Her Own Angel

Youth's struggle for innocence despite life's cruelty. – Linderman

Sitting on the living room floor, a young girl was surrounded by large shopping bags and rolls of brightly colored paper. Sighing into the empty house, Claire Butler flicked through the TV channels, looking for something to help get her into the Christmas spirit. There were special Christmas episodes of sitcoms on every other channel, and Lifetime was showing some holiday tearjerker, but nothing seemed right. In fact, the plastic-y snow and strategically placed mistletoe all felt… fake.

Pausing on an old black and white movie, the blonde thought about her parents and how they always proclaimed that this was one of their favorite movies. She'd never seen what was so great about It's a Wonderful Life, but she decided to watch the movie anyway. Unlike the overly cheery sitcoms, it felt real for some reason. Watching the snow fall into James Stewart's hair as he stood on a bridge asking God for help, Claire thought about the last year and a half of her life.

Her family had moved to Costa Verde almost a year ago, and it still didn't feel like home. Yes she was safe. And yes she had a cute boyfriend who understood her. It had taken her father a while to accept that she was responsible enough to date someone. It had taken even longer for the man to come to terms with West as her chosen suitor. Eventually though, he'd come to realize that she would do what she wanted no matter what and so he had given in.

But in the end… she still wasn't happy.

Grabbing one of the larger shopping bags and pulling it towards her, she watched as Clarence the angel jumped off of the bridge to save George Bailey from killing himself. Pulling a wooly sweater from the depths of the bag and scribbling "Dad" across the back of the receipt, Claire set the slip of paper aside before folding the dark green material with care.

The quintessential "daddy's girl", from the day she'd first been placed in the man's arms, she'd had to come to terms with a lot of things concerning her father in the past year. They'd left Texas and gone into hiding. She'd almost had her memory erased. And among other things, Claire had lost her best friend. Her only friend.

All because of her father and her 'gift'.

Spreading a few sheets of red tissue paper over the bottom of the gift box, the blond knew that her dad had done everything he had to protect her. But that didn't make losing everything that she was any easier.

The thing that bothered her the most wasn't the loss of the image of her father as the epitome of what it meant to be a man. No, the thing that had cut Claire the deepest was the loss of her best friend, Zach. With him gone, there had been no one she could truly be herself around until she'd met West. And because of that, he would always hold a very special place in her heart.

They hadn't really been friends all that long, but he'd accepted her in a way that her father could not. While she knew deep down that no matter what she did, her dad would still be there for her, the same couldn't be said for Zach. He chose to be there for her. And could just as easily have left her.

In her rush to flee Odessa with the Haitian, Claire hadn't been allowed to say goodbye. And after everything had calmed down and she'd been safely in hiding for over a month, she'd been forbidden to contact anyone from her old life. Especially Zach. At the time, it had killed her, but as the months passed, she'd learned to push him to the back of her mind.

While she had trained herself to miss him less and less, the fact that she hadn't been allowed to say goodbye, or thank you, or… anything, had left a would in her heart. And that wound refused to heal.

Placing the box top over the sweater and red tissue paper, Claire eyed the rolls of brightly colored wrapping paper sadly. Reaching for a role with a pattern of glittery Christmas lights on it, the teenager unrolled some of the wrapping and cut off just enough to cover the gift. Setting the box on the colorful sheet she reached for the tape dispenser and pulled off a small piece just as the doorbell rang out through the empty house.

Cursing softly, Claire disentangled herself from rolls of ribbon and shopping bags to push herself off of the living room floor. Making her way to the front door, the cheerleader crumpled up the piece of tape as she passed her family's twinkling Christmas tree.

Looking through the tiny peephole before opening the door, Claire's face relaxed into a content smile as a distorted version of her boyfriend checking his breath appeared on the other side of the door. Her parents had gone out Christmas shopping, and they'd drug a reluctant Lyle along with them. The only other soul left in the house was Mr. Muggles, and he'd been left with the explicit instruction to 'bite West where it hurts if he tries anything with our little Claire Bear."

It had taken hours of begging and pleading for her parents to leave her home alone with her boyfriend. But her father had finally caved after she agreed to stay on the ground floor of the house and six inches apart at all times.

Opening the door, the petite girl pulled the shopping bags from West's hands as he bent down to kiss her on the cheek. The moment his lips brushed against her skin, a shrill bark echoed through the halls. The second the yapping dog began to jump around his legs, the teenager jumped back and threw his arms in the air in mock surrender. "Ok. Ok. I get it!"

"Bad Mr. Muggles!" Gently ushering the feisty dog back towards the living room with her foot, Claire wrinkled her nose in silent apology at the boy who was now wearing a bemused expression.

"I've got everything in the living room." Apology still tinting her smile, Claire turned, assuming West would follow her. By the sound of the footsteps, she knew he had. And for that, she was thankful. Though she was happy to see him, the cheerleader didn't exactly feel like looking him in the eye right now.

As his hands slipped around her wais from behind, the blonde pulled away, using the department store bags she was still holding as an excuse.

From the way his eyes searched her face, Claire knew that her smooth move hadn't really been all that smooth after all. But thankfully he didn't saying anything, choosing to turn to the television instead. The black and white movie flickering over the screen showed a soaked George Bailey wishing he'd never been born.

"It's a Wonderful Life?" Looking down at Mr. Muggles guarding the couch, West chose to sit on the floor instead. "I've never really gotten what's supposed to be so great about this movie." Picking up one of the sparkling bows, the boy stuck it to the front of his shirt as Claire sat down next to him. "My parents love it though." Waggling his heavy eyebrows at the bow and then his girlfriend, the lanky boy attempted to get the blonde to smile.

"Yeah, same here." Ignoring West's flirtatious face, the girl played with the bow sticking to her boyfriend's shirt. Smiling sadly, Claire turned back to the sweater she'd been wrapping before.

Looking from the television screen to the girl who was pulling a piece of tape off of the dispenser, he knew that something was wrong. From the moment Claire had opened the door he'd been able to tell. He had learned a lot about the cheerleader in the past year, and the thing that he loved the most was that she wore her heart on her sleeve. Though she tried, Claire was never able to hide her emotions.

Silently reaching out West ran his hand over the soft strands of his girlfriend's hair. Twisting his fingers through the silky curls, he waited for her to turn from the package she was wrapping to him.

After a few moments of watching her slender hands fold over a messy edge of the paper so that it was straight, he let his hand drop. She had tried to hide her feelings on a few occasions, but it had never taken him very long to drag the truth out of her.

Placing both of his large hands over Claire's own, he stopped her from taping down the newly straight edge. When the blond refused to look up at him, he moved his hands around so that one of his covered both of hers.

Using his long fingers to gently turn Claire's face towards his, West searched her clear eyes for some sign of what was bothering her. Softening his tone, the boy leaned forward slightly, hoping she could tell that he was worried. "Claire, what's wrong?"

Looking at her boyfriend's face, she could see the sincerity that rested behind the forced emotions he was putting on for her. Wishing West knew his primary instinct and emotions were enough, she pulled one of her own hands free and placed it on the one covering her cheek.

"Do you ever feel like…" pausing to consider her words, the blonde laid her head back against the couch. "Part of you is missing?"

The moment the question left her lips, Claire pressed her eyes shut, unable to bear the look she knew would mar his sweet features. The soft 'oh' that seemed to ring out louder than anything she'd heard before was confirmation enough.

As good as their relationship was, it was always there. Hints of distrust and sadness. A slight bitterness beyond normal teen angst. A longing for something… lost.

They both tried to ignore it, but they both knew it was there. Between them.

Waiting for him to speak, the movie seemed to fill the house as West's silence became unbearable. Unable to stand it any longer, the cheerleader opened her eyes as she turned to her boyfriend. The mixture of hurt and worry coursing through his eyes sent a wave of guilt cascading down her spine. Sighing deeply she reached out and played with the bow still stuck to the boy's chest.

"I just… miss home. I miss feeling like I belong in the bed I'm sleeping in." It felt odd to say that she missed Odessa. From the moment she'd discovered her powers, she'd felt like a freak. Like an outsider. But now, after a year in Costa Verde, she couldn't help but feel like the small town in Texas would always be her real home. She had tried to set up a new existence in the coast town, but it all felt like a lie.

Closing her eyes against the tears burning at the back of her throat, Claire leaned into the warm embrace that was slowly wrapping around her body. Heartbreaking even more as West rested his cheek against her head, the cheerleader gave into the tears that had been longing for escape.

As the salty liquid slipped over the curves of her cheeks, the girl allowed one of the deepest wounds in her heart to tear open at the seams. "I… I miss my friend Zach." Clinging tightly to West, she prayed he wouldn't pull away at the confession.

"Who's Zach?" His voice, possessively curious, washed over her and reassured her that the boy in her arms wasn't going anywhere.

"He was my… He was the first -"

"Your first…"

The unfinished sentence filled with a mixture of amusement and jealousy caused the blonde to pull away. Taking note of West's raised eyebrows and partially quirked smile, Claire let out a grunt of exasperation before punching her boyfriend in the shoulder. "Not i that /i kind of first, you idiot!"

Laughing slightly as Mr. Muggles stood up on the couch and began growling at West again, Claire wiped away the sheen of tears that had marred her soft features on the cuff of her sweater. Scooting back into her original seat next to the boy, she reached up and patted the dog on the head, causing him to calm down once again. Slightly stuffy from crying, the cheerleader played with a frayed string on her jeans to keep from looking at the dark-haired boy next to her.

In the year they'd known each other, she'd never once mentioned Zach. It wasn't that she felt guilty or thought that West couldn't handle the idea of her having previous relationships. No matter how platonic…

No, the reason she had never told her boyfriend about Zach was because he was hers. All of her memories of the other boy were buried deep within her heart, and she'd guarded them jealously lest they be stolen away. The young man who had taught her to 'embrace her inner freak' would always hold a very special place in her heart. But, it seemed like it was time to let the new special person in her life in on her past.

Concentrating on the fraying material, Claire pictured Zach's face in her mind. It seemed like so long since she'd seen him for the last time. "He… he was the first person that I told about what I can do." The emphasis on the last few words was only made stronger by the congestion that still filled her nose. The emotion behind the confession carried a weight that professed how important this boy was to her in a way that mere words would never be able to.

Watching George Bailey run through a snowy Bedford Falls, if only to keep from looking at West, the cheerleader confessed why Zach was truly so important to her. "He uh, Zach, taught me to accept myself. He told me that I needed to learn how to 'embrace my inner freak'. Like he had."

Smiling at the memory, the blonde didn't realize she'd been lost in thought until her boyfriend's voice broke through the silence. "Sounds like he was a pretty special guy." He didn't sound angry or jealous. Instead, West's voice was filled with acceptance.

"Yeah, he is. But I haven't seen or heard from him since I left my old school." For the first time since she'd pulled out of her boyfriend's arms, she turned and looked into the boy's clear eyes. "I didn't even get to say good bye."

Flicking her eyes back to the movie, she thought about The Haitian and how her father had sent the man after everyone who knew about her power. "For all I know, he doesn't even remember me."

Hearing the beginning of his protests about no one being able to forget her, Claire cut off the young man. "There was this guy. He could erase someone's memories. He got to Zach once before." The stunned 'oh' that came from her side caused Claire's throat to tighten up at an old memory of realizing Zach no longer remembered their friendship. It was like she'd lost her whole world despite the fact that they'd only been friends for a short time.

Looking back to West with a fresh wave of tears flooding her eyes, Claire Bennet confessed the wish that had twisted her heart in knots the moment her father had forbidden her from seeing him again. "I just wish I knew if he's alright."

"Ok, stand up."

"Huh?"

"Stand up." The idea had hit him hard, and though he wasn't sure if he could do it, West knew he had to try. "I want to give you an early present."

Grabbing the petite blonde's hands and pulling her to her feet, the boy led her towards the front door, ignoring her questions about what was going on. Waiting for her to lock the door, West watched his girlfriend twist the metal key in the lock. Watching her wipe away a stray tear, he knew he was doing the right thing.

Standing in the middle of the yard, the lanky boy stretched out his long arms for the girl. Silently asking Claire to fly with him, he couldn't help but laugh at the look of skepticism on his girlfriends face. Spreading his arms a little bit wider, he tried to look reassuring. "Trust me."

Standing in the warm night air, West watched as his girlfriend's face took on an expression of resignation. Splitting his face into the most boyishly charming smile he could manage, the boy spread his arms even wider as Claire walked towards him.

Wrapping long arms around the cheerleader's slender waist, the boy bent forward so that he could scoop up her tiny body. With her hands secured tightly behind his neck, West bent his knees slightly before propelling them both into the night sky. As the warm air rushed over them, West kissed his girlfriend softly on the cheek before heading east into the night.

Soaring through the sky, the boy used the excuse of the rushing wind as a reason to ignore her protestations about being home before her parents got back from shopping. Over the years he'd become a very fast flier, but the flight to Odessa would still take quite a while. And that wasn't including the time they spent there and the trip home. Mr. Butler wouldn't be happy about his daughter touching down on the front lawn tomorrow afternoon.

But, it would be worth it.

Flying over all of the houses decked out in Christmas lights, animated reindeer, and an array of other decorations he couldn't help but be glad that they lived in a part of the world that was almost always warm. Or at least not freezing. Snow would have made the trip impossible.

Pulling her face away from his neck, Claire looked down at the houses below. Blinking back the tears that were the result of the rushing wind, the girl couldn't help but notice the change in the houses and trees that were passing by. They'd flown far from home before but never this far. Desperate to know where they were, the blonde tugged at her boyfriend's neck so she could yell into his ear. "Where are we?"

The response that met her ears was a breathless 'trust me,' and though it seemed like they had been flying forever and were very far from Costa Verde, she couldn't help but settle back onto his shoulder for the rest of the flight.

What seemed like hours later, Claire's head jerked up as she felt West crash into the ground. Normally his landings were smoother, but after hours of flying, she could hardly blame him.

"We're in…"

"Odessa."

"But… But how? Why?" Standing on the concrete expanse of her old high school's common area, the cheerleader looked around amazed and… slightly suspicious.

"I found an old year book in your room one time. I found out you real name… I googled you."

As sweet as it was that her boyfriend had taken her to Odessa, she couldn't help but feel slightly violated. If he knew about Odessa, then he knew about everything. Jackie. Homecoming. Everything.

"I thought you could go see Zach. You know, make sure he's ok."

From the anxious tone in his voice, she could tell that he'd only meant to make her happy. As much trouble as him knowing about her past could cause, he'd only meant well. And that was what touched her the most.

The beginnings of anger subsided as her boyfriend mentioned the real reason behind their visit. Zach. This was what she wanted, but she couldn't help the feeling of sadness that suddenly came over her. "He can't see me, West. My dad would kill me if he found out. And anyway, I've probably been erased from his memory."

Squeezing back a few helpless tears, Claire felt West's palm on her cheek as she slowly opened her eyes. Looking at her boyfriend, she could tell that he was sincere. "That doesn't mean that you can't see him. Come on."

He was right. She could see him so long as he didn't see her. Climbing into his outstretched arms for the second time that night, Claire told her boyfriend Zach's address before pointing him in the right direction.

A few minutes later they were both perched in a tree covered in Christmas lights that stood outside of Zach's bedroom window. Carefully hidden in shadow and branches, the couple watched as a young man worked away at his computer.

With his back to them, he bobbed along to something or other coming from his headphones, as a short piece of animation danced across the glowing screen. When the tiny character stopped moving, he pressed a few keys and played it again. But this time the video had a slightly different ending.

"His hair is blue. It wasn't blue before." Taking in as much of the scene as she possibly could, Claire's Bennet's breath hitched involuntarily as a tiny picture pinned to his bulletin board caught her attention.

Glistening in the colorful lights of the tree, her eyes refused to blink. Refused to look away lest she look back and discover that it was just a trick of her imagination. Staring at the tiny square, she felt as if she should cry, but after everything that had led up to this moment, she just couldn't. Tears would have only cheapened the moment.

The picture showed her in a red and white cheerleading uniform with one arm thrust joyously in the air. Beaming at the camera she looked like the epitome of school spirit and everything that was wonderful about being a teenager. Staring at the memory of her former life, she finally knew that he remembered. She didn't know what or how much, but it was something.

Watching her best friend work away at his movie, she felt her heart lighten. Zach was alive. He was ok. And he remembered her. Deep down, she knew that this was probably the last time she'd ever see him. But, it was enough. Now that she knew he was ok, she could move on with her life.

Silently saying goodbye to her best friend one last time, she looked over to West who had been watching her the entire time. Despite the fact that she'd spoken, he'd remained quite, and Claire was thankful for that. Leaning across the tree branch, she kissed him softly on the cheek. "Thank you."

Pulling away, the cheerleader looked at her boyfriend's face. Bathed in a wash of multi-colored Christmas lights, she couldn't help but think of him as her own angel. Her own Clarence. Not that she'd ever thought about jumping into a freezing river like George Bailey, but… it felt the same.

Sitting in a tree in Odessa, Claire realized how very special she was. And not because of her ability. For once, something else came to mind along with the word special.

Despite everything that had happened in the past year, she had a family that loved her and a father that would go to the ends of the earth to keep her safe. She was doing well in school and had made the cheerleading team.

And she also had West. A boy who, like her father, would go to the ends of the earth for her.

Reaching out and taking her boyfriend's hand, Claire Butler could not have been happier. "I… think we should go home now."

From the look on her boyfriend's face, she could tell that her phrasing hadn't been lost on him.

"Home?"

"Yeah, West, home." Looking back to Zach, Claire knew that he would always be an important part of her. But she also knew that it was time to go home to her life. And to the person she was becoming because of him and because of the boy next to her.

I Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

Let your heart be light.

From now on, our troubles will be out of sight.

Squeeka Cuomo's Notes

- For dragonsinger. Merry Christmas and happy Heroes Secret Santa! I hope that this fic adds a little extra cheer to your Christmas. I had great fun writing this and I hope that you enjoy it. :)

- The opening quote from Linderman was in the episode ".07"

- The wonderful "embrace your inner freak" was taken from the episode "Homecoming".

- The end song lyrics are from the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and as this fic was written for a Secret Santa exchange, they were part of my assignment.

- Batman, as always, you are amazing. Your kind words and encouragement are fantastic and I consider myself lucky to have such a great beta and such a wonderful friend.