"Maybe I should get a cape," he joked.
But it wasn't a joke to Dawn, because Xander really kind of was her hero. Sure, Buffy was her protector and savior, her origin, her anything and almost everything, but all girls idolized their sisters, didn't they? So that didn't really count.
Xander was different. He wasn't so much about the fighting or providing, of course; he helped in his own way. He was thoughtful, loyal to a fault, and braver than anyone in his position could be expected to act. More importantly, he always treated her like she mattered. When everyone else dismissed her or took her for granted, Xander was there with his look of reassurance, six-pack of Red Bull, and absolute readiness to stay up all night helping her research while the others did their teaching and slaying and spell-casting.
This was the first time she'd really noticed it. Maybe she'd been too wrapped up in her own dumb jealousy over the potentials, or too stressed over the looming threat of the latest apocalypse. But now she glanced back down the strands of time to where every thread seemed to converge, and in the end, for nearly every moment that mattered, it had always been Xander who was there for her, who understood when no one else seemed to. When Buffy tore their world apart for answers, Xander would put it back together, one nail at a time.
In the past she had never understood the appeal of love, having seen firsthand what it was capable of as it wreaked havoc on just about everyone in her life—Mom, Buffy, Giles, Anya, Willow, Spike—but she felt like her heart was beating in her skull and all her insides were made of burnt marshmallows and fuzzy baby chickens and even though she was still kind of crying she was really, really happy to be alive. And god, she just wanted to spend every day of her life feeling like that, like she could explode with good feelings.
Through some miracle she managed to say, in a steady voice, "Cape is good."
They were both smiling. His wasn't exactly a happy smile, but it was a lot like that comforting one he always gave her, the one that said Yeah, I get it. Anyway, it was better than those passive-aggressive smirks he leveled at Andrew, or all the frowning he did otherwise. She liked it when he smiled. He was funny and nice and good, and he deserved to smile a lot more. Maybe once this was all over she'd tell him that, and in a way that left no room for uncertainty as to what she really meant. Maybe she'd pluck up the courage to speak her mind and do it with all the right words.
She was jolted back to the present as the smile seemed, for just a second, to reach his eyes. "Yeah," he said softly before making his exit, leaving her with all those musty books and a strange, overwhelming silence.
So maybe she'd say it. Or maybe she wouldn't, since he was still in love with Anya and they could all die any day now and Dawn was just sixteen-but-not-really. She reached up to touch the spot on her forehead where he'd kissed her, the skin beneath her fingertips tingling warmly.
You're extraordinary, he'd said. With a bittersweet sensation stirring in the pit of her stomach, she tucked that memory away to revisit when things made more sense and she was less of a child and the world didn't have such an imminent expiration date.
She wasn't the chosen one and she would never be in the spotlight. But he made her feel like she didn't have to be, and that was better than some stupid destiny anyway.