Freezing Snow, Thawing Hearts

'I have to find her.'

That was the only thought that was going through Xander's head at the moment as he made his way through the raging blizzard, ignoring the fact he was slowly losing the feeling in his extremities. He could barely see past his nose the visibility was so poor, but still he continued on his way, his dogged determination and his need to locate her forcing his body to work beyond it's limit.

Five days ago, Buffy had gone off to track and slay a pack of snow demons that had been terrorising the local villages. She had been sent by Giles to see how the Russian branch was doing, being part of the Oversight committee for the New Watchers Council, and had been in the room when another reported attack had come in.

Once she'd become apprised with the situation, she had decided to deal with it herself, given that she'd slayed a few whilst in Canada, and being that she was technically in command of whichever area she was in, not to mention that she was the one and only Buffy Summers, no one saw the point in disagreeing with her.

Xander had briefly considered fighting her on it, but that would have meant actually talking to her, and he had found that he couldn't bring himself to muster the energy to do so. Most of his energy had been spent ensuring he didn't just stand and stare stupidly at her.

He did find the energy to show interest in going with her, but had been convinced by the others to stay behind before he could build up a head of steam. His desire to accompany her had been doused when Buffy had stated that she didn't need his or anybody's help, that she would be able to move more quickly alone, and that she should be back the following night.

The comment about not needing his help had hurt more than he'd let on, despite knowing that she hadn't meant it the way he took it, and Xander had spent most of that first night losing himself in the bottom of a bottle of whiskey.

By the time he was sober again, she was already a day late.

When one day quickly turned into two, Xander had just about enough of waiting and, after informing Giles of the situation, went off in search of her. The others had wanted to join him, but he'd pulled rank and ordered them to stay behind, reasoning that they still didn't know whether the snow demons were a danger or not and that they may well be called out to assist another village.

They had all seen the look in his eye as he'd talked to them before, a look they had managed to head off at the pass before Buffy had left, and knew that trying to argue the point would be useless, and in some cases painful, so they had reluctantly acquiesced.

The blizzard that he was currently trying to navigate through had appeared from nowhere sometime last night, and had quickly made an already difficult task that much harder. Where before he had been able to use his tracking skills to follow her trail, he was now doing little more than blindly moving forwards, following his gut instinct that he was indeed drawing closer to her location, and driven by that one single thought.

'I have to find her.'

Buffy was almost as cold as the surrounding snow when he'd found her two hours later, completely by chance, almost two days after he'd left in search of her. She was a disturbing shade of blue and eerily still, but by some small miracle she was still alive, but only barely. It was only as he had seen her eyes flutter open for a moment that he'd realised he hadn't actually expected to bring her back alive, just to bring her back. He'd been glad that he hadn't had that revelation before, as he'd have had something in his stomach to lose.

The blizzard was still raging around them, and he knew that he wasn't far from succumbing to its influence himself, so he had quickly come to the realisation that he had little to no chance of carrying her back to the village right now, especially as he still didn't have the faintest idea where they currently were. That meant that their only chance of survival was for him to think of a way for them to weather the storm.

Having lost his pack during his trek through the wilderness, which had included his collapsible tent, he'd had to fabricate a shelter for the two of them with what he had on him, which wasn't a lot. Using his axe and what little physical reserves he had left to dig a hole in the snow deep enough for the two of them to lie in, he had then half carried half dragged Buffy inside and then covered the entrance with his jacket.

Pulling her tight against him in the hope that their shared body heat would be enough to sustain them, he began to feel the darkness creeping in on him and, as exhausted as he was, he didn't have the energy to fight it and slipped into unconsciousness.

Buffy opened her eyes, but the view didn't change all that much from when they were closed. She could hear the storm raging all around her, but was surprised to be unable to feel its effects as she had done before. It was then that she realised that she was warmer than before, although she couldn't have gotten much colder without turning to ice, and that there was someone, or something, huddled close behind her.

She had started to become worried by how unworried she felt by the presence at her back, when the unmistakable scent of Xander filled her nostrils.

'He found me.'

The thought had surprised her, as she knew that she was nowhere near where she had said she'd be tracking the demon pack, but it also triggered a surge of warmth through her system.

'He found me.'

Once again her Xander-shaped-friend had pulled her from the brink of death, despite her earlier refusal of his assistance, at great risk to himself. She didn't know why she did it to him time and time again, belittling or downright ignoring his abilities, only for him to prove once again just how capable he actually was, but she vowed never to do it again. She ignored the little voice at the back of her mind stating it wasn't the first time she had made such a vow, and that she had broken it each time.

When Giles had called her and requested she go to Russia to check on Xander and his local Slayers, she'd been more than a little surprised, but also a little hopeful. Xander had pretty much ostracised himself from the group after they'd left Sunnydale, first taking the assignment in Africa and then two years later Russia, searching for newly activated Slayers and others that wanted to help push back the forces of darkness.

Both regions had nothing but glowing praise for the former carpenter, his grit and determination garnering respect and loyalty unrivalled by anyone else in the New Council. Even those from the old guard Watchers Council that had survived the First's attacks had trouble finding fault concerning his way of doing things, especially when faced with unequivocal evidence of his success.

The first thing he'd ensured at each location was that the Slayer/Watcher partnership was just that, a partnership, with both having an equal voice in what should be done and both having an equal part to play when it came to doing it. Because of that, those under his leadership were among the most successful the reformed Council had, a fact that Giles used quite often against those that would like to keep the Council the way it was before.

It was rare for either area to request outside assistance, as they were simply self sufficient enough to tackle most problems, and therefore were rarely looked in on. The fact that she had been asked to go now was strange, as even when requests for assistance came in, Giles ensured to never send anyone from Sunnydale.

While Buffy had become the self appointed trouble-shooter for the New Council, and was normally the one sent to each branch to check that everything was running as it should, she'd never been to either branch whilst Xander was the head, as either Robin Wood or Andrew would go instead. She would have complained had she not known exactly why Xander didn't want her or the others around, but instead she had simply acknowledged it with a nod and gone home to devour a quart of cookie dough ice cream and watch Steel Magnolias for the gazillionth time.

While no one had called him on it, they all believed that Giles and Xander had discussed his decision to distance himself from her and the others, and knew that to send one of them would only be adding fuel to the fire. She doubted Xander told the older man the true reason behind his self-imposed exile, as Giles still talked to her. For that she was glad.

When she'd arrived in St. Petersburg, she'd been unsurprised but still disappointed to find that it wasn't Xander that greeted her but his senior team, a Slayer by the name of Amanda Trucheh and her Watcher Mikhail Knorston. Both had been pleasant and respectful, but didn't treat her with the reverence that she had grown used to from many of the other Slayer/Watcher teams she met, something else she was glad for.

Stories of Buffy and the other Scoobies had spread like wildfire throughout the New Council, and soon the majority of the Slayers and Watchers had seen them all as almost perfect examples of how to fight the darkness. At times it worked to their advantage, as it ensured that they got things done that needed to be done, but on the whole it was extremely frustrating. It was a refreshing change to be seen as just another person instead of some saviour, and that again was something they had Xander to thank for.

Xander had ensured that the people that worked for him, although he preferred to say they worked with him, didn't hold anyone in reverence, not even the Almighty Himself. That wasn't to say he was anti-religion, as Xander had been using holy icons for years and knew the benefits, but he had taught them all never to follow anyone or anything blindly simply because of who, or what, they were.

That was a lesson she had never been able to instil in people herself, mainly because she sometimes did the same thing and it always sounded like a double standard when she tried. It was that failing that had prompted Xander's self-imposed exile from the people he'd considered family for a third of his life.

Her weakened state became noticeable once more, and unable to find the strength to fight it, found herself losing consciousness again, snuggling into Xander a little more on instinct. One final thought caused a small smile to appear on her face.

'He found me.'

When Xander woke up, he found himself thanking his lucky stars he'd gotten used to the cold climate, although that was a small comfort given their current situation. He did feel warmer than he had before he'd constructed the shelter, and he also felt more like himself, but he was a long way from feeling warm.

Buffy also felt warmer than she had when he found her, and her skin tone was looking more human, but he knew that with the exposure she'd had there was a possibility that she might not come out of this intact, even with her Slayer enhanced healing.

He'd been able to maintain his aloofness during her visit, being civil but detached whenever in her presence, and if she hadn't come into problems when she went all Lone Wolf on him, he doubted that he'd have spent any alone time with her at all.

He'd been less than impressed when he'd been informed by Giles that it was Buffy that would be checking on his branches progress, but given that Giles was the boss and it was in fact part of Buffy's job to do just that, he'd little or no ground to stand on in order to fight it so he didn't bother.

Xander had to admit that Giles had been more than fair to him the last few years, ensuring that none of the founding gang ever came to see him, and even though Xander knew the older man wanted to, he had never asked for the real reason why he'd been avoiding them.

He was glad of that, because he knew that Giles would have felt the need to choose sides, and he didn't want to put him into such a position. Guiltily, he didn't want to know whether Giles would side against him.

It had all started just after they'd turned Sunnydale into the largest pothole in the world. He and Buffy had spent more and more time together in those following days and weeks, and neither one had been all that surprised when they went from friends to lovers.

By mutual agreement they decided to keep their new relationship between the two of them, as they needed time to come to terms with it themselves before letting the others in on it as well.

During those months spent travelling through America, searching for the newly called Slayers one day whilst acting like tourists the next, Xander and Buffy had shared everything and he had begun to think that they might actually have a future together when it happened.

After they had settled in Cleveland to begin rebuilding the Council, Buffy had received news that Spike had somehow been resurrected and was in LA with Angel. She had immediately booked herself on the first available flight out. She hadn't spoken to him about it, she'd just done it and then when it was time for her to leave, she had barely spared him a glance, as though he didn't even register as a blip on her personal RADAR.

He didn't know how long she'd spent in LA, it could have been weeks or it could have been only a few hours for all he cared, as the moment she'd stepped foot on the plane he'd gone to Giles and requested, well demanded was more accurate, to be the one to go to Africa and begin searching for Slayers and other contacts they might need in that area of the world.

When it looked like Giles was going to refuse, Xander had coldly stated that it was either Africa or nowhere, as he would leave them right then and there. After being given the nod, Xander quickly packed up what few possessions he'd managed to salvage before the battle with the First and had never looked back.

While at any other time he might have turned into his father and drunk himself into oblivion, he'd used his anger and hurt to fire him up and he'd quickly found Slayers and other contacts, and within six months had a rudimentary network set up. By the time of his second anniversary in Africa, the African branch of the New Watchers Council was fully operational and was seen by many to be a model for the others.

It was only then, when his work was done, that he had allowed himself to break down. He knew that he'd have been a hundred times worse if he'd had to deal with the others, which was the reason he'd asked for Giles to keep them away unless it was for apocalyptic reasons. By the time he began to 'deal' with his emotions, a lot of the anger and hurt had gone, and had been replaced with a hollow feeling at his core. For a while he had tried to fill the void with alcohol, only to stop a little while later when he realised it just didn't work.

While there had still been a place for him in Africa, Giles informing him that he could remain in charge for however long he wished given that without him there wouldn't have been a branch to be in charge of, he had needed to keep his mind preoccupied and he wouldn't have had enough to do so that called for a change of scenery once again.

This time he had chosen Russia, not only because it was such a contrast to Africa, but also because it needed a lot of work to get it up to speed. The climate change was, unsurprisingly, a shock to the system, but he had soon gotten used to it and soon started making headway as he had in Africa.

It hadn't taken as long to set up as it had the first time, which was partly due to the efforts of Kennedy, who had been stationed there since her break up with Willow, and partly because the communications network in Russia was simply superior than Africa.

Kennedy had left for America soon after he arrived, and while he hadn't been able to find out the reasons behind it, Xander guessed that she had found it difficult to be around him without feeling guilty for his losing an eye. He had never blamed her for what had happened, as he would have done the same thing for anyone, apart from Spike, but no matter how many times he had tried to tell her that whilst travelling through America with her, she wouldn't or couldn't believe him.

When Buffy had finally arrived, he found that he was actually looking forward to seeing her again despite everything, a feeling he had quashed the moment it surfaced. He had decided when she ran off to see Spike that he wouldn't allow her close enough to hurt him again, and he had fully intended to do just that until being notified she hadn't returned.

A small moan brought him back to the present and he felt Buffy move, the sensation bringing back bittersweet memories of when they laid in similar positions but under far more pleasurable circumstances.

"Buffy?" he said quietly whilst he shook her shoulder gently. "Buffy, can you hear me?"

"No," she replied weakly, although he felt it was more from tiredness than from pain.

Her response made him laugh; if she were with it enough to joke, no matter how badly, things might not be as bad as he first thought.

"I thought you were going to freeze to death," he said after calming down, his concern palpable in his voice.

"I had you to warm me up," she replied softly, still sounding tired.

Her comment angered him, as he felt she had lost all right to say things like that to him. "If you hadn't been so pig-headed you wouldn't have needed warming up," he snapped.

"You're right," she eventually said after several minutes of silence. "I should have let you come with me. I'm sorry."

Her willingness to admit she was wrong, coupled with her apology, erased the anger he had been feeling. "What happened?" he asked softly, unconsciously rubbing her arm.

"I forgot that it's difficult to see white demons in the snow. I'd found the pack, but didn't realise they already knew I was there. While I was attacking, one crept up behind me and struck me on the back of the head. We were near a steep bank so I staggered over to it and allowed myself to drop; I knew had a better chance of surviving the fall than staying where I was. I landed relatively intact, but the blow had left me feeling woozy and sluggish. I had no idea where I was, having completely lost my bearing, so I just started walking in what I hoped was a straight line until I couldn't any more. Then you found me."

The warmth in her last sentence soothed wounds he never thought could be soothed. He had forgotten just how comforted he had felt in her presence, forgotten on purpose so the memory wouldn't plague his dreams. It was another reason he hadn't wanted to see her again, knowing that to be around her for too long might weaken his defences against her.

"I may have found you, but we're still not out of the woods yet."

"I guessed that when I saw all the snow."

Xander smiled again, reminiscing over times when her quirky sense of humour had salved his soul and calmed his nerves. "The blizzard's seemed to have died down, so our best chance to get back is to make a move now. Do you think you'll be able to make it?"

"I will with you here," she responded immediately, her voice already sounding stronger.

Her obvious confidence in him made Xander feel more alive than he had done in years, and his worries about making it back to base withered away into nothingness.

"Okay then, lets go."

The weather was still cold, but now that the blizzard had finished there was a cloudless sky and not a trace of wind, so they felt a lot warmer than they had in some time. The movement caused by trudging through the snow only helped to raise their body temperature, and to get the blood pumping again.

Xander found that, for the first time since he met her, he was able to move more fluidly than Buffy, but didn't revel in it due to the fact it was only possible because she was still recovering from her near death experience. She may not have died, but he knew that had he not found her when he did, he would have found her corpse, so to be moving at all was nigh on miraculous.

He hated to admit it, but having his arm around her to help her walk that little bit faster was starting to fill that void in his body, and dreaded what would happen when they finally made it back to base and she made arrangements. He knew that she would leave as soon as she were healthy enough, which going by how quickly a Slayer could bounce back from anything meant no more than a couple of days, and whether she knew it or not she would be taking away a part of him he thought he'd already lost forever the last time she walked out of his life.

Despite what he was feeling, Xander was adamant that he would not talk about their relationship with Buffy, or make any indication that he wanted to remain in contact beyond her visit. Even as his heart told him that the person walking next to him was the only person, the only being, on the planet that could make him happy, his mind was reminding him of every time she had hurt him, intentionally or not, and to give her the opportunity to do so once more would be foolish in the extreme.

He'd let her in too many times and been burnt to even possibly consider doing it again, but there was still that voice at the back of his mind telling him that maybe this time would be different, that she would respect him for the person that he is and not the person that he was, that she would take his feelings into account.

He so dearly wanted to listen to that voice, and to let Buffy know how much he had missed her and that he wanted her in his life again in any capacity, but couldn't allow himself to do so, as he simply didn't know how many more times he could pick himself up from being knocked over by a Buffy-shaped bulldozer.

Buffy too, was wondering about what would happen once they got back. The little talk they'd had before they began to make their attempt on returning to base had given her a spark of hope that maybe they might be able to get back to at least speaking terms, but since then they hadn't even spoken a word.

She didn't want to bring up what had happened between them, as she knew that whatever civility they currently shared would be lost, but she also wanted to try and build bridges between them, and that meant apologising for the way she had treated him, again.

She could see that Xander was thinking hard about something, as his face was doing that cute little thing it always did when he pondered the meaning of life, and it was at times like this when she would have liked to have kept the 'aspect of a demon' from senior year.

Buffy had always found Xander the hardest to get a read off, and her ability to read minds had been the only time she had known what he'd been thinking when they talked. She had found his initial reaction to her news back then funny, even if she hadn't shown it at the time, but after that he seemed to calm down and then she'd only heard his thoughts when he thought strongly about something.

Of course, her enforced insanity from the constant deluge of thoughts would be annoying, but there were times when she would have paid that price gladly to know what Xander truly felt about things.

The only thing that really mattered at the end of the day was that she missed him and needed him in her life. The problem came with convincing him that she actually meant it, and for him to give her one more chance to prove it.

She figured that her chances were as good as beating Glory with one arm tied behind her back and pumped full of the serum Giles used on her for her Cruciamentum.

Another airport, another situation where his and Buffy's lives parted ways. Xander wondered if he would ever get used to seeing her walk away, and guiltily hoped that this would be the last time he saw her so he wouldn't find out.

It had been a week since they had made it back to base, and three days since their doctors had given Buffy a clean bill of health. Her physical injuries had healed up less than two days after they'd got back, but she'd also caught the flu, which was one of the few things in life that her Slayer enhanced immune was defenceless against.

They'd actually found that it was only Buffy who was still susceptible to influenza, as several other Slayers had contracted it over the last couple of years and had commented that it had only felt like one of those 24 hour viruses people get from time to time.

Willow had got her Wicca department look into it, and found nothing about Buffy that was different metaphysically from other Slayers, and had eventually just put it down to the fact that Buffy had been the only Slayer that had contracted it before she'd been Called and it had left her with a weakness that her Slayer essence hadn't been able to counteract.

It wasn't completely unheard of as one Slayer, a sixteen year old called Cassandra Milligan who was born and bred in Cleveland, had suffered with hay fever before she had been Called and still had to take antihistamines during the summer months.

Xander had only been deemed fit to leave the medical wing yesterday, and ten minutes after he had he'd been informed of Buffy's departure date and time. He'd been pretty out of it the first couple of days when they got back, falling in and out of deliria several times, but he was certain that Buffy had sat beside his bed a couple of times and held his hand, wearing a surgical mask to help prevent him from catching her flu. He hadn't been able to concentrate enough to pick up on what she was saying to him, her hushed tones making that little bit more difficult, but merely the sound of his voice had been enough to make him feel better.

He had almost begun to forget about what had happened between them when he'd been told she was leaving, dredging up old memories and pain. Originally he'd intended to stay away from her and let her just leave without any difficult goodbyes, but Amanda and Mikhail had other plans and arranged it so that he was the one to drive her to the airport.

He'd gone to protest and use his seniority to his advantage, something he didn't do all that often, when Amanda had cheated and used the puppy dog eyes at him, something he had told her never to do.

Puppy dog eyes were his kryptonite, and he'd done whatever he could to ensure none of the girls found out, but Amanda had worked with Dawn for a while before she'd been promoted and transferred here, and she'd been told all of his weaknesses.

He'd managed to get a promise out of her not to use the eyes unless there was an emergency, but her uncanny ability to produce Twinkies whenever it looked like he might go off on one had saved her from more than one verbal beating by his hands. For whatever reason, she had considered this to be an emergency.

What little protestations he was about to make disappeared when she spoke to him. "I don't know what it is between you that's causing you to be like this Boss," she'd said, using the nickname he both loathed and enjoyed equally, "but you won't be able to get past it unless you get some kind of closure."

He knew that she was right, closure was necessary for him to move on with his life, but he was still uncertain as to whether he wanted to move on or not. He couldn't risk letting her into his heart again, but he didn't want to expel what was left of her out either.

The only thing that he was certain of was that he couldn't stay in limbo like he had since she'd left him, as he now knew he was slowly but surely dying inside.

The drive to the airport had been tense, as neither he nor Buffy knew what to say to the other. Both knew that with every passing moment they were running out of time to say anything that might be able to heal the rift between them, but as neither one knew how in the hell to start the conversation, neither one did. The only thing either one had said was when they'd arrived and Xander had helped with her bags, Buffy saying thanks and Xander stating that it wasn't a problem.

Now they were sitting side by side, knowing that any moment the call would be made concerning her flight, both aware that if they left things as they were right now they'd probably never see each other again unless there was a world saving event, and maybe not even then.

#Все пассажиры, ждущие полета JJG579 на Вашингтон, округ Колумбия, пожалуйста пробейтесь к Воротам 107. Я повторяюсь, все пассажиры, ждущие полета JJG579 на Вашингтон, округ Колумбия, пожалуйста пробейтесь к Воротам 107. All passengers waiting for flight JJG579 to Washington DC, please make their way to Gate 107. I repeat, all passengers waiting for flight JJG579 to Washington DC, please make their way to Gate 107.#

Xander and Buffy glanced at each other for a moment before standing in unison, Buffy slinging her travel bag over her shoulder and brushed a lock of hair from her face. Xander found himself taking in her features, as though he were trying to burn her image into his brain, finding that he was in the unusual position of being at a loss for words.

After several long moments of silence, Xander grasped Buffy's upper arms gently and pulled her to him, resting his head atop hers. "Take care of yourself Buff," he whispered softly before releasing her and stepping back, mustering every last ounce of control to maintain his composure.

"Bye Xander," she whispered brokenly in reply, suddenly feeling as though her heart were being squeezed by a vice.

Xander mustered up a smile, a pale comparison to his normal expression, before doing the hardest thing he'd ever done; turning around and walking away.

Buffy felt her heart compress a little more with each step Xander made, until it felt like if he moved even an inch further away her heart would be crushed and she would surely die. When she saw him about to make that fateful step she couldn't bear it any longer.


She came bounding after him, and Xander had barely been able to turn back around before she literally ran into him and knocked him down, grabbing hold of him as though she'd been in the desert for a lifetime and he were a cool drink of clear spring water.

The tears that she had held in check since she'd returned from LA three days after leaving Xander began to fall, and she found that she was both unable and unwilling to stop them. She clutched him tighter, mindful of her enhanced strength even under such emotional distress, hoping to be able to get closer to him. She'd been apart from him for so long, she now wanted to be as close to him as possible.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry…"

He could hear her apologising again and again, saying it as though it were a mantra, and while he wasn't certain just what she was apologising for, he did know that she was sincere. Xander only hesitated for a moment before he wrapped his arms around the sobbing Slayer, murmuring nonsense into her ear in the hope that it would in some way calm her down.

He could feel his shirt getting more and more damp as her tears fell, and found it harder to understand what she was saying even though he knew it hadn't changed, as she became more and more incoherent.

Eventually she quietened, her tears coming less frequent and her hold on him relaxing slightly. He was glad she had finally learnt control over her strength, as he had no doubt at all that had she not he'd have been crushed. When he was certain that she was ready to talk, he gently moved so that they were eye to eye.

"Buffy?" he said tentatively, mindful of her mental state.

"Let me stay Xander, please let me stay. I want to prove to you that I can stay."

The tone in her voice was so wistful, so plaintive, that it broke his heart to hear it. One thing he did know was that he couldn't allow her emotional state to influence him. "I can't ask you to stay," he said softly, holding her in place as the words registered and she tried to move away, "but I won't ask you to leave either."

She looked up at him as his meaning became clear and she smiled at him, her expression so infused with joy that even the sun seemed to be dull in comparison. The warmth that exuded from her began to thaw his heart, something he thought impossible a few days ago, and hoped and prayed that this time it would last.

The End