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Defender of the Night

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Summary: Challenge response- Xander dresses as something inhuman for Halloween

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Cartoons > GargoylesMMcGregorFR1817113,296107102162,56110 Feb 0521 Jul 08Yes
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Part Seven

Defender of the Night Part Seven

***

Willow pursed her lips as she perused the various displays, sometimes pausing before a particularly interesting pamphlet. Career day was in full swing at Sunnydale High, transforming the student lounge into a frenzy of employment. Recruiters from various business, military services, and schools filled the room, many of whom acted more like carnival barkers than potential employers.

She ignored the buff woman in the police uniform who invited her to, "Serve and protect -- make a difference!" and carried her handful of pamphlets over to one of the few tables not filled with students. Buffy was there, face obscured by her blonde hair as she hunched over a test, chewing on the end of her number two pencil.

"Hi," Willow greeted her, taking a seat across from Buffy. "Placement test?"

"Yeah." Her tone was subdued.

"Is it a mean placement test?"

Buffy frowned, looking up with confusion. "Huh?"

Willow gestured to Buffy's grim expression. "What's with the scowly face?"

Shrugging, Buffy swept her fingers through her hair, exhaling loudly. "I don't know, it's just future stuff, I guess. I mean I look at all of these displays, and I'm like, 'Yeah? Where's the one for the Slayer?' Live violently and die in obscurity. There's a catchphrase for you."

"Not exactly 'Be all you can be'," Willow agreed.

"You know what I can't stop thinking about?" Buffy asked, her voice lowering an octave. Willow had a guess.

"Xander?"

The Slayer nodded, unconsciously twirling her pencil in her fingers like a stake. "Here I am all mopey because I might not get to be a landscaper or a regional sales manager someday, and meanwhile Xander's a stone statue and a monster to boot."

"It does kind of put things in perspective," Willow said sadly, recalling Xander's tortured expression several nights ago. They'd never really talked about what was bothering him, but she knew for certain what it was. He was afraid he was losing his friends. And for Xander, losing his friends meant losing his life.

"I'm worried about him, Willow. If I can feel this bad about my life being the Slayer, then how bad could he feel right now?"

"Pretty bad," Willow whispered.

Their moment of sympathy was interrupted by Cordelia, who strode up to their table, a small notebook in one hand. She gave them both looks of contempt before flipping to a new page.

"Okay, so what are you two doing today?" It wasn't so much a question as it was a demand.

"What?" Buffy replied.

"What are you doing?" Cordelia pointed to her placement test. "Doing the placement test, okay..." Her tongue poked out of the side of her mouth as she scribbled in her notebook.

Willow and Buffy exchanged looks, trying to figure out what exactly was going on here.

"I know you probably spent most of the morning drooling over this stuff," Cordelia said, addressing Willow. "What are you doing afterwards?"

"W-Why?"

The head cheerleader of Sunnydale High rolled her eyes. "I'm trying not to get bored to death by tracking what you two do all day," she said, as if it were obvious.

"You know what?" Buffy said, gathering an air of patience about her. "I'm not even going to ask."

"Good, so what are you doing later? Is there mega evil afoot?"

"Am I allowed to ask?" Willow questioned, frowning at Buffy. Buffy shrugged and gestured to Cordelia, indicating Willow should try her best. "Um, why do you want to know, Cordelia?"

"For Xander," she said, as if it were obvious.

Buffy and Willow exchanged looks.

"Wow," Willow said, surprised. "That's...Nice."

"Yeah, so come on, I've already spent two minutes longer with you two than I wanted."

"Yeah," Buffy said, rolling her eyes. "Nice."

***

Buffy strolled through the cemetery, doing her best to seem like a clueless girl off for a midnight walk. She adjusted her light pink jacket, perfect for appearing as a tasty little morsel for any passing vampires. She kept her hands in her pockets, a stake held carefully in her right hand.

Above her she could just barely make out the soft whispers of air as Xander soared overhead, keeping an eye on her. She was the bait, and they were both the hook.

Sighing, she turned down a side path, feeling lonely. Patrol with Xander wasn't like patrolling with anyone else. With Angel, they played the couple out for a romantic stroll, with the added bonus that she actually got to pretend that's all they were doing. At least until the vampires showed up.

With Willow and Xander before his transformation, they just did the teenagers out on a late night thing. They got to gossip, joke around, and otherwise enjoy each other's company. Even with Giles they could just be two people out for a late night walk, although usually Giles accompanied her when there were newbies to stake fresh out of the ground. He was good at figuring out which mysterious deaths in the obituaries were most likely vampires.

With Xander, there was no feeling of company. Though she knew he was nearby, keeping a very serious eye on her as he circled above the cemetery, it wasn't the same. There was no one to talk to, no one to pass the time with.

Unfortunately, having a large winged monster walking next to her when she was trying to attract vampires would probably blow her cover. So Xander stayed overhead, and she did the bait thing.

She'd been thinking of Xander much more lately, thanks in large part to career day. Thinking about her future inevitably depressed her. The very essence of herself set her apart from other people. Her life would never be like normal people's. That kind of thinking always made her feel alone, and it was one of the reasons she was drawn to Angel. At least he could understand.

But now she was finding that she saw Xander as far more the kindred spirit. Like her, his life had been turned upside down by a fundamental change in who he was. Like her, his young life would be forever changed, and he would never get to live the dreams he'd had. Like her, his life would be surrounded by darkness, although his was far more literal.

They were so alike, despite their physical difference now. Could Angel truly understand what she felt? He was a two hundred year old vampire. She wasn't even seventeen yet. Could he really understand what it was like to have your future stripped away? He was immortal, and she was already living on borrowed time. Technically, she was supposed to have been dead since last summer.

It was because of Xander that she wasn't. It wasn't something she thought about often, which was no surprise. It still gave her cold shivers to remember the feeling of her life slipping away from her, only to have the scorching heat of Xander's breath suffusing her with new life. She'd woken up in his arms, shivering more with fright than anything else. To see him there, to know she was still alive...It was the most frightening moment of her life.

Without realizing it, her mind slipped back to the feel of being held in Xander's, or rather, Goliath's arms, his large wings encircling her, holding her safely to him. They were the same, she realized. The same feelings. Beautiful and scary a the same time.

Was that fair to him that every time she saw Xander, a part of her was back in that cave?

That was an issue she'd never have to worry about ever again. That face was gone.

Buffy scowled and kicked at a loose pebble. God, how selfish could she be? Her best friend saves her life, and she's equating his face with that near-death experience? Then to top it all off, she's thinking about how at least she won't ever make that connection ever again?

A true sadness hit her then. Where only a few weeks ago, Xander's face trudged up painful memories, now all she wanted to do was be able to see it one more time. Even if it meant remembering the scariest time of her entire life.

Because no matter how bad she had it, Xander had it worse. Her eyes began to water as she imagined what his life had in store for him. Solitude. Where Buffy was facing a life of living fast and dying young, Xander was facing a lifetime of solitude. What could be worse for a boy whose entire life was his friends?

There had to be something they could do. Something she could do. She was the Slayer. Supernatural problem solver. Tomorrow she was going to get Giles to step up the pace on any research that could help Xander.

Her fate had been set, once. Xander had changed that. Maybe she could do the same for him. Maybe they could change each other's fa-

Stars exploded in front of her eyes as a meaty fist collided with the back of her head. She cried out, rolling forward out of pure instinct, her thoughts suddenly in a murky haze. A snarling hiss came from somewhere behind her, but she couldn't get her bearings. The air in her lungs exploded out of her as a scaly foot slammed into her chest, and she gasped, struggling for air.

Distantly, she was aware of the mistake she'd made. She'd gotten distracted, lost in her thoughts, and hadn't been paying attention. Something was ambushing her. She had to get up, fight back. Only her legs didn't want to cooperate, and her lungs burned for want of air.

Another strike to her back sent her sprawling onto the grass, unable even to clutch her stomach and attempt to gasp in some air. This thing was making her angry.

She spun to one side as a heavy foot attempted to stomp her. Bracing her arms against the ground, she spun her body, kicking out at the huge demon's legs. The thing was nearly eight feet tall, covered in dark green scales and more than a few bony protrusions. Despite its bulky size, it toppled easily when she kicked out its legs.

Air rushed into her lungs as Buffy rolled to her feet, and the pain in the back of her head throbbed. She felt it gingerly, her hand tinged red when she brought it back in front of her eyes. Great.

The demon was faster than she realized, and was on its feet again in seconds. It snarled at her, and she smirked at it.

"Yeah yeah, let's get on with it, Jolly Green Giant."

Whether it understood the barb or not, the taunt had the desired effect. The creature roared and barreled towards her.

A thunderous roaring scream tore through the air, causing both Buffy and the demon to pause in their tracks. Even as her body's natural impulse to freeze momentarily overtook her, Buffy sighed in relief. She'd probably never get used to Xander's terrifying battle-roar, but boy was she glad to hear it.

His dark form swooped down out of the sky, shrouded in shadow. The twin glowing white orbs that were his eyes served to obscure his form further, and his widespread wings added to the illusion that he was some gigantic beast. When Xander jumped out at you from the darkness, with that terrible battle cry, it was enough to startle even the hardiest of foes.

That momentary pause allowed Xander to slam powerfully into the demon, sending them rolling across the grass, end over end. Xander sprung up first, using his wings to add to his powerful leap, bringing his body high into the air before slamming back down onto the demon.

The thing snarled and cracked a bone-armored fist across Xander's face. Xander snarled back, just as fiercely, and returned the blow with his own large fist. The strength behind each hit was more than impressive, and a reverberating "thoom" echoed with each contact.

Never one to be a bystander, Buffy rushed in to join the fight. It was well timed, as Xander was thrown violently away by the demon just as she got close enough to jump on its back, wrapping her thin arms around its throat in a death lock. She just barely caught sight of Xander's massive body sliding several feet across the grass before he managed to arrest his momentum.

The demon began to buck and spin, attempting to throw her off, but Buffy's grip was firm. Her arms just barely fit over the creature's thick neck, but she was able to grip her own wrist, and squeezed against its throat with everything her Slayer strength could muster. From the hacking snarls of the creature, it seemed to have an effect.

"Yee-haw!" she yelled, her legs sometimes flying up behind her as she held on for dear life. Powerful fingers clawed at her hands, attempting to pull her free, but she was having none of it. She ignored the pain in her arms and held on tighter.

"Hey," a deep voice said, as a dusky blue finger tapped the demon on the shoulder. "Remember me?"

The roundhouse punch that Xander threw at the creature's head nearly knocked Buffy off with the force behind it. He followed it up with another hit, driving the demon back in the other direction. Its hands released Buffy's arms as it tried to block Xander's next devastating strike. A undercutting jab to the midsection shattered some bony plating, and another meaty blow across its chin caused it to drop to one knee. Buffy took the opportunity to get her feet on the ground, dragging the thing backwards as she pulled at its throat. Its hacking attempts to breathe came louder now, and when it tried to pull her arms free, there was little strength behind it.

Two more cracking punches to the demon's face had it go limp in her arms, held up now only by the diminutive blonde Slayer's grip around its throat. She increased her hold on it, just to be certain it wasn't playing possum, although it seemed unlikely. Xander stopped his onslaught, and flexed his taloned fingers.

"Are you okay?" he asked. "I thought you knew he was there, or I would have stopped him."

"Gonna have a bad headache," she said, grunting as she tugged at the thing's neck. "But I think his is going to be worse."

Light blue and viscous blood coated Xander's fingers and much of the surrounding area, and the demon's face was a mess of green scales and blue blood. Xander glanced at the backs of his hands and nodded. "Assuming he wakes up."

"He won't," Buffy assured him, groaning as she applied as much pressure as she could muster. A moment later she heard the familiar *crack* of bone, and knew the demon would not be getting up again. She let it go, and it thudded to the ground.

"Remind me not to give you any piggy-back rides," Xander said.

She laughed slightly, and then groaned when her head angrily yelled at her for doing so. She winced and touched the back of her head. The hair was matted and wet, and she was pretty sure it was still bleeding.

"Whoa, that looks bad."

"It's not so-" she began to say, when Xander suddenly lurched to one side. She frowned at him in confusion and turned to look at him, but he seemed to melt over to the other side. "Whaddyadoin'?" she slurred.

Then she was in his arms, her head lolled back as she tried to focus her eyes. His serious Goliath-face frowned down at her.

"Yeah," he sighed. "Not so bad?"

"Amber waves of grain," she replied, happily, and laughed at the serious look on his face a moment later. Then she groaned, as his face seemed to melt and merge into Xander's old face, and then back again. "Godda choose a face," she mumbled.

"Uh huh," Xander said, as he hefted her into his arms. She smiled a groggy smile at him as he cradled her, and gently reached up to touch his face. Then her arm fell back, and darkness swept over her.

***

"Nothing serious," Giles said, carefully patting at the back of Buffy's head with a washcloth. She was lying face first on his couch, breathing slowly and evenly. "Just a knock on the head. Rather routine for a Slayer, actually."

"Are you sure? She was talking pretty loopy back in the cemetery."

"Yes, well, truthfully, were she not a Slayer, the blow would likely have been fatal. Luckily for her, she is. So it does effect her rather intensely for a bit, especially as she's coming down after a battle. A Slayer is quite remarkable with their ability to remain conscious and lucid despite enormous physical trauma. Once the battle is done, they often divert so much energy to healing their wounds that, well, other parts are left a bit wanting. I recall an entry by a Watcher in the fifteenth century whose Slayer was in a comatose state for nearly three days after single handedly defeating nearly a hundred vampires."

"Whoa, coma? She's going into a coma?"

"No, no," Giles assured him. "Her injury isn't nearly so bad. A few hours and I suspect she'll be on her feet, although she'll have a nasty headache for a while."

Xander growled softly and sunk into the oversized armchair in Giles's living room. It creaked in protest under his weight, but held together. His wings were draped around his shoulders, and he clasped his fingers together, holding them to his lips as he watched Buffy resting. "I should have stopped it. I saw the thing going after her, but I thought she was just letting it get close so she could do that, 'Surprise, I'm not a tasty snack' thing she does all the time."

Giles rolled his eyes, knowing full well of Buffy's fondness for "faking out" vampires and demons. It was a game he often advised her against.

"You're both going to be all right, that's all that matters. A blow to the head is nothing new for a Slayer in general, or Buffy in particular. She's had worse."

"But what if she's out on patrol by herself and something like this happens? She could be passed out in the middle of a cemetery right now."

Giles shook his head. "Perhaps not. She was able to stay lucid for the battle, remember. In all likelihood, she would have maintained that state of hyper-alertness until she felt she'd reached a safe place. She's done it before. Still, I suppose that's why it's a good idea that she has a partner for patrol."

"Yeah," Xander agreed. He sighed and leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees and propping his head up with his fists. "So, any idea what the big green thing was?"

"Sounds like a Brengin demon. Mindless brutes, usually, little more than animals. They prey on adolescents, mostly; apparently they're drawn to the pheromones. It likely just finished its hibernation cycle. We're lucky you found it tonight."

"Lucky," Xander repeated, clearly not in agreement.

"Well," Giles said, placing the washcloth in a small basin on the table. "She won't need stitches, and she should be up in an hour or so. Do you plan on staying until then?"

Xander nodded.

"All right, it's rather late, so if you'll be here, I think I'll head back to bed. Feel free to help yourself if you're hungry, and tell Buffy I'll speak with her in the morning."

"Yeah, okay."

Giles nodded at him, and began to round the stairs, heading up to his bedroom. A moment later, Xander heard his door close with a soft click.

The room was silent then, save for Buffy's even breathing, as well as his own. He spotted Giles's large bookcase, and got up, browsing the titles there. He settled on a large anthology of short stories, a collection of various forms of literature. Since getting Goliath-ized, reading was becoming one of his favorite pastimes.

Then he brought the book over to the couch, and carefully moved Buffy's legs over, just slightly. She was short enough that she didn't take up too much room, but he was large enough that it would be a tight fit anyway. He sunk down into the couch, and sighed softly as he looked at Buffy. She was curled up on the couch, her face slack against the couch, and he was pretty sure she was drooling slightly. She mumbled something sleepily, but otherwise remained silent. Then he leaned back, and opened the book.

***

"Wow, is this stuff for real?" Ford asked as he ran his fingers over the books spread out on the table.

"Yes," replied Dalton, the bookish vampire that Drusilla had somehow convinced to work for her. "Very real and very delicate."

"Oh, right," Ford said, pulling his hands back. "Power transfers, soul sacrifices, and unholy resurrections, huh? Cool."

The undead translator and researcher just nodded, not paying much attention to Drusilla's nuisance of a lover. Why she cared so much about the naive little twerp was beyond him.

As if his thoughts had summoned her, Drusilla was suddenly there. She smiled knowingly at Ford as she walked by, running her fingers along his cheek as she came by. Ford's eyes locked with hers, and he grinned like the brainless moron he was. Drusilla stopped by Dalton's side, and put her hands on his shoulders.

"Is it done?" she asked, cooing in his ear.

"Uh, n-not yet."

She whined, pouting as she came around in front of him. "Almost?"

"I'm very close," he assured her. "Now that we've got the cross."

"Ooh," she hissed. "I like it. It's cold and burning at the same time."

Dalton nodded, smiling patronizingly. Though he feared Drusilla greatly, it was very hard to put up with her childlike lunacy. He couldn't wait to get this project over with so she would lose interest in him.

Drusilla's comments about the Du Lac Cross made sense. The cross was the only one of its kind, a device designed to decode ancient texts of the darkest magic. It was a paradox of a relic, both holy and unholy at once.

They'd retrieved the cross that evening, after Drusilla had read her tarot cards. She'd ordered Dalton and another minion to an old crypt, where she claimed they would find the key to the ancient texts. In the meantime, she'd called on one of the most frightening groups in existence. The Order of Taraka. Dalton could still recall the shiver that was sent down his spine when Drusilla had pulled the cards forth.

The Giant. The Jaguar. The Cyclops. The representatives of the three assassins that would no doubt see the Slayer dead. The Order of Taraka never sent more than three assassins on a job. Three was all it ever took.

Once the Slayer was out of the way, Drusilla's plans would go off without a hitch. Without her, who was there to stop them?

***

She came awake slowly. At first only aware of a dull ache on the back of her head, and then of feeling otherwise comfortable and safe. Buffy blinked her eyes open, and found herself momentarily disoriented, unsure of where she was. Then her eyes adjusted to the near darkness of the room, and she realized she was in Giles's living room. She must have been in a pretty rough fight. It wasn't the first time she'd staggered to Giles's or the library after a tough brawl.

A sound caught her attention, and she tensed ever so slightly. A deep rumbling breathing was coming from the end of the couch. Slowly, Buffy turned her head, so as not to bring attention to herself. There, sitting at the end of the couch, was the wondrously unique form of Xander Harris, brow set in concentration as he read from a large book. She realized then that the warm weight resting on her feet was his hand. It was a nice feeling.

"Xander?" she mumbled, her voice higher in pitch than she expected it to be. She felt sleepy and exhausted.

"Hey, Buff," he said, his voice deep and quiet. "How you feeling?" He closed the book and set it aside, turning to face her.

"Head hurts. What time is it?" her eyes were squinted, partly because of the pain in her head, and partly because of the darkness.

"After two," he replied.

"Oh." She groaned and pushed back against the couch, sitting up slowly. The room spun slowly around her, and she swayed slightly. Xander put a steadying hand on her back, and without thinking, she reached out, gripping his forearm and using it to gain her balance.

"Careful. You got hit pretty good."

"Feels like it. What happened?"

He frowned at her. "Giant green guy."

Buffy's brow creased in thought as the memories began to return to her. "Oh yeah. I was distracted, he got the drop on me."

"Sorry about that," he said. She realized he was still holding her steady, and she still held onto his arm for support. She turned her head to look at his face.

"Sorry for what?"

"Letting him get you. I thought you knew he was there."

"I should have," she said. "It was my fault."

"Still sorry."

She smiled, and leaned towards him in a kind of armless hug. "Thanks." Then she sighed, and let herself relax against him. Xander cleared his throat nervously.

"So tired," she whined before sitting back up. "Giles is asleep?"

"Yeah."

"So much for getting a ride home. Maybe I'll crash here, mom's in L.A. until Thursday, so it's not like she'll notice."

"Well, uh, I could, um, give you a ride, you know," Xander said, trying to sound casual. "I mean, unless you don't like heights."

"Really? You mean, like, you could fly me back?"

"Yeah," he said, nodding. "It's totally safe. No vampires in the air."

She thought about it for a second. Sleeping in her own bed was much more alluring than a night on Giles's couch, but risking a walk home in her condition wasn't a good idea. But if she went with Xander, she wouldn't have to make that risk.

"You really don't mind?" she asked.

"Well I do have that cotillion to go to at three AM," he said sarcastically. She got the hint. It wasn't like he had much else to do. After all, he'd apparently been sitting with her the whole time. Recalling her thoughts from earlier, she wasn't too surprised. Loneliness. He probably just wanted to spend time with her. With anybody.

"In that case, um, yeah. That'd be nice."

He helped her get to her feet, and she kept a steady grip on his arm as she did so. A few times she had to stand still for a second until the room stopped spinning. Getting a good night's sleep was looking better and better. A few hours of Slayer healing and she'd be back in top shape, hopefully.

"Uh, I guess I better, uh, you know, carry you."

Buffy nodded slowly, careful not to move her head too much. "Thanks," she whispered. A part of her felt embarassed that she could barely even stand up on her own, but another was very grateful he was there to help her. She'd been hurt like this before, often with no one there to help her. Such was being a Slayer.

Xander put one arm around her back, hugging her to him. Then he bent down and scooped up her legs, slowly rising to his full height. Without thinking, she put her arms around his neck, and rested her head against his chest. The back of her head throbbed dully, and she closed her eyes.

"You sure you're okay?" he asked. With her ear to his broad chest, his voice seemed to echo from deep within. She could hear his heart beating, slower than a human heart, but with a powerful regularity. It made her sleepy.

"Yeah," she said in a soft voice. "Just tired."

"Air Xander'll have you home in a few minutes," he promised. Then he let his wings relax around her, shielding her from the outside world as he moved towards the door. She sighed softly, feeling like she could very easily fall asleep in his arms, safe and protected. Almost like a fairy tale.

Once outside, Xander took a few careful leaps to the top of Giles's building, pausing after each one to be sure the jostling didn't hurt her. Then he spread his wings out wide, and she felt the cool rush of night air against her skin. The warmth of Xander's skin against her seemed to counter it, and she shivered slightly with the feel, sinking against him and soaking up as much of his heat as she could. He adjusted his grip on her, holding her tight to him and stepping to the edge.

"Ready?" he asked.

She nodded silently, and murmured her assent. Then Xander crouched down and sprang powerfully into the air. He reached the apex of his leap, a good fifteen feet over the rooftop, and for a moment they were weightless. She shut her eyes as they began to plummet towards the ground, and for an instant she was afraid they'd fall to the pavement below. Then Xander's wings opened with a snap, filling with air as he caught an updraft, and they soared high into the air. She held on tight to his neck, but curiosity got the better of her, and she turned her head to look down.

"Wow," she whispered, unable to believe her eyes. They were really flying!

"Very wow," he agreed, smiling down at her, as he held her close to his body. "It's a nice silver lining."

She looked up into his eyes, and could see the smile that played within them. Goliath's face. Xander's smile. Xander's eyes, Xander's soul. The same look she'd seen the night he'd returned her life to her. Only now when she looked at him, she didn't flash back to that night. She just felt joy that Xander's face wasn't truly gone after all.

"Wow," she whispered again, only this time she wasn't looking down.

***

They touched down on her roof a few minutes later, much to Buffy's disappointment. She'd tried to talk him into prolonging the trip, but Xander insisted on taking her home so she could get some rest.

Xander bent down carefully, slowly releasing Buffy's legs. Her feet touched down on the roof, but she kept her grip on his neck for a few moments before reluctantly letting go. Once she did, she gave him a nervous smile, and hugged her arms. She felt cold, now that she wasn't in his arms anymore.

"Thanks," she said.

"No problem."

She looked up at him, aware once again of how big he was now. She took a deep breath and glanced at her window, which was to be her entrance into the house. Then she looked back to him.

"Xander?"

"Yeah?" he said, appearing to be slightly uncomfortable as he stood there with her watching him.

"Do you think, um, maybe tomorrow we could fly again? After patrol?"

He blinked, and then nodded slowly. "Yeah, Buff. Sure."

She smiled then, and on a whim, stepped forward, standing on her tiptoes and putting her hands on his large shoulders. Then she hopped up slightly to kiss him on the cheek. Xander's eyes went wide and he seemed to stiffen in shock. Then she looked him in the eyes, and spoke in a soft whisper.

"I'll be here for you, Xander. Okay? I promise."

He nodded, speechless. Then she smiled sadly at him, and carefully made her way to her window, slid it open, and climbed through. As she slid it closed, she could hear the leathery snap of Xander's wings as he took off again. She stared out the window after him. He'd been there for her. She could be there for him. They could change each other's fates.

"Hi," a voice said, breaking her thoughts of new resolve. She spun around, slightly surprised. It was the second time that night she'd been surprised while thinking of Xander.

"Angel," she said, putting a hand to her chest. "You scared me."

"Sorry," he said. He stood in the middle of her darkened room, holding her stuffed pig in one hand. She raised an eyebrow at him.

"Just dropping by for some quality time with Mr. Gordo?" she asked. Angel gave her a confused look.

"Excuse me?"

"The pig," she said, gesturing to it. Angel looked embarassed and tossed it into a chair. "So what's up?"

"I was worried about you," he said in a low voice. "I smelled some of your blood over at Deerwood."

Buffy shrugged. "Had a tussle with a big green demon." She held up her arms, which had half-healed cuts on them from the demon's claws. "And you don't have to whisper. Mom's in L.A. until Thursday. Art buying, or something."

Angel raised an eyebrow. "Then why'd you come in the window?"

"Xander gave me a ride, we landed on the roof."

"Oh," he said, frowning slightly. "That's...Nice. Um, anyway, I just wanted to make sure you're okay. I found this on the demon." He reached into his pocket, and held up a small ring. "It's from the Order of Taraka."

"The Order of what?"

"Taraka. They're an assassin's guild. If this demon was one of them, it means two more will be coming after you. They're...They're the best."

Buffy groaned and flopped face first onto her bed. "Assassins?" she asked, her voice muffled against the mattress.

"Yeah."

She rolled over and exhaled angrily. "There's a surprise. Angel comes with bad news."

Angel frowned and turned away from her. Buffy groaned. "Oh, God. I'm sorry." She grunted as she sat back up. "I'm just in a weird place today. It's not you."

"Well, what is it then?"

"It's nothing," she said, but it was clear that Angel didn't believe her. Her shoulders sagged. "We're having this thing at school."

"Career week?" he asked.

"How did you know?"

"I lurk."

"Right. Well, then you know it's a whole week of 'what's my line'. Only I can't stop thinking about who doesn't get to play."

"You."

"And Xander."

"Oh," he said, his expression unreadable. Buffy turned her head to look at him, then hunched her shoulders and looked at the floor.

"Sometimes I just want-"

"You want what?" he slid onto the bed beside her, looking concernedly at her.

"The Cliff Notes version? I want a normal life, like I had before."

"Before me," he added for her.

"No, Angel," she said, reaching out and touching his hand. "Y-you're..." she sighed and let her hand slip back. "I'm just confused right now. Probably the concussion."

He glanced at the back of her head, and nodded sadly. Then he got up, and pointed at a picture on her desk. "Was this part of your normal life?"

Buffy laughed as she got up, the room swaying slightly around her. "Oh my God. My Dorothy Hammil phase. My room in L.A. was pretty much a shrine. Dorothy dolls, Dorothy posters, I even got the Dorothy haircut. Thereby securing a place for myself in the geek hall of fame."

Angel nodded as if he were examining some interesting artifact. "Hmm, you wanted to be like her?"

"I wanted to *be* her," Buffy corrected. "My parents were fighting all the time, and skating was an escape. I felt safe." She trailed off, frowning slightly.

Safe. There was a time when gliding over the ice made her feel free, made her feel protected. When she was on the ice, there were no other worries.

She'd felt that way in Xander's arms, soaring high over Sunnydale. His warmth, his strength, his gentle caring. It was a safety that felt so much more real, so much more potent. Skating was safety through shutting others out, turning within.

Buffy swallowed and turned away from the picture of her as a young girl, her feelings beginning to confuse her. It was her noblewoman memories. That had to be it. Why else would she be so effected by being held in those powerful arms, clutched against his body and knowing he would never let anything hurt her. Knowing that he would always bring her back from that cold darkness. His transformation hadn't been able to take that away. Nothing could take away Xander's warmth.

A cold touch on her back made her jump, and Buffy winced with a slight hiss, turning away. Angel held his hand back. "Whoa, are you okay?"

She stared at him for a second before nodding. "Y-yeah. Your hands are cold."

"Sorry," he said softly. He glanced at the picture. "When was the last time you put on your skates?"

Buffy blinked, trying to react normally, despite the confusing feelings inside of her. "Um, about- about a couple hundred demons ago."

He stepped closer to her, looking down at her. His hands felt like ice on her shoulders. "You know, there's a rink out past route 17. It's closed Tuesdays."

She looked up at him, and smiled wistfully. Sometimes he was so thoughtful. "Tomorrow's Tuesday."

He smiled. "I know."

Then she winced. "Oh, I can't tomorrow."

"Why not?"

"I um, I'm supposed to do something. With, um, with Xander."

Angel frowned and took a step back. "Xander."

She pursed her lips and looked at the floor. "Yeah."

He scratched his head self-consciously. "Yeah, well, uh, that's okay. Maybe next week." He cleared his throat and gestured to the window. "I'd better go. You, uh, probably want to get some sleep."

She looked at him sadly, and slowly nodded her head. What was she doing?

"I'll stick around for a while, make sure no one's lurking around. I mean, no one else. The Order of Taraka's scary business."

"Okay. Thanks."

He looked at the window, and for a second it seemed like he was unsure of what to do next. Then he took two quick strides across the room, and gave her a quick peck on the lips. "Bye."

Her fingers reached up to her lips, the ghostly feeling of his cold lips still on hers. She felt like she might cry, and she wasn't entirely sure why she should feel that way.

"Bye," she whispered, as he disappeared out the window. Then she dropped back onto the bed, and stared at the ceiling.

"Why do I have to make everything complicated?"
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