The quiet shock following Angel's demise was soon washed away in a sea of hugs, exclamations of relief, and happy smiles. Even Giles got in on the action, hugging the much-bigger Xander with all the awkwardness and pride of a short father hugging his tall son.
That unnatural bigness was a boon in that instance, allowing Xander to scoop up the collective Scooby Gang in those massive arms, ensuring that no one had to go un-hugged. It was an event of exhausted relief and emotion, and Xander had the briefest thought that going through Drusilla's torturous "play-time" would be almost worth it if this was the reward he got at the end.
It was the last time Xander ever really worried that his friends could not remain so through his transformation. From then on, the memory of that moment would demolish the lingering doubts that would creep up from time to time. It was clear that Xander Harris, gargoyle or not, was cared for.
Buffy, in particular, was all smiles. Exhausted and beaten smiles, but smiles nonetheless. She'd taken yet another severe beating, which, if Xander calculated correctly, put them at eleventy-billion severe beatings between them. Yet despite her bloodied and bruised appearance, despite the way she swayed slightly whenever they weren't moving, and despite her complete exhaustion, she seemed determined to ride the wave of happiness resulting in Xander's rescue.
"So," Xander said as the gang congregated outside of the now vacant mansion. There was no sign of Spike or Drusilla anywhere. "I don't want to ask if there's anything else we have to worry about tonight, cause I know the Hellmouth's willing to provide."
The others chuckled lightly, save for Buffy, who stood close to him. Xander frowned when he realized that her body was actually pressing against his. She was breathing heavily, and her eyes were glassy, despite the smile that ghosted onto her face every so often. She was leaning against him, and he was pretty sure she'd fall over otherwise.
"There's nothing I'm aware of," Giles said, frowning softly as well. He and Xander glanced at each other. The look in Giles's eyes told him there was indeed a pressing issue, but the nearly imperceptible shake of his head said that it could wait.
"Right," Xander said, exhaling slowly. "Let's get you guys back, then." Luckily for them, Xander was fairly energized thanks to his stone sleep; the effects of the previous night's torture just a distant, frightening memory.
"We'll 'Scort you back," Buffy mumbled thickly. "Keep you safe."
Xander looked down at her, and unconsciously draped his wing around Buffy, who was pressed against his right side. She had a steadying arm around his waist, and he helped her remain upright with a careful arm around her.
Cordelia bobbed her head wearily. "Yeah, let's get home. I need sleep like a...person...who's sleepy." She blinked a few times, frowning. Xander was mildly surprised when Willow put an arm around Cordelia to help steady her.
"They've been up since yesterday," she mouthed at Xander, gesturing with her free hand to Buffy.
No wonder Buffy was barely standing. Maybe a fight like the one she'd had with Angelus, Spike, and Drusilla would be one she could bounce back from under normal circumstances.
"Buff, maybe we should take a few minutes before we get moving," he suggested.
"Nahmfine," she slurred.
"Uh huh." He glanced at Giles again, who shook his head.
"Buffy, there's no urgency. We can take a few minutes. You've been through a lot."
"Notaz much's Xander," she said, clearly making an effort to sound coherent. "Just sleepy, is all."
That was enough for Giles, who stepped up to Buffy, taking her face in his hands. She gave a soft whine in protest.
"Shh," he muttered. "Look at me, Buffy."
She sighed in annoyance, but did her best to focus his eyes on Giles. Her body swayed closer to Xander.
"Even Slayers have a breaking point," Giles reminded her, turning her face gently from one side and then the other, checking her head for injuries.
"I'm not broken, Giles."
"No, but you've been up for nearly two days, been through terrible emotional strain, had several shocks to your system, both emotionally and physically, and have only recently been through severe physical trauma. If you weren't the slayer, I'd be extremely worried about your long-term health."
"Good thing 'm the Slayer," she slurred. Then she jerked her head away from his grip. "Come on, les' jus' go. I can sleep at ho..." Her voice trailed off, growing tired and faint. Xander frowned as she shut her eyes tightly closed. When she spoke again, her voice was so distant and tiny that Xander thought she might start crying. "At 'ordelia's."
"Right," Xander said, breaking the awkward silence a moment later. "Let's get going. Sooner we're out of here, the sooner everyone can get some rest."
"What about you?" Willow asked.
He shrugged. "I'm good. They didn't know about stone sleep, so I'm pretty much at close to a hundred percent." Then he scowled softly, and glanced behind him, his tail flicking up. It now sported a pierced hole at the tip, where the spike had been driven through. "Well, maybe ninety-nine."
"Very well," Giles interjected. "We should head back to my apartment, I can drive everyone back from there."
"Sounds good," Xander said, and without another word, he bent down, and quickly scooped Buffy up off the ground. She squealed weakly in surprise. "Only you're not using up any more energy than you have to, Slayer."
Cradled in Xander's arms, Buffy looked tiredly up at him, and for a moment he thought she was going to protest. Then she slipped her arms around his neck, snuggled close against him, and buried her face against his chest.
She was asleep before they made it to the corner.
Joyce Summers, a bedraggled and very stressed out Joyce Summers, was waiting for them when they arrived at Giles's. Buffy's mother had been reading some of Giles's tamer books concerning the nature of reality, and she'd been unable to put them down since stumbling upon them earlier in the day.
She'd been able to see Buffy earlier in the day, although her daughter had said very little to her. Mostly just that she was to stay put and stay out of their way. Joyce couldn't find the inner fortitude to argue, not after all she'd seen, and not after the look in her daughter's eyes.
It was a hard look. Strong and determined like nothing Joyce had ever seen before. The kind of look that shamed her, because it made her afraid of her daughter, and the power she held. Afraid of her, and more importantly, afraid for her.
Joyce looked up from Giles's kitchen table as she heard keys in the lock. With a nervous intake of air, she waited, tense and worried. It was probably just Mr. Giles.
Sure enough, the door opened, and he strode into the room. He paused in his tracks when he spotted her.
"Joyce? You're up."
"I'm up," she said. He'd given her some kind of sleeping pill that morning after she'd been unable to even close her eyes all night. Even so, she'd been up several hours later to find his apartment empty. She was too afraid to leave, and had spent the day reading whenever she wasn't struggling mightily not to panic.
"Did you get any sleep?" he asked. "How are you feeling?"
"Distant," she admitted. Then there came a shuffling sound, and she looked back to the door. Her throat closed up with a frightened squeak, and she stumbled off her chair and back towards the wall as Xander ducked slightly under the doorframe, his wings cloaking around him as he stepped into the room.
"Don't be alarmed," Giles said. "We spoke about Xander."
He was, besides Buffy, all she seemed able to think about since the night before. Buffy, Mr. Giles, that Cordelia girl, all of them had tried so hard to convince her that the demon...Wasn't. Alone in the daylight in Giles's apartment, she'd almost been able to believe it. Seeing him, seeing the strength in his muscles, the ferocity in his face, the sinister wings and the inhuman limbs, that belief was quickly fleeing.
"How's your neck?" Xander rumbled. Joyce blinked at him.
"You got bit."
"You're going to bite me?"
"I might," Cordelia snapped as she brushed past Xander. "Aren't you done being awful yet?" She sighed angrily and dropped against Giles's couch, looking utterly drained. "I'm too tired to hit you again."
Xander frowned slightly. "You hit her?"
Cordelia shrugged, her eyes closed sleepily. "I guess."
Willow and Ms. Calendar soon filed in as well. Willow slumped down beside Cordelia, and Ms. Calendar moved towards Joyce, gently leading her back to her seat at the table. Joyce sat carefully, still staring at the monster in the middle of the room. He simply stood there, his wings encircling him, obscuring his form.
"Why don't you bring her upstairs, Xander?" Giles said a moment later.
"Me?" Joyce gasped.
"No," Giles said, rolling his eyes. "Buffy."
"Buffy's here?" Joyce stood quickly. "Where is she? Can I talk to her?"
"She's not in a talking mood," Xander said quietly. "Maybe in a few hours."
Fear for herself was quickly supplanted by fear for her daughter. She turned her eyes towards Xander. "W-what do you mean? Where is she?"
"Here," Xander replied. Joyce's eyes went wide as his wings slid back behind him. There, cradled in his arms, covered in blood, bruises, cuts and gashes, was Buffy. Her little girl, looking all the tinier in those massive arms, her body turned towards his curled up against him. She whimpered quietly, and Joyce nearly sobbed at the sound of it. Buffy fidgeted slightly and turned against him further, folding her legs up tighter.
"What did you do to her?" Joyce breathed, her heart beginning to race. "What ar-"
"Calm down, Joyce," Jenny said, putting a hand on the other woman's shoulder. "She's just sleeping. She couldn't be safer right now."
"Couldn't be safer? T-that's blood! We have to get her to a hospital!"
"She'll be fine by morning," Xander said, letting his wings drape around his body again, hiding Buffy from her sight. "She's just exhausted." With that, he turned towards the stairs, ducking slightly as he made his way up. Joyce quickly raced after him, no longer capable of worrying about her own welfare.
"No," Giles said when the others made to move after her. "Let her go. This may be necessary. We'll intervene if things get out of hand."
Despite his words, he moved up several steps and glanced up into his bedroom.
"I hope Xander clocks her one," Cordelia muttered sleepily. She half-sat half-lay on the couch, her arms folded under her breasts and her eyes closed. Willow was sprawled beside her, her head leaning against the back of the couch.
"That makes two," Jenny said, under her breath.
If Willow and Giles agreed, they kept it silent.
She was fairly terrified, but she followed him anyway. Buffy seemed too weak, so hurt, and she had to make sure this monster didn't do anything to her one way or another. Still, she kept a safe distance from the beast, unsure of when he might let loose that terrifying scream she could recall so clearly, losing what control he seemed capable of possessing and tearing into her.
Joyce shivered and reached up to the bandage on her neck, and recalled how the monster had roared, eyes burning white before he bit into her flesh.
Wait. No. Was that how it had happened? It was too frightening to think about for too long. All she knew was that this was a creature of nightmare that had somehow become real, and it seemed she was unable to wake up.
Worse, Buffy was trapped in that nightmare, and had been for years.
Giles's bedroom was dark, lit only by a small reading lamp by his bedside. The bed was immaculately made with dark blue blankets and pristinely white pillows. The dim light served to make Xan- the monster blend in, moving almost like a ghost.
He didn't seem to have noticed that she was following him. Joyce moved quietly as she could, barely able to breathe, and kept her distance, remaining in the shadows herself. She wasn't sure what she'd do if he tried to hurt Buffy, but she didn't want to draw attention to herself before then. Maybe he wouldn't care to turn his attention towards her if she didn't give him a reason.
When his wings swiftly swept back to reveal Buffy, Joyce only barely stifled her gasp at the sudden movement. The gasp quickly died as she saw Buffy against him, against it.
Buffy was breathing slowly against him, her palm against his chest as she lay curled up in his arms. Xander bent his head low towards her, and Joyce almost cried out, thinking he was going to bite her.
Instead, he gave her a light kiss on the top of her head. Joyce blinked, and said nothing. Buffy squirmed slightly, letting out a soft whimper.
Slowly, the gargoyle sunk to his knees beside the bed, and leaned over it, letting Buffy press against the mattress. Joyce took a slow step back, deeper into the shadows. Part of her felt oddly intrusive all of a sudden. Still, she stared in fascination.
Xander carefully placed her on the bed, and Buffy moaned softly as her body slid away from his arms. He smiled, and Joyce stared at those large talon-like fingers as they stroked the hair away from her daughter's face.
"Buffy to the rescue," Xander whispered, his voice deep and resonant as ever, yet softer and somehow more human. He smiled sadly, and kissed her forehead for a second time. He reached over and clicked off the reading lamp. Buffy's eyes fluttered slowly open, although Joyce was barely able to make it out.
"Andur?" she mumbled sleepily. "Zat you?"
"Yeah, Buff," he said quietly. "I'm here."
Buffy's face spread into a slow smile as she closed her eyes. "Thass good. I like it when Xander's here."
"I'm getting that."
Her hand groped awkwardly through the darkness before she touched his face. "Mmm. Xander."
Xander held her wrist gently, and kissed it. "Get some sleep, Buff."
"Yougonnastay?" she slurred.
"I'll be right downstairs."
Buffy blinked and rolled over slightly. She frowned as she looked around. "Where's this?"
"Oh," she said, closing her eyes again, clearly not really registering the answer. "You gonna stay, right Xander?"
He grinned a little, and kissed her hand again. "Get some sleep. You're repeating yourself." He went to pull his hand back, but Buffy held it tiredly.
"Xander?" she whined sleepily.
"Stay with me?" She pulled him closer. "Hold me?"
"Buffy," he whispered. Joyce swallowed as the huge creature held her daughter's tiny hand, and gently pulled her towards him, letting her slide off the bed and into his encompassing embrace. Buffy threw her arms around his neck as the wings draped down around them again.
"Know is that I way love you, right?" Buffy mumbled in semi-coherency.
"Been getting that too," he said, rubbing her back gently beneath his wings. Buffy's grip tightened around him, and her shoulders shook silently. "Shh. It's okay." He stroked her hair, and held her close, kneeling before the bed.
"I was so scared," Buffy said, weeping quietly against him. "So scared, Xander."
"I know. I'm okay. You saved me." He smiled and pressed his cheek against the top of her head. "You're my hero."
"Nuh-uh" she said, shaking her head. "You're mine."
"That's the sleepiness talking. Come on. Sleep. We'll talk tomorrow when we begin our glorious new hobby of not getting pummeled every other day."
Joyce's daughter laughed for a few moments, sobbed for a few more. Then she sniffed, and pulled herself slightly up Xander's body, her mouth close to his inhuman ear. "Just promise you'll stay? Keep me safe?"
"Long as you promise me the same thing," Xander said, and Joyce took a step down the stairs, ducking slightly as Xander stood. Buffy was held easily in his arms, looking so...Peaceful. Joyce couldn't remember her daughter seeming so at ease in years. The blood, the bruises, the deep gashes across her cheek, they all seemed to melt away as Joyce was just barely able to make out the serene smile on her face.
"Deal," Buffy said, and her smile became dazzling as Xander sank down onto the bed, arms and wings holding her protectively. Buffy snuggled up against his chest, resting her head just below his chin, curling up against him. The wings blanketed her, holding her gently; cocooning Joyce's daughter in what suddenly seemed like an impenetrable cloak of protection.
That strength, that ferocity, the terrible and frightening aspects of the gargoyle seemed to vanish as Joyce stared, unable to look away. What she saw was a kind of strength and resolve that felt almost kindred to her. A thought came to her, and it stunned her to the core.
This was a creature that cared for her daughter just as much as she did.
*Maybe more,* whispered a tiny, shameful little voice inside of her. The voice of guilt.
Joyce turned away silently, and went back down the stairs.
The sun was warm against her face as she woke. Buffy squeezed her eyes tightly shut, and curled up beneath the blankets. They were a poor substitute for Xander's wings wrapped protectively around her.
As she thought of him, her eyes snapped open, and she immediately shut them again at the bright light of the sun. Blinking rapidly, she looked around the unfamiliar room. Giles's bedroom. She'd slept there. The night was hazy, and she still felt slightly achy and sore from the battle. Had she dreamed him?
No. There he was, standing beside the bed, the light of the morning sun reflecting off his stone form, a peaceful smile on his inhuman but still somehow Xanderish face. Buffy sat up, letting the blankets fall from her, and smiled at the look. It was a sad smile, one that would have been brighter if she could talk to him, hold him and be held by him. The night seemed so far away.
She looked around, and stretched her arms, her shoulders popping slightly. She flexed her muscles and arched her back with a few more pops, working out the kinks that always showed up after a big fight. Glancing down at her worn clothing, she frowned when she realized they were covered in dry blood. Giles might not be too happy about her bleeding all over his bed.
She could still feel him, she realized. The feel of Xander still pulsed within her, and she could feel part of herself beating in him as well. She felt stronger for it, and knew he would be stronger as well. Buffy got up, and put her hands against Xander's stone chest. Sighing, she hugged his immobile form, resting her head against him for a few moments, focusing on that feel of loving protection and tenderness that seemed to fill her.
"Sleep well," she said, and stood on her tiptoes to plant a light kiss on the stone lips. Then, just because she could, she let her hands run across the muscular chest, grinning a little at the precisely defined muscles. God, he was big. Big and strong and loving and Xander. There was no question in her mind now: she loved him. Loved him for everything he was, and everything he had been. She loved his old body, and she realized she loved his new one as well.
Gazing at him, she allowed herself to enjoy the look of him, and get used to the idea of her attraction. For so long she'd thought of him as beautiful, elegant, and powerful. Now he seemed safe, masculine, loving, and...Kind of on the hot side. He had muscles to die for. His biceps alone were bigger than her head. His body was the very definition of impressive, a massive and powerful figure that had somehow become extremely attractive to her.
Buffy touched the side of his face, and stared happily. In truth, the body was just the icing on top of the cake. She'd learned to love the soul of him first. It didn't matter to her what he looked like. He just happened to be gigantically muscular, uniquely handsome, and way beautiful.
Then, with a naughty little grin to herself, Buffy glanced around to make sure no one was around. Satisfied she was alone, she bent down, and stuck her head between Xander's legs, looking up underneath the loincloth he wore, now stone like the rest of him. The fabric had frozen in such a way that she got a pretty decent look.
"Wow," she breathed, and almost hit her head as she pulled it back out. Her face flushed red, and she quickly looked up at Xander's face, wondering if he might magically come alive. The face remained frozen, that same smile etched upon it. She giggled to herself a little. "Big is definitely the word. Wow."
After just a few more minutes of careful inspection and perhaps just a little touching of various parts, Buffy gave Xander's lips a final kiss and made her way downstairs.
"Ah," came Giles's pleasant voice as she came down the stairs. "Good morning."
"Morning," she said, feeling a little shy. She never liked the night after Giles saw her all beat up. It was embarassing. "Um, I might have gotten some blood on your bed."
Giles was sitting at his kitchen table, reading an old leather-bound book and sipping tea. He shook his head, dismissing her concerns. "I rather expected as much. Quite all right. Are you hungry?"
"Only for food," she said, joining him in the kitchen. Her stomach rumbled loudly.
"Perhaps we'd best get you some before you wake up the others," Giles said with a small smile.
Giles gestured to the living room. Cordelia and Willow were both sprawled out on opposite ends of the couch, their legs tangled together in the middle beneath an old woolen blanket that had been tossed over them. Cordelia snored softly, her head lolled back over the armrest.
"They slept here?"
"Yes. They both fell asleep rather quickly after we arrived home. Cordelia looked quite exhausted."
"Yeah," Buffy said, remembering the vacant looks of exhaustion on Cordelia's face. They'd both been up a long time. She smiled sadly, then frowned and turned back to Giles. "Where'd you sleep?"
"Ah," he said, clearing his throat. "Well, Ms. Calendar was gracious enough to, ahem, that is, she offered to allow me to stay, erm, she kindly gave me permission to-"
Buffy rolled her eyes. "I get it, Giles. You had your first sleepover. Yeesh."
It was as Giles was stammering and attempting not to spill his tea as his hand shook that there came a quiet knock on the front door. A moment later it opened, and Buffy felt her smile fade. Her mother came in, carrying a small overnight bag.
"Oh," Joyce said in mild surprise. She looked tentatively at Buffy. "Um. Hi."
"Hi," Buffy said after a moment. "What are you..."
Joyce seemed distracted for a moment, but then shook her head slightly and blinked. "Oh. Yes. Um, I brought you some clothes. A-and other things." She gestured vaguely at Buffy. "Since yours are all, um, you know. Dirty."
Buffy looked down at her bloodstained clothes. "Bloody."
"Well, maybe a little," Joyce said, diplomatically. "I-I thought you might want to clean up." She hefted the bag. "A-and Mr. Giles said we might not be able to stay at the house for a while."
Spike and Drusilla were still out there, and still had invitations.
"Not at night, anyway," Giles confirmed. "Although Jen- Ms. Calendar assures me there are de-invitation spells. We'll find the proper one shortly, I'm sure."
Buffy just stared at her mother. Joyce shifted uncomfortably.
"I-I brought your shampoo. The one with the mango?" She held the bag out towards Buffy like a peace offering. Gingerly, and with a slight amount of suspicion at her mother's suddenly far-too-normal behavior, Buffy reached out for it.
"Thanks," she said slowly.
"The shower is upstairs," Giles said, reminding Buffy of his presence. "I think I'll run out for donuts and such. Perhaps the others will be awake for breakfast when you're all cleaned up. Towels are in the second shelf."
Then he was out the door, and Buffy was left standing there with Cordelia and Willow asleep on the couch, and her mother smiling hopefully at her.
"Are you feeling better?" Joyce asked after a few moments of silence.
"You didn't look so good last night. I didn't think- I mean, they told me you would be okay, but I-"
"I'm okay," Buffy shrugged. "I heal fast."
"Right. Because of- of being the, um, the Slayer thing."
"That's nice," Joyce said, conversationally. She shifted her weight uncomfortably.
"Buffy, I, you know that I love you, right?"
Frowning, Buffy shrugged. "Yeah. Sure."
"I just, I don't like this. You shouldn't have clothes that are all...Dirty."
"Dirty," Buffy repeated.
"You don't hate me, do you?"
"What? Hate you?"
"I always thought I was a good mom," Joyce said, her voice wavering. "I thought I was paying attention, a-and reading the proper signs and being strict but flexible and-" she paused, and took a deep breath. "I just wasn't prepared for this."
Buffy snorted without meaning to. "Neither was I." She looked down sadly. "Neither was Xander." She raised her eyes again, wondering about her mother's reaction to the name. She was surprised to see her sadness mirrored in her mother's eyes.
"Go clean up," Joyce whispered. She cleared her throat, and spoke a little louder. "Then, maybe we could talk?"
The clothes were a lost cause, unfortunately. They were caked with blood, and when Buffy had disrobed, she threw them in the garbage rather than Giles's laundry hamper. It wouldn't be the first casualty to her wardrobe as a result of slaying.
She lingered in the shower for some time, scrubbing the patches of dried blood from her body and groaning as she washed it out of her hair. For a while she simply stood under the hot spray of water with her eyes closed, focused on the deep inner feeling of Xander that remained with her. It gave her the courage necessary to talk with her mother so soon after everything that had happened between them.
Her mother seemed much calmer this morning, but there was no telling if that would last. Buffy could still remember the look in her eye as she talked about "the monster," or her whispered hope that Angel had killed him. It made her feel like throwing up, and she was glad she hadn't eaten yet.
She was pretty grateful for the change of clothes and the things like her shampoo, deodorant, and toothbrush. Buffy just wondered what it meant that her mother seemed to understand that they might not be able to stay at home for a while. Did she expect her to come home when they found the de-invitation spell?
Buffy didn't want to go home. Maybe she could forgive her mother, even understand her reactions. But events couldn't be erased, and the truth was, she just didn't want to be there, at least for a little while. She wanted to be where she felt safe. She wanted to be with Xander.
Which was going to be impossible to explain to her mother. She wasn't looking forward to a continuation of the screaming match they'd had several days ago where her mother had forbidden her to ever see Xander again.
Which was why Buffy was so surprised when she stepped out of Giles's bathroom to find Joyce sitting on the edge of his bed, hands on her knees, gazing up at the stone figure of Xander.
Buffy frowned, slowly rubbing the towel against her wet hair. She felt a little more refreshed and alert now that she was wearing clean clothes and no longer felt sticky with blood. She winced only slightly as she stepped towards the bed, a particularly nasty bruise on her leg still giving her some pain.
"It's incredible," Joyce whispered as her daughter sat silently beside her. "It looks just like him."
"It is him."
Joyce shook her head in quiet disbelief. "And he's Xander."
"He doesn't look anything like Xander," Joyce remarked, and Buffy wondered at the odd calm in her voice.
"He does if you look the right way," Buffy said, a little defensively.
"He's very big."
Buffy paled slightly. "What do you mean?"
Joyce turned to her, and frowned in mild confusion. "I mean he's big. He has to be eight feet tall."
"Seven," Buffy corrected. "Maybe more when his wings are up." She sighed inwardly, and hoped her mom didn't ask what she thought she'd meant.
Joyce sighed, and turned back to the statue. She closed her eyes, and breathed in through her nose. "I wish I'd seen him like this, the first time."
Her eyes slid open, and Joyce stared up at Xander. "It's like a work of art."
Buffy smiled softly, and looked up at him too. He was magnificent, and she felt a little flushed just looking at him. Her smile widened into a giddy little grin. She loved that big lug, and couldn't wait until sunset so he could wake up and hug her and kiss her and just generally be there for her.
"Yeah," Buffy said wistfully. Joyce raised an eyebrow and glanced back at her daughter. She sighed again.
"I-I was wrong," she said quietly, staring at the gargoyle. "I'm sorry, Buffy."
"I still hate it," Joyce continued. "I don't want you to be the Slayer. I-I don't want you living any of the nightmare I went through."
"If I don't, who will?" Buffy said, shrugging.
Joyce half-laughed and half-sobbed, and shook her head. "I don't know if I should be proud of you or afraid for you." She wiped her eyes, and turned to her daughter. "Is it okay if I'm both?"
"I guess," Buffy said, swallowing the lump in her throat.
"Is he stronger than you?"
"Xander," Joyce looked back to the statue. "Is he stronger than you?"
"He can beat me in arm wrestling."
Joyce smiled a little. "Mr. Giles said you're stronger than ten people put together."
"Ten? He used to say twenty."
"Are you really?"
Blushing slightly, Buffy shrugged. It was strange to finally be talking to her mother about such things.
"I don't know. Maybe. I can do that Superman thing where I bend a pipe in half."
"But you're so tiny," Joyce said. "You're just a little girl."
"Mo-om," Buffy sighed. "I'm not a kid anymore."
"No," Joyce said quietly. "You're not. You haven't been for a while, have you?"
Buffy shook her head slowly. "No. Not since," she took a deep breath. "Not since the night of the prom."
"Oh no," Joyce groaned, covering her ears. "I don't want to hear about that. Let me live with my delusions, please."
"What? Ew! Gross, Mom! No. That's not what I meant."
"No!" She scoffed.
"Th-then what happened on the night of the prom?"
Meeting her mother's gaze, Buffy spoke quietly. "I died."
"What?" came the breathy response.
"It was a prophecy," Buffy said, like that meant something. "There was this vampire. The oldest one there was. He was going to kill me and kind of end the world too."
"Kill you? The world?"
"He drowned me," Buffy whispered. "Killed me."
"Buffy, what are you-?"
Buffy swallowed and looked up at Xander, the smiling face that wasn't technically the face she'd woken up to that night, but that still held some quality of it, some undefinable Xanderness that made it the same.
"He brought me back. He saved me, Mom. He always saves me." Tears filled her eyes, and she blinked them away. "I couldn't do this without the others, but especially not him. I need him so bad." She buried her face in her hands, and blinked hot tears into her palms.
A moment passed, and she suddenly felt her mother's comforting hand on her back. The touch turned into a desperate hug, and Buffy clutched her mother tightly, crying softly. Joyce held her for some time, rocking her gently, comforting her like only a mother could.
"You can bend a pipe?" Joyce whispered when Buffy had calmed slightly, though she still held her in a motherly embrace.
"Yeah," Buffy sniffed.
"And he's stronger than you?"
"He saved you?"
"Only be the Slayer when Xander's around, okay?"
Buffy sniffed and pulled her head back. "What?"
"If you have to be the Slayer, h-he should stay close. To save you."
"I think so."
"Mom," Buffy said, twitching her nose slightly. "You know that I- I mean, Xander, he's my- I really..."
"Yes," Joyce said, exhaling slowly. She nodded. "I think I'm getting that."
"You won't hate me?" Buffy asked in a frightened voice.
"Hate you? Buffy? What are you talking about?"
Buffy wiped her nose with her sleeve. "I-I love him, Mom. He's not a monster. He's brave and beautiful and strong and....He's Xander, Mom. I love Xander."
"Oh," Joyce cooed softly, hugging Buffy to her again. "I just want you to be happy, Buffy. I just want a good life for you."
"It'd be over already without him."
Joyce shut her eyes tightly closed as she hugged Buffy with all of her might. "I hate the idea of you risking your life."
"I can't stop," Buffy said, hiccupping slightly. "I won't stop."
"I know," Joyce sighed. "Proud and scared, remember?" She leaned her head back and looked at her daughter's beautiful and deceptively innocent face. She wondered how she'd ever missed the wisdom and pain in Buffy's eyes. Brushing aside a strand of her hair, she tucked it behind Buffy's ear. "I guess I should be happy. H-he's terrifying, Buffy."
Buffy pulled back sharply. "He's not, he's-"
"No," Joyce held up a hand. "I mean he's...Ferocious. But when he's with you..."
"With me?" Buffy frowned. "What do you mean?"
"He scared me, Buffy. N-not that first night with Ted. The other night, when he fought them out in the street. He was terrifying. The way he fought, the ferocity of it, the willpower, it scared me. I-I didn't realize where it came from. I thought it was...I'm not even sure."
Buffy's mother smiled sadly and looked from her daughter to the stone statue that was Xander. She let out an incredulous little huff of air that was almost a laugh. "It's for you," she whispered. "For my little girl. This gigantic and terrifying thing that will fight so hard." Joyce did let out a laugh then, short and almost a sob. "You have the most intimidating bodyguard I've ever seen."
"He's more than that."
Joyce nodded slowly. "I just can't help but think of what you're giving up. A life, Buffy. A real life, a family, a future."
"Giving up?" Buffy shook her head. "I'm not giving up anything, Mom. I'm the Slayer. I-I wasn't going to get those things anyway."
"You could." The pain of knowing her daughter's role and her supposed duty tore at her. "You could, Buffy. It's not written in stone."
Buffy smiled a secret little smile. "I could," she agreed. "Because of him. Because of Willow and Giles and Cordelia and Ms. Calendar." Then that smile faded slowly away, and she gazed up at Xander. Slipping away from her mother, Buffy stood up, and touched the side of Xander's face. "He doesn't get that. Not unless we can help him find a way. He gave me my life, Mom, and all I want to do is spend it with him. Dark, light, night, day, it doesn't matter."
She ran her hand down his cheek, and closed her eyes, placing her forehead against his chest. "I never feel as safe as I do when he holds me," she whispered.
Joyce sniffed, and got up, pulling her daughter into a hug. "All I want is for you to be safe."
"I will be. I've got the only gargoyle in the world watching out for me."
"And he has the Slayer watching out for him, right?"
Buffy smiled. "Yeah."
"I'm so proud of you."
It didn't change the past. It just made the future a little bit brighter.