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Defender of the Night

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Summary: Challenge response- Xander dresses as something inhuman for Halloween

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Cartoons > GargoylesMMcGregorFR1817113,296110119177,56810 Feb 0521 Jul 08Yes
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Part Eleven

It was hopeless. The hallway was overrun. To Buffy, it seemed like every vampire in Sunnydale had converged on that one spot, intent on just one thing: Keeping them from rescuing Angel.

Despair was filling her even as she redoubled her efforts to fight through the swarming mass, but it was a futile attempt. She and Xander weren't so much fighting through the crowd as they were desperately attempting to not be overwhelmed by it. Panic suffused her.

"We're never going to get through in time!"

The inky blackness that had washed over them a few moments earlier was clearly some effect of the ceremony. She didn't know what the ceremony entailed, or even precisely what it was going to do, but she knew that both Angel and the new Slayer were in serious trouble. Dark magic never ended well.

For once she didn't look up when she heard Xander's deafening roar. She was beginning to get used to his awesome battle cry, and part of her flushed with warmth over the ferocity with which he fought. There was no one else she'd rather have by her side in such a situation.

Her leg snapped out and she circle-kicked a vampire across the face, smoothly spinning around to strike the presence she felt coming up behind her. Startled, she barely arrested the movement of her fist in time to avoid punching Xander in the chest. He almost casually tossed a vampire out of the way, and then he was in front of her.

"Xander?" she questioned, confused. "What?" She wasn't sure why he'd suddenly fought so hard to get so close to her. Did he think they needed to stay close? Maybe he was starting to get a sense of the overwhelming odds, and would rather fight back to back.

His large but gentle hand reached out, gripping her wrist. Her brow furrowed and she looked up at him, the chaos of the battle momentarily forgotten.

"Good luck," he said. His voice was low and serious. She felt her heart start beating faster.

"What are you," she began, but his arm scooping her around the waist silenced her. For a moment, she thought he was going to pull her into a kiss. A kiss before wading back into a battle she wasn't sure they could win. It might almost be worth it. His wings were extended in a shield behind him.

Then she felt his muscles tense, and realized how he was holding her. Her eyes went wide.

"Wait! Xander, n-"

With a might roar, Xander threw her over the heads of the vampires, straight down the hallway. Buffy had time to glance back at him incredulously, and noted the soft smile on his face. Then her instincts kicked in, and she twisted into a graceful dive, rolling into a somersault as she landed.

He'd gotten her there. She looked back, saw the huge crowd of vampires begin to press in on him. She licked her lips, unsure what to do. Could she leave him? Could she not?

"Xander!" she cried, hoping he would somehow spring free and be at her side. Instead, he threw a devastating punch at an incoming vampire, and called back at her.

"Go!"

He was going to hold them off, and she was going to do her duty. She was the Slayer. He was Xander, her protector and friend. Her defender. She whispered a soft thank you, tears forming in her eyes as she lost sight of him beneath the throng of vampires.

Then she turned and kicked open the double doors. They swung inward, crashing and sending dust kicking up. She strode into the room with speed and purpose. Save Angel and the Slayer, and then get back out and help Xander.

The room was dark, with a few candles here and there the only illumination. Her eyes adjusted instantly to the light, and she nearly gasped at what she saw.

Two sets of chains hung from the ceiling, but only one was in use. The dark skinned girl she'd thought was the assassin hung limply from the ceiling, unmoving and unbreathing. On one side of her was a thin, pale, nude man with bleached blond hair. His fangs were sunk deep into her neck, and he was drinking greedily. On the other side was Angel.

Angel, shirtless and bloody, but in full game face and drinking deeply of the Slayer's blood. He smacked his lips and breathed a sigh of contentment as he lifted his head.

"God," he grinned. "I forgot how good that could taste. All I need know is a nice orphan or two for dessert."

Buffy's breathing quickened, and she stared in utter disbelief at the scene before her. Neither had noticed her, and Angel quickly went back to drinking from the girl. Buffy nearly jumped in shock as Drusilla seemed to materialize from the shadows, running her fingers through both men's hair and cooing softly.

"We're a family again," she moaned happily.

Then Angel brought his head up, grinned wickedly, and grabbed Drusilla by the throat. She gasped, and he pulled her close, crushing his bloodstained lips against hers. She whined and moaned against him, and after a moment he pushed her violently away.

"Yeah," Angel grinned. "Daddy's home."

It was like a click inside her head. Her dumbfounded astonishment flowed away from her, and she found herself able to speak again.

"Angel?" she asked in disbelief.

Three sets of vampiric eyes turned on her. The blond one growled softly, but went back to his meal. Angel sighed, rolled his eyes, and wiped his mouth with the back of his arm.

"Damn," he sighed. "I was really hoping to make this a much better surprise."

"This can't be you," she whispered.

He snorted. "Wrong, babe. This is me. Finally." He gestured to Drusilla. "See my little angel here?" He reached out to her, and she slipped into his embrace. "She finally set me free, didn't you darling?"

Drusilla sighed and nodded happily at Buffy.

"Your soul..."

He made a high-pitched whistling sound and fluttered his hand to the side. "Gone! So long, sucker!"

"This can't be."

He rolled his eyes. "We already covered that one, sweetheart. Now why don't you come up here and give me a nice big kiss. I wonder if your blood will taste like hers." He gestured to the Slayer, hanging limply in her chains.

"You killed her," Buffy breathed, her throat feeling tight.

"Sure did. But hey, can you blame me? I'm a vampire. Guy's gotta eat."

"We can fix you, Angel. Come with me. Help me."

His laugh was piercing, and it made her heart ache. "Help you? Like you helped me when I was hanging in chains getting tortured? No, you were too busy with your *other* freak."

She took a step back, as if she'd been struck.

"I-I came as soon as I fou-"

"You think I don't know?" Angel said, icily. "I can smell him on you. For days now. What is it, Buffy? Pity? Got a thing for monsters? We make good fixer-uppers, don't we?"

That raised her hackles. "He's not a monster. N-neither are you."

Touching a hand to his chest, he looked at her appreciatively. "I'm touched, really. Except you're wrong. I am a monster."

Drusilla hissed an inward breath. "Ooh. A devilish monster. With eyes like fire. He fights for naughty girls."

At that moment, the booming cry of Xander reached her ears. Buffy's head whipped around to look behind her, and she saw Xander for the briefest of moments, desperately struggling against the waves of vampires. She could see blood dripping down his chest and arms.

"Looks like your new monster's in some trouble," Angel grinned. He hopped down off the dais, and took a step towards her. "Meanwhile? Your old monster's feeling pretty great. Slayer blood will do that, you know."

He thumped his chest, and then suddenly surged forward. Buffy dodged to one side as a vicious cutting claw-swipe nearly caught her throat. Angel followed up with an out-to-in sweeping kick that connected with her side, and she stumbled across the room before regaining her balance.

"Looks like you're caught between a rock and a hard place, lover."

She glared at him. "Don't call me that."

"Oh, sorry. Only Xander gets to call you that, right? Really, Buffy, it's bad enough you're making time with a dead guy. Now you've got the hots for an animal too?"

"He's not an animal."

Angel laughed and tried to punch her across the face. She blocked the blow and shot a kick into his side. He grunted and staggered back, grinning.

"Hit a nerve?" he taunted.

Buffy's mind was racing. This was like some bad dream. Behind her in the large hallway the thunderous battle was still going on. A quick look back showed a sea of vampires converging on a center spot that seemed to propel them back out again. She couldn't actually see Xander amidst the carnage, but she could picture the way he fought, throwing off attackers left and right with everything he had.

This couldn't be Angel, could it? With that sick grin on his face and taunting demeanor. Angel would never talk to her like that, never strike her like that. Had he truly lost his soul?

Was it her fault, for not being there to save him?

"Angel, please. There has to be some part of you in there that remembers who you are."

He blinked, and frowned at her. "Remembers...Who I am?"

She nodded fervently, hopefully.

His brow furrowed, his vampire face looking all the more deformed. "Yes, I do remember. I remember...A little girl."

"What?"

"She was so pretty, Buffy. So fragile." He inhaled slowly through his nose, closed his eyes, and let out a shuddering breath. "Thanks for reminding me of who I am, Buffy. It's been a hundred years since I feasted on a child."

"No," she whispered, aghast.

"Face it, schoolgirl. There's no more Angel for you to string along. You made your choice, and now he's dead. I'm all that's left."

She shook her head. "No. No."

"No," he mocked in a high-pitched voice. "Make it not so!"

He laughed cruelly and sprang at her again, and this time his fist connected with her face, she staggered with the force of it, and a knee slammed up into her chest, knocking the wind from her lungs. As she struggled for air, he grabbed her by the hair and wrenched her head back.

"The only real question is, are you always this much of a pushover, or am I just all hopped up on Slayer's blood?"

He shrugged as he chopped down at her chest, striking her in the solar plexus. Buffy's eyes bulged as her knees buckled, but Angel held her up by her hair. Her fingers clawed weakly at his own.

"Personally, I think it's a little of both." His lips were by her ear, and he whispered softly. "You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to keep you all to myself, baby. I'll be drinking you for weeks, months maybe. And with your stolen blood, your stolen strength, I'll chop off his wings and let Dru make a meal of him."

His dry chuckle enraged her. "Shoulda chose me, Buffy. But don't worry. We'll be together for a good, long time."

Her vision wavered. Her lungs felt like they were on fire. Her brain felt disconnected, like she was living some nightmare. This had to be a nightmare.

Then she heard Xander's roar. The bellowing, terrible, unearthly scream that put fear into anything he fought. Yet to her, that paralyzing roar had grown an altogether different connotation. It was the roar of her protector. Her defender. It was the sound of Xander by her side, keeping her safe, and seeing her through the darkness. Together.

Her hands shot up, grabbing Angel on either side of his head. His eyes went wide as she pulled down hard, wrenching his neck and flipping him over. He slammed back first onto the cold stone floor, and lay there, dazed for half a moment.

Taking advantage of his momentary pause, Buffy swung a field-goal kick into his side, causing her former ally to double up in pain as he slid back across the room. Drusilla hissed and leaped off the dais, claws extended and fangs bared. Buffy spun a vicious kick into her face, and Drusilla fell back over a few broken chairs. The blond vampire - Spike, she was pretty sure - roared and charged at her.

Whirling with the momentum of her kick, Buffy pushed off from the floor and careened back first towards the nude vampire, cracking him across the jaw with her elbow. Blood - the Slayer's stolen blood - spurted from his nose. Buffy landed in a half-crouch and swept her leg against his calves. Spike tumbled to the floor.

She dove across the room towards the broken chairs, snatching up a particularly sharp splinter. On her feet in an instant, she held the shaft of wood tightly in one hand as she stared down three quarters of the Scourge of Europe.

"Not bad," Angel said, coughing as he got up. "I guess you're looking to have a little fun after all."

"Just try me," she said, coolly. Determination filled her eyes. She would never let them do to Xander what they'd done to the other Slayer. The Slayer she'd never gotten a chance to know.

The Slayer that might have been her.

"You really think you're going to take us?" Angel sneered. "You could barely handle me on my own."

"Funny, I'm not the one bleeding."

Angel's eyes flashed with anger. "You think you can kill me?"

"If I have to."

The horrible image of Xander hanging from those chains filled her vision. She blinked, and then it was her own body she saw hanging there. Another blink, and she saw the perfect image of Angel feeding greedily from the dead Slayer.

Except he wasn't Angel anymore, because Angel would never do that. Angel would never make such a horrific threat, with such absolute conviction in his voice. This was someone else.

Angel was gone. And she would *not* let this impostor do anything to Xander.

Drusilla hissed and raced at her from one side. Buffy ducked down and shoulder blocked her, causing the insane vampiress to roll over her back and to the floor. Angel was there, his fist connecting with Buffy's chin. Her head snapped back, but she retaliated with a three-punch combination that caused the dust in the room to shudder with each strike. She tried to throw another, but was tackled off her feet.

"Now this 'ere's a proper way to wake up," Spike snarled at her as he punched down at her face. He connected three times, straddling her body and holding her down. "Little Slayer's blood to clear me head, a bit of scrappin', and then some more tastiness."

He grinned down at her, and wrapped his fingers around her throat. Buffy spat at him, and kicked him off.

"Bad touch!" she grunted as he flew over her head. She sprang up to her feet and blocked Angel's spinning back-kick, grabbing his leg and throwing him into Drusilla. The two of them tumbled against the dais.

"Woo!" Angel exclaimed as he got up. "I gotta tell you, this is pretty fun."

"Barrel of laughs," she deadpanned, glaring at him.

"I'm impressed. I'll admit it. You might just take us."

"Count on it."

He grinned. "That's what I like about you, baby. You're so focused. Eye of the tiger, you know? Just like when you were stringing me along. I was the whole world. Then suddenly Xander gets himself deformed, so you focused on him instead. It's admirable, you know?"

"It wasn't like that," she whispered.

"Oh, it wasn't? Then you're not doing it again right now?"

She frowned. "What are you talking about?"

Angel rose to his full height, and rolled his head around on his shoulders. "You're focused on me, Buff. Gonna kill the big bad vampire that used to be your boyfriend, right? Let me ask you: How are you going to do that before Dru's boys tear your freak to shreds?"

Buffy stared at him for a moment, and then let her eyes flick back to the hallway. There seemed to be slightly fewer vampires than the last time she'd looked, but it was clear that the forces were still overwhelming. Somewhere in the center of that melee was Xander, fighting for his li-

No, fighting for her life. For Angel's and the Slayer's.

She looked back to Angel. He grinned at her.

"I know you'll make the right decision," he said, and began backing out towards the secondary exit. He gestured for Drusilla to follow, and she and Spike moved slowly back with him.

She could stop them, or she could save Xander.

Like it was even a choice.

Without another look, she turned on her heels and raced back into the hall.

***

Sighing, Willow closed her book. She picked up her pencil and scribbled a few notes down on her sheet, and then reached for the next large and unwieldy tome.

Across the table from her, Cordelia's eyes flicked up.

"Is that the one with the sun worshipping stuff?" she asked.

Willow blinked. "What?"

"Sun worshippers? Those who worship the sun? I thought you were all brainy about this kind of stuff."

Willow felt herself turn slightly red, and ignored Cordelia as she opened the book.

"Cause I already read that one," Cordelia added, shrugging. "It was totally useless, unless I want to know the proper way to throw a virgin into a volcano, which, hello? Way serial killer."

"Y-You read it?" Willow asked with more than mild surprise.

"Yeah, like two days ago."

They were researching, something that Willow did quite a lot, not that she minded. She enjoyed such intellectual pursuits, and this had the added bonus of being able to help Xander. At least, that was the hope.

So far, her attempts to find either A) a way to change him back, B) a way to keep him from turning to stone, or C) a glamour to make him appear human had all been for naught.

The problem was that Xander's situation was utterly unique. There were no spells to keep a gargoyle from turning to stone, because there was no such *thing* as gargoyles. There were no spells to change him back to being a human, because there were no spells that could affect a physiology that hadn't existed before Halloween.

The glamour was the one she was researching the most, these days, but she'd been hoping that by researching sun-based spells, she might find a way to keep Xander from turning to stone. At least then he wouldn't be forced to live his life when all of his friends were asleep.

She was sure she would find the proper spell for a glamour someday. There were many such spells, and it was just a question of finding one that would work best for Xander. Affecting such a large creature would mean the magic would have to be fairly powerful, likely amplified via an amulet or bracelet.

Maybe they could never change Xander back, but if she could find a way to keep him from turning to stone, and a way to make him at least appear human, then he might be able to live a semblance of a normal life.

And she could have her best friend back. She would be able to spend time with him like they used to, instead of just a few hours on nights when she could afford to lose a few hours of sleep. He might even be able to come back to school.

Might. So far it was all theory. Hence the research.

Which was an eye-opening experience all on its own. Because, wow-with-the-surprise, Cordelia was actually helping. Without anyone even asking her! She'd just strode into the library a few days ago and asked (demanded) what she should read to help. Since then, she was a surprisingly constant companion in Willow and Giles's research.

"There's nothing in it?" Willow asked.

Cordelia shook her head. "Just gross stuff. I'm probably scarred for life now. Maybe I can get Xander to chip in his council funds to pay for my therapy."

Willow frowned. She was never sure if Cordelia was kidding or not when she said things like that. The part of her that was six years old and hated the bullying girl named Cordelia wanted to believe she was absolutely serious. But the sixteen year old who had watched Cordelia trying to help over the last few weeks was beginning to have doubts.

Especially since they were spending yet another evening researching together. Cordelia on one side, Willow on the other. Giles and Ms. Calendar would often work with them too, but more of then not, it was Willow and Cordelia.

And as much as Willow hated to admit it, Cordelia was actually being helpful. While her researching methods had been slow and cumbersome at first, Cordelia seemed to be getting a hang for retaining important knowledge and scanning through books quickly. Willow looked down at the book. Without Cordelia, she might have spent the next hour reading it, trying to find some pertinent piece of information.

A week ago, she might have done it anyway, afraid Cordelia had missed something.

Now though, she tossed it onto the pile of already read books, and picked up one from the unread pile.

She was trying not to let the smack-smack-smacking of Cordelia's gum get to her when Ms. Calendar arrived, looking very frayed. Her eyes were wide as she approached them.

"Is Rupert here?" she asked, glancing around. "O-Or Buffy?"

"Giles is in his office," Cordelia said, gesturing behind her. "And Buffy's out with Xander looking for the new Slayer."

"What about Angel?"

Cordelia shrugged. "How should I know?"

"We haven't seen him," Willow clarified. "Why? Is he coming by?"

Ms. Calendar shook her head. "Hopefully not." She quickly ran over to Giles's office, knocking quickly. A moment later he poked his head out.

"Jenny?" he asked, frowning. "What's wrong?"

"What isn't?" she lamented. "We have to find Buffy right away."

Instantly, the flustered exterior of a startled librarian vanished from Giles's face. In its place was the determined visage of the Watcher. "Why? What's happened?"

"Angel," said a voice. "He's gone."

Every head turned to the stacks. Willow gasped at the sight of Xander and Buffy. Buffy had her small arm around Xander's middle, and it seemed that she was holding him up. The image was almost comical, of this petite young woman propping up this massive winged creature. Willow was not laughing. Xander's face and chest were bruised and bloody, and his wings drooped listlessly. Buffy too looked very disheveled. She clutched her side painfully, and even as she seemed to be propping up Xander, he seemed to be holding her steady as well. They leaned on each other as they stood there, and Willow was sure if either moved away, both would fall.

Buffy's face had a nasty gash running from her forehead to the left side of her cheek, with blood dripping into her left eye, which she kept squinted closed. All of her weight was on her right leg, and when she and Xander tentatively took a step forward, Willow could see she winced when putting weight on the left. Xander's right arm seemed completely immobile, and he moved slowly, sluggishly.

"My God," Giles gasped, hurriedly moving to their side. He put Buffy's left arm around his shoulder and helped steady her as the three made their way down the steps. He led them over to the table, attempting to get Buffy to sit down.

"Xander first," she half-groaned. "You can't support him."

Giles frowned at her, then looked over and Xander. He seemed to realize for the first time that Xander was just as badly hurt as Buffy, and that Buffy was supporting his weight. He nodded silently, and they slowly made their way to the stepladder that Xander often used as a chair. He winced and hissed a sharp intake of breath as he sat.

"Thanks, Buff," he rasped. His voice sounded very strained.

She gave him a sad little smile, and gently touched his large bicep for a moment before nodding to Giles. No longer having to exert so much energy in keeping Xander up, she sagged against Giles, and he nearly dragged her to the table, setting her down in the chair.

"Willow," Giles prompted. "My office. The first aid kit."

"Right," Willow quickly retrieved it. Giles knelt down in front of Buffy, and removed a few gauze pads, and began to clean the area around her face. She made not a sound as he worked.

Willow looked to Buffy, then to Xander, who sat slumped forward on the stepladder, wings draped around him. His eyes were closed, and he was breathing slowly but evenly. She looked back to Buffy.

"What happened?"

"Angel," Ms. Calendar answered before Buffy could. "Right?"

Buffy's eyes slowly looked up at Ms. Calendar. "Yeah."

"Angel did this?" Giles frowned. "Why?"

"Indirectly," Buffy answered. Her voice was hollow and distant, as if events had happened to someone else, not to her. "He's- He's not Angel anymore. Drusilla. She, she did a-" She sagged and closed her eyes. "We were too late. I was too late."

"She did something," Ms. Calendar said, more of a statement than a question. "Dark magic?"

Buffy nodded softly, face tensing slightly as Giles cleaned her wound. "A ceremony. Spike's back. Sh-She used, used Angel's soul to..."

"To bring him back," Jenny whispered. "Oh my God."

"His soul?" Willow asked, frowning.

"They took it from him. He's...He's just another vampire now."

Jenny shook her head. "No, Buffy. You don't understand. He's not just another vampire. He's Angelus."

All eyes focused on Jenny Calendar as she told them her story, the story of the Kalderash people, and the story of one hundred years of painful revenge.

***

Sometimes, living on the Hellmouth, it was nearly impossible not to give in to self-pity. As Xander sat on the stepladder, utterly exhausted physically and emotionally, he was unable to deny that he felt like fate's chew toy. Once again he had been beaten nearly to death. He'd failed to help Buffy enough, and because of that, the newest Slayer was dead, Spike was returned from oblivion, and Angel was a soulless monster.

Not just any soulless monster, either. A legendary soulless monster that apparently gave other soulless monsters the heebie jeebies. It only made sense, really. Par for the course. It wouldn't be interesting unless Angel, or rather, Angelus, was some big bad. He hoped fate was enjoying the show.

The worst of it was that somewhere, in that deep and dark side of him, he was glad. Angel was out of the picture.

For the first time since becoming Goliath, he truly did wonder if he was a monster.

What if it was his desire for Buffy, his jealousy of Angel that had kept them from winning? What if he'd have somehow figured out something more to do, or gotten there faster, or fought just a little harder? What if he'd let Angel be destroyed because of Buffy?

Maybe rationally he knew they'd gone as fast as they could. Maybe rationally he knew he'd nearly died in attempting to get Buffy to stop the ceremony. Maybe rationally he knew there was nothing more that could have been done.

But that tiny little sliver of happiness that Angel was no longer a rival for Buffy's affections made him feel like the most awful person on the face of the planet.

Because she'd come back for him. She could have stopped Drusilla, Spike, and Angel. Sure, Ms. Calendar had explained to them that there was no going back where Angel was concerned, but Buffy didn't know that at the time. There had still been the idea of hope. She could have captured Angelus in the hopes of getting Angel back.

Instead, she'd saved him. Saved the big bad gargoyle that was busy getting whaled on by a pack of murderous vampires.

Some superhero he'd turned out to be. Superheroes didn't let the damsel in distress die, hanging from chains and feasted on like some delicacy. The thought made him sick inside. Especially because, like his feelings with Angel, a part of him was glad it had been the new Slayer.

It could have been Buffy hanging there, dead and lifeless.

Just the thought of it made his stomach clench and his head pound. For a moment, he thought he might throw up.

A soft hand on his back made him open his eyes, and he looked up to see Cordelia standing beside him. She gave him a sad sort of smile.

"You okay?" she asked. "Do you need, I dunno, bandages or something?"

He shook his head slightly. "No," he rasped, his voice hoarse from roaring during the battle. "Just need to rest until sunrise."

She nodded slowly, rubbing his shoulder gently. It was a comfort. He winced and raised his good arm, patting her hand gently before holding it to him.

"I can't believe you," she sighed, speaking in a low voice.

"Can't believe what?"

"You can't go a single day without nearly getting yourself killed," she said in a scolding tone. "What do you do, just stand there and let them beat on you?"

He chuckled painfully. "Well, maybe towards the end there."

With her right hand held softly to Xander's shoulder, she smacked him gently with her left. He frowned, looking her in the eyes, and was surprised at how worried she seemed. He remembered some of the things she'd said right after he first became a gargoyle. Remembered that Cordelia was more than she appeared to be.

"Hey," he whispered, mostly because it was all he could manage. "I'm going to be fine. Honest."

She scoffed. "I know."

He shook his head and squeezed her hand gently. "Thanks."

Her bottom lip seemed to stiffen, and she shrugged. Xander raised an eyebrow at her.

"What are you doing here?" he asked. "I thought you were going out tonight. Hogan Martin, right?" It was one of her many nights for dates. She seemed to go on them three or four times a week.

"Uh, yeah, well, I mean, I kind of, you know. Figured I'd come by here. And, um..." she turned slightly red, and looked down at the floor. "Research."

"What about your date?"

She shrugged. "I didn't, uh, actually have a date. I mean, technically speaking. Not that I couldn't get one if I wanted to, but I just...Didn't want to."

"So you came here?" he asked, very surprised.

"I guess," she said softly. Then she looked up into his eyes. "I, um. I've uh, kind of been helping Willow research."

For you, she didn't say.

Xander stared at her in silent astonishment. Then he let his hand slip away from his shoulder, releasing her. For a moment, she looked worried. Then he reached out and put an arm around her waist, and let his wings extend behind him. He gently pulled her to him in a soft hug, letting his wings drape down around her.

"Thanks, Cordy," he whispered against the top of her head. Cordelia squeezed her eyes shut and put her arms around him, ignoring the looks of the others, and pretending that she was the only one in the room with him. Hot tears slid silently down her face and onto his broad chest.

It was the first time that Xander thought he might love Cordelia Chase. It was a happy thought, and one most welcome after the night he'd had.

***

She had no idea what she was supposed to do. She had no idea how she was supposed to feel.

Angel was, for all intents and purposes, dead. That much was crystal clear to her. The image of him feeding on the Slayer - Kendra, she'd finally learned - was forever burned into her mind. That, and the hideous vision of what he'd threatened to do to Xander. Those were not things Angel would ever do or say. He was dead.

In his place was Angelus. It helped, to call him something new. Buffy had dealt with friends becoming vampires before. You had to mourn for their deaths, and distance yourself from them. It hurt, but she'd done it before. She would do it again. She had to do it again.

Guilt still filled her heart. Guilt that she hadn't made it there in time. Maybe if she'd been spending less time with Xander and more time with Angel, it would have never happened.

Then she would remember why she was spending so much time with him. At first it had been because she felt bad for him, she wanted to help her friend in his new situation. But she'd found herself the one being helped. His strength and resolve had seen her through the crisis with the Tarakan Assassins. Without Xander, she would have been dead, and Angel would have still lost his soul.

Still, thinking it out logically didn't make her feel any better. Part of her felt like she'd betrayed Angel, even as another part of her was so happy to have connected with Xander the way she had. He'd risked everything for her, and through her, for Angel himself. He'd been ready to die for her, and she was beginning to think she might feel the same way about him.

That was strange enough. It sometimes surprised her how she could feel that way about him, not only because Xander had for so long been just a friend, but also because of his new form. She surprised herself with how quickly she had accepted it. How quickly she had become...Attracted to it.

To him. That was the key. The body was just the vessel. It was Xander she was attracted to. But would she have ever realized that attraction without him having the body to show her just how much he cared? After all, Xander had risked his life to save her before becoming Goliath, but it was only after, when she could see just how ferociously he was willing to fight, that she had begun to realize her own feelings.

A wave of shame ran through her as she thought of all the times she'd laughed off Xander's attempts to fight vampires and other demons, usually getting knocked out in mere moments. Had he fought any less intently back then? No. It was just that now he had the strength to back up his incredible heart.

Even as Buffy lay in bed, a shaft of sunlight warming her battered body, she wished it was night, and that she could be held in Xander's arms. It was only when she was with him that she fully realized the background noise of fear that permeated her entire life. It was only with him that she felt truly safe.

She didn't know what she was going to do.

Angel, Angelus, had an open invitation to her house. To Willow's as well. He was a legendary vampire known for his sick mind games and grotesque displays of horror. Some of the things Jenny and Giles had unearthed regarding Angelus's reign of terror were truly sickening. That ever-present fear had jumped up a notch. Angelus knew her. He could hurt her so badly.

She closed her eyes shut and wished Xander were there.

Explaining her injuries to her mother was an exercise in futility, as was attempting to hide them. Buffy had managed to get her mom to leave her alone and get some rest, but it was clear that her mom was looking for answers. What was she supposed to do?

The thought of just confessing that she was the Slayer crossed her mind. She'd tried that once before, when first becoming the Slayer, and her parents had put her in intensive psychiatric care.

She wondered how her mom might react if she brought Xander home as proof. The thought made her smile. Maybe she could ask Xander to just keep an eye on her and her mom during the night.

Her soft smile widened and she curled up in her blankets at the comforting thought of Xander watching over her at night. Her guardian ang-

No, not angel. Not Angel.

Her Xander. Her gargoyle. Her Defender of the Night.

At least she could always count on that. At least she could always count on him.
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