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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 > GargoylesMMcGregorFR1817113,296107102162,56610 Feb 0521 Jul 08Yes
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Part Eight

Defender of the Night Part Eight

***

"The Order of Taraka? Oh dear."

"Bad?" Buffy asked, unable to resist the urge to scratch the back of her head. Her wound from the night before was mostly healed, save for a slight itch.

"Quite bad," Giles said, peering at the ring Angel had given Buffy. It was placed beneath a magnifying lamp so Giles could better examine it. "The Order of Taraka is an assassin's guild dating back to the time of King Solomon."

"Is he the one who killed all his wives?" Cordelia asked. Her head hung back over the chair she was slumped in, staring at the ceiling and obviously bored. Long and well-managed hair hung down nearly to the floor behind her.

"That was Henry the Eighth," Willow told her. "King Solomon's from the bible."

"The bible?" Cordelia raised her head, frowning. "So then shouldn't they be good guys?"

Giles sighed and rolled his eyes. "I can't even begin to explain how confused you are, Cordelia. Suffice it to say that the Order of Taraka is quite deadly. They're purported to have never failed in the entirety of their existence."

"Well they failed last night," Buffy said. "Me and Xander tag-teamed him."

"They failed in their first attempt," Giles said. "I daresay that the Order is unaware of your having a heretofore fictional creature assisting you. It may prove to be your advantage."

"What do you mean, 'first attempt'?"

Giles stood up straight, arching his back for a moment and groaning as he turned off the magnifying lamp. "The Order of Taraka follows a specific modus operandi."

"Modus operandi? Who're they?" Cordelia asked.

Giles groaned and closed his eyes. "They follow a specific...Way of doing things. There will be more than one assassin sent."

"So why me?"

"Cause you're the scourge of the underworld?" Willow suggested.

"I haven't been that scourge-y lately," Buffy said, defensively.

"I don't know, I don't know," Giles sighed. "I think that, for now, the best thing we can do is get you to a secured location, Buffy. Somewhere out of the way that you can go until we decide on the best course of action."

The concerned look on Giles's face told Buffy more than even his words. She stood up, suddenly feeling the need to be mobile, able to react quickly. "Are you saying I can't handle this, Giles? Cause you're all 'head for the hills', and Angel was pretty freaksome about it too. Am I not strong enough to fight these people?"

She could remember with startling clarity the force of the blow that struck her the night before. Without Xander there, would she have survived? It was only their working in tandem that allowed her to kill the demon assassin. What if the next assassin was harder to defeat?

"They're a breed apart, Buffy. Unlike vampires, they have no earthly desires but to collect their bounty. They find a target, and, uh...They eliminate it. You can kill as many of them as you like, but it won't make a difference. Where there's one, there will be another, and another. They won't stop coming until the job is done. Each one works alone. Some are human, some are not. You won't know who they are until they strike."

"Wow," Cordelia said. "Sucks to be you."

***

Day gave way to night, and sleep gave way to life. Powerful talon-like fingers flexed into fists, and shards of stone shattered as Xander awoke with a thunderous roar.

"Do you always have to scream like that when you wake up?" Cordelia asked. She stood several feet away, just far enough to not be pelted with bits of stone when Xander woke.

"It's not a scream. It's a mighty roar. And yeah, I do. It's like instinct or something."

"You're just lucky our property is so big. I'm surprised the neighbors can't hear you anyway."

"Hey, it's Sunnydale," Xander said as he left the balcony. Cordelia followed him inside. "We hold the patent on see-no-evil. So what's up?"

"Oh, right." She reached into her pocket and pulled out a page torn from a notebook. "Uh, oh yeah. The career day test results came back."

"Oh yeah? How'd you do?"

She gave him a dose of the dazzling Cordelia Chase smile. "Personal shopper or motivational speaker," she said proudly.

"Motivational speaker?" he laughed good-naturedly. "On what? Ten ways to a more annoying you?"

"Obviously someone recognized my excellent people skills," she said haughtily. "I'm a natural leader. Now do you want to hear the rest, or not?"

"No, no, I do. Please continue with the Chase News at Six."

She grinned at him again, and looked back down to her notes. "Um, okay, we know the test is accurate, cause, hello? Buffy got law enforcement."

"Wow, she did? That is pretty accurate." He allowed himself a moment to picture Buffy in a policewoman's uniform. A *tight* policewoman's uniform. "What about Willow? What did she get?"

"Nobody knows," Cordelia replied. "Her name wasn't on the list, but she and that guy Oz from Devon's band were brought into this super-secret meeting thing with these guys in suits."

"If it's super-secret, how do you know about it?"

She scoffed. "Please. I know everything that happens in that school."

"Somehow, I don't doubt it," Xander said. "So, anything else interesting?"

"Not really. Oh, except that demon you guys killed last night? Turns out he was a hired assassin and they're gonna hunt Buffy down or something."

Xander blinked. "What?"

"What?" she parroted back at him. "She's always getting hunted by stuff. It's not news."

"Assassins? Who hired them?"

She shrugged. "I dunno. King Henry, I think they said. I wasn't really paying attention."

"King Henry? Who's King Henry?"

"The guy from the bible," she said, rolling her eyes at his ignorance.

"The bible? What's some bible guy doing going after Buffy? I thought bible meant good!"

"That's what I said!" Cordelia exclaimed with exasperation. She sighed and let herself flop down onto the couch. "Giles was all cranky though, blabbing on more than usual. The gist of it is she's got bad guys going after her. What else is new?"

"If they're bad guys like that green thing we fought last night, then it's brand spanking new! Do we know anything about these guys? What they look like? What kills them? Are they all Lou Forrigno impersonators?"

"Who?"

"The Hulk," Xander sighed. "Big and green."

"How should I know?"

Xander groaned and covered his face with a large hand. "I'd better go see what's up."


***

Mr. Zabuto was right. This was no surprise, as Mr. Zabuto was a learned elder and Watcher. This town, Sunnydale, pulsed with power, a power that her carefully trained Slayer senses could feel resonating within her bones.

First on the agenda was a daytime reconnaissance of the town. This she did quickly and efficiently, getting a feel for its layout. Potential stalking points for Vampires were noted and memorized. She paid special attention to dark areas, and buildings with blacked out windows. Perhaps after she dealt with the surging evil in Sunnydale, she would clear out the vampires.

Cleansing a small town was something she was familiar with. It was rarely all that difficult. A few nests to clear out, and a town would be relatively safe from vampire activity for sometimes several years. When the vampires learned a Slayer had hit a small town, they generally avoided it for some time.

Which made her confused. Already her senses were registering more vampires than could be possible for such a small town. Particularly a town in which a Slayer had been at work for several months, prior to being killed.

Perhaps that was the key. Vampires scattered from a town where the Slayer was known to have wiped out several nests, but in a town where she was defeated? That was likely to raise their confidence.

Though surely not to the levels she was sensing. More than likely, the dark power that was rising in Sunnydale was interfering with her Slayer senses. Mr. Zabuto had often warned her that the Slayer's sixth sense concerning the demonic and vampiric was never to be fully relied upon. It was a helpful tool, but too erratic to be given much credence. A part of her always thought that Mr. Zabuto was perhaps incorrect in that assumption, but now she saw that he was quite right. There was no way a town with such a small population could be registering this many vampires.

Once she'd gotten a feel for the layout of the town, Kendra the Vampire Slayer got to work at tracking one of the more powerful signatures she felt. Vampires would be impossible to track, as her untrustworthy senses were registering so many as to drown out individual signatures in background noise, but other, more powerful signatures could be tracked.

There were several such powers she currently felt within the town of Sunnydale. One in particular seemed to catch her attention. It felt...Like a challenge.

And the Slayer was always up for a challenge.

***

Buffy sat at the library table, hands in her lap. Her right leg bounced up and down with nervous energy, and she bit her lip pensively.

All day long, her nervousness regarding the Order of Taraka had been building. Giles's warning of what they could do was bad enough, but she'd snuck out to visit Angel at lunch, and he'd only confirmed Giles's story. They were both of the mind that she should lay low, even get out of town if she could.

The back of her head no longer so much as tingled anymore, but it worried her all the same. That demon had been incredibly strong, and had struck her before she even realized he was there. Without Xander, she would have been dead. She just knew it.

And she didn't know who or what might be the next attacker. It could be anyone, could be anything. What if she couldn't handle the next one?

That afternoon some guy had bumped into her in between classes. She'd thrown him up against a locker and dared him to try something before she realized she'd seen him around school before. Once again, her Slayer lifestyle was encroaching on her real life.

She should have been home, finishing homework or watching TV, maybe even thinking about the confusing aspect of her relationship with Xander. They were supposed to go flying tonight. The thought made her feel a little better.

But she couldn't go home. That's where they would be waiting for her. They weren't like vampires. They could be there.

Why was this bugging her so much? Why, after all this time, was this making her so scared? Things were always trying to kill her.

But this felt different. This was professionals coming after her, and not just random vampires. The first of them had been nearly unstoppable. The Order of Taraka never failed. So she sat in the library, afraid to go home, trying to figure out what she would do next.

A part of her thought about going to Angel's. They might not think to look for her there. And Angel, he was her boyfriend, he would protect her.

Protect her. Protect.

The word rolled around in her mind. She wanted to be protected. Wanted to feel protected. A memory came to her.

"You'll be okay?"

"Hey, Slayer here."

"Sorry. Gargoyle instinct is to protect, you know."

"I think that's Xander instinct."

She'd said it so casually at the time, but it was true, wasn't it? After all, what was the one thing that had ever caused Xander to really get mad at her? Not protecting Willow.

She could see his eyes, the deep brown eyes that were wet with tears, gleaming in the fire-lit cave. His hands gently holding her, and the faintest impression of his lips still against hers.

Buffy shook her head, banishing the memory. It was bad enough she was freaking out over the Order of Taraka. She was only making it worse by constantly reliving the night she'd died.

The night he'd saved her.

It was hard to believe it had been less than six months ago that the Master had pierced her neck with his fangs, drank of her blood, and left her to drown in a shallow pool of water. Less than six months since Xander had breathed burning life back into her.

No, she wasn't going to think about it again. Thinking about it led to thinking about the inevitability of her death, and she wasn't going there. That night had never happened, as far as she was concerned. It was a nightmare that was over now, and she never had to think about it ever again.

A creaking noise from deep in the stacks made Buffy's head snap up, her eyes growing wide. She ceased all movement for a few heartbeats, listening intently. A slight rustling sound spurred her into action, and she got to her feet quickly and silently, her eyes trained on the dark side of the library. One could get lost among the many bookcases in the cavernous school library. She wished she'd had the brains to keep more than the dim lamp by the counter on.

Buffy narrowed her eyes as she slowly moved towards the steps that led to the stacks. She breathed slowly and quietly, ears straining to track the assassin. She swallowed nervously, trying to get rid of the lump in her throat. She thought about trying to go for a weapon, but decided against it. She was deep enough in the shadows that whatever was there might not have seen her.

She moved swiftly once she was in the maze of bookcases, counting on the assassin to be moving slowly, taking great pains to stay silent. Buffy herself moved with a speed and silence that only the Slayer could duplicate. Another slight creak told her where it was, and she rounded one of the cases, coming up behind it.

The dark shape was huddled in the shadows, and she could barely make it out. It moved slowly towards the open area of the library, obviously being careful not to be seen. Buffy's mouth set into a thin line as she clenched her jaw. She carefully slid one of the very heavy and very thick old books from a nearby bookcase, and crept up behind the assassin.

Book raised high, she took a slow, deep breath, holding it and preparing to slam it down.

Suddenly the form seemed to double in size, springing at her. She cried out, trying to crack the book across its face, but to hands encircled her wrists. She tried to tug herself free, but its strength was unbelievable. "No!" she cried, momentarily panicking.

"Buffy?" Xander asked, releasing her wrists. She nearly fell backwards, but he quickly grabbed hold of the side of her arms, steadying her. "Jeez, you scared the crap out of me. What are you doing?"

Breathing heavily, she stared at the huge form of Xander Harris. His large hands held her shoulders, staring down at her. She swallowed. "Xander?"

"Yeah," he said, soothingly. "Are you okay? You look like someone just insulted your shoes or something."

"I-I thought you were a-," she scowled and smacked his chest with the back of her hand. "You butthead! What were you doing sneaking around like that?"

He frowned and released, rubbing at his chest. "There's a janitor. Sometimes he's in here when I show up, so I gotta be sneaky. You know that, Buff."

Buffy tried to maintain her angry expression, but found it wavering. She wished he hadn't let go of her arms. "I-I do know that."

"So what's with the attempt to slay your favorite gargoyle pal?" Xander asked, frowning down at her.

"I thought you were one of- one of the assassins," she said, looking down. "I'm really- I don't know when they're going to- It's just that-" She couldn't think of the right way to say what she was feeling.

"Hey, whoa," Xander said, his hand once again reaching out, touching her shoulder. "Calm down, Buff. You look like you're gonna pass out."

She felt like she might. This assassin thing was scaring her more than she ever thought it would. Her mind out of the fight-or-flight reflex, she felt her breathing quickening, and her face felt cold.

"Xander, I," she tried again. "I'm- I'm so-"

She looked up into his eyes, the eyes that weren't deep, brown, or wet anymore. But eyes that were Xander Harris's all the same. The eyes that had been her first vision upon returning to life. She'd died. And they were going to do it to her again.

"God, Xander! I'm so glad to see you!" she cried, suddenly leaping forward and wrapping her arms around his neck, holding on to him tightly. She hung from his muscular neck, closing her eyes and letting her relief wash over her. It was Xander.

"Whoa!" Xander grunted. His left arm tentatively went around her back, supporting her awkwardly. "Buff? Not that I'm not always up for Buffy-hugs, but what's going on?"

"I thought you were an assassin," she muttered against him, her face buried in the space between her arm and his neck. She held him tighter, squeezing her eyes shut. Xander was there.

"And because I'm not, I get hugs?"

Buffy sniffed and pulled her head back. The way she held onto him, it put her face mere inches from his. She stared into his eyes, noting the deep concern and protectiveness in them. Xander's eyes.

Xander stared back at her, frowning slightly. His other arm went around her, circling her middle and holding her up. She breathed slowly as she looked at him, feeling his powerful arms holding her.

"Buffy?" he whispered, swallowing nervously.

"Xander, I..." She trailed off, and felt tears come to her eyes. Xander's expression grew even more concerned.

"What's wrong?" he asked, his nervousness seeming to ebb.

She stared back at him, back at those eyes that were somehow still his. Somehow still the eyes she'd seen that horrible night. His arms were once again around her, and she was staring into his eyes. Buffy thought she could almost feel the phantom touch of Xander's lips against hers, and the scorching rush of air as her lungs were filled and life was breathed back into her.

These were the eyes that kept her from death.

They were going to kill her, the Order of Taraka. And if they didn't, something else would. She was doomed, and unable to ignore it. They'd existed for thousands of years, and they never failed. The power of their first assassin had nearly killed her, and would have if not for Xander. If not for his strength, his caring, his concern.

Concern that seemed to flow from him as he held her, frowning with confusion as she stared back at him. Xander instinct to protect.

She didn't want to die. That night was the defining moment of her life. Simultaneously her greatest victory and her most shattering defeat. The thin white scar of the Master's bite still rested upon her neck, a wound that her Slayer powers didn't seem capable of healing completely.

Those eyes too, were a paradox of duality. They meant life, but life that came after death and defeat. They meant being saved, but only after being lost.

The Order of Taraka could strike against her at any moment, through any means. It scared her, truly and deeply. Sitting alone in the library, she'd felt the oppressive nature of that fear pressing down against her, threatening to suffocate her.

But there, in the darkness of the library, held by those powerful arms and staring into those concern-filled eyes, she felt something more. She felt hope. Xander instinct. Gargoyle instinct. He was a protector. He was her protector.

So she gripped him tighter, and buried her face against his neck. She spoke in a low whisper, a pleading half-whine that contained the full depths of her fear.

"They're going to kill me, Xander. I don't want to die."

Hot tears leaked from her tightly closed eyes, rolling down her nose and onto Xander's tough skin. His large hand stroked her hair gently as he supported her with his arms.

"Never gonna happen, Buff," he promised. "We'll stop 'em."

Then those large, leathery wings encircled her, cocooning her in his warm embrace. Buffy sobbed softly against him, her best friend. Her protector.

This time, there was no blaming her feelings on the noblewoman. This time, she knew it was one hundred percent Buffy feelings. Being held by him, wrapped in his protective embrace, clutching his powerful form and hearing his soft, soothing words, she knew it wasn't some fluke. She felt safe with him. She loved it there.

They were the same, the two of them. Both of them doomed by fate. A day ago, she'd thought to spend more time with Xander for his sake, so he could cope with his reality better. How strange that now she wanted to spend more time with him for her own sake as well.

Doomed they might be, but she knew that if it came to it, she'd rather be doomed together than doomed separately.

And just maybe, together, they could change their fate the same way Xander had changed hers.

***

Although Xander Harris was never known for his quick thinking or observational skills, he was not completely obtuse. Buffy was in bad shape, a far cry from her mood when he'd left her the previous evening. Things with these assassins must have had her more spooked than she'd been in a long, long time.

Because even after her sobbing had ebbed, Buffy made no move to remove herself from his grip. And if Buffy Summers wanted to hold onto him, feet hanging nearly a foot from the ground and arms wrapped around his neck, then Xander Harris was not going to make any move to get in the way of that. This was Buffy, and she was holding onto him as if her life depended on it.

So rather than question this strange turn of events, Xander simply held her gently, supporting her slim weight with his inhumanly strong arms, and quietly wrapped his wings around her. It was an instinctive gesture, one of caring, concern, and protection. Whatever had Buffy so distraught was something he was going to do his best to help her with. To do otherwise was unthinkable.

It hurt him, seeing her like this. Buffy was strong and determined in a way that was unlike anyone he'd ever met. She was brightness, wonder and fury in a tiny blonde package. She could snap a neck and crack a joke at the same time, worry about her nails and worry about the world all in the same breath. She bore the weight of the world on her shoulders, and she did it with style.

But Buffy the hero was also Buffy the human. Buffy the friend, Buffy the woman, and Buffy the girl. Even she couldn't shoulder the load all on her own, and even she needed someone to hold onto sometimes.

Had she chosen him to be that person? Or was he just in the right place at the right time?

Whatever the reason, in that moment, it didn't matter. What mattered was that Buffy needed someone, and he would be there for her. After all, where else did he have to be?

"I'm with you," he whispered in her ear, his eyes closing as he held her. Buffy whimpered softly and clung to him tighter, a grip that might have been a little too much if he was still a normal man. Luckily for them both, his gargoyle constitution was more than sufficient to withstand her unknowing exhibition of Slayer strength.

She was crying quietly again. He could feel hot tears dripping onto his shoulder and neck. It made him want to hold her forever, and it made him want to tear the head off of who was responsible for her fear. This was Buffy. She wasn't supposed to get scared.

"You'll beat them, Buffy. I know it."

Her muffled response was barely audible, but his enhanced senses were able to decode the mumbling.

"Hey, you already beat one of them," he said, reassuringly. "No two-bit assassin is a match for the Buffinator."

Buffy sniffed and pulled her head back slightly. With one arm still crooked around his neck, she used her other hand to wipe her face free of tears. Her eyes were puffy, and her nose was red. He thought she looked beautiful, regardless.

"He would have been," she whispered, her face inches from his. "He would have killed me, Xander. I'd be dead." Her eyes left his, and she stared down. "Without you."

Xander snorted and supported her body with one arm, using his free hand to put a finger under her chin. He gently raised her head, his eyes meeting hers. "Hey, if we're keeping score, that puts me at one Buffy-save to your ninety-five hundred Xander-saves."

She shook her head. "Two Buffy-saves," she said, almost shyly.

"Two?"

Nodding, she swallowed nervously. "I-In the cave. You saved my life."

"Oh," he said, clearing his throat. "Yeah. That."

That wasn't something they talked about. It was one of those mutually agreed upon issues that neither ever had to actually mention to the other. She'd brought it up once at the beginning of the school year. Brought it up to tease him and humiliate him, to use him to make Angel jealous. It still stung, but he knew why she did it, figured it out when he saw her anger and hatred when she smashed the Master's bones into dust.

Figuring it out and not being hurt by it were two different things.

"Xander?" Her voice was small, fearful. Her eyes were wide and earnest. "Thank you."

Then she rested her head against his shoulder, her arms once again holding onto him tightly. There was no teasing in this. This was hard, painful truth, as beautiful as it was terrifying. Her soft sobs as she clung to him spoke of the powerful nature of her feelings.

It was thank you for saving her life. It was thank you for not letting her die. It was thank you for being there.

"I'll always be there," he said through the lump in his throat. "I promise."

They remained like that for some time, Buffy being supported in his powerful arms, her own wrapped around his neck, her head resting on his shoulder. His wings encircled them both, holding her as close to him as he could. Never before had he shared such a thing with Buffy.

Finally, she sniffed again and pulled her head back. She smiled nervously, and gave him a quick kiss on the side of his square jaw. "I'm sorry I jumped on you."

"I'm not complaining," he replied. "And you look like you needed someone to jump on."

She nodded slowly, and trusting in him to support her, she wiped away her tears. She smiled when he didn't attempt to lower her to the ground, and she slid her arms around his neck again. "I'm scared, Xander. I haven't felt like this since..."

"Since the Master?"

Again she nodded, closing her eyes. She rested her head against him again, and spoke quietly. "Since the prophecy. Since he almost killed me. I thought- I thought I'd never feel like this again."

"I'm sorry, Buff. It's a sucky deal."

"Giles and Angel, they're like...They're talking like I'm doomed unless I run away. It's just like..."

He frowned and nodded, the picture becoming clearer. Giles and Angel convinced she was going to die. Buffy dealing with the inevitability of her own short life expectancy. It wasn't exactly as it was with the Master, but it was close. Giles and Angel had both been sure she was doomed then too.

Is that why she was in his arms? Because he'd refused to believe it?

"What do you think?" he asked.

She sighed against him, still with her eyes closed and head resting against him. She seemed relaxed and comfortable, and neither had made any move to let go. He liked her there, feeling her warm arms around him, her face pressed against his shoulder. The part of him that was seventeen realized he was feeling her butt as he held her against him. It was as enjoyable an experience as he'd had since becoming Goliath, perhaps since being born in the first place. Buffy Summers was holding him, and he was holding Buffy Summers.

"I don't know what to think," she said, sounding tired, almost sleepy. "That demon last night would have killed me if I was by myself."

"Would have killed me if I was by myself too," Xander pointed out. It was Buffy who'd beaten the thing. He'd just distracted it long enough for her to take him down. Take him down despite her serious head injury. He was in awe of this girl. She'd managed to stay on her feet long enough to kill the thing, only allowing her injuries to affect her after she'd finished him off. That kind of strength went beyond Slayer powers, as far as Xander was concerned.

"Good thing we were together," she said.

"Yeah," he replied. She squeezed him affectionately. Xander took a slow, deep breath.

"Xander?"

"Yeah?"

"Will you stay with me tonight?"

He swallowed and glanced down at her. She craned her head back slightly to look up at him.

"Of course," he said. She rewarded him with a beautiful smile, and snuggled against him, sighing.

"I feel safe with you," she whispered in a voice so low, he wasn't sure she intended for him to hear it. He kept his response to himself, just in case.

***

Angel snarled as he shoved Willy the Snitch's head into the solid wood of the bar. The weasely bartender had just let slip that Drusilla had ordered the hit on the Slayer. It had only taken a little persuasion on Angel's part to get him to part with the information.

"Where I can I find her?" Angel demanded. He could hear Willy's heartbeat increase in speed with his panic.

"Are you crazy?" Willy wailed, his voice muffled with his face pressed against the bar. "She's a total nutjob! She'll cut off my face and wear it as a hat!"

Angel growled and pressed down harder. He brought his mouth close to Willy's ear and whispered, "Who do you think made her that way?"

Willy whimpered and shuddered. Anyone who was anyone in the demon community knew what Angelus was capable of, and Willy was no exception, as evidenced by the growing dampness in his trousers.

"Okay! Okay!" Willy cried. "She's hold up over at the old-"

Something bit into Angel's neck, causing him to take a step backwards, clutching at the dart that was stuck there. "What?" he asked, staggering back in confusion. He looked up to see...

"Spike?" he said, blinking as the powerful tranquilizer began to take effect.

Ford smirked and stepped forward. He was flanked by a handful of Drusilla's enthralled minions, each a loyal and deadly servant of their insane mistress. Ford reached out and grabbed Angel by the lapels of his jacket, pulling him forward.

"Nope," he said, grinning triumphantly. "I'm the new guy. Remember me?"

"Look...like...Spike," Angel slurred. Then he gasped and stumbled forward. Ford stepped aside, allowing him to fall face first onto the floor. He scratched his head through his short hair.

"That's Angelus?" he remarked to the others. "The demon with the face of an Angel? Puh-lease. I've got a much better face than him. Don't I?"

"Guh..." one of the minions attempted to say.

"Exactly, Bruno. Maybe when we're done with this ceremony and Angelus is gone, I'll get a nickname like that. Ford is way lame name for a badass super vampire. Hey, how about: The Nighted One? Huh? Is that cool, or what?"

"Ploagh," another grunted, drooling slightly.

Ford rolled his eyes and peered at Willy. "What do you think?"

"I think you took your sweet time!" Willy exclaimed. "He was gonna kill me!"

"I had to wait until it was more dramatic," Ford explained. "Otherwise it's not as cool."

Willy groaned and rubbed at the back of his neck. "This ain't a movie, kid. This is real life, and I almost lost mine. We had a deal, you know."

"Yeah, yeah. Just be careful. I'm a bad guy, after all. I get to break deals whenever I want."

"Hey." Willy pointed a his index finger at him, and gave him a serious look. "You kill me and I can't help you no more."

Ford rolled his eyes. "I know that! Jeez. That's just the kind of thing I'm supposed to say so you don't get all uppity and start thinking you can run things."

Willy muttered something under his breath, and waved his hand at the unconscious body of Angel. "Just get him outta here, will ya? Tired of him always beating on me for information. I just bought these pants!"

***

"And they never fail," Buffy said, finishing her summation of the Order of Taraka for Xander.

They were still at the library, although their long embrace had ended some time ago. Buffy had held onto him for quite a while, sometimes crying softly, and other times just pressing against him. Xander maintained his protective hold on her all throughout.

They hadn't said much, but when there were words, it was Buffy who spoke them. She seemed to have opened a kind of secret floodgate within her, admitting to Xander her fears and worries over things she'd kept bottled up for the better part of a year.

It was no surprise to Xander that she'd been truly shaken by her initial defeat at the hands of the Master. What was surprising was that she was actually admitting it, and even more surprising, that she was admitting it to him.

The memory of nearly dying, of being dead and lifeless in the water was one that haunted her. It tore at him to know that she still had nightmares about it. Her tremulous, whispering voice as she told him of these things bespoke either a deep thread of fear, or a deep thread of trust. Perhaps, he thought, it was both.

The Goliath part of him was aware of just how necessary it was to have others you could rely upon, whether for physical support or purely emotional. The shadowed memories and wisdom that still lurked in his mind told him that Buffy was coming to him as a peer. An equal, a warrior, a kindred spirit. She was, Xander realized, a part of his clan.

To Goliath, the clan was the most important thing there was. Beyond life and self, there was the clan. It was family and it was something more. Buffy was part of his clan.

The same thought came from two different minds. From Xander's own, and the distant memories of Goliath. Their conclusions were both the same, and thus doubly strengthened his resolve.

She was to be protected. That, more than anything, was his purpose. Buffy was the protector of the world. He would be the protector of Buffy. Emotionally and Physically. He had the tools at his disposal to do both, and she was giving him the opportunity to do so. She was opening up to him in a moment of fear and worry. He wouldn't let her down.

So he promised her, in a low, soothing voice, that he would be there for her. Whenever she wanted him, he would be there for her. So long as the sky was dark, he could be by her side.

She'd cried again at that, but it was a happy, touched kind of crying. She thanked him for being the best friend she could ever ask for, and then finally, painfully, they separated.

Buffy seemed drained afterwards, but in better spirits as well. There were a few minutes of awkwardness, as both recognized the intimate nature of how they'd spent the last long while. When Xander glanced at the clock hanging over the door, he was surprised to find they'd held each other for nearly an hour. It was unreal.

Telling Xander of the Order of Taraka served as a good way to move past their nervousness after breaking apart.

"Never, huh?" Xander remarked. Buffy nodded, a hint of her prior worry ghosting across her face. Xander sighed, and crossed his arms in a very Goliath-like movement. "Well, we'll just have to turn this into a tradition."

Buffy frowned. "Turn what into a tradition?"

"Proving to everyone that there's no such thing as a hopeless case. You weren't supposed to kill the Master, but you did. You're not supposed to be able to beat these assassins? Well tough rocks on them. You will."

"Yeah, but Xander they-"

"Ah bup-bup-bup!" he said, silencing her. "You will."

She glared at him good-naturedly. "Just because you say it, doesn't mean it's going to happen."

He looked back at her knowingly. "It does if you say it."

"Xander, this is serious."

"I know. And I'm telling you, you're going to beat them. Cause you're Buffy, and that's what Buffy's do. To do otherwise would to be not-Buffy, and seeing as how you're Buffy, that makes it a virtual impossibility." He held up his hands. "I'm sorry, but it's out of our hands. It's just simple logic."

"Simple, huh?" she asked, amused.

"Yup."

She sighed and ran her fingers through her hair, exhaling loudly. "I hope you're right."

"I know I'm right. Besides, I'll bet the Order of Taraka weren't counting on your exceedingly handsome gargoyle sidekick, not to mention his big guns."

Buffy raised an eyebrow at him. "His big guns?"

"Sure," Xander said, nodding. He curled his arms, flexing his biceps. "These guns." The muscles bulged, strong and powerful. Buffy's eyes went wide. "The benefits of being shaped after a cartoon: you get to look like Schwarzenegger on steroids." He grinned at her, waggling his eyebrows in a very Xander-like way.

"Those are, um, pretty impressive," she said, unaware that she was gawking.

Xander shrugged, letting his arms relax. "Thank Janus, I guess. Or whoever designed Goliath. I could give He-man a run for his money."

"Yeah," Buffy breathed. Her face was slightly flushed. Then she blinked and shook her head, clearing her throat. "Um, anyway..."

"Anyway, the point is, you're the Slayer. One girl in all the world, Buffy. You alone fight the forces of blah blah blah. And me? I'm Goliath, more or less. Greatest warrior of his time, leader of the gargoyles, and pretty darn tough, if I do say so myself. With the two of us, not to mention Giles, Willow and Ms. Calendar, we can handle some crazy assassins that some bible guy sent after you."

Buffy smiled at him sadly, blinking tears away again. She got up and moved towards him. She looked up into his eyes, and said, "You're not Goliath. You're Xander. And that's even better." Then she stepped into his arms, and hugged him. Xander smiled and hugged her back.

"This is getting to be a habit," Xander said, as Buffy sighed softly against him. "At least this time you're not hanging off my neck."

She stepped back self-consciously. "Sorry," she muttered, holding her arms.

"Hey, no, Buffy-hugs are always welcome," he said. "Especially since, you know, big scary monster here."

"You're not scary," she said with a serious expression.

Xander raised an eyebrow at her.

"Okay, maybe you're a little scary," she admitted. "But only when you're doing that roaring eye-glowy thing. Otherwise you're...Nice."

"Even with the devil wings?" Xander said, letting his wings unfurl and stretch as far as he was able within the library. It was still far from his full wingspan. He pointed at them, glancing back.

Buffy shook her head, and shrugged slightly. "I like your wings."

"Really?"

Buffy nodded, her bottom lip pressing hard against her top lip. She continued to hug herself self-consciously. "They're pretty."

"Pretty?" he asked, a hint of disgust in his voice.

She shrugged again.

Xander frowned and looked back at his wings. He flapped them gently. "Well, I guess they're kind of...I dunno. Not-hideous." He sighed and looked back at her, noticing her uncomfortable stance. He let his wings cloak around his shoulders again. He stepped to her, and reached a hand out to her. Buffy looked at it, pausing for a moment before she put her tiny hand in his. Xander pulled her to him, and she sighed as she hugged him again.

"I'm being so stupid," she said against him.

"Why?" he asked, letting his wings drop around her.

"I've been all shaky and gross-feeling all day."

"How is that stupid?"

"Because I only feel better when I'm with you," she said in a small, quiet voice.

Xander blinked, and looked down at her. Her eyes rose to meet his. For a long moment, neither said a word. Then, Xander smiled softly. "Hey. Want to go fly?"

Buffy's face broke into a wide smile.

***

Buffy laughed and let herself fall onto the grass, rolling onto her back and staring up at the stars. "Oh my God," she gasped. "That was totally awesome."

"Glad someone finally thinks so," Xander said, a smile in his voice. He knelt down beside her, letting his wings pool around him. Buffy glanced over at him and grinned. "You screamed even more than Cordelia, and she hated it."

"Sorry," she laughed. "I shriek like a girl when I'm a roller coaster, and that was way better than a roller coaster."

"Well, I hate to break it to you Buff, but you *are* a girl."

She rolled her eyes, laughed, and then sighed. "I really needed this. Thanks, Xander."

"Hey, not a problem, Buffster. Not like this is awful for me, either. I like having someone to hang with, even if it's because she's being hunted by assassins."

She frowned at him. "It's not just cause of that. You know that, right?"

He shrugged. "Yeah, I guess so."

"Well it's not," she insisted. "I like hanging out with you too. And I *really* like flying with you. I can't believe you get to do that all the time. I'd never stop."

"It's a pretty nice perk," Xander said. So was holding Buffy in his arms while she screamed happily as he soared high over Sunnydale. Definitely a perk.

Buffy rolled over, propping her head up with her hand, her elbow on the grass. She smiled at him sadly. "I'm really proud of you."

"What? Of me?"

She nodded. "Yeah. This whole thing, it's pretty rough. I didn't handle getting Slayerized anywhere near so good."

Xander sagged slightly, letting himself sit back on the backs of his legs. He shrugged. "What else can I do, you know? Either I deal, or I die."

Buffy frowned slightly, and swung her legs around, moving to her knees. She scooted towards him, and put her arms on his shoulders. With him sitting on the backs of his legs and her kneeling, he wasn't quite as towering as he normally was.

"I'm still proud of you," she said.

"Right back at ya," he joked. But his jovial tone waned as he found himself drawn to her eyes. Buffy licked her lips unconsciously, her eyes locked with his.

"Xander," she whispered.

"Buffy," he replied, voice hoarse and low. Her face moved slowly towards his. Xander felt himself being pulled towards her, inexorably moving forward. Their faces were close, and he could smell the sweetness of her breath. Her breathing was quickened, and her fingers pressed against his smooth, durable skin, pulling him towards her.

Then she was picked up off her feet as an arm closed around her throat from behind. Buffy gasped a hacking breath as she was pulled back, kicking at the air as she was pulled off the ground.

"Buffy!" Xander exclaimed, springing off the ground and into the air as he used his wings to propel himself upwards. He kicked his legs out from under him, the quickest way to get to his feet. The one-eyed man with the jagged scar down the side of his face growled as he pulled at Buffy's neck. Buffy struggled to pull his arm free, but he was too strong.

"Let her go," Xander commanded, his eyes glowing with bright white light.

The man just smiled at him, and shook his head. His grip on Buffy's neck tightened, and she gasped, wide-eyed, trying to get air.

Xander roared, his wings snapping out to their full wingspan as his terrifyingly piercing scream tore through the night air.

***

Kendra was worried she'd lost the trail when the inhuman scream reached her ears. Her eyes snapped up as her head turned, automatically gaining a bearing on where the sound had come from. She narrowed her eyes and quickly took off in pursuit. Rarely had she heard such a terribly battle cry. If she had any doubts as to the power of the two, no, three beings she was chasing after, they were washed away with that horrifying roar.

She sprinted through one of the many graveyards she'd already come across, past two blocks and into another. The Peaceful Rewards cemetery. This town sure had a lot of burial places.

She found the battle easily, the sounds of the epic struggle easy to follow. Yet once she arrived, she found herself confused as to what was going on.

These were not vampires. Two of them were human. One, a small teenaged girl, was bleeding from several wounds to her face and body. She clutched one arm protectively, but still lashed out with a powerful kick, striking the second human.

He was much bigger, with a jagged scar down the side of his face and a patch covering one eye. He grunted with the hit, but did not fall. Snarling, he lashed out with a punch, catching the girl across the jaw and sending her flying back.

Kendra raised an eyebrow. The power behind that punch was substantial. Perhaps even more than she could muster. For a moment, she was unsure which of the two she should be rooting for.

Then she heard that terrible roar again, and a huge winged demon flew towards the large man. It was enormous, its size almost impossible to determine in the dark light. At first glance she thought it was at least ten feet tall and nearly three times as wide, but as the two fighters tumbled across the grass, she realized that the shadows were playing tricks on her eyes. The demon's enormous wingspan gave it the illusion of being much bigger than it was.

Which didn't mean it wasn't still very large. Seven, perhaps eight feet tall, with thick, powerful muscles and a solid build. When the two warriors sprang up, the demon swung a powerful fist into the man's face, a hit that reverberated with a deep *thwack* that told her an ordinary man would have been dead in an instant.

Yet the man held his ground, blocking the next strike and kicking out at the demon's inverted knee. The demon cried out in that hideous multi-layered roar as it dropped to one knee. She realized then that it was hurt as well. One of the wings was torn, and it clutched its side as if it had a broken rib, or worse.

She sized them up at once. The man was most likely a local demon hunter, while the girl was some demon herself. Perhaps even a sorceress, with the winged creature her demonic servant. The way the demon moved told her it was protecting the girl. Yes, he was probably her familiar, or at the least her demonic bodyguard.

Part of her thought to step in and help the man, but he seemed to have the situation in hand, and it would be prudent of her to size him up before introducing herself. Just in case.

So she remained hidden in the shadows, and allowed the battle to continue.

***

Buffy grunted as the assassin slammed a heavy boot into her chest, causing her to flip over sideways and crash into a tombstone. She coughed and groaned, spitting up some blood. This assassin seemed even stronger than the last one, and a much better fighter. She was pretty sure he'd broken her arm, and now possibly a few ribs.

Xander was looking not much better, but she heard him roar again and go after the assassin, despite his injuries. She had no time to let herself feel the deep worry over the gash in his wing, or the crunching sound she'd heard when the assassin had hit Xander's side with a double-fisted blow. She wished she had a weapon, because beating this assassin with their bare hands was going to be harder than she wanted to think about.

She got to her feet quickly, just in time to see Xander backhand the man, sending him staggering back. She felt a brief wisp of hope surge through her, but it was quelled when the man surged back, tackling Xander and punching him hard across the face. Xander fell backwards with the man on top of him, thick fingers gripping Xander's neck.

Xander's thick neck bulged as he flexed the muscles there, and he breathed raggedly through the man's grip. His gargoyle physiology was strong enough that he was able to get some air, and he snarled, slamming his fist into the man's face. Buffy took that opportunity to run up to the man, bracing her left foot against the ground before performing a powerful stomping kick at the back of the man's head, leveraged against the ground and with her full Slayer strength behind the hit.

The assassin tumbled off of Xander, clutching the back of his head. He staggered and stumbled, falling forward, but rolling and coming to one knee, facing them. He blinked, and then angrily spit blood into the grass.

"Oh great," Buffy groaned. "I made him mad."

The Tarakan heaved angrily at them and rose to his feet. He looked between them, and then raced forward. Buffy ran forward to meet his charge, but Xander beat her to it. Xander threw a powerful punch at the man's face, but the Tarakan ducked it and connected with a staggering uppercut of his own. Buffy charged in, but a backhanded blow sent her sailing away again.

She blinked away stars as she sat up, trying to gain her bearings. For a moment she couldn't seem to get her body to listen to her. She managed to stumble to her feet, and swayed slightly as she looked over to the fight.

Xander was on the ground, his hands locked around the assassin's neck, even as the assassin's were locked around his. Xander's eyes were bulging and he gasped for air. The Tarakan smiled deviously and held Xander down with one hand, using the other to punch him hard across the face. On the first hit, Xander snarled back at him, eyes white and glowing. On the second he blinked, and on the third the glow faded. The Tarakan hit him again and again, each time his fist echoing with a wet smacking sound. Xander's head lolled to one side.

Buffy screamed at her body to catch up to her mind as she staggered forward. Then she saw Xander's eyes lose their furious glow, and she felt her heart stop.

An instant later she was on top of the Tarakan. She grabbed his head, and threw him bodily away from Xander. The Tarakan growled and sprang back at her, but she caught his face with a crescent kick, causing blood to spurt from his nose. She screamed and pressed the attack, connecting a palm strike to his chin and following up with a spinning backhanded punch. The man spun, staggering and Buffy kicked out the back of his knee. He cried out and dropped to one knee.

The Tarakan was somehow able to twist his body as she dove at him, grabbing her face with one large, meaty hand and shoving her aside. She rolled as she hit the ground and sprang back up at him, leaping into the air with a snapping out-to-in kick that connected with his neck. The assassin grabbed at her leg, holding her in midair. Buffy snarled and lashed out with her other leg, catching him in the face. He continued to hold on, and made to chop down on her knee with his right arm. Buffy quickly wrapped her other leg around his neck and spun mightily, causing him to jerk to one side and release her. She landed on her hands, using them to springboard back at him and double-kick him in the chest.

The Tarakan stumbled backwards and fell, slamming into the ground. Buffy ran up to him and grabbed him by the hair, and threw him head first into the same tombstone she'd been thrown against before. The tombstone cracked and split in half as the assassin slammed into it. Buffy quickly closed the distance between them and arced her foot across his face, stunning him momentarily as the man tried to rise.

Then she reached down and picked up the enormously heavy stone in both hands, raising it high over her head. With a heaving scream, she threw it down on his head as hard as she could.

The stone shattered.

So did his head.

Buffy breathed heavily as she stared down at the remains of the assassin. Her arm ached, but she ignored it. Her side throbbed, but she paid it no mind. She turned her head to see Xander still lying on the grass, wings limp and body unmoving.

"Xander!" she gasped, her voice hoarse from the damage done to her throat. She slid to her knees beside him, and quickly took his large hand in hers. It did not squeeze back, and suddenly that immensely powerful hand seemed not quite so strong.

"Xander?" she pleaded, stroking his forehead lightly. It was bleeding, but not greatly. One of the inhuman protrusions on the top of his forehead seemed cracked and broken. It made her feel like throwing up. She put her hand to the side of his face. "Xander? No, please. Xander!"

She squeezed his hand again, and leaned over him, her face close to his. "Xander? Please, Xander. You have to wake up. You have to be okay." She squeezed her eyes shut, tears dripping onto Xander's neck. "Xander?" she whispered. "You promised. Please. I need you to be here with me. I need you to keep me alive. I need you to help me change it. Please, Xander. Please."

Her whispered pleas aroused no reaction in him. His chest did not move, and his hand remained limp.

"You said you would be with me. It's dark out, Xander. You have to. You promised." She bent her head over him, staring at his face. It was Xander's face, no matter what its outward appearance. "Please, Xander. I need you to protect me." She sniffed and leaned her face close to his. Her lips a hair's breadth from his own. Closing her eyes, she kissed him on the lips, tears in her eyes. She let it linger for a few moments, and then pulled slightly back.

"I only feel safe in your arms," she whispered. Then she lowered her head to the side of his face, pressing her cheek to his. "You're my protector," she said, her lips by his ear.

His chest suddenly rose, rumbling slightly as he drew in a great lungful of air. Buffy drew her head back, staring in hope and amazement. "Xander?" she asked, hopefully.

His eyes blinked open, and he smiled faintly. "Buff?"

She nodded, smiling through her tears.

He smiled back up at her. "I just had the best dream," he whispered, as if confiding a secret to her.

Her eyes shone brightly as a dazzling smile came to her face. She cupped the side of his face, and leaned down towards him. She breathed deeply through her nose as she pressed her lips against his, kissing him with all the emotion that had built up within her. Xander's eyes widened as she kissed him, but after a moment he let them close, pressing his lips back against her. His hand came up to softly hold the back of her head, and Buffy moaned quietly against his lips.

It was another minute before they broke apart, and Buffy stared down at him, dazzling smile still on her face.

"Wow," Xander said, smiling dreamily. "It wasn't a dream after all."

"Are you okay?" she asked.

"I am now," he replied. "The assassin?"

"I tombstoned him."

Xander turned his head to one side where he saw the body of the Tarakan, marble rubble surrounding his head. "Ouch."

Her fingers gently pressed against his cheek to turn his head back to her. "Are you really okay? You weren't breathing or moving or anything."

"Yeah," he said, groaning as he sat up. "I mean, I'm not great, but I'll be okay. Head kind of hurts."

She snorted. "Mine too."

He glanced at her. "Enough that you might regret this tomorrow?"

Buffy looked down for a moment before reaching out to touch the side of his face. "I don't know."

He put his hand on hers, and looked into her eyes. "I hope you don't."

"Me too," she whispered. They both leaned in this time, their lips pressing against each other once more. Buffy's hands gripped his head gently, and she closed her eyes as Xander's arms wrapped around her slim waist. She pressed against him, her petite form against his massive one. She was never so glad that he wore so little. Her hands trailed down his face to his neck and chest, feeling the hard muscles there, and the numerous cuts and bruises.

Her slim hands slid across his midsection, circling her arms around him as she held him close.

Then Xander's eyes went wide, and he pulled back.

"Xander, what-?" she began, and yelped when he sprang to his feet, pushing her away. She fell back onto the grass, just as a hatchet flew past their heads. Xander barely raised his arms in time to block the powerful kick aimed for his head, and he groaned, staggering back.

"Number three, I'm guessing," he muttered.

The slim young woman with dark eyes and flawless brown skin grunted, and Kendra the Vampire Slayer threw a powerful punch at Xander's face. He clumsily batted it aside, his movements slower than usual, and barely in time to keep his head on his shoulders.

"Think maybe we could call a time out until tomorrow?" Xander asked, weakly.

Her response was to attempt to kick him in the gut. He jumped back and out of the way, just as Buffy approached beside him. She stood beside him, fists balled and glared at the newcomer.

"Guess not," Xander muttered. Then the fight began in earnest.
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