crook of his own elbow forcing it to bend. It didn’t take much more work for her to grab him by his bent elbow, slip her foot behind his, and push up on his arm. The fall was less than graceful and Azula followed him all the way down keeping an iron like grip on his arm. It was painful, but tolerable.

Catching Buffy’s eye Xander gave her a small shake of his head warning her off from doing anything. Azula didn’t want him dead, she had proved that earlier.

“{Sloppy. Extremely sloppy. If I had wanted to, I could have killed you five different ways just now. You and I both know that you’re better than this, but you act on anger. You let yourself be led by your emotions into actions that can easily lead to your end.}”

He gave a small grunt as Azula put more pressure on his arm, proving her point. “{And you’re the perfect person to show me how to control my emotions, huh?}” he asked, his voice laced with sarcasm.

With a final shove of his arm Azula stood up, looking down at Xander. “{My emotions are in complete control. I am in complete control.}”

Xander wanted to make a remark about mother issues and her bout of insanity, that may still be present, but he didn’t. As much as he hated her he didn’t want to antagonize her. It wouldn’t be productive to do it and would just lead to a longer more drawn out fight. And this time she probably wouldn’t hold back. Not to mention she had the advantage with the whole literally standing over him.

Propping himself up on his elbows, holding back the wince as his right arm protested the movement after being nearly wrenched from its socket, Xander gave her a thoughtful look. “{What does it matter to you? I’m not your Avatar, Princess.}”

“{It matters because there are people who need you,}”
she said surprising him. “{It matters because you have a responsibility as the Avatar to bring balance to the world. But mostly, it matters because I will not stand her and have you make a mockery of my world. You are the embodiment of all that my world believes in, of all of its history and heritage. You say that you aren’t my Avatar, but you’re wrong. You are the only Avatar I have and you will treat that title with the respect it deserves.}”

“{But you wanted to kill Aang!}”
Xander said without thinking.

Rolling her eyes, Azula crossed her arms. “{The monk stood against me and my people, against my father, you idiot. It didn’t matter who was in the way then.}” She paused, and only the slight twitch in her shoulders gave away how uncomfortable she was at the moment. “{And, it seems, that I may have been…misled…at times.}”

Xander repeated the word, slowly.

Her eyes flashed with anger, her mood changing abruptly. “{Do not mistake my words as regret, Avatar. The Fire Nation is the greatest country in all of my world and, if given the time to grow as yours has, this world as well.}” She calmed down again, her eyes softening as much as her eyes ever did. Frowning slightly, she said, “{Domination, while perhaps not the best course of action, would have helped in the long run. Had the rest of the world simply submitted to our rule, a lot of the destruction could have been avoided. But, wiping out an entire people was perhaps not the smartest way to do things. One thing I have learned about your world is that peace is not possible with all out war. There needs to be…balance.}”

Surprise didn’t even begin to cover what Xander was hearing. It wasn’t an admission of any kind of wrong doing on her part. Actually, it sounded more like that if she could she would still choose to rule over the entire world and that it would be good for the world. But the mention of balance was completely foreign to him when it came to Azula. The girl was responsible for the fall of an entire nation and lost her mind shortly thereafter. What could she possibly know about balance?

Sure, she could be lying, but what did she have to gain from it? It wasn’t as if she was trying to tell him that she was sorry for what she did and wanted to make up for it. She’d probably do it again if given a chance only this time she’d do it right. So what the hell was she getting at?

Apparently, Xander wasn’t that adept at keeping his thoughts off his face.

Looking away towards the setting sun, Azula exhaled slowly. When she spoke, it was detached slightly, almost clinical in explanation. Strangely, it didn’t sound far off from her normal voice, only with less anger.

“{When I was first brought here, to this world, I wasn’t stable. After my Agni Ki with Zuko, I wasn’t the same. The doctors they forced me to see spoke to me at length about it. Of course, that was after they had this…thing come and piece my mind back together to a more lucid state, teaching me their language. Oh, and taking my own thoughts and memories from me at the same time. It took several visits, mind you, and I hated sullying myself with their words, but it was impressive.

“{Either way, the normal doctors, those that worked on my mind, they had a lot to say about my father and mother.}”
She smiles remembering something. “{They kept my hands and feet shackled to a chair and faced me away from whoever was talking to me after the third visit. They didn’t know a thing about a true Firebender and they seemed annoyed at having to treat so many burns.}”

Snapping out of it, she looks back down at Xander. “{I won’t bore you with the details, but they gave me a lot to think about. My views haven’t changed, or my goals. But there are better ways to get what I want than to burn a village to the ground. Not as direct and more time consuming ways, yes, but they seem to work better in the long run.}”

There was a lot that Xander wanted to say, wanted to ask. A multitude of thoughts fought for dominance as he looked up at Azula. Her face covered in shadows and the sun sank deeper into the horizon gave her a depressed look, and for a moment he couldn’t help but sympathize with her. The moment passed instantly. This was still Azula after all. This was still the same person who could probably be lying to him at this very moment and making it sound all too true. Most importantly, this was still the same person who killed Faith, and who knows how many others, and showed no remorse for it what-so-ever.

Keeping his mouth shut, Xander picked himself off the ground and wiped his hands off on his shorts. Even the oncoming night held no relief from the heat. Summer was in full swing already and it was barely halfway into June.

‘Crap,’ Xander thought. ‘It’s almost dark already.’

Buffy, it seemed, had the same thought as him. Turning to him, her face unreadable after the fight with Azula, she said, “We should get going. I’ll drop you guys off at the apartment then head out for patrol.”

Nodding in agreement, Xander turned to Azula to see if she heard. Well, he knew she heard. She was always listening. He just wanted to make sure that she acknowledged what she heard. Apparently she had. Before either of them could say anything else, Azula strode past Xander and then Buffy, not bothering to deign either of them with even a look.

Without having to say anything, Xander walked after her with Buffy matching his steps.

‘At the very least,’ Xander thought sourly, ‘Buffy has a healthy respect and fear for what Azula can do. Maybe I won’t be the only one not sleeping at night now.’

Night fell quickly as the three of them made their way back from the park. Despite the numerous shortcuts they could have taken through the cemeteries Xander vetoed the idea. He knew Buffy understood why, but he could see the annoyance on her face. Like him, she wanted to get away from Azula as soon as possible and, at least in her case, vent her frustration on whatever poor demonic bastard crossed her path. But those demons and vampires were the very reason why those shortcuts were off limits at the moment. Neither of them wanted to run into any kind of situation where Azula might get too involved. While she may not want them dead, they still weren’t a hundred percent on her sanity and a fight with a few vampires might push her over the edge and burn the town to the foundations for all they knew.

So, while it was longer and had them on the streets after dark, it was safer than the alternative in his opinion. At least, that was until they saw Angel standing outside the gates to Cedar Grove Cemetery. He had spotted them long before they spotted him, but he remained perfectly still leaning against the wall with his hands stuffed deep into the pockets of his duster. The only indication that he had of seen them was that him looking up as they came closer.

“Angel?” Buffy asked when they got close enough for her to talk. “What are you doing here?” Realizing how it must have sounded, Buffy quickly reiterated. “I mean, it’s nice to see you, it’s always nice to see you. I just didn’t think you were going to be patrolling tonight. Or that you would have at least asked me along. Wait, did you ask me along? Were we supposed to be patrolling together tonight?”

Inwardly, Xander smirked at his friends babbling. On the outside, he remained calm and scanned the area a bit. Holding his arm out slightly, he signaled for Azula to stop and stay a few feet or so behind Buffy with him. When she came and stood next to him, watching the scene in front of them with slight interest, he instinctively scratched his arm. It made his skin crawl at times having her so close to him.

Angel gave them a confused look before turning to Buffy. “What are you talking about? You told me you wanted to me to meet you here.”

“No I didn’t,” Buffy told him. Instantly, she went on alert and started looking around.

“Anyone else starting to smell a trap?” Angel said going to stand next to Buffy, watching her back.

“I’ll take a trap over blood any day of the week,” Buffy muttered. “Xander! Anything on your end?”

Having told Azula to stay still, Xander jumped the twenty feet onto the high wall of the cemetery. Cedar Grove was one of the few places in town that actually bothered putting up anything to deter the ‘vandals’ of the town from going inside and desecrating the place. They also made sure the tall gates were locked at night as well. Not that it did any good, but the thought was sometimes appreciated.

From his vantage point, Xander looked around wildly for any sign of something crazy going on inside the graveyard. A horde of angry demons, a flock of vampires, or even a large group of Elvis impersonators, but there was nothing to be seen. Even with some of the hills and with the darkness, he could still see a bit of ways into the place and nothing had caught his eye as strange or threatening.

“Nothing over here,” Xander called down. “Want me to hop over and get the gate?”

As soon as he finished his question, a light click was heard and the gate slowly swung open, complete with the whining protest of hinges that hadn’t been oiled in far too long. Everyone, including Azula, stared at the gates opened and stopped before banging into the other side of the wall.

“This is the part where we all say, ‘Gee, let’s go check out the creepy cemetery’, right?”

“Buffy,” Angel simply said. It was more than just to get her attention, there was something else in his voice. A warning of sorts that made the hair on the back of Xander’s neck stand up and take notice.

From his perch, Xander was able to see that the ensouled vampire was looking past Buffy and Azula and looking down the street from where they had came. Swiveling his head, Xander saw what he saw and almost fell off the wall. It wasn’t that there were a lot of them, cause there weren’t. Yes, the four of them were outnumbered four-to-one, but they had all faced worse odds. It wasn’t even that it wasn’t just vampires that had gone and grouped themselves together, because even though there were four blocky demons that seemed to mad up of actual earth mixed in with them, vampires and demons working together had become more and more common recently. No, none of this was that troubling. What was unnerving was the fact that none of them were rushing towards their little group. Hell, they weren’t moving at all. The small army of monsters simply stood there, half a block away, staring at them.

These weren’t the usual riff raff that Sunnydale was used to seeing. Not even the vampires that Wolfram and Hart had sent were this well organized. The type of vampires that Sunnydale usually drew tended to be more of the more ordinary. They would only gather in small numbers, maybe five, and hunt for some unsuspecting victim every few nights and that would be it. They all tended to be the same in terms of fighting prowess and didn’t last longer than a few years since Buffy had come to town.

By comparison, the vampires Wolfram and Hart used were more hired gun than anything else. More efficient, violent, and better at working in large groups, but once you got passed the fangs, they weren’t any more frightening in there expensive suits. Something about being in a work environment took the edge off their fighting, which was better than the typical vampire, but still not fun. They made up for it with being bigger and harder to physically bring down and also by being smarter, but it wasn’t enough.

These vampires though, there was something different about them. There was no matching uniform to mark them as one, there were equal amounts of suits in varying taste as well as jeans and t-shirts. Their ages and times of death also had no underlining theme and sexes didn’t play a part in it either, but there was definitely something that screamed, “We Are One!” The way they stood completely still, the way all of them were completely relaxed as if they couldn’t care less about moving in on them, it all spoke of something that had been rehearsed.

‘That was it!’ Xander thought loudly. He recognized it from every military movie he had ever seen and all of the images from Aang’s life, especially the last few years of it. All of the armies he had seen practicing, all of the routines and movements had witnessed, it was the same thing with this group. ‘They’ve had training.’

Xander looked down and found Azula looking up at the same time to catch his eye. It was on her face, the conclusion he had drawn was confirmed. Turning to Buffy and Angel, he saw Angel look up at him as well and give a nod. It only made sense, really. Angel had been alive going on two hundred years. He was bound to have seen a few armies in his time. Giving it a second thought, it was possible Angelus might have even eaten a few.

Buffy was the only one who didn’t realize what it meant, but she knew as well as the rest of them that there was something different about this group of demons. Already she had pulled a stake out of her bag, handed one to Angel, and had another one out for herself. Four against sixteen wasn’t a crazy odd given what the four of them could do, three, really, since Xander wanted to keep Azula out of the fight, but it was different. Even if all of them were fighting, four ragtag fighters against sixteen trained and possibly highly efficient demonic troops was a completely different story.

“Who wants to take our chances with the creepy ass graveyard with the self opening gate and who wants to deal with the mad mob of vamps and demons?” Buffy asked, already backing up.

“Personally, I’d go for running away till we get behind a nice, safe, two inch thick steel door, but I’m open to other suggestions,” Xander quipped. Looking down, he said to Azula, “{Stay with me, don’t run off, and don’t fight. And whatever you do, do not Firebend. Got it?}”

She tensed, ready to argue, but then seemed to change her mind. Only nodding her head in agreement, Azula started backing away as well.

“I’ll buy us a minute or two and then we’ll catch up with you two.”

“If we cut through to the south side, there’s an opening in the wall that we can use and then head for my place,” Buffy told him. “We’ll head straight up the middle till you catch up.”

Nodding, Xander eyed the statue like group and thought about how best to deal with them. Directly, while not an Airbenders forte, was the best way at the moment. “On my mark,” he said, preparing himself. Tensing his legs, taking a deep breath, he shouted, “Now!”

Jumping high into the air, Xander pulled as much of the element to him as possible, using his momentum to build it further. Reaching the crescendo of his jump, Xander started to spin, twisting the air around him, and angling himself towards the street and the group of creatures. While he continued to spin relatively slowly, the air around him spun faster and faster. By the time his feet touched the ground, it was almost impossible to see with the amount of dust and strewn garbage and leaves it had picked up. That didn’t stop him from shoving the mini-tornado right at the demons. Even though they had started moving the moment Buffy and Angel had taken off, they didn’t stand a chance.

The tornado hit the horde dead on and picked up a good quarter of them without slowing down, tossing them out of the opening and dropping them onto the rest of their companions. Those not grabbed up by the funnel were distracted not only by their pals landing on top of them, but also from the severe sand blasting the dust and dirt gave them while pebbles became missiles that bruised and broke skin. It was only going to last less than a handful of seconds, but Xander didn’t want to risk anyone in the town getting hurt or anything being destroyed. But a few seconds were all they needed.

“{Come on,}” he barked. He felt Azula fall into step with him as he ran past her and didn’t spare her a second glance. She was listening to him, following his orders and not making a fuss about it. Obviously, he had over looked something and it was going to bite him in the ass.

‘Worry about Azula setting you on fire later and start worrying about the vamps that are going to be coming up behind us in a minute,’ he thought irritably.

Spotting Buffy and Angel in the distance, Xander picked up his speed hoping to catch up with them quickly. He and Azula covered half the distance between them and Buffy before the ground erupted in flames. Instinctively, Xander grabbed Azula’s wrist and brought them both up short. Remembering who it was that was with him, he quickly let go and gave her a hard, accusatory look.

She responded with a roll of her eyes and turned away from him, beginning to scan the area. It didn’t take long before she found something.

“{I’m fairly certain that even that isn’t something normal even for this world, correct?}”

It took a second, but he finally saw what she was referring to. Above a mausoleum, dressed in what was probably once a very nice and expensive dark blue dress was Willow. Not his Willow, of course, but the vampire version of his friend. The once elegant dress had been slit all the up to hip on both legs, allowing her to move more freely and show off a lot of pale flesh at the same time. Not that Xander was looking, not in the least. He also refused to acknowledge that he was noticing the fact that Vamp Willow had made other tears and holes in the fabric showing off even more skin.

It was a cold comfort to know that even in a dire situation like this, even after everything that had changed with him that his teenage libido could still come out in full force. Forcing his eyes away from the bared skin, and his mind away from some very disturbing thoughts, Xander found himself at a loss for words. Vamp Willow wasn’t standing on the mausoleum. No, that would have been too plain, too ordinary. Instead, she was a good three inches above the roof. Her face was tilted down towards the fire, her eyes blacker than crude oil, and her hair wiped around in a wind that no one else felt.

“{Isn’t that your friend?}” Azula asked while the fire continued to burn next to them.

“{Long story,}” he replied. “{Looks like her, but trust me. That is not her.}”

“Tsk tsk, Xander,” Vamp Willow chastised. “Don’t you know it’s bad keeping secrets?”

“Secrets? Me? What would make you say that?” Xander asked without taking his eyes off her while trying inching back.

Letting out a sharp laugh, Vamp Willow shook her head. “You’ve been naughty. You didn’t even try to find me, did you? And here you are, throwing around my minions and running around with some other girl. If I didn’t know you so well, I might be getting a bit cranky.”

Eyes wide, Xander stopped moving and chanced a look at to the right. Sure enough, the crowd of vampires and demons had made their way into the cemetery and were approaching him and Azula. Not quickly, they didn’t seem to be in a hurry, but they were covering the ground well enough. Azula caught on quicker than he had and had turned her body so she could keep bother Vamp Willow and the oncoming horde in her sights.

A wall of fire on the left, cutting off the best route of escape as well as their only source of help and to the right, a small army of demons. His only aid was a person he couldn’t trust at the best of times and he was facing a demon that had pretty much kicked all of their asses every time they had encountered her and she wanted to make him her special friend. Oh how he wished he had a flying bison right about now. But, since wishes were in short supply, and not to be said out loud, there was only one thing he could think of. Stall.

“Well, the important thing is you’re here now, right? I mean, you look, uh, lovely and that dress is really working for you.”

Shaking her head, Vampire Willow took one step forward and glided to the ground. “It’s not going to work, you know. Stalling, hoping that the blonde Slayer and Puppy come to help, it isn’t going to happen.” Wagging her finger at him, she added, “And don’t you even think about using any of that flashy elemental magic, Mister. I’d hate to see my minions hurt you too much. You know, before I got my own licks in.”

“{Most of the things attacking us appear to be leeches,}” Azula said low, barely loud enough for him to hear. “{I shouldn’t have any problem disposing of them which would leave us only with-}”

Xander said on reflex. It had become second nature to him to just shut down any idea of Azula getting into a fight. He had to admit, though, her Firebending would come in pretty handy right about now. He was pretty sure that even Vamp Willow would have a hard time going up against the crazed Princess. Maybe, if he was lucky, they would finish each other off.

“Hey!” Vamp Willow growled. She turned to Azula, shifting her face into the more frightening demonic version. Almost instantly, she shifted back to the human face and gave the other girl a dirty look. “What did I say about secrets and making me cranky?”

As Vampire Willow began to try and stare Azula down, growling softly as she did so, Xander noticed two things. One, the gang of vampires and demons hadn’t made a move on them yet. Either they were waiting for word from Willow to do anything, or there was some other reason they weren’t coming for them. Maybe they just instinctively knew to stay out of this before they were ripped to shreds. Maybe they also didn’t feel like getting caught in another mini-twister.

The second thing, and much more important, was the two figures sneaking up on Vampire Willows back. He never would have noticed it had Buffy’s yellow hoodie not been so damn identifiable with the fire casting its light everywhere. Angel was closer and, as he watched, breath caught in his throat, he had a stake poised and ready to strike home. Angel was so damn close it was almost too much tension to bear. After what seemed like an eternal few seconds, Angel stood directly behind the vamped out bizarro Willow. Finally, he struck out with the stake with such speed that Xander didn’t have any hope of seeing it happen. Which was exactly why he was left wondering how in the hell Vampire Willow had managed to turn around, grab Angel’s wrist and throat, and lift him a good three inches off the ground without getting staked.

“Bad Puppy,” Willow said with a gleam in her eye. “You’ll have to be punished.” Turning to the horde, she smiled. “Get them.”

With those two words, chaos erupted in the graveyard. The group of vampires and demons separated into teams of four, each of them running in different directions before heading towards them, hoping to break each of them off from the rest. If Xander hadn’t insisted on Azula staying so close to him, it might have worked. Instead, the two of them took off running deeper into the cemetery to keep themselves from being torn apart. It did move them further away from Buffy and Angel, but there was no way to get to them without going through the vampires and dirt demons, as Xander began calling them in his head. The latter, by the way, had suddenly learned how to move with a disturbing amount of speed and skill. It struck him as kind of unfair that something so bulky could move so fast.

The vampires, apparently, had been holding back before. Even though they had broken into smaller groups, they made sure that none of them were too close to any of the others. The vampires kept darting around head stones or jumping on top of the many mausoleums that dotted the grounds. The dirt demons didn’t bother with any such subtlety. He knew that they had legs, but that didn’t mean they had to use them. Instead they planted them in the earth and rushed forward, easily moving around the cemetery with a serpentine like grace. It reminded Xander of the way some Earthbenders would move and idly he wished he knew at least the basics of the art.

All in all, it kept everyone too far apart for using his Airbending to be very effective. By the time he stopped and took care of one or two of them, the rest would be on him. Running while coming up with a better plan was the only option at the moment.

“{Yes, I can certainly see why you wouldn’t want me to use my Firebending,}” Azula said, sarcastically. “{This is so much better!}”

Grounding his teeth and leaping over a tombstone, he shouted, “{Fine! Flash fry them, burn them, torch the whole damn lot of them, just do it!}”

Hopping on top of a tombstone in her way, and jumping from on to the next with ease, she landed next to him smirking. “{No.}”

he repeated exasperated. “{What the hell do you mean ‘no’?}”

“{You told me not to,}”
she said simply. “{I would hate for you to think that I wouldn’t listen to you.}”

Her patronizingly sweet voice grated on his nerves. She wasn’t going to fight just because he had told her not to when she suggested it to him. She wouldn’t hold to it if it meant her getting hurt, but how far would she take it if his own life was in jeopardy? They couldn’t keep running forever and he didn’t know how well Azula would fair at hand to hand against these things. The girl may be a prodigy at fighting, bending, and stratagem, but she had never faced anything like demons before. Yet, even though he knew she knew that, she refused to do anything!

With a growl of frustration, Xander skidded to a stop, and turned. Spotting the nearest target, a vampire that was preparing to jump onto a mausoleum, he took aim and fired an air blast that sent the blood sucker sailing in the opposite direction. He didn’t bother seeing where he landed or how far he had flown and instead started eyeing his next target. This time, it was one of the dirt demons that was coming up fast, dodging back and forth with ease. Lining up his shot, he bent down low to the ground before sweeping his arm upwards. A thin wave of air tore across the ground quicker than the demon could move. When it made contact it didn’t cut through the creature or knock it back. The damn thing exploded in a shower of dust, rocks, and twigs.

He paused for a second, not really expecting that sort of reaction. True, he had put a bit more into the attack than he should have, but it shouldn’t have done that! A normal person would have been hurt, badly, but they would have been whole. He didn’t expect a demon, even a weak skinned one at that, wouldn’t have been hurt more than that, probably less. This thing, however, just fell apart, almost as if it was barely holding itself together. He had no idea what those things were, but they weren’t normal. Well, normal for demons anyway.

In that short amount of time, most of the vampires had them almost surrounded and the remaining dirt thing wasn’t far behind. A few steps back and Xander found himself back-to-back with Azula. Her hands were up in a fighting pose, of course not one of defense. True to her word she hadn’t used a bit of Firebending yet.

“{Wood through the heart and decapitation, correct?}” Azula asked sharply.

“{Yes,}” he hissed back. “{And, you know, fire would do the trick!}”

“{Then, by all means, use fire.}”

There wasn’t any time to argue with her. The first of their attackers were starting to get aggressive. While four of the vampires did move quickly, they didn’t run in blindly. Fast, but cautious, was far more dangerous. It made it that much harder to fight against them or use one of them against the other. So when one of them got in close, swiping a clawed hand at his face, forcing him to block he didn’t have enough time to defend himself from the side kick to his midsection from another one. He grunted with the hit and could practically feel the bruise already begin to form, but he didn’t go down. He managed to hook his arm around the offending leg and, twisting his hip, tossed the vampire into his friend with a bit of an assist with Airbending.

Feeling Azula respond to his movement, he continued to turn and she did the same till both of them had made a one-eighty. Using the spin, Xander whipped both of his arms out to either side when he came to a stop, sending out a large half-dome of air and knocking several vampires away. From there, things got to be a bit of a mess.

There was no longer any kind of coordinated attack on them from the vampires, but an all out free for all. Each of them would come at them as fast as they could trying to distract them long enough for one of their comrades to get in close or, perhaps, just hopping they would be quick enough to take them down themselves. They attacked with an almost desperate zeal, making attempts that had almost no chance of succeeding.

None of it mattered though. He and Azula seemed to be untouchable as they worked as one to repel their foes. Keeping their backs together, they could always feel how the other was moving, what was going on behind them. It was more like dancing then defending. If she bent low to avoid a hit, Xander would bend backwards to slam her attacker with a blast of air. If he focused on a singular vampire and left his side open, she would be there forcing back any of the others that tried to take advantage with a vicious combination of kicks and strikes. Just because she wasn’t using her bending didn’t mean the girl wasn’t dangerous. At one of the many points when they switched positions, she rolled over his back as he went low, bringing her leg crashing down on the neck of an incoming vampire. It was still on the ground thrashing about as they continued to fight.

Even as fit as they were, there wasn’t any way to keep this going for long. Vampire didn’t tire nearly as fast as they would and sooner or later they would slip up and it would all be over. Worse yet was the fact that Xander had no idea how Buffy and Angel were fairing against Vamp Willow. One-on-one fighting and he’d put all his money on Buffy, but this Willow wouldn’t play fair. She obviously had access to magic that their Willow didn’t and had no qualms about using it.

As if on cue, a bright blue light shined somewhere not too far from them, followed by an explosion of dirt and stone. More of those dirt creatures started to form and pull themselves from the ground, six in total from what he could see, making their way from where Xander had seen the explosion come from. Most of them started moving away, but two of them started shambling towards him and Azula. Slowly at first, but picking up speed as they got used to moving.

The explosion caused enough of a distraction to get Xander’s attention and a nearby vampire took advantage of it, landing a punch to the right of his temple. The follow up might have done serious damage, but Azula managed to pull him out of the way in time, earning her a long angry red scratch up her arm from the creature’s nails.

That was the end of the fight.

Azula, taking one look at her arm and one look at the vampire, ended everything right then and there. Fire lanced out of her fist quicker than any of the vampires could react. Most of them died before understanding what was going on. Those that managed to turn and try to run, died without making it more than five steps, blue flame blasting through them, incinerating them almost instantly.

The dirt creatures didn’t fare any better. Azula made short of them, slicing each of them on half with a fire whip. What bits of wood and twigs that was inside of them turned to kindling. The remaining three fell to the ground, crumbling and smoking.

She didn’t bother saying anything to him when she was finished, she didn’t even bother to stop. Giving the area a quick scan, one that Xander was sure she saw everything with, Azula started off in the direction that the light had been in. Scrambling to his feet, Xander quickly followed. They didn’t have very far to go before they found the real fight.

Buffy was occupied by the four dirt creatures that, he assumed, Willow had conjured up a few moments ago, the rest of them nowhere to be seen. He could only assume that she had made short work of them. These four were more than enough to keep her from getting to Angel and without a weapon she wasn’t having any luck with taking them down for good. The other vampires, at least, seemed to have been taken care of as well. That just left Vampire Willow playing with Angel. She played rough, it seemed.

“You know, I don’t remember it taking this long last time to break you in,” Vamp Willow said with an exasperated sigh. “You were more malleable, more weak, more…scarred.”

She flicked her wrist and Angel, who had been struggling to stand up, flew to his feet as if picked up by some invisible hand. He looked like he had gone ten rounds with the werewolf version of Mike Tyson as he hung suspended in the air. Deep dark bruises could be seen on his pale flesh, even in the relative light of the wall of fire that still burned nearby. Blood dripped and oozed from several cuts on his face and arms while it practically flowed out from the long gash along his stomach. He looked beaten, worn out, and probably couldn’t stand under his own power if given the chance. Still, he struggled. It was pointless and did absolutely no good, but he struggled and growled and tried to break free from the invisible hold on him and tear out Vamp Willow’s throat.

Willow, meanwhile, didn’t look like she had even broken a sweat. Still wrapped in power and sultry and disturbing elegance, she stood there, watching him with a half smile. When she turned to face Xander and Azula, something in her eyes made his stomach drop.

“Well, doesn’t really matter. I’ve got better toys now.” She winked at them before turning back to Angel. “Bad puppy,” she said with glee before jerking her hand upright.

Purple-black fire erupted from beneath Angel as quick as anything that Xander had ever seen. It didn’t so much consume him as it did spread over him. Even as the souled vampire opened his mouth to scream, Xander could see the flames rushing down his throat, silencing any sound he was about to make. It was horrific to watch, but impossible to look away. It all seemed to happen in slow motion for him. The fire, Angel withering in unspeakable agony, the realization on Buffy’s face as she saw it happening even as she fought fruitlessly. Then, just like that, Angel was gone and the only thing left was the smell of burnt ozone in the air.

The moment Angel was the gone, time snapped back into normal speed again. Xander launched himself at Vampire Willow, kicking out with both feet and driving her back with a blast of air. It didn’t do much in the way of damage, but it gave Azula an opening. Before, Xander was willing to do anything to keep her from fighting and, above all else, Firebending. Now he wanted nothing more than for her to cut loose and take down the abomination that looked like his friend as fast as possible.

She didn’t disappoint. Azula’s opening attack was a pinwheel of fire as tall as her waist. It tore through the ground, blazing a trail straight for the undead witch. Willow wouldn’t have any time to react. She would be roasted and blasted into little bits and that would be the end of it.

Xander knew he shouldn’t have tempted the universe with such surety. It’s the only thing that kept the surprise off his face when Vamp Willow managed to stop the wheel of fire several inches before it hit her. Her out stretched hand shook a bit, but that was the only sign that she was having any difficulty. The fire continued to burn and spin wildly, but it stayed exactly where it was.

“Neat trick,” Willow said with honest admiration. Grinning madly, she added, “Mines better.”

Spreading her arms, the blue flame changed to black and split into three smaller disks of fire. Without hesitation, they flew towards Azula leaving light trails in their wake. Magical fire, it seemed, was no different than the fire that Azula could bend, at least not in any way that mattered at the moment. The Princess blocked all three with swipes of her fist, following it up by sending out two arches of fire from a pair of sharp kicks. They didn’t fare any better than the pinwheel, but Willow didn’t try to control them this time. Crossing her arms over her chest and murmuring to herself, the flames died out as the hit her, leaving her unharmed.

Azula frowned slightly, shifting her weight, and readied herself. Xander had no idea how long it had been since she had had a real fight but she obviously had been expecting this to go a bit differently. He, himself, had been kind of hoping the same thing. If Azula had been able to dust Vampire Willow in one go then things would have gone so much easier. This alone seemed to been reason enough for that not to happen.

“{Save the Slayer,}” Azula told him. “{This one is mine.}”

With that, she went back on the attack, sending blast after blast of intense fire at the undead witch. Each one was either parried or simply absorbed, but the constant pressure that Azula was putting on her didn’t leave her anytime to launch a counter attack. Which was all Azula could really do at this point, Xander thought. Firebenders weren’t known for their defensive skills. By keeping Willow on the ropes it kept Azula right where she wanted to be, attacking.

Xander ground his teeth in frustration, but leapt high into the air towards Buffy. She was in a near blind rage, striking out at the dirt creatures with fist, knees, feet, elbows and, in one instance, a rather vicious head butt for all the good it did her. None of them did much more than drive her attackers back from the sheer force of her blows. Her face was scrunched up in fury and didn’t seem to notice that she wasn’t having any effect on them. She continued to lash out at anything that got to close.

Landing with a roll, Xander swung his leg out, cutting off the nearest monsters legs with a slice of air. It fell to the ground and continued to move, but it wasn’t getting far on just its arms. He chose to focus on the other three, which was just as well since one of them had stopped going after Buffy and had turned to face him. It was the last thing it got to do. The brief, but strong, gust of wind was more than a match for its hulking form. Getting lifted off the ground and thrown into a tree had it shattering like a dirt clod.

He was going to start on the two remaining creatures when Willow’s voice grabbed his attention.

“You know, I can keep this up all night if I have to. But you, well, you’re looking a little out of shape there.”

Turning, he saw Azula and Willow standing off again. The ground around the vampire was smoking and burnt black, but she had remained untouched. The most that Azula’s fire had managed to do was push her back till she was almost flush against a mausoleum. Azula was a bit worn down, but also untouched. But the witch was right, Azula was looking tired. The Princess hadn’t had much exercise or practice in her art since her arrival and Xander doubted that she had any while locked up. This was the first time that she had exerted herself in a long while and it was showing. Her chest puffed out more with each breath and there was a sheen of sweat on her brow. She wasn’t done, but he had no idea how much longer she could last.

Then he saw it. The slight upturn in Azula’s mouth, the sudden shine in her eyes, the general aura of smugness that surrounded her. This was Azula. This was the Firebender that struck fear into her opponents and terrified anyone who had even heard of her. It wasn’t because of her power. It was because of her intelligence. She knew after her first attack that she wouldn’t have been able to best Willow with fire, not even her extra destructive brand of hellish blue flames. Still, she kept attacking. But they weren’t just to keep her occupied they were to back her into a corner, to set her up. There was only one thing that Azula could do that vampire might not be able to block against, something that could overpower the witch, and now Xander knew her plan as well.

Once he saw her hands start to move, Xander went into motion. With all the grace of a defensive tackle, Xander slammed himself into Buffy, catching her around the waist and dragging her to the ground. The two creatures lumbered after them, but came to a halt shortly after they hit the ground. The air around them changed. The cemetery smelled like ozone and the hairs on Xander’s arms stood up as both he and Buffy watched Azula move her arms around from their spot on the floor. Sparks jumped from her two extended fingers as they cut through the air.

Before Buffy could ask what was going on, Azula struck.

Power and energy scarcely seen outside of the most violent thunderstorms suddenly appeared in the middle of the clear night sky. Lightning flashed across the starless blackness briefly before it found itself blazing from Azula’s fingers. It was slower than normal lightening, but not by much. The path wasn’t as straight, either, but that didn’t matter. Azula was hurling freaking lightning bolts. A straight and narrow path was hardly a concern.

Like before, Willow attempted to block herself from the blast, crossing her arms like she had done before. It was no use this time though. Bright white light blinded them for a moment, followed by a deafening boom that, this close to the blast, they could feel in their bones.

When the spots cleared from his vision, Xander was far from surprised by what he saw. The entire wall of the mausoleum was gone. A few stone bricks had survived and were on the grass blackened and crackling as they cooled. The roof, like the stones, had been superheated and was beginning to rapidly loose heat causing it split and break apart. Needless to say, there was no sign of Vampire Willow anywhere. There was no point in looking for a pile of dust, she had been vaporized. There was dust and dirt everywhere, some of which was made up of the dirt creatures. The pair of them had fallen apart now that Willow was gone. Whatever magic she had used to hold them together must have died when she did.

Azula straightened herself, holding her head high. The smirk she wore could only be from defeating her enemy so thoroughly, Xander thought. Not that it was something new for her, far from it. But it had been a long time for her and she reveled in the feeling. It was one of the things that made her so frightening. She fed on the thrill and power she got from crushing someone. The grin was evil, merciless, and completely natural on her face.

His thoughts were brought back to the moment when Buffy disentangled herself from him and slowly stood up. Xander watched her walk with tentative, purposeful steps. She wasn’t crying or falling apart, but she wasn’t completely there either. Her movements were too stiff, too mechanical for her to be alright. Not that he expected her to be. Her boyfriend, someone she loved, had just been killed in front of her. He’d be more worried if she had been acting fine. He still had to watch her, though. She could go either way at the moment. If she cried, then he would need to be there for her. If she went into a fit of rage, well, he would have to figure out how to take down his friend with super human strength without hurting her or getting pummeled into paste.

Just as he was about to get up, Azula turned to face Buffy, making him freeze. It was like watching a car careen out of control in slow motion. He knew that the next moment was going to be probably messy and ugly, but there was nothing he could do about it.

The smirk was gone from the Firebenders who now stood stoic. Neither moved till Azula spoke.

“The vampire is dead.”

Other than the slight lilt in her tone as she said vampire, unused to the word, her voice was as hard to read as ever. She paused as she walked past Buffy, a small sign that there was something going on inside her head besides typical Azula thoughts. What those thoughts might be were beyond Xander’s understanding. He was just glad that she hadn’t continued to set the whole graveyard on fire.

As Azula reached Xander, she met his eyes. Again, there was something that she was saying with the look that wasn’t typical for her. And, just like before, Xander couldn’t tell what it was she meant by it.

Rolling her eyes, she said, “{Comfort her, you idiot.}”

Snapping out of it, Xander quietly walked to Buffy, making sure that he stayed inside her peripheral vision. She made no move to keep him away. When he got within three steps of her, Xander saw her legs give out from under her and he quickly caught her, guiding her to ground as she collapsed against him and began to cry. Holding her awkwardly, he thought about the look Azula had given him, about what her pause had meant, and it suddenly dawned on him. It was compassion.

Things, he decide, had become much more complicated.

The End?

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You have reached the end of "Born in Fire" – so far. This story is incomplete and the last chapter was posted on 28 Sep 11.

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