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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 > GargoylesMMcGregorFR1817113,296107119169,24210 Feb 0521 Jul 08Yes
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Part Thirteen

The good thing about living on the Hellmouth was that there was always an outside force to blame. If Buffy lived somewhere else, she might have cursed fate, cursed herself, or cursed anything and anyone that come in her path. Luckily for everyone and everything, Buffy lived on the Hellmouth.

The library was quiet, not to mention empty. Giles was off doing whatever it was he did when he wasn't in the library. Willow had her chess club meeting. Xander, of course, was back at Cordelia's, trapped as an unmoving statue.

And Cordelia? Well, she didn't know where Cordelia was. It surprised her that she cared, though.

Buffy let out a dramatic sigh, slumping in her chair and staring at the homework that was spread out on the table before her. She'd hoped that there would be someone in the library. She wouldn't mind doing training with Giles or even listening to one of Cordelia's boring stories about dating some random football guy. Anything to keep her distracted.

Distracted from the twisted ball of Hellmouthy confusion it had become.

Her mother hated her. Or was scared of her. Or both. Buffy wasn't even sure about the specifics. All she knew was her mother had gone completely schizoid, both about being the Slayer, and maybe even moreso about Xander. Buffy felt a pang of anger as she recalled her mother's voice talking about Xander. Calling him a monster. A demon, a devil, a freak.

If Xander was a freak, then what was Buffy? His co-freak. They were freaks in arms.

Buffy had really let loose on her mother for that. The screaming match had gone on for a long time, before her mother eventually gave her the ultimatum that she wasn't allowed to see Xander again, that she wasn't allowed to be the Slayer anymore. Buffy had gone to leave.

"If you walk out that door, don't even think about coming back," was her mother's response to that.

There was only a single event in her life that had devastated her quite as much as that one sentence, and that had been her own death. Even the loss of Angel's soul hadn't hurt as much as her mother's angry words.

She left, and went to the only place she could think of. It still surprised Buffy how nice Cordelia had been, but maybe it shouldn't have. She was incredible when it came to Xander, and Buffy really admired her for that. Now it seemed she was extending that to Buffy herself.

And Xander. God, she was glad for him. He'd held her without a word, wrapped in those massive, powerful arms, protected by those beautiful, elegant wings. She'd cried, which she'd been doing a lot of lately, but she felt better for it. Everything felt just a little better when she was there with him.

He'd stayed with her almost the whole night. He'd only left twice, both times to do a check on her house and on Willow's. That remembered thought made her feel guilty. She hadn't even thought about what it might mean, that she wasn't at home anymore. What if Angel - Angelus - came to her house when she wasn't there? Her mom would be defenseless.

Something else to worry about.

Giles and Ms. Calendar were supposed to be researching spells that could de-invite a vampire. They both claimed such a spell existed, and Ms. Calendar seemed to think it wouldn't even be that hard to cast. Maybe they could spend time on that tonight, and she wouldn't have to feel so bad about not being at home anymore.

Wouldn't feel so bad about never wanting to go back.

She might even be able to feel happy about staying with Xander.

How would she be getting through this without him, without his strength, emotional as well as physical? Without Xander, how could she possibly deal with all of this? One thing after another, day after day. Ford, assassins, Angelus, and now her mother. Xander was the shining light that kept her out of that darkness.

And yet even Xander confused her. What did they think they could be to each other? What did they want to be to each other? They'd shared a few kisses, but always in moments of extreme danger. He'd often held her for long periods of times, but the embraces could easily have been considered friendly and loving, not romantic.

Did she want them to be romantic? Did she want to kiss the Xander-face that was not Xander's face?

A tiny voice inside whispered that she did, and that she knew it. There was a time she could pretend that voice was a noblewoman remnant, but she could delude herself no longer. Strange as he was, strange as he now appeared, she felt an attraction to Xander, an attraction built primarily on who he was, but she was finding that his form was not a negative in her eyes. Xander was beauty and strength, an elegant and graceful package of power and sensitivity.

But what could they ever be to each other? Lovers?

She'd once thought she could be in love with someone who couldn't go out during the day. But could she love someone who couldn't even *exist* during the day?

How could she not? She already did.

It made her sad and hopeful at the same time. Sad that she might never be able to be with Xander the way she could be with anyone else. They couldn't go out together, they couldn't even be seen together. Her mother had seen only the hint of Buffy's attraction to Xander, and had already proved that no one would be able to understand how she felt about him.

It was beyond looks. She loved Xander for the person he was. Her guardian and her defender. He was the breath of life. He was goofy and loving and she had never known anyone to care about her as much as he did. It was almost dizzying to think about, and she only wished she had recognized it before. Wished she could have shared a kiss with the Xander-face that was truly Xander's face.

A relationship between them would be so hard. Difficult for reasons she probably couldn't even think of. But she knew that whenever she was in the dark, Xander would be there beside her, literally and figuratively.

She was the Slayer. Life was the night, for her. Night would be her death, someday.

Buffy allowed herself a small smile.

Death would have to get through Xander first.

Death was so going to get its ass kicked.

Buffy thought about Xander Harris, and felt better.

***

Joyce Summers sighed as she turned the key in the ignition, turning off the engine. Gathering her attaché case and portfolio, she placed a few papers between her teeth, grabbing her coffee cup with her free hand.

A quick glance at the house confirmed her fear. All the lights were off. Buffy was still gone.

Well of course she was gone. Joyce had kicked her out. Kicked her out! Her own daughter.

Joyce managed to get out of the car with her hands full, and swung the door closed with her hips before making her way to the front door. She carefully maneuvered her hands free so she could unlock the door.

Maybe they just needed some time to cool off. Buffy had probably gone to Willow's. She'd stayed over her friend's house several times before.

That was when the cold thrill of fear went through her. Willow's house was where Buffy had always *said* she was going. Where Willow claimed she was. But that was all a lie, wasn't it? Buffy probably never stayed at Willow's. Instead, she was probably out being the Slayer or convincing herself she was living out some Beauty and the Beast fantasy with...

With Xander?

God, it was all so surreal. Xander was a sweetheart, if not the most mature boy of his age. Joyce had always been fond of him, and was glad he was such a good friend to Buffy. Before this, she would have been happy to hear that Buffy had a crush on him. That was good and normal and decent and un-freakish and un-deadly.

She had to find some way to convince Buffy to stop all of it. She couldn't believe that her daughter had been lying to her so blatantly for almost two years. Destroying her life in some crusade. It angered her, and it scared her to death.

That was where the guilt and self-hatred came in to play. Joyce was supremely angry, but it was with herself more than anyone else. Not only had she been so horribly ignorant of Buffy's life, but Joyce had expressed her fear and worry not by trying to help Buffy, but by getting angry, even insulting with her.

Now Buffy was gone. Had she left Sunnydale completely?

Probably not. No, she was probably with Xander even then. It made Joyce shiver just to think about her daughter with that monstrous creature. He was huge, towering over Buffy. He had this thick, massive arms and a chest that would put the biggest bodybuilder in the world to shame. His hands were large with almost claw-like fingers, and his face was lined with thick, bony protrusions. Those hideous, humongous wings seemed to drape around him like a second skin, and his legs and feet were twisted and animalistic, more akin to a dog's leg than a human's.

This was Buffy's childhood crush? This was who she thought she wanted to be with? It was so beyond a terrible idea as to be physically painful to her. Her daughter didn't deserve a monster. She deserved a knight in shining armor with perfect hair and perfect teeth. She deserved someone who would love her and cherish her for the amazing gift that she was, not some monster to claim her as a prize.

Joyce grunted as she nearly dropped her keys, trying to juggle her coffee cup, bag, and portfolio as she attempted to fit them into the lock. It was dark out, and hard to see. She realized that Buffy was usually home before her, and would have the porch light on for when she came home. It was a little thing, but it made her eyes sting.

She would call Willow's house once she was inside, and see if Willow knew where Buffy was. Then she'd call the school, find out if Buffy went that day. Then she would call everyone Buffy had ever met, and track her down.

"Need a hand?" a voice said, startling her out of her thoughts. Joyce jumped, and her cup went sailing into the air. A man, a man with perfect hair and perfect teeth, snatched it easily out of the air. "Whoops, careful there." He chuckled good-naturedly.

"Oh," she gasped. "Sorry, you scared me a little." Then she frowned. He seemed familiar, this man. "Don't I know you?"

He smiled a cool, confident smile. "You know what? I think you do. Do you know Buffy?"

Joyce swallowed. "Yes. She's my-"

"Sister, right?" he said, smoothly. Joyce snorted at the terrible yet-still-effective line.

"Daughter, actually."

The man smiled. It was a charming smile. He had such a beautiful face.

"Oh yeah," he said, still smiling politely. "I think we did meet once before. I'm Angel. I used to...Tutor Buffy. Remember?"

"Oh," Joyce said quietly. "Yes, I remember you now. It's nice to see you again."

"Likewise," he said. "So, can I help you with that?"

"Oh, thank you." She shifted so he could pull her bag from her hand. "So, what brings you by, um, Angel?" She turned to unlock the door.

"Oh, well I'm visiting some relatives, but our car broke down, and we kind of need a phone to use."

Joyce frowned, and turned around. Angel gestured to the sidewalk, where a smiling couple stood. The man was thin and wiry with a shock of platinum blond hair. The woman was wispy thin, and smiled dreamily at Joyce. He wore a long black duster with a blood red shirt and black jeans, and she wore a beautiful red gown.

"Um, well I suppose you all could come in and use the phone if you want," Joyce said absently as she opened the door.

"Thanks, Joyce," replied Angel. "We were hoping you'd say that."

"You're lovely," the woman said. "A vision of loveliness."

Joyce blushed. "Oh, well thank you." She smiled self-consciously and stepped inside. Angel followed after her, the couple trailed behind.

"So," Angel remarked casually. "Is Buffy around?"

"Um, no. She's um, away for a while."

"Is everything okay?"

Joyce swallowed sadly. "Oh, you know. Raising a teenager. Things, things get out of control sometimes."

Angel nodded sympathetically. "Yeah, I know what you mean. One day they're worried about wearing the right shoes, and the next they're sneaking out to boink their gargoyle lover."

"Yes it-" Joyce's eyes went wide. "What?" She spun to face him.

Angel's face split into a wide smile. "Honestly, Joyce. What kind of mother are you, that your daughter's preferences go from dead people to animals?"

"What-what are you-"

"Now, I have to admit," Angel said, loftily. "I'm a little miffed, you know? I mean, come on, look at my face. There's a reason they call me Angel, you know. I'll tell you, getting shoved aside for some flying freak with a James Earl Jones voice? It really gets under your skin."

The blond one snorted, and held the woman closer.

"So what happened?" Angel asked, stepping closer to Joyce. "You two have a falling out? Was it when you found out she was making out with her undead boyfriend whenever your back was turned?"

Joyce stared at him in utter disbelief. What was this? What was going on?

"Or was it when you found out she's got the hots for demon boy? Don't you think that's ironic, by the way? He's the demon, and I'm the Angel."

"I-I think you need to leave," Joyce said as firmly as she could manage.

"But Joyce," Angel protested, false innocence dripping from his voice. "We were just getting to know one another." And as he grinned, his face twisted into a horrible mockery of his former perfection. "I'm just trying to be polite."

"I-I'll scream," Joyce whispered.

"You'll try," Angel grinned. Then he was suddenly upon her, pinning her arms to her sides with a cruel, easy indifference. She opened her mouth to scream, but her voice died as fangs bit into the side of her neck. Shock washed over her. No. This couldn't be. He was a demon. A demon.

She could hear him. Hear the horrible, terrifying roar of the demon.

Then she was dropping to the floor, her vision wavering as she tried to figure out what was happening. Angel had dropped her, and she weakly clutched at the two small punctures on her neck as she looked up.

It was him. Oh God.

The sinister, powerful, hideous Beast. He stood before her, wings spread wide and eyes glowing white hot. A deep, rumbling growl issued from his throat. He looked in her direction, but not, she realized, at her. Angel stood behind her.

"Let her go."

"Hmmm," Angel said, mockingly, pretending to think about it. "Okay!"

Then he threw Joyce across the room and sprang at the winged monster that was her daughter's fascination.

In that moment, he was Joyce's fascination as well. She wasn't sure who she wanted to win.

***

Cordelia seemed to float into the library. She tossed her book bag on the table, where it almost slid directly into Buffy's open math homework.

"Hey," Cordelia said, beaming a smile at her.

"Uh, hi," Buffy replied, putting down her pencil. "What's up?" She blinked a few times and looked up to the window, noting that it had grown dark. She'd been working on homework for a while.

"Nothing," Cordelia replied, flopping into a chair.

"Then what's with the smiley face?"

"What, I can't just be in a good mood?"

Buffy shrugged.

"Well that's what I'm in. Someone has to counteract all the depresso-vibes you've been putting out lately.

Frowning, Buffy rolled her eyes and put her pencil between the pages of her textbook, shutting it closed.

"Thanks."

Cordelia sighed. "Fine. Sorry. I just figured you'd be in a better mood today since, you know, you spent the whole night with Xander."

Buffy felt a flush of heat rising up her neck and she averted her eyes from Cordelia, who grinned at her.

"So are you guys like a couple now?" Cordelia asked, eager, it seemed, for juicy gossip.

"No," Buffy said, staring in giddy embarrassment at the table. "We're...I don't know what we are."

"You're freaks in love. You're like made for each other. It's sick." Her bright smile remained. "I mean, you do like him, right?"

Buffy nodded, and managed a small grin.

"And you did that whole thing where he wraps you up in his arms and wings and you feel like nothing'll ever hurt you ever again?"

A soft furrowing of Buffy's brow was followed by her raising her eyes to look at Cordelia. "How did yo-"

"I got a little taste," Cordelia admitted. "But not like you. You're way addicted to it."

She blushed again, thinking about the feel of being in Xander's arms. Powerful, comforting, loving, caring, protective. She shivered slightly.

"See?" Cordelia grinned. "Freaks in love. So why do you look like your Prozac prescription ran out?"

"It's complicated."

"What? Your mom? Please. She'll be fine in like, a day. Your mom's way too cool for that."

Cordelia said it with such obvious sincerity that Buffy felt a little spark of hope ignite inside of her. "You think so?"

"Absolutely. I mean, I'm still trying to figure out how you could actually be her daughter. It's like the coolness skipped a generation or something."

"Thanks," Buffy said, sarcastically. "You're really great at cheering people up."

Buffy's eyes rose from the table to glance at Cordelia for just a moment, but they lingered when she saw the strange expression on Cordelia's face. A soft expression of concern, confusion, and what looked like mild indignation looked back at her. Cordelia crossed her arms and sighed loudly.

"Okay, you really want me to help? I'll help."

"No I didn't say-"

"You're upset," Cordelia continued, ignoring Buffy's protests. "Because of your mom, right? Cause she had an attack of the crazies when she found out your life is a total freakfest?"

Buffy glared at her. It was only Cordelia's surprisingly comforting presence the night before that kept her from stalking out of the library. "Something like that," she growled.

"Well we already know that's going to get better, so there's no point in being upset about it. You've got a good mom, she'll realize you're this big time hero, and then the freak stuff won't matter so much."

"Uh, thanks? I think. Or maybe not."

Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Whatever. The point is, you're going to be fine with her. So what else is bothering you? Angel?"

Buffy swallowed. "A little."

Cordelia took a deep breath and scooted her chair closer to Buffy. "I guess that one kind of does blow."

Buffy let out a small huff of would-be-laughter, and gave Cordelia a half-grin. "It kind of does." She sighed and let her eyes drop back to the table. She stared at her hands, and thought about Angel. Angel, her sort of boyfriend. Angel who had been slipping away from her even before Drusilla tore his soul from him. Maybe she wasn't still in that deep crush phase with Angel anymore, confused as she had been at the time between him and Xander, but she still cared about him deeply. Angel loved her, and one way or another, she loved Angel too. He was nice. To her.

That was the difference. When she first met Angel, he didn't seem to care about anything. As they got to know each other that had obviously changed. He'd cared about her. Powerfully. And as an extension of that, he cared about the things she cared about.

But did Angel ever care about other people, random, regular people? If he hadn't been infatuated with her, would Angel have ever helped others?

She could still remember his almost petulant scoff in one of her first dealings with him, when she was going down into the Master's cave to try and save Xander's friend Jesse. Back then he treated the idea of helping her physically as a big joke.

Meanwhile, Xander was following her despite her explicit orders, because his friend was in trouble.

Guilt washed over her, and Buffy face screwed up in self-loathing as she curled her legs up onto the chair, hugging them and putting her head against her knees. How unfair was she? Angel was, for all intents and purposes, dead. And here she was still comparing him to Xander.

Comparing him, and finding him wanting. It just wasn't fair. She should be mourning his loss; she should be honoring his memory. Instead, she continued to come up with reasons in her mind why she wished she had chosen Xander from the get-go.

The truth was, she did miss him. Angel was, at the very least, one of her best friends. He knew her intimately, as a man for a woman. He was insightful, intelligent, and she knew that deep down inside he had a great heart, a great potential for caring. It was just that she was selfish. She didn't want to be with the guy with the potential for caring. She wanted to be with the guy who already cared.

About her, and about everyone else.

Angel lost his soul because she'd chosen Xander. If she'd been with him, Drusilla would have never been able to do the ceremony. If she'd been paying attention, she would have noticed he was gone.

A gentle hand touched against Buffy's back, and rubbed gently. The unexpected gesture of comfort made her hiccup a high-pitched sob. She looked up, tears slowly sliding down her cheeks. Cordelia gave her a sympathetic smile.

"When did you get so nice?" Buffy asked, almost laughing as she wiped her face.

"I was always nice," she replied, airily. "You guys were just too stupid to realize it."

Then she did laugh, and reached out to grasp Cordelia's hand. She squeezed it gently.

"Thanks."

Cordelia shrugged modestly. "It's no big deal. I mean, I guess I've been thinking about things lately, you know? Cause Xander, he's just got this life ahead of him that looks so lonely and dark and everything."

Buffy nodded. "Yeah."

"And then I guess I realized that, you know, you're like him. I never thought about it before. You never asked to be the Slayer." Cordelia rubbed her back gently. "You're a freak, but it's not like it's your fault. A-and you do good things with it. You're a good person. Like Xander. And me? I'm not a good person."

"No yo-"

"I'm not," Cordelia insisted. "But I want to be. Xander's showing me how, and," she took a deep breath. "And I think you are too." She snorted, and her voice became more like its usual confident tones. "I mean, jeez! I'm even looking up to Willow! I'm way gone."

"Really?"

Cordelia nodded seriously. "Xander, he's like, he's a hero, Buffy. Not cause he's got those gargoyle muscles, but because he just tries to help, you know?"

"Yeah," she smiled softly. Her chest tingled as she imagined the feel of his life-infusing breath flowing into her. He was her hero.

"Well I want to help too," Cordelia said. "Because- Because-" She seemed to be struggling to say something.

"Because why?" Buffy prompted.

Cordelia took a deep, courage-building breath. Then she looked Buffy in the eyes. "Because he's my best friend."

Buffy had to struggle not to smile. It was such a sweet thing to say.

"He's my only friend," whispered Cordelia, distantly. Buffy frowned, and felt suddenly like there was something happening here. Something she should take advantage of.

"Cordelia?" she asked.

"Yeah?"

"We could be friends." She said it with the tone of someone suggesting a place to eat dinner.

Cordelia stared at her. Her response surprised Buffy. "How?"

"This is a good start," Buffy replied, shyly. "We could be nice to each other."

She seemed to think about that for a moment. "Does that mean I would have to stop telling you when you're being stupid?"

Buffy smirked. "A deal killer, huh?"

"It would be *way* tough. You're stupid a lot." A teasing grin slid onto her face.

"Am I allowed to say when you're being a shallow airhead?"

"No," Cordelia scoffed.

"Then you're not allowed to call me stupid."

"Xander lets me call him stupid," Cordelia pointed out. "And he's my friend."

"Xander's not stupid."

"Duh! I know that. It's just a thing that we do."

Buffy frowned. "Wait, so, you don't really think I'm stupid?"

Cordelia sighed like she was talking to a child. "I don't think you're stupid. I just think you act stupid. Like right now. Of course I don't think you're stupid."

"Well how am I supposed to know that?"

Cordelia shrugged. "I thought it was obvious. You know you're not stupid."

"Then maybe," Buffy suggested, shrugging a little. "Maybe you should, you know, tell us that too."

"What do you mean?"

Buffy let out a slightly astonished breath. "Do you really not know?"

Cordelia shook her head.

"Just...Say nice things, sometimes. You can't just tease people with bad things all the time and expect them to realize you're not serious."

"Nice things," Cordelia said, skeptically.

"Yeah."

"Like what?"

Buffy sighed. "I don't know, Cordelia. You can't think of anything nice to say about any of us?"

Cordelia thought for a moment. "I guess you- you're not, I mean. You don't, you're not ugly."

"Gee, thanks."

"No! I mean. I mean you know that you're- Kind of pretty. I guess. I mean, you take pretty good care of your hair. And, uh, you know, I uh, I like how you saved my life a bunch of times." Fidgeting, she hugged her arms. "It's just too weird! You can't just say things like that to people."

Buffy frowned at her. Was is really that hard for Cordelia to say something nice?

"Why not?"

"It's...People don't do that. Not for real. I mean, Xander's the only person I ever met who doesn't just say nice things because he's supposed to."

"You're kidding."

Cordelia shook her head, looking confused.

"Nobody ever said, um, I dunno. That you have a pretty smile?"

"Xander has."

"Forget Xander. Nobody else?"

Cordelia shrugged. "Boys, sometimes. But they're usually looking at my boobs when they say it."

"Well, like, what about your mom? Doesn't she say nice things about your outfits or your grades or when you were May Queen?"

Cordelia actually snorted. "No."

"Really? What about Harmony and the others? I've heard them say nice things."

"To my face," Cordelia snarled. "It's meaningless."

Maybe that was Cordelia's problem. The only people who ever said nice things to her were saying them more as a means to an end, rather than an honest appraisal. She took that to mean that compliments simply weren't meant to ever be taken seriously, and thus not worth the time of giving in the first place.

"Okay," Buffy said, turning in her chair to better look at Cordelia. "There's Xander, right?"

Cordelia smiled a little. "Yeah."

"That's a start, anyway. Can you say nice things about him? To him?"

"I-I think so. Yeah. Yes."

"Because he says nice things to you?"

The smile widened. "Yeah. But he doesn't get all mad when I tease him."

"Exactly!" Buffy exclaimed, touching her finger to her nose. "Because he knows you're not serious, because you say nice things too."

Cordelia shook her head. "That doesn't make any sense. Why should he believe the nice things over the...The teasing things?"

"You mean the nice things, don't you?"

"Yeah."

"That's why." Buffy was astonished. It was like Cordelia had never learned such a simple, childish thing. It made her feel bad for the other girl. What a terrible way to go through life.

Cordelia seemed to think on what Buffy said. She rubbed her upper arms self-consciously, looking anywhere but at Buffy. Her expression was one of deep introspection.

Then she looked up, and the familiar strength and confidence of Cordelia Chase was clear in her face. She looked Buffy in the eye, and spoke.

"You're a hero," she said. "A real, honest-to-God hero. You saved my life a bunch of times, and I always know that if something really scary happens, that you'll help me get out of it, e-even though you don't really like me. You, um, you put up with a lot of awful stuff, and you deal with it way better than I ever could. You're really sweet with Xander and I don't think he could handle stuff without you. You're just...You're like one of the best people I know."

Buffy blinked at her in open astonishment. Cordelia stared defiantly back at her.

"Really?" Buffy breathed.

Cordelia nodded.

"Wow."

Buffy swallowed, and stared down at her shoes for a moment. Her face flushed red, and she grinned sheepishly. She had no idea Cordelia ever thought such things about her.

But as Buffy had told her, the nice things just seemed to sink in easier than the teasing. She just *knew* Cordelia was on the level. Especially after Cordelia had been so nice the night before. Especially after how great she'd been in helping Xander. Especially after...

"Hey, Cordy?" Buffy said.

"What?" Cordelia replied, almost daring Buffy to say the wrong thing.

"Thanks for letting me stay with you. It was really, really nice of you. I hope- I hope it means we could be friends too."

Buffy sniffed, smiled softly, and got out of her chair. Cordelia's eyes went wide as Buffy pulled her into a friendly embrace, hugging the taller girl. For a few seconds, Cordelia stood stock still, clearly out of her element.

Then she seemed to relax in Buffy's arms, and hugged her back.

"This is way weird," Cordelia whispered almost a minute later. Her voice wavered slightly, and there was a hitch in her breath.

"Welcome to freak-hood," Buffy teased. "I think you're going to fit right in."

Cordelia groaned. "Don't even joke."

Buffy grinned and stepped back, smiling at her would-be-friend. "Thanks again. For everything." She realized she no longer felt quite so depressed about her mom, or about Angel.

"Sure," Cordelia smiled a little. She sniffed and rubbed at her slightly misty eyes. "I hope Willow's not as confusing as this."

"Nah, Willow's way smarter than we are, she'll probably figure out what you're trying to say before you even say it."

Cordelia laughed a little then, and then glanced at the clock. She frowned.

"What?" Buffy asked.

"Xander was supposed to meet me here. He said he was just going to do a quick sweep first."

Buffy looked at her watch. It was nearly two hours after sunset. She hadn't realized how long she and Cordelia had been talking, or how late it was even before then. "When was that?"

"Just after he woke up," Cordelia said. Her eyes moved to Buffy's, and there was clear worry in them. Buffy's stomach clenched. If Xander wasn't back, it was because he found something on his routine checks on...

Her mom.

"We can take my car," Cordelia said, turning on her heels and racing out of the library. "Come on!"

***

This was not her life. This could not be her life. Because if Joyce Summers's life consisted of watching three inhumanly strong vampires fighting a seven-foot-tall monster with enormous wings, then it meant that was her daughter's life as well. It could not be.

But it was.

They were out on the street, the battle having spilled out the door in the first few minutes of the terrible fight. Joyce was woozy and weak. She didn't think she'd lost too much blood, and the two wounds on either side of her neck weren't bleeding too badly, but the shock of what was going on around her had her speechless.

She'd been dragged along outside with them, used as a shield, used as a toy to be fought over. The three vampires and the gargoyle fighting over who would get her. Her knees were scraped from being thrown away, but the few times she'd tried to escape when their attention was elsewhere had not gone well.

Despite Xander's - the gargoyle's - massive size, it seemed that he wasn't able to handle the three vampires. They took him on two at a time, switching places, but always two attacking and one keeping an eye on Joyce, or otherwise waiting for the demon to make a mistake.

At first she thought the gargoyle would be the clear victor. He fought with savage intensity, screaming that terrible roar that chilled her to the very bone. When his punches connected with the vampires, they were rocked off their feet and sent flying several feet away.

Yet the vampires hit with nearly the same incredible force. The strength of the blows seemed to resonate deep within her chest like the echoing retort of a gunshot. Even the woman seemed to have that same unholy strength.

They wore him down, slowly but surely. These three vampires, they clearly knew what they were doing. Knew how to fight, and knew how to gang up on a stronger opponent. Soon the dusky blue creature was bleeding from a dozen points, deep gashes across his chest, his face growing splotchy and swollen.

He kept fighting back. Kept tearing and swinging at them. Sometimes he'd connect, sometimes he wouldn't. Sometimes she was sure his staggering blow would kill the vampires, but always they got back up again.

The fight lasted forever. Far too long. Several times Joyce wondered why no one was calling the police. An epic battle was taking place in the middle of their suburban street, and it seemed like no one cared.

She was going to die, no matter who won, and all she could do was watch, trembling with fear.

Finally, it happened. The gargoyle had thrown the blond one into a car with enough force to leave a vaguely man-sized impression against the frame. But turned around as he was, it allowed Angel to punch him hard across the face. The monster gave that terrible roar, causing Joyce to shudder with renewed fear. Part of her began to root for the vampires. They, at least, she could understand. They were mostly human. Not him. Not that creature. He was monstrous.

Though the gargoyle threw another punch, Angel dodged it easily. The monster was getting slow. Angel taunted it and kicked it hard across the face. A moment later the woman was on the gargoyle's back, digging her long, sharp nails into his back. The gargoyle screamed like some ancient, terrible evil, and tried to throw her off. As he struggled, the blond one was back. In his hands he held a torn off piece of the car door, and he swung it violently against the gargoyle's face.

He fell with a heavy thud, and did not get back up again.

Joyce held her breath. The vampire slammed the car door against the gargoyle's head twice more before tossing it aside. He looked up to the other two, grinning.

"Now that was a right decent bit o' brawlin'," he said.

The woman licked her bloodstained nails. "Ooh. He tastes like rocks."

Angel nudged the gargoyle with his foot. "I was starting to think he'd never go down. Where were you?" he demanded of the blond one.

"What do you mean, where was I? I was fightin' him!"

"I thought you said you killed two Slayers."

"I did, which is more'n you've ever done," the blond one snarled back. "You got somethin' to say to me?"

"Yeah," Angel growled. "He should have gone down quick and easy. Otherwise, what the hell am I keeping you around for?"

"Let's get one thing straight, *Angel*," the man said, stepping closer to Angel. "You ain't keepin' me around. I'm keepin' *you* around."

"Watch it, Willy."

"It's Spike, and you'd do bloody well to remember it."

"I think you're forgetting who you're talking to," Angel said, darkly.

Spike shook his head, staring at Angel. "It's been a hundred years since I gave a rat's arse who you are. I'm the big bad now. I killed two Slayers. I spent the last hundred years gettin' better, gettin' stronger. What did you do? Sat around cryin' like a soddin' nancy boy?"

"Killed two Slayers, but the third one wasn't really the charm, was she, Spike? You're soft, and you know it. You better toughen up or-"

"She's coming," Drusilla said, cutting through their argument, an argument that seemed destined to become another brawl. "Ooh, she won't be pleased with our manners."

Spike glared at Angel for a moment before looking back to Drusilla. "Who's comin', love?"

"The Slayer," she whispered. Then she gasped. "But does she come for her mummy or does she come for her monster?"

"Doesn't matter," Spike said. "They'll both be dead by the time she gets here."

"No," Drusilla whined. "I want to play with him. You promised I could taste him."

"You did taste him, pet."

"I want to savor him, Spike. Please?"

Angel seemed to stare down the street. "She's right. I can hear them coming. Let's kill them and get out of here."

"No," Joyce whispered, unable to even will her legs to move.

Drusilla stamped her foot. "I want my monster."

"Bugger this," Spike said, and he bent down to grab the gargoyle by the legs. He began to drag him. "Come on, you git. Help me with him."

Angel glared at Joyce for a moment. For a second, she was sure he was going to kill her. Instead, he smiled.

"Who should we take, Joyce?"

Joyce stared at him. "What?"

"Who should we take? Should we take you, or should we take him?"

Her eyes flicked from the gargoyle to Angel. "Him."

Angel grinned. "Not really a tough decision, huh?" He stepped forward and suddenly grabbed her by the back of her hair, pressing his lips against hers. Joyce's eyes went wide and she squealed as he bit her lip.

"Be sure to tell Buffy it was your decision," he said, smiling. Then he licked the blood from his lips. "Mmm. You're a good kisser. Like mother, like daughter, eh?"

They left her there, slumped in the middle of the street, bleeding and dazed, carrying off the gargoyle with them.

And all she felt was relief.
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