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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 > GargoylesMMcGregorFR1817113,296107102164,18510 Feb 0521 Jul 08Yes
CoA Winner

Part Twelve

Xander's eyes darted from side to side, his tension obvious with every step. To his right was Buffy, and to his left was Willow. They were making their way back to Buffy's house after a night of patrol.

"Xander," Buffy half-whined as she nudged him with her elbow. "Relax. It's late, nobody's going to see you."

He wasn't sure if he should be in a good mood or a mortified one. On the one hand, Buffy still wanted to spend time with him, even after Angel's...Demise. On the other hand, they hadn't spoken about the kiss they'd shared. The only sign that Buffy seemed even to be aware of the event was a kind of increased amount of "casual" touching between them both, usually followed by a slight reddening of her skin.

But her apparent more-than-acceptance of Xander's presence translated into her insistence that they actually walk down the street in broad moonlight, something that neither she nor Willow had done with him since he'd become a gargoyle. What if someone saw him?

"Yeah, it's Sunnydale," Willow said, reassuringly. "People don't look out their windows at night."

A protest formed on his lips, but it died away as he felt Buffy's fingers brush against his own. He clamped his mouth firmly shut, and glanced quickly down at his hand. Buffy looked up at him sheepishly before she gave him a small smile.

"Besides," she said, speaking softly to no one but him. "I miss walking with you."

Then she cleared her throat and glanced at Willow. "I mean, *we* miss walking with you. We."

Willow's expression turned to curiosity, but she didn't comment on Buffy's slip of the tongue. "Yeah. It's nice." She reached out and hugged Xander's massive bicep. "We don't even have to worry about getting attacked by vampires. Who's gonna mess with us when you're around?"

Xander grinned and bent slightly, putting his arm around Willow's waist. He picked her up off the ground as he hugged her to his side, and planted a wet kiss on the side of her face. She giggled and blushed furiously.

"Aww, thanks, Wills."

Reaching into her pocket to grab her keys, Buffy walked up the stairs to her front door. She glanced back at her two friends as she moved to open the door. "Hey it was my idea to have a Xander-Walkathon, I should get hugs to-"

She frowned as the door opened slowly, having been left unlocked and partially open. A thrill of fear shot through her, and her breathing quickened. Angelus. Suddenly she was terrified what she might find inside.

"Xander," she whispered, partly to not alert whoever was inside, and partly because she could barely get her voice to work. He was beside her in an instant, moving with eerie silence.

"Stay here, Wills," he said quietly, glancing back at her. "But be careful. Don't hesitate to scream."

"N-No hesitation here," she said, wide-eyed and wringing her hands together. She dug a large cross out of her back pocket and held it in both hands.

Xander's hand reached over Buffy's shoulder, slowly creaking the door open. His presence seemed almost to envelop her, and she could not have been more grateful for it. His deep voice rumbled in her ear.

"Probably nothing."

They both stepped into the house with preternatural silence, two creatures of myth and legend. The Slayer and a gargoyle. The interior was dark. Xander peered into the darkness, trying to spot anything out of the ordinary.

Then, all at once, Joyce's voice emerged from the kitchen as glass shattered loudly. "No!"

Without thinking, they both sprang towards the kitchen, moving with incredible speed. Buffy dove towards the door, shouldering it open as she rolled, allowing Xander to leap over her head, eyes burning white and that terrifying and chillingly comforting roar erupting from deep within him.

"Mom!" she cried at the same instant, rolling to her feet with her fists balled, ready to fight. Angelus was not getting her mother the way he'd gotten Kendra.

Joyce shrieked in absolute fear and scrambled away from them as the man that had been holding her intimately nearly fell over with surprise.

"Oh my God!" Joyce screamed as Xander's wings drooped and he lowered his hands.

"Oh crap," he muttered. Joyce continued to scream and grabbed the handle of the pot on the stove, flinging it at Xander. He couldn't help but roar angrily as his skin sizzled as boiling broth drenched him.

"Joyce, run!" the man cried, sliding a large butcher's knife out of a block on the table. He sprang over the counter with surprising agility and charged Xander, who was covering his eyes. Buffy cried out and tackled the man out of the way.

"No!"

"Get away!" the man yelled, throwing Buffy off of him. She slammed back first against the counter and groaned as she dropped to her knees.

"Buffy!" Joyce screamed, adding to the utter confusion.

"Get away from them, monster!" The man charged Xander again.

"Whoa, wait!" Xander tried to say, but the man was faster than he looked, and far stronger as well. Suddenly an iron grip was wrapped around Xander's throat. What was this guy?

Buffy groaned from the floor, and looked up to see the strange man with one hand clutching Xander's throat, the other pushing back against Xander's chest, slamming them up against the wall. Xander's eyes bulged, and she was shocked to see the man's fingers digging deep into Xander's thick and durable skin. If she'd been thinking clearly, she might have realized that a normal human could never put that kind of pressure on skin that could punch through cement.

She wasn't thinking clearly. She just saw Xander in trouble, and reacted accordingly. Reacted like he would for her. Buffy shot towards the man, and jumped on his back, pulling him into a full nelson. He cried out as Buffy dragged him backwards.

Then his head turned around.

One hundred and eighty degrees.

"Now I just won't have this kind of malarkey in my house, young lady."

"Oh," Buffy said, looking up to the ceiling. "Thank you."

Then she slammed her head forward, headbutting the obviously-not-human's face. His entire head jarred backwards and he twitched.

"Would you like-like-like to try some coo- cookies? I made them my-my-myself."

Then he seemed to bend around the middle, throwing Buffy off of him and into Xander. They fell against the wall in a tangle of limbs. It took them a few seconds to disentangle themselves to get up.
"Get off of my daughter!" a voice screeched as the once-filled pot connected with Xander's head.

"Mom!" Buffy cried over the sounds of her mother's yelling at the clanking of the pot against Xander's head. "Stop!"

A hand closed around Buffy's collar, and she was lifted off of Xander, and thrown against the refrigerator. Magnets and papers clattered to the floor alongside her, and she shook her head, trying to clear the cobwebs. The man walked slowly towards her, head bent at an impossible angle.

"You see, what I do is cut the stems at an angle," he said, his voice distorted and slow. "They stay fresh longer that way."

"You don't say," Buffy groaned as she pressed her back against the refrigerator, bracing herself and sliding up to her feet. She looked past the man and saw her mother still walloping Xander with the pot. "Mom, I said st-"

The man rushed forward and grabbed her by the neck, pinning her against the refrigerator. Buffy grimaced and tried to pull his hands free. Whizzing pops and high pitched whines emanated from his fingers as she pried them off her throat.

"Xander!" another voice called, and Buffy was relieved to see Willow rush into the kitchen, and jump in between her mother and Xander, who was busy trying to protect his head.

"Willow, look out!" Joyce yelled, trying to push Willow out of the way. Willow stood her ground, and started wrestling with Joyce for the pot.

"Mrs. Summers, you have to stop for a second!"

Xander took that opportunity to get up, shaking his head for a moment. Joyce started screaming again, trying to hit him with the pot even as Willow held on for dear life. Xander's hand shot out and caught hers, holding it easily away.

"Could you stop hitting me for a few seconds?" Xander asked as politely as he could, squinting his eyes. They burned thanks to the hot broth, and the added pain of being hit in the head with a metal pot was not helping.

Joyce whimpered at him as he plucked the pot from her with his free hand. She tried to pull away, but he held her in a firm grip.

"I'm trying really hard not to accidentally hurt you, Mrs. S." Then he looked over to Buffy, who was grappling with the strange man. Xander frowned, flipped the pot in his hand, and then threw it with all of his might.

A loud CLANK echoed through the kitchen, and Ted the Robot's head popped off, spewing sparks and bits of metal as it did so. Joyce's scream was deafening.

***

A damp towel held over his eyes, Xander was unable to judge Joyce's expression. He was pretty sure he could guess.

The four of them were seated in her living room, Xander occupying the couch at Buffy's insistence, overruling her mother.

It had taken a lot to get Joyce to stop screaming after Ted's apparent death, but once she'd seen that he was actually some kind of robot, she'd fallen into a numb, wide-eyed silence. Xander suspected she was very close to a breakdown.

He recognized the tiny hand rubbing his shoulder as Buffy's, and a moment later felt her weight sink down beside him.

"Are you okay?" she asked quietly, voice full of concern.

"Yeah." He pulled away the towel and blinked at her, squinting his eyes. "Things are just a little blurry. Your mom throws a mean soup."

"Thanks for not hurting her," she whispered. "I mean, not that you would, I just mean...You know. Thanks for letting her hurt you."

"Uh, yeah. Letting."

Buffy grinned slightly at him and leaned against him slightly. Then she looked up, and realized her mother was staring at them openly. Buffy frowned and quickly slid to one side, away from Xander. Willow sat in an armchair watching the three of them, looking very much like she wanted to disappear.

Nearly a minute of silence passed with Joyce's expression showing no sign of changing. She simply stared blankly.

"Mom?" Buffy tried. "Um, are you okay?"

Joyce's eyes slid to her daughter's. She shook her head. "I...I don't understand. Am I dreaming?"

"No, Mom."

"A-are you sure? Because I had one very similar to this once. O-Only with your father as the devil, a-and he was red, not purple."

"He's not the devil!" Buffy exclaimed, defensively.

"Oh," Joyce said, blankly. "A devil, then?"

"He's not a devil! He's not the devil! He's Xander!"

Xander reached out and put a hand on Buffy's thigh, and she looked over to him.

"Take a breath, Buff. It's gonna be confusing."

Joyce's breathing quickened. "Oh. He talks."

Xander snorted and put the towel back on his aching eyes. Beside him, Buffy took a deep breath. Without really thinking about it, she gripped Xander's hand for support. He squeezed her hand gently, and Buffy began to speak.

***

He tried to focus on the book. It was a good book, and one he'd been wanting to read for a while. Xander had a whole list of books he was waiting to read. It was an influence of Goliath that he enjoyed. Reading was a nice way to pass some of the lonely hours, and it made him feel like maybe he wouldn't have to be stupid and uneducated thanks to being forced out of school.

Tonight though, he was unable to concentrate at all. He read the same passage over and over again. Each time, without fail, his mind was elsewhere by the final sentence. Focused on Buffy, big surprise.

Joyce had surprised him, both with how hard she could whack someone with a pot, and with how understanding she *wasn't.* Despite sitting across from a monster with wings, and having just seen her daughter battle a robot in her kitchen, Joyce had been gripping firmly to her denial. First she insisted she was dreaming. Then she insisted she was hallucinating. Then she insisted Buffy was hallucinating. Then she insisted that Buffy would have to stop being the Slayer. When Buffy had finally asked Xander and Willow to leave, Joyce was already halfway into a plan that involved moving away from Sunnydale and never letting her daughter out at night ever again.

He was worried about her. Buffy had enough things to deal with these days without her mother adding to it. It was one of those worries - Angelus - that had caused this whole mess in the first place. The two of them were so afraid that Angelus had been at Buffy's house that they'd forgotten about Xander's need to stay hidden. Well, the secret was out. His, and Buffy's too. Joyce had been told the whole deal.

Whether or not she'd actually believe it was still up in the air. Maybe tomorrow she'd wake up and have blocked out the entire thing. Maybe that would even be better.

Or maybe not. The fact was: Angelus was out there with two of the most dangerous vampires to ever live. There was nothing that kept Angel from waltzing right into the Summers's home whenever he felt like it, and that same invitation extended, presumably, to Angelus as well.

The last few nights had seen Xander making excuse after excuse to check on Buffy's house during the night, after their patrols. He was worried enough about her when she was awake, but the thought of Angel sneaking into her house when she was sleeping made him sick with dread. He was still worried what Buffy might say if she knew how often he checked up on her.

Who knew how she might react to that? Xander was in completely new territory with Buffy. Beautiful, frightening territory that seemed beyond his wildest dreams. There was something going on there. Like they were just on the cusp of something more.

It had to be his imagination. Buffy had just lost Angel, and was recovering from several nights of resounding fear and savage beatings. Now on top of that she was having to deal with a nearly hysterical mother.

Must be nice to have a parent care enough to get hysterical.

Xander closed his eyes sadly, banishing his dark thought. With Angel gone, he was more determined than ever not to follow in his brooding footsteps. He wasn't Angel. He was Xander. If he blurred that line with Buffy, he'd never be able to look himself in the mirror.

The clicking of heels on the linoleum floor made him look up. Cordelia smiled brightly at him, then furrowed her brow, frowning.

"Wow," she said, peering at him. "Who did that?" She pointed to the lump on his forehead.

"Mrs. Summers."

"You're kidding," she said, face splitting into an incredulous grin.

"Nope. Whacked me with a pot."

"Wow," she repeated. "She must have like, that violence gene or something. She totally passed it on to her daughter."

"Violence gene?" Xander asked with an amused grin.

"Yeah. You know, like Mike Tyson. Or that guy on the football team who likes to sit on people."

Xander scoffed, unable to wipe the smile off his face. "You're comparing Buffy and her mom to Mike Tyson and a guy who likes to sit on people?"

Cordelia swept her long hair behind her shoulder and shifted her weight to one foot, looking at him as if he were the thickest person she'd ever met. "Just that they both like violence." She scowled at his grin. "What?"

"Nothing, Cordy. Never change, okay?"

She frowned at him. "Why would I change? Like there's something better than this? Please." Her face softened and she stepped closer to him. Her small hands reached out to touch the lump on his forehead. He winced, but didn't pull back. "So why'd she hit you?"

"Uh, long story. Robots are involved." At her raised eyebrow he nodded his head. "Seriously."

"You have got to be living the weirdest life in the whole history of the world," she said, frowning as she inspected the lump. "Does it hurt?"

He shrugged. "It's not too bad. At least it'll be fine by tomorrow."

"Yeah," she said, rocking back on her heels. She held her hands behind her back and watched him strangely. "So, um, what's up?"

That caught his attention. "What's up?"

"Yeah."

"Uh, what do you mean?"

She rolled her eyes. "I mean what are you doing, dummy?"

Xander held up his book slowly, as if she hadn't noticed it. "Uh, reading?"

"Oh, yeah. Um, wh-what's it about?"

He frowned deeply and his head moved back as he peered at her. "Who are you and what have you done with Cordelia?"

"What?" she said, defensively. "I can't ask about your book all of a sudden?"

"Well, no, I just- It's kind of weird."

Her face went dark and she turned on her heels. "Fine, whatever. I don't even care anyway." She began to move swiftly away. Xander watched her curiously for a moment before tossing his book aside and bounding after her.

"Cordy, wait. I'm sorry. I just, uh, I don't know how to deal with you when you're not sniping at me."

She threw up her arms in disgust. "Oh, of course! Why would you possibly want to spend time with me when I'm being nice to you? You'd much rather go get nearly killed with Buffy every night!"

That threw him for a loop. Xander reached out to grab her upper arm, halting her escape. Cordelia froze in her tracks and wrenched her arm free, but turned and faced him, crossing her arms angrily.

"I'm just a little on the confused side here, Cordelia. You don't ask me about my day."

"Well maybe I want to! You ever think of that?"

"Uh, no?"

She scowled and turned to leave again. He put his hand on her shoulder.

"Cordy, wait. I don'- what is this?"

"It's nothing. Just go with your precious Buffy, and try not to bleed too much when you get home. I'm tired of cle-" her breath hitched in her throat. "Cleaning it."

"You're mad cause I've been messing up the house with my blood?" Xander asked, confused.

She whirled on him. "No you idiot! God! How stupid are you?" She shoved him angrily away and began stalking out of the library.

Xander rubbed his chest where her tiny hands had pressed against him, and watched her go. What was that all about?

***

Xander's confusion intensified as he silently followed Cordelia home, making sure to stay out of sight. Maybe she was hating him for some strange reason, but he wasn't about to let her go home alone at night, not with Angelus on the loose. Luckily she encountered nothing frightening on her drive back to their home, but he was shocked that she seemed to be blowing her nose an awful lot on the way.

Once she was safely inside, Xander swooped away from the Chase estate, and soared to Willow's house. He needed a little good old-fashioned Willow-time to help clear his head.

She was on her bed when he arrived, lying on her stomach with her legs up in the air behind her, bent at the knee. She wore her favorite pajamas, the ones with the little pictures of microchips scattered all over. Thick white socks adorned her feet, and she frowned in concentration as she stared down at a textbook. Xander grinned as he knocked on the window.

Her initial startled yelp gave way to a warm smile when she realized who was there, and she slid the door open happily. "Xander! Hi!"

"Hey, Wills. I interrupt study time?"

She shrugged. "It's okay. Just extra credit stuff."

"'Just' extra credit?" he scoffed, incredulous. "Is Willow Rosenberg brushing aside the chance to do schoolwork?"

"That's right!" she said, proudly. "I'm living on the edge! Tomorrow I might even be late to homeroom."

He grinned at her and ducked his head as he moved across her room, sinking onto her bed. "So what's with the priority shift?"

"My best friend came over, and I hardly get to see him anymore," she said, smiling happily as she took a seat next to him. "Xandertime is way higher on the list than study time."

"What about the awesome pot-whacking time we had earlier? That was a rootin' tootin' good time."

"Yeah," she said sadly. "How's your head?"

"Little lumpier than usual, but I'm a real blockhead, so I'll be fine."

"Mrs. Summers was really wigged."

"Yeah. As evidenced by the cookware thrashing of yours truly."

Willow sighed sadly and leaned against him, rubbing his arm. "I'm worried about Buffy."

Xander echoed her sigh, and put his arm around her shoulder. A moment later his wing enveloped her in a new and improved Xanderhug. "Me too."

"Do you think her mom'll be okay with everything?" Willow asked, snuggling against him.

"I dunno. I'm not Mr. Experience when it comes to the caring parents."

Willow said nothing, but hugged him around his middle as best she could. He smiled and squeezed her gently. They sat like that for a few minutes, enjoying each other's presence. Willow could also make him feel like himself again.

"What about you?" she asked at just the right moment. "Are you okay?"

He shrugged around her. "I don't know. I'm not even sure I know what 'okay' is anymore."

"Why? What's wrong?" She seemed to scoff at herself. "I mean, besides the gargoyle thing."

"I don't know. I'm just confused, I guess. Everything feels upside down." He kissed the top of her head. "Except for this."

She smiled sadly at him, but remained silent. It was the perfect thing to say.

"I'm just trying to figure out where I am, and where I'm going. I mean, I don't know if you, uh, if you noticed, but uh, I think there's something going on. With Buffy. A-and me, I mean."

Willow swallowed, and nodded slowly. "Yeah."

"Which puts me way in the scumbag column," he lamented. "I mean, her boyfriend just got his soul ripped out of him and I'm all, 'Tee hee hee! Here's my chance!'"

"Tee hee hee?"

"Tee hee hee," he confirmed.

"Wow. You're giggling."

"Giggling and chortling. See why I'm awful?"

"Well, maybe a little," she admitted. He groaned, and she quickly added, "Sorry! I just mean, well it's natural, I guess. Nobody's perfect."

"Yeah, Cordelia reminded me of that earlier."

"What? What do you mean? I thought she was, I dunno. Kind of nice, lately."

Xander shrugged. "That train reached the end of the line. She's way mad at me, and I don't even know why. Cause I bleed on the carpet or something."

"She said that?"

"More or less."

Willow gave him a skeptical look. "How less?"

"Uh, I think her exact words were, 'Why don't you go out with Buffy and then not bleed so much when you get home, cause I'm tired of cleaning it up.' Then she called me an idiot and left."

Willow sighed and put her forehead against his shoulder. "Xander, you know I love you, right?"

"Uh, yeah. Of course."

"Okay, so don't take this the wrong way, you promise?"

"O...Kay."

"You really are an idiot sometimes."

"Gee," he scoffed. "How could I take that the wrong way?"

"No, I just mean," Willow sighed, unable to believe she was going to say what she was going to say. "She's not mad at you. She's scared for you."

"What? Scared of me?" He thought Cordelia was one of the people he could count on not to see him as a monster. The thought made his insides twist.

"No, not scared of you. Scared *for* you. She's worried, Xander."

"Worried? About me?"

She nodded sadly and looked up at his face. "Yeah."

"But why?"

"Xander, you've been horribly beaten like four times in the last two weeks."

"Three times," he corrected. "The pot was just embarassing."

"Once is too often. I-It's scary, to see you like that."

"It's not like I planned on it. It just kind of happened. A-And Buffy got pretty beat up too."

"I know," Willow sighed. "That's what's so scary. You guys, you like go crazy trying to protect each other. Cordelia's afraid you'll die trying to save her."

Xander took a deep breath. "How do you know that's what's got her upset?"

"Because," Willow said, staring up at his eyes. "I'm afraid of it too."

The revelation astonished him, although he thought that maybe it shouldn't have. He hadn't given much thought to the beatings he'd taken while helping Buffy. That was just part of being the Slayer's sidekick. It wasn't like he could just stop helping her.

But he could recall his own feelings when Buffy or even Willow would get hurt in the past. He remembered how agonizing it was to watch Buffy after a particularly rough battle, scraped, bruised, and bleeding. He could remember how much it tore at him seeing her taking her lumps right alongside him in the last few weeks. It was like torture.

Now that he thought about it, of course Willow felt the same way. He'd be devastated if Willow got seriously hurt, even if she could heal overnight the way he could. The mere thought of it made him hold her tighter.

Could that really be why Cordelia had yelled at him? She was worried about him?

"Why wouldn't she just say so?" he wondered aloud.

Willow gave him an incredulous look. He sighed. "Okay, okay. That's not really her style. She doesn't really tell her friends too mu-" Xander trailed off, his expression turning to a distant frown.

"What?" Willow wondered.

"Cordelia. She, she doesn't really have any friends. Does she?"

"Sure she does. Harmony and Aura and Porsche and Jamie and-"

Xander shook his head. "No, I mean friends, Willow. Friends like me and you. Friends you can talk to and, and lean on. Friends that'll love you no matter what."

Willow smiled softly at his description of their friendship, a hint of sadness in her eyes. Despite herself, despite her buried feelings, the answer bubbled forth.

"She's got you," she whispered.

Gentle wings cocooned her in a protective embrace, and Xander's arm held her close. Once again, he kissed the top of her head. Willow's sigh was one filled with equal parts contentment and regret.

"So do you," Xander replied.

Yes. She always had him. In a way that no one else would ever be able to intrude upon, but never in the way she'd secretly hoped for for years. But if it meant she was by his side, and he was by hers, then Willow could live with that.

Heck, she could even enjoy it.

***

If someone had asked, she wouldn't have been able to tell them why she was crying. The fact that there was no one to ask her seemed to intensify those confused feelings, making Cordelia cry all the harder. She lay face down on her bed, hugging her pillow and sobbing.

Two thoughts kept tearing through her mind. The first was the memory of Xander lying limply on the floor surrounded by shards of bloody glass, his breath coming in short, painful pants. She could picture the myriad of cuts and deep gashes that had lined his body, seemingly so powerful and indestructible. She could see his face twisted in pain as he struggled to breathe. And she could see Buffy clutched in his arms, still trying desperately to keep her safe.

The other thought was of Xander's complete confusion as she tried to talk to him. He had to be the dumbest person in the history of the world. She could still picture him staring back at her, completely clueless in every respect.

Why did she care so much that Xander didn't understand? Why did it make her want to curl up and die, that he couldn't tell how scared she was. Why would he almost kill himself trying to keep Buffy safe, but he couldn't even understand that she was terrified?

But she knew why. It was because she was Cordelia Chase. The rich bitch that everyone envied, hated, or wanted to be. It was because she was doomed to an eternity as that figure. Above everyone else, never equal with anyone. She had to work at it every single day, maintaining her social status.

If she was shocked that she was worried about Xander, about Buffy and even Willow, then how could she ever expect anyone else to understand? How could she ever explain to others why the idea of Xander being gone made her feel like throwing up? How could she explain why she spent hours every night researching in the library, hoping to find something that would help Xander?

She couldn't. Because she'd been infected with their weirdness. That was the only explanation. They'd corrupted her. She was well on her way to being a complete and total loser.

And the sick part was that somewhere deep inside, she wasn't even that worried about it. She was already too far gone.

The doorbell snapped her out of her dark thoughts, and Cordelia looked up. She wiped tears from her face and sniffed. Who was coming over at this hour?

Oh God. What if it was Buffy, Willow, or Giles, with some terrible new about Xander? What if he was dead? What if he'd finally pushed himself too far, and he was never coming home?

She sprang out of bed, not bothering to wipe her red and tear-streaked face or comb out her hair. She raced down the stairs, and almost threw the door open before she remembered who she was, and where she lived. Sunnydale. The Hellmouth.

What if it was Angelus?

Ringing the doorbell? Not on the likely. Still, she stood on her toes and peeked out the window of the door. A blonde head of hair stood outside, and Cordelia's stomach lurched. It was Buffy. What had happened?

She quickly unlatched the locks, and swung the door open. Buffy stood there, her own face streaked with tears. Her eyes were red and puffy, and she hugged her arms protectively. Cordelia felt icy fear grip her.

"What happened?" she whispered.

Buffy seemed not to notice her for a moment. Cordelia reached out and grabbed her arm, yanking her inside. "What happened?"

The Slayer's blue-green eyes met her own. Cordelia stared at her intently, dreading the answer that might come. "Is Xander here?"

"What?" Cordelia breathed.

"Is he here?"

She shook her head. "N-No. He was at the library."

Buffy sagged. "Oh. Yeah. Of course."

Relief flooded into her, followed immediately by anger and confusion. "Wait, so why do you look like your dog just died?"

Buffy stared at her for a few moments before speaking. "It's personal."

"You're not here to beat him up, are you?"

"What? No! Why would I beat him up?"

Cordelia shrugged. "Genetics. I heard your mom almost beat him to death with a pot."

The Slayer's eyes began to fill with tears. "She didn't. She just...She's..." Buffy bit her bottom lip and suddenly buried her face in her hands. "She hates me!"

Stunned into absolute silence, Cordelia stared in astonishment as Buffy Summers sunk to the floor and wept into her hands. Her mouth hung open in shock. "Whoa, I didn't mean- don't start crying. I was just- just kidding."

But Buffy was lost in her grief; oblivious, it seemed, to Cordelia's presence.

"-old me I can't be the Slayer anymore, and that if I left I shouldn't come back! We're going to move and I'm never going to see him again and she's just going to ignore everything and someday something will be too strong for me and I'll die and he won't be there to save me!"

"What?" Cordelia breathed, taking a tentative step towards Buffy.

"She kicked me out!" Buffy wailed. "Because I'm the Slayer! Because Xander's a gargoyle! Because of everything! She's completely unreasonable! I tried to tell her, tried to tell her how many times he's saved my life, but she doesn't care. She thinks he's a monster, and now he won't be there to help me anymore."

Cordelia frowned and knelt down beside Buffy, putting a hand on her back. "You know you're crazy, right?"

Buffy looked up and scowled at her, and tried to get up. Cordelia pressed down gently on her shoulder. It seemed to do the trick.

"Xander's a total moron," Cordelia said. "You think he's not going to follow you around like some kind of loser puppy dog even if you do move? This is the same guy who checks your house like fifty times a night to be sure Angelus isn't there."

Buffy blinked at her. "What? He does?"

Cordelia sighed angrily and nodded. "Probably going to get himself killed doing it."

Buffy sniffed and wiped her face. "I didn't know he did that."

"Well he does."

Eyes staring at the floor, Buffy sat on the backs of her legs, and sagged slightly. She hugged herself, and sniffed again. Cordelia wasn't sure how she felt about the entire experience, but part of her was drawn to the pain she could feel in Buffy. It reminded her of her own.

"She really kicked you out?"

Buffy nodded sadly. "Her way or the highway."

"Wow. Harsh."

Buffy snorted with mirthless laughter. Cordelia stared at her, a feeling of uncomfortable awkwardness beginning to grow. She sought to fill the silence.

"So you, um, came here?"

"Yeah."

"To see Xander?"

Another miserable nod.

Cordelia swallowed and leaned closer to her. "Can I ask you a question?"

Buffy shrugged, which Cordelia took to mean as yes.

"Do you feel about him the way he feels about you?" She needed to know. Needed to know if Buffy appreciated what she had. Needed to know if Buffy felt that sick feeling of worry in her gut.

Watery blue-green eyes looked up to her own. For a long time, neither spoke. Then Buffy nodded slowly. Cordelia exhaled a breath she hadn't realized she was holding, and bit her bottom lip. She rubbed Buffy's back comfortingly.

"You can stay here if you want."

"What?"

"It's not like there's no room," Cordelia continued. "Plus Angelus can't come in here, so Xander won't have to check your house a zillion times and maybe die. Also, you know. He'd want you to stay."

"He would?" The almost childlike hope in Buffy's eyes made Cordelia roll her eyes with the foolishness.

"What are you, stupid? Of course he would. You're his precious Buffy."

"Does he- Does he say that?" Buffy whispered.

Scoffing, Cordelia replied, "No, I do."

"Oh."

"You can't use my hair care products," Cordelia warned. "And you do your own laundry. I'm not cleaning blood out of clothes on top of everything else."

Wide-eyed, Buffy nodded. "Um, okay."

"You can have the room next to mine, so you better be quiet when you come home after patrol. It's bad enough with Xander banging around like some overgrown gorilla."

"Sure."

"There's on condition."

"Those weren't conditions?"

"No, those were rules. This is a condition: You don't let Xander get beat up anymore."

Buffy frowned. "I didn't 'let' him get beat up before. It just happened."

"I don't care," Cordelia said, seriously. "No more Xander beatings. I can't ta- I mean, he can't take them anymore."

The look on Buffy's face became a curious one, softening slightly. She reached out, and put her hand on Cordelia's shoulder in much the same way Cordelia's was on hers.

"I promise."

"Good," Cordelia said, sharply. She swallowed, and looked away from Buffy's eyes. That uncomfortable awkwardness was growing. "Sorry about your mom," she said, shrugging.

Then Buffy was somehow against her, hugging her as she cried against someone who neither expected could ever be called a friend.

***

Xander arrived while the two were still on the floor, Buffy clutching onto Cordelia like a lifeline, crying her fear and worry. Buffy had been nearly incoherent by that point, overwhelmed by the situation with her mother, and from what Cordelia could tell, Cordelia's own friendly overtures.

She felt strange as Xander had looked at them, Cordelia patting Buffy reassuringly on the back. The look he'd given Cordelia made her smile. It was a look of deep gratitude and an almost surprised respect.

"Here," Cordelia had said as he moved silently beside them. "You take her." She'd gently urged Buffy towards Xander, and the smaller girl had almost tackled him in her haste to jump into his arms. Xander held her tightly then, wings draped around them both. His face held deep worry and mild surprise.

"Take her upstairs," Cordelia told him. "She can stay in the room next to mine."

If she didn't stay with him. She knew the possibility existed. Strangely, she almost hoped it would happen. Buffy and Xander both needed that.

So Xander had scooped Buffy up into his arms, the petite blonde Slayer hugging herself to his neck and crying as he carried her upstairs. Then Cordelia had sighed, wiped her own face, and got up on shaky legs. She felt different. Changed, somehow. Maybe even better.

Buffy was really upset. It surprised her. She never thought of Buffy getting upset. Buffy was just some superhero freak. Only the girl who'd cried so openly was not a freak. She was...She was just like Cordelia. Overwhelmed by events, overwhelmed by her own feelings.

She walked slowly up to her room, ignoring the muffled sounds of Buffy's heart wrenching sobs, and the low, soothing voice of Xander rumbling from within his room. He'd make her feel better. She knew that without a doubt. He cared about Buffy too much to do anything otherwise.

Part of her wished he cared about her that way. Cared enough to get himself killed, cared enough to drop everything to help her when she was in trouble. Cared enough to see her pain and worry. Cared enough to call her friend.

She'd closed her door before dropping into bed, not even bothering to change her clothes. She wasn't sure if she was happy or sad. She just felt different. Almost good. It could almost feel nice, that Buffy had opened up to her like that. That she could trust her.

Only she didn't trust her. Not really. She was just at the end of her rope, and Cordelia had been a convenient shoulder to cry on. That was all.

Right?

Cordelia hadn't been aware of falling asleep, but the sound of her door opening roused her. She blinked sleepily at the massive figure that made its way into her room, and crouched by her bed.

"Hey," whispered Xander.

"Xander?" she mumbled sleepily.

"Yeah. Did I wake you?"

She felt his hand brush against hers, and suddenly she was holding it. Squeezing it. She was glad it was dark, because her eyes were growing wet.

"No," she lied. "What's going on?" Her voice was high-pitched with the fatigue of one having been woken up.

"I wanted to thank you," he said, in that deep and rumbling voice of his.

"For what?" she sighed, finding it hard not to slip back into sleep, especially with the comforting feeling of her hand in his.

His presence loomed over her and her bed creaked. He kissed her lightly on the forehead.

"For being one of the best friends anyone could ever ask for."

She swallowed nervously, and squinted her eyes at him in the dark. "Really?"

"Really."

Then she had her arms around him, and he had his around her. She shut her eyes tightly against the crook of his neck, and breathed him in. Hugging her friend. Her first friend. Her best friend.

"I love you, Cordy. Don't ever doubt it."

She sniffed, and felt tears drip off her nose.

God. The idiot had made her cry.

"I love you too," she whispered. She wasn't sure he could hear her, but that wasn't important. The important part was that she'd said it, and that he knew. She held onto him for a long time, before Xander gave her one last kiss on the forehead, and lowered her back down to the bed. She kept her grip on his hand as he made to leave.

"Xander?" she said, quietly.

"Yeah?"

"Thanks for being my friend."

"Thanks for being mine."

She wasn't sure how she slept, because her room was lit up with the 1000-watt Cordelia Chase smile for the rest of the night.
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