TITLE: Emulating Atlas 1/1

AUTHOR: tanith

RATING: G - The tamest of the tame.

SUMMARY: A promise is a promise.

ARCHIVE: It's all yours, just let me know.

FEEDBACK: nods enthusiastically Yeppers. [email protected]

SPOILERS: The Gift, I guess. But not really.

DISCLAIMER: Mine in my most wildest fantasies. Which, as many people keep reminding me, aren't real. I'm supposed to work on staying "grounded" so, uh, I guess they're Joss'.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Maybe Buffy stayed dead. Maybe she didn't. Your call. (Don't you just love interactive fic? g)


He is always there.

The children come to recognize the signs: a glint of pale hair in the moonlight, a whiff of cigarette smoke, the swish of leather as their silent watcher turns to leave. But he never truly leaves.

The children have all known the tale since they were young. It is the story their parents whispered to them at bedtime, as sheets were tucked in and pillows fluffed. The story of their Protector, the one sworn to watch over them, always. And to the children, he is like Santa Claus, like the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, all rolled into one. Only, with a child's keen eye, they can sense that he is different; they can see that their parents, too, still believe. And so they watch the night with calm, curious eyes, waiting. Waiting for the signs.

Some of the lucky ones catch a glimpse of him in their lifetimes. The figure standing alone in the dark, lit only by the faint glow of a cigarette. The strangely familiar presence among a crowd of strangers. The eternal shadow standing outside their windows, keeping all the other shadows away. They see touches of him throughout their lives, and they feel safer because of it. Safer, but also a little sad.

And then there are the few that actually meet him; who, whether through some act of happenstance or fate, stumble into his world and stick there. Most of these are ones he actually has to step in to save, physically. The thirty-four who were almost mugged, the twelve nearly raped, the seventy-eight and counting would-be vamp snacks. These all get, at the very least, an extended hand to help them off the ground. A few more receive a kind word, perhaps a slightly sardonic grin. All have to watch as he turns away and walks alone into the night, turning down offers of money, or a cup of coffee, or a "let's go back to my place."

Fourteen refused to let him go.

These were the particularly curious ones; the ones who, tucked safely in bed at night, would ask their parents for the story behind the story. Why does he protect us? Who is he? *What* is he? And when they didn't get answers, they went in search of them on their own.

What they found were vampires. All around them, right under their noses, always just outside their peripheral vision. And they wondered how they could possibly have failed to see this until now.

Generally, it was around that time that they were attacked. And then he was there.

Thirteen stood back and watched him fight, frozen by the fear of their near deaths and in awe as they watched him move. One got back up off the cement to which she had been thrown, and kicked the vampire that had attacked her hard in the groin. Her Protector gifted her with a sly smile before permanently dispatching the groaning vamp. But he still didn't go back to her place.

Yet she and the other thirteen were persistent. They had found what they'd sought, and they were not going to let him slip away so easily. In days or months or years, depending, they caught up to him again. And when they did, he would tell them. Persistence of that kind was rewarded with truth. Even if it was difficult to take.

Two of them couldn't take it. They ran off into the night, and never saw him again, even though they knew he still watched over them. Two more left and came back again. Seven stayed with him for a time, some fighting by his side, some taking a turn watching over *him* when he came home, as he often did mornings, without that certain swagger in his step. But even those who stood loyally by his side for decades were never allowed to touch him.

Five told him that they loved him. Each time he turned away. Once he hesitated, and when he finally did turn his face, he was rewarded with an all-too familiar kick to the groin.

Three asked him to make it so that they could be with him forever. His refusals were angry, bordering on violent. All three were treated to the rare sight of their Protector's true face. One apologized instantly. Another stormed away, only to come back the next night, an even more vehement apology on his lips. The third, in a surprising change of tactic, did not kick him in the groin, but walked coolly and calmly away. And he convinced himself that his message had reached her.

Two nights later, she was back. And a little more of him died that night as he plunged a stake into her now unbeating heart, his fingers stroking her long blonde locks for the last time. Her hazel eyes cried out to him, accusingly, as she disintegrated into dust.

There were still so many he couldn't save.

Car accidents. Cancer. Natural disasters. AIDS. A self-inflicted slicing of a vein. There were so many things he remained defenseless against. And even when he did have the weapons necessary to defeat his opponents, he couldn't be everywhere at once.

Still. A promise is a promise.

His first charge had lay dying, so many years ago, the victim of yet another undefeatable foe: mortality. She had held his hands in her last moments, and looked up into his eyes.

"You'll take care of my children, won't you?"

"Of course," and he had needed to bite his lip to keep himself from crying, "and all your little grandkiddies, too."

"And the other children?"

He had known exactly who she meant. "Always."

"Good." A look of contentment had passed across her face, and then she was gone.

So he watched over them: the Summerses and the Harrises and the Rosenberg-Maclays. And under his watch, their numbers grew. And grew and grew and grew. Pretty soon, he realized he had lost track of who was a Summers or a Harris or a Rosenberg-Maclay. So to be on the safe side, he took to protecting pretty much everybody. You know, just in case. Because he promised.

And four hundred and twelve more were saved from mugging. And two hundred and forty-eight more were protected against rape. And one thousand and - well, something, as he lost track of that, too - were prevented from becoming vamp snacks.

But there are still so many he can't save. So he continues to come home some mornings without that certain swagger in his step. And he never allows anyone close enough to kick him in the groin anymore, or close at all. That's not why he's here.

He made a promise. To a long-dead girl, and to her sister, dead almost as long. And he'll keep it. Til the end of the world.