Shadow Comfort



He was so much smaller when he slept.  It was easy to forget with that boastful personality, twenty feet tall and almost as wide, that he was actually a very little man.  She was only a few inches shorter, after her latest growth spurt, and he was so skinny.  His ribs were sharply defined ridges in the small nightlight Willow had magicked for her, his shirt pulled taut by his twisted position.

A little hint of belly was showing through, almost lost in the shadows.  She wanted to tickle it.  His skin always felt weird to her, but she loved to touch him.  It wasn’t a sexual thing, she’d tried to explain to the many sidelong glances she got, including from him.  It was just. . . neat.  It wasn’t cool like ice cream was, even the melty kind that dribbled all over your face and hands and made you sticky.  It wasn’t like Mom’s hands had felt, either, when she was laying on that icy metal tray, the room full of antiseptic and the coppery tang of metal.

This was cool like a breeze on a summer day, refreshing and alive—just not warm.

Also, he was really ticklish.  Especially right below the little outie he had.

His body-shyness was cute and very sweet when she wasn’t being annoyed with him.  He hated being shirtless around her, even though for almost a week he had to be.  She’d just glared at him until he muttered rebelliously but no longer objected when she plunked herself down beside him and started reading to him.  The book-thing had been really freaky, but she liked it.  Especially when he took the book out of her hands, small currents jolting her where they touched, and started reading to her.  She remembered in the Magic Box, when he’d read to her and stumbled over the words like he was having a hard time with them.  Big faker.  Okay, little faker, when he was looking all small and helpless and injured.  He read better than she did and his voice was like liquid relief, cool and comforting and whisking her away to a place that was just his voice and the images it created.  Later, they’d talk about the book and when she had to write a paper, he’d proof it for her, even though Willow had already done that.

She still changed his bandages, ignoring how pained he looked when she did.  He’d started out saying that his naked body was not for her to look at, young thing that she was, but that hadn’t been the reason and she’d known that even as she waved his comments away.  It was her seeing him injured that bothered him, and she knew why, too.  He hadn’t meant to tell her about his promise, she didn’t think, but he’d been half asleep and probably didn’t know she’d woken up, blindly groping for him in the dark.

He slept on the floor beside her bed.  She told him that was stupid, the floor was hard and he had a huge gash in his back, but he still did it.  There’d been a loud, angry fight with Giles about it, too, but what finally finished it had been said too low for her to hear.  She really wanted to know what it was, especially since Giles didn’t come around for two days afterwards.  Since then, no one mentioned the pallet between her bed and the far wall.

Sometimes she slid down beside him when he slept, but they didn’t tell anyone that.

She knew they saw how solicitous he was being.  Solicitous.  It was a weird word and she couldn’t pronounce it right, but that was the best way to describe him.  Xander called him a mother hen when he was around to hear, but she, like everyone else, knew Xander didn’t mean it.  They were a little frightened of his new behavior, but after the big fight, no one really spoke of it.  They just watched as she gained a shadow that was nearly her height and not perceivably broader or wider than she was.

But they didn’t know about the other stuff.

Oh, they knew that she took care of him and probably understood that he took care of her, in return, but they didn’t see most of it.  Like when he made her hot chocolate in the middle of the night with the marshmallows she didn’t even like, but always reminded her of Mom after his story.  Or when he climbed into bed with her and rocked her while the tears fell, his killer’s hands tender and gentle as they smoothed back her hair and rubbed along her back.  His voice was so low when he spoke to her, like volume was a physical thing that would shatter her if it pressed too hard.

Maybe it would.  She didn’t really know anymore.  But when she slid into his lap, his legs spreading to make room for her, his arms coming around to hold her, it felt like maybe she wouldn’t shatter at that moment.  It was okay to lean on him, because she was supposed to, after all.  That promise wasn’t meant just for him, it was meant for her, too.  Because she knew, at the end, what happened.  Willow had told her everything, her voice muffled and haunted, green eyes awash with tears, never stopping for too long between phrases like she had to make sure she told everything. 

So she knew why Buffy had made him promise.  It was almost annoying, how far she took that big sister thing, but when the defensive reaction fled, there was gratitude in its wake.  No matter how infuriating Buffy had been, it hadn’t been the world she was trying to save.  And the rest of them didn’t really understand that, even now when they looked at blue eyes that never saw anything but a coltish body and long brown hair.

He loved playing with it.  Once he told her that it reminded him of past lovers, but she’d pressured that out of him.  He’d brush it until it was cracking with static electricity and then put it in all kinds of weird styles.  Whenever she could, she’d turn to watch his hands work with quick, deft efficiency, parting through the brown ocean of her hair with the slick ease of a dolphin.  She never asked where he learned to do that, but she didn’t think it was that crazy chick she vaguely remembered.  This seemed older.  More human.

Whenever she was upset, he’d start playing with her hair.  Nothing like the complicated ’do’s he’d create when they were both being silly, just toying with the locks until her scalp felt tingly from pleasure and her eyes started to droop.  Nothing knocked her out of her tears faster than his hands on her head.

She remembered when he’d been so hesitant to touch her, like he wasn’t allowed the privilege.  Or maybe it was just that he wasn’t sure his touch would be welcome.  Like he was unsure how she’d react to it.  Whatever it was, it was gone now.  His hands were so talented.  They didn’t have any calluses, the way most of the hands she touched did.  They were surprisingly soft, too, much softer than her Dad’s, even with his desk-job.  His fingers were long, slightly wider at the base, tipped with stubby nails that she painted all kinds of colors.  They didn’t look that big when she held them in her own, but as soon as they closed around her they felt huge.  His one hand covered her from mid-hip to the bottom of her ribs without even spreading his fingers, firm and solid.

He didn’t like it when she touched him, still, but he didn’t object to it anymore.  Let her own hands with their ungainly, bony fingers run wherever they wanted to.  There were rough spots on his skin every once in a while, not outright scars, but still acting as a physical map of his life.  Lots of them on his face, forearms, and below his knees.  There was a long one on his chest that he wouldn’t tell her about, but the rest he would give snatches of stories.  The scar on his eyebrow came from the Slayer in China, her consecrated sword leaving a lasting impression.  He was so proud of that scar.  She knew she shouldn’t be, but she kind of was, too.  She didn’t like to think about that very much, though.

His belly was smooth, except for the coarse trail of hair that she loved to tickle.  She never traveled down it very far, since this wasn’t what Anya seemed to think it was and Xander routinely barked out threats because of.  God, she was only fifteen, what kind of a perv did they think she was?  But she knew it wasn’t her they were worried about, which only proved to her how stupid they could be sometimes.  Because guard-dogs didn’t do that kind of thing, even if they wanted to, which she didn’t think this one did.  It was too. . . sibling-y for that, and that was good.

The little patch of skin below his belly-button called to her, so she reached out and ran her forefinger across it, feeling the tiny catch where he’d been stabbed through the gut.  He muttered in his sleep, one hand reaching out to circle her wrist.  “Hey.  Supposed to be asleep.”

“Not tired.”

“C’mere.”  He held up his arm, pushing his left shoulder back so there’d be room for her to fit next to him.

“Come up here?  I’m comfy.  Besides, it’s cold down there.”

“We’re in southern California, ’bit.  It’s never cold.”  But he clambered up and into her bed, sliding underneath the covers with her so that their legs tangled together.  There was a scar around his left calf, almost a perfect circle, that came from some kind of accident involving a boat when he was ten, and she buffed her toes against it, over and over.

“What’s got my girl all worried, hm?”  His voice was almost falsetto with quiet, losing the rumble that gave him such a bad-ass edge.  His hands were skimming over her, up and down her arms, over her back and chest.  He never seemed to care that he was basically fondling her, and she never thought of it that way.  “Should be asleep, now.”

“It’s almost nine am.”

“Well, then, should let me sleep, bein’ how I’m nocturnal an’ all.”  Except that wasn’t really true, anymore.  His days were centered around her, awake when she was, sleeping only when he was certain she was lost in slumber.  She’d taken to going to bed early, because he was still injured, even if he tended to ignore that little fact.

“Can I go out today?”

“Can’t give you permission for that, sweet.  Ask Red or Tara, they’ll take you wherever you want to go.”

“I want to go to the zoo, if that’s okay,” she continued as if she hadn’t heard, because she was asking for permission and he did have to give it before she’d step foot out of the house.  “They’ve got a new exhibit of all kinds of tigers, even some white ones.”

“Sure, luv.  You can do that.”

Both of them pretended not to hear the ache in his voice.  Not because he wouldn’t see the powerful, graceful cats with their black-and-white lines that she always pictured him as, but because she would be gone.  Where he couldn’t follow.

“Can I have waffles for breakfast?”

His lips were whisper soft on her skin, tiny pecks spreading over her ear and her cheek and her hair because neither of them knew how to do anything but this.  It worked for them, however it did, and they were happy like this.  The one time his lips had met hers, he’d tasted of ashes and grave-dust.

“Sure, luv.”

She ate sitting in his lap, his face pressed into her neck and shoulder.  His hands were wound in her hair and around her waist while her free hand absently petted his belly.  It was comfy like that.