liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,
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FIC: Whisper, 1/12 (PG-13; BtVS; Ensemble)

Go here for the "DVD commentary" for Whisper.

Title: Whisper, Part 1
Author: Lizbeth Marcs
Fandom: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Rating: PG-13 for violence, mild language, and some implied situations. Any similarities to a certain scandal that has rocked a certain religion in the Greater Boston Area is purely coincidental, even if it did originally provide the spark for this idea.
Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and related characters are owned by FOX, written and produced by Mutant Enemy. The song ‘No More’ is from the Original Broadway production Into the Woods, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and is therefore not owned by me, either. Dolly, however, is mine.
Summary: A demon is stalking the streets of Sunnydale and driving the residents into horrific public displays of suicide. The key to solving the mystery is locked in the mind of one Scoob who is unable to remember a part of his troubled past.
Pairing: None.
Warning: Spoilers for early S7 Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Author’s Note: This takes place immediately after ‘Him,’ but before ‘Conversations with Dead People. There is a slight AU element in that the Magic Box has been rebuilt in this story. This is the first novel-length story in a series that includes Living History (takes place four months after ‘Chosen’) and Water Hold Me Down (takes place seven months after ‘Chosen’).

 

WHISPER_

By Lizbeth Marcs

Bored, bored, bored, Buffy thought. Patrol had been a total bust. No vampires, no demons, no tingling Slayer-sense, no nothing. All she got for her trouble this evening was a quiet stroll through some of Sunnydale’s finest cemeteries. It was enough to make her want to hang up her stake and declare victory.

Horrified by the jinx-y thought, Buffy shoved her hands in her coat pockets and began thinking Hellmouth-y thoughts by listing all the potential bad things that could interrupt her evening. Crazed robot attacks were always a favorite scenario. How about an alien invasion of the X-Files variety to liven things up? She hoped by letting her imagination expect trouble, trouble would stay away.

Whenever one of us thinks things are going well, trouble of the big bad kind always jumps up and bites us in the ass, she thought ruefully. Here’s hoping that expecting big, bad things will keep the big bads away.

Of course, she’d probably already jinxed herself by feeling bored, so she might as well enjoy the quiet while it lasted. She turned left outside of Restful Haven and drifted down a side street that eventually wound its way to her front door. At one point she took her stake out and lazily flipped it in the way some bored folks might flip a quarter.

She was about ready to begin whistling when her sensitive hearing picked up a sound. She stopped her stake mid-flip, cocked her head, and listened intently, straining her ears as she did so. Her ears were assaulted by resounding silence. Buffy snorted to herself. You’re jumping at shadows girl. Stop it. Call it a night and just go home.

Buffy was about to begin moving again when a sound once again caught the edge of her hearing. She frowned. Whatever the source, the sound was subtle. Subtlety usually meant she was being followed. Her frowned deepened. That wasn’t right. Subtle ‘I’m following you sounds’ were a very different animal than this particular noise. It was frustrating.

What is it? Buffy asked herself as she tried to catalog what she was hearing. It sounds like ... like ... wind? No, that’s not right. There’s something vocal about it. Breathing? She closed her eyes and concentrated. Not breathing. Whispering.

Her eyes snapped open and she slowly began to scan the surrounding area, but she wasn’t able to see anything amiss. There was no sign of movement, no implication that anyone or anything was in the immediate vicinity. Here’s a question boys and girls: If there’s no one close enough for me to hear if they’re talking in a normal voice, how come I can hear a whisper?

Buffy sighed. So much for her quiet night. She would have to investigate. It was probably nothing, but her inner Giles nagged her to check just to be sure. After a few minutes of standing stock still and sensing—rather than hearing—the whisper, she began creeping toward what she thought was the source: a copse of trees surrounded by a thick clump of bushes set a few yards back from the road.

When Buffy’s Slayer-sense started tingling, she forced herself to stop just short of the riot of greenery. Some part of her mind screamed in frustration: Just kill it! No hesitation! No mercy! Buffy shook her head. Charging through brush wouldn’t get her anywhere. If it were something sinister, loudly crashing the party would just give her position away and warn whatever big bad she was about to face that someone was out to get it.

If something more innocent were happening on the other side of the bushes, say, two high school students making with the lust on a moonlit-filled romantic evening, she would die of embarrassment. Not to mention if she confronted two high school students in a compromising position, word would get around the high school that the new peer councilor was a perv. That would mean her nifty part-time gig at the high school would go bye-bye, along with the stipend that helped pay her bills. It also meant she’d have to crawl back to the Doublemeat Palace and beg to get her job flipping burgers back.

Right. Can’t let that happen, Buffy winced at the painful memories of the past year. Last thing I need is Dawn whining about a return to the fast-food diet. Ugh. No thanks, I’ll pass. Life’s getting better Summers. Don’t blow it before you have a chance to enjoy.

The part of her mind that always perked up at the prospect of inflicting violence on Sunnydale’s resident evil grumbled itself into submission. Pleased that she won her inner argument that caution was the best approach, Buffy searched the bushes for an opening that would let her peek into the clearing without giving her presence away.

Is it my imagination, or is that whispering getting louder? At that thought, she intensified her search.

A new sound interrupted the whisper. Something between a whimper and a moan. That definitely did not sound good. “Aw, hell,” Buffy muttered.

All thoughts of caution and the need to be discreet were thrown to the wind as Buffy dove ahead. She barely felt the branches slash at her face during her charge. She crashed into the clearing, ready to do battle but was up brought short, mostly because she wasn’t sure whether she should believe her eyes.

A human male was pinned to the ground and whimpering, tears streaming from his eyes. It was a sight that was sure to inspire a display of what Xander half-jokingly called Buffy’s patented Slayer-fu technique, but the something sitting on top of man’s chest gave her pause. It seemed every time she tried to look at it her eyes slid off it, almost like she didn’t want to see what she was seeing and admit that something like it even existed.

The demon was crouched on the man’s chest, leaning over, and whispering softly into the man’s neck. One of its hands was softly stroking the victim’s face in some twisted parody of offering comfort even as it inflicted hurt. The man wasn’t even struggling, remaining passive underneath the horror above him.

Truth to tell, the demon didn’t look all that impressive. It was an indistinguishable grey and was human-sized. It didn’t even seem to have any built in weapons, like claws. Buffy had tangled with uglier and more impressive-looking demons in her time. The worst that you could say about it was that it was utterly forgettable. If it weren’t for the fact that the man was whimpering and crying, a casual observer would think she’d stumbled upon two lovers.

Maybe he’s willing? Buffy asked herself. Not the first time demons and humans have decided to get it on Hellmouth-style. The tightening in her chest and screaming Slayer-sense seemed to think otherwise. “Hey, ugly,” she shouted, “ever thought of getting a room?”

The startled demon looked up, spied the small blonde woman, and turned to look her full in the face.

And for the first time since Willow’s ill-timed and ill-fated mass forgetfulness spell that temporarily wiped out a Scooby Gang full of memories, Buffy screamed.

***

When Buffy came to, she realized that she was sobbing and covering her eyes. Was she hurt? She quickly did a mental check for any injuries. Nope. No broken bones. No bruises. Hell, her hair hadn’t even been mussed. She cautiously peeked out between her fingers and realized that she was crouched precisely where she stood when she first burst into the clearing.

Buffy frowned. It didn’t do anything to me. Nothing at all. Just left the clearing and me unmolested. How long was I out? What in the hell was that? Why did it scare me?

Removing her hands from her face, she suddenly realized that she wasn’t alone. The victim of the week was still lying on his back in the position where the demon left him, staring blankly up at the sky. Since she wasn’t sure if the man was dead or undead, Buffy cautiously crawled forward, reached out, and touched his hand. It was still warm, but he didn’t react. Emboldened now, but still expecting an attack, Buffy moved herself closer and took a good long hard look at her companion.

There was nothing to him. He had mousy brown hair, murky hazel eyes, a face and neck that softening from leanness of youth to a more jowlly look that betrayed a diet of too much take out and too many drinks. His clothes were generic; he clearly bought off the rack. Nothing he wore was cheap, but it certainly was not expensive or flash. His looks weren’t hideous, nor were they exactly handsome. It was a face you’d forget moments after you were introduced to him. The best that could be said about him was that he was utterly forgettable.

Kinda like the demon that was here earlier, that is until you got a good look at it. Buffy shuddered, repressed the thought, and turned her attention back to the victim. He seemed catatonic. She tentatively took a hold of his arm and raised it in the air, positioning it so that it appeared he was pointing to the sky, if you could ignore the way his hand hung limp at the wrist. When she let go, she was strangely fascinated to notice that the arm remained in place, even without her support.

She looked down at the man and mumbled, “What happened to you?”

***

Ahhhh, caffeine. How I love ya my friend, Xander thought happily as he sipped from the cafe-issued mug. He casually munched his toasted bagel as he opened the newspaper. A sudden breeze ruffled the pages and he grunted in frustration.

“Insist on sitting outside for breakfast and that’s what you get, hun.”

Xander looked up and smiled at the waitress brandishing a pot full of coffee. “Ahh, Dolly. Stop busting my chops. I’m trying to get some peace and quiet before dealing with the horrors of construction workers ogling high school hotties.”

The newly promoted construction project manager held out his cup for a warm-up while Dolly continued the morning ritual of ‘Tease the Xander.’ “You come here every mornin’ before going to the worksite, ya always insist on sitting outside, and ya always get annoyed when the newspaper doesn’t behave.”

“I like the sun. Sunlight means safety.” The minute he said it, Xander wanted to slap himself. It was an unthinking reply. When am I going to learn to think before I open my idiot mouth?

Dolly’s usually flirty banter suddenly shifted to tight concentration. The change in demeanor made Xander squirm. “I wasn’t going to say anything, hun, but you look like shit this morning. You sleeping?”

Oh, what to say, what to say, Xander thought with a touch of panic.

{tell the truth, but not the whole truth} came the whispered voice at the back of his mind.

Xander plastered his best ‘Who me? I didn’t do it officer’ smile across his face. “I’ve been having a little trouble sleeping these days. Happens every once in awhile. Seems my mind won’t shut up when I try to get some shut eye.”

Dolly snorted. “A good belt of scotch would fix ya up right up. If it didn’t knock ya for a loop, it might relax ya enough to get some sleep.”

Xander inwardly cringed at a lifetime’s worth of bad memories involving him and alcohol. The less said about the past year, and all the years before that, the better. “Prefer not to if I can help it.” Off Dolly’s look he added a little more information. He told the truth, but not the whole truth. “A few months ago I started relying on the liquid courage a little much. Thought it best if I and demon alcohol go for a trial separation.”

Dolly’s eyes widened slightly before her face broke out into a genuine grin. It was not the flirtatious grin of a 40-something-year-old waitress having fun with her 20-something-year-old patron in the name of friendly banter and a decent tip. This was a grin that could light up rooms and guide airplanes down runways. “Good on you,” she said with a firm nod.

Xander shrugged, embarrassed at the unexpected praise implicit in Dolly’s voice. He expected, what? Recrimination? Snide comments? Disappointment? Certainly not delight. “Poured every bit down the drain. Don’t get me wrong. I still like the occasional beer, but coffee’s my drug of choice these days.”

Dolly looked thoughtful before she nodded again. “Probably just a phase. Good to know you didn’t have to join the club.”

“The club?”

“AA.”

Xander fought the urge to wince at the mention of AA, which had provided a three-year respite from parents’ drinking. It goes without saying that, true to Harris form, they ultimately failed. Fighting down the familiar ache in the vicinity of his heart, Xander responded, “Nope, no need to go that far. Once I sobered up, I was too busy with other stuff to really miss it.”

{now there’s an understatement of epic proportions} the whisper commented.

“Let me guess,” Dolly said. “You know someone who tried it and it didn’t take.”

Xander opened his mouth to protest, but snapped it shut. He chose his next words very carefully. “Something like that, I guess.” He shrugged to emphasize his point. “Doesn’t matter.”

After a brief, awkward pause while Xander squirmed under the waitress’s sympathetic gaze, Dolly snapped to business. Flirtatious smile and tone firmly back in place, she said, “You better get to reading your paper, hun, else you’ll be late to work.”

“Awww, Dolly. You know I just want to stay here all day and hang with you. Where else am I gonna get the love?” Xander answered, gratefully fleeing back to the normal level of their usual conversation.

As Dolly snorted derisively and moved to the next table, Xander glanced at his watch and silently swore. If he didn’t leave now, he would be late.

The hell with it. So I’m a few minutes late. Gotta make my patrol rounds before I face normalcy. He turned his attention back to the fluttering pages, glancing at and dismissing headlines screaming about international incidents, rumors of war, layoffs, corporate greed, and state budget cuts. A small local item caught his Scooby-trained eye. With an irritated move, he held the paper still and studied it. Another spectacular public suicide had claimed yet another Sunnydale citizen.

{how many this week? how many this month?} Xander’s mind whispered.

It’s just a suicide. No need to wig. Nothing Hellmouthy here. Move it along. Nothing to see. Probably a spate of copy-cat suicides triggered by the first one back in— Xander frowned as he tried to remember when the first public suicide happened. He seemed to recall that there was a trickle of them over the summer, but lately they’d been happening more often.

When did the first one happen?

Xander concentrated. Was it before the disastrous almost-wedding with Anya? After? During what he dubbed his ‘naked now time’ when he was staring at the bottom of more than one beer bottle or shot glass? Did it happen before or after Willow decided to take on the world by taking it out of commission?

{you don’t know, do you?} the whisper sarcastically asked.

Why is this bothering you? I told you. It’s nothing.

{it bothers you. you’ve been so busy avoiding any and all painful issues and so wrapped up in your own problems that this could’ve slipped under the radar. and no, it’s not ‘nothing.’ it’s something, and you know it.} the whisper accused.

“Stop it,” Xander muttered quietly to himself. “Let me think.”

Not for the first time he wondered if everyone had a whisper that seemed to enjoy making comments from the peanut gallery. Xander had dubbed it his survival instinct voice, although how anything that kept pushing him to take chances in a fight where he was outgunned, underpowered, and would probably result in him being left as a bloody smear on the sidewalk at a young age went way beyond his limited insight into himself.

So he coped the same way he always coped by not thinking about it too hard. It wasn’t like he couldn’t shut the whisper out. He could. Although when he did things tended to go really wrong. Case in point: all of last year. Things only started to turn around when he started listening to the whisper again. When was that? Oh, yeah. When he ran to find Willow when she decided it was time to end the world.

He snapped out of his reverie. Somewhere in his mind, the whisper paused, waiting to see what he would do. Xander studied news item, frowning in concentration while his finger tapped a frustrated tattoo on the newsprint. His expression suddenly brightened as he flipped out his cell phone.

“Willow!” Xander said by way of greeting, sounding a little too loud and cheerful even to his own ears. He winced. “It’s not that early, college girl. It’s almost 8.”

An observer watching the one-sided conversation would’ve seen the young man pause while he listened to what was probably and irritated, sleepy girl on the other end.

“Yeah, yeah. Studying late. I get it.” Xander’s joking tone took a turn for the serious. “Listen, I swear I wouldn’t’ve called this early if it wasn’t important.” He glanced down at the news item again. “I think something may be up, I honestly don’t know.” He furtively looked around and lowered his voice. “Can’t say anything at the moment. In public. Anyway, I’ve been noticing there’s lately been a string of suicides in town.”

Another pause while he listened to the response. “I know. On the surface it doesn’t seem to be … well ... something Unusual, but there’s been an awful lot of them lately.” A shrug. “I dunno. I seem to recall seeing a couple of stories in the paper over the summer, but suicide fever seems to be picking up speed and a body count.” Another pause. “It’s making me feel uneasy. I can’t explain it.”

Xander let out a sharp breath. “Look, all I’m asking is for you just to do a quick newspaper search when you get a chance so we can pinpoint when a whole bunch of people suddenly started losing the will to live.” He attempted to fold the paper up in one hand, but was losing the battle. “Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s something. No. No point in worrying Buffy about it unless it’s something. Life’s going smooth, well smoother, for her right now. I don’t want to mess it up unless we have to.”

Another long pause before breaking into a genuine Xander grin. “Thanks, Wills. I owe you a pint of Ben & Jerry’s for this. Fine. Dinner at an expensive French restaurant.”

Satisfied that he got his way, Xander closed the cell phone with a click, thanking the whisper for the millionth time for insisting he invest in wireless technology for all the Scoobs.

{pitiful. is that the best you can do? shove the problem off on someone else and let them deal with it? you should be the one looking into this.} the whisper sulked.

Hey, what do you want? Xander silently argued back. I have to go to work. I’ve rent to pay, food to buy, a gym club membership to cover, and the chipped, souled undead to baby sit until he finds all his marbles. All of this benefits you, by the way. Willow’s good. She said she’d look into it and she’ll look into it.

***

Willow stared dumbly at her Apple laptop, daring herself to ignore the uneasy tickling of her thoughts. When Xander called her this morning insisting that she look into the recent spate of suicides in town she was more than a little irritated. Now? She wasn’t so sure he was overreacting.

Unless he was overreacting.

“Please don’t tell me. Another apocalypse.”

Willow startled and shot Anya an exasperated glance. The ex-vengeance demon was practically hanging over her shoulder to look at the screen.

“No. At least I don’t think so.”

Anya frowned. “So, what’s with the research mode? Research mode usually means trouble of the painful kind.”

Willow sighed. “Not sure really. Xander noticed that a lot of people seem to be dying—”

Anya interrupted with a dismissive wave of her hand. “That’s not anything new. Living on a Hellmouth isn’t exactly a guarantee of long life, health, or happiness. Trust me. I know.”

“Before you rudely interrupted with your comments, I was going to say ‘dying by their own hand.’”

Anya merely shrugged to indicate, ‘So what?’ She wandered over to the magazine rack to straighten the periodicals.

“I know, I know. Suicides. Normal. High suicide rate in Sunnydale. Duh. Hellmouth. But this is more than normal. Even for us. Sunnydale, I mean.” Unaware or uncaring that Anya wasn’t paying her much attention, Willow turned her attention back to the laptop screen. “I mean, this is weird. None of the people here have anything in common. They didn’t even know each other. At least, I don’t think they did. I mean, one person’s a secretary at some architectural firm and the next one’s a vice president at a bank. The only thing they have in common is they died publicly and in front of witness.”

“By committing suicide. You forgot to mention that part,” Anya said with a distracted tone as she stepped back to survey her work. “Look, you sure Xander isn’t just looking for trouble to get his mind off his, well, troubles?”

“You mean you?” Willow shot back. She cringed. “Sorry Anya, I didn’t mean... ”

“Yes, you did and yes, that’s what I meant.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I kinda thought that at first, too.” On Anya’s unreadable look, Willow changed tact. “Listen, I know he’s been trying to get back into your good graces. I know he won’t get a do-over from you.” Willow hastily added, “Not that I blame you. See? No blame here.”

“You’re starting to babble,” Anya commented.

“Right. Stopping babbling now. I do that when I’m uncomf—”

“WILLOW!”

“Right. To the point. I know that any hope of, well, whatever you two had is over. Xander knows that, too.” Off Anya’s disbelieving eyeroll, Willow added, “He does! It’s just that, well, he needs to tell himself that. He will. It’s just that he’s always been emotionally needy. I mean he makes me look like a monument to emotional stability.” When Anya fixed her a look, she cringed. “Okay, so he probably wouldn’t trash a magic shop, try to kill his friends, and end the world, but he did trash his apartment. Buffy told me.”

Anya threw up her hands in frustration. Willowbabble could go on all day. Time to get to the point. “So what does he want from me?”

“To make it all right with you.”

“Not gonna happen.”

“I don’t mean, all right ‘let’s go back to the way things were before I messed up our lives’ all right.” Willow couldn’t believe that she had to explain this to a woman who’d been sleeping with Xander for more than two years. “I mean, all right ‘we can be friends or at least polite to one another without ripping each others’ throats out’ all right.”

“Why doesn’t he just say that?” Anya asked in frustration. If she was annoyed that Willow could figure out her weird relationship with her ex, she had the barely-suppressed good grace not to show it.

“I don’t think he knows how. I mean you guys kinda jumped into the sex before you jumped into a relationship. Maybe the problem is that you two don’t know how to be friends.”

“Like you two,” Anya deadpanned.

“Hey! That’s different!”

Anya crossed her arms in response.

“Look, I’ve known Xander for most of my life. And, sure, sometimes we drift apart, but we’re still friends and that’s what keeps pulling us back together,” Willow said. “There’s nothing saying that you two can’t at least build a friendship. I think you’ll find him a loyal friend. He’s probably a better friend than a boyfriend, if one’s to judge how all his romantic relationships turn out.”

Anya snorted as she snagged a feather duster and began her ritual I’m-feeling-uncomfortable-let’s-make-my-newly-constructed-store-sparkly-clean action.

“I’m just saying,” Willow said helplessly. When no answer was forthcoming from Anya, Willow turned back to her laptop. “And I’m beginning to think Xander may be on to something.”

***

Willow was still hunched over her laptop when Buffy swung into the Magic Box during the late afternoon. The red-haired witch looked up at the sound of the shop’s bell and, upon seeing the non-customer, broke into a grin. “Buffy! How was patrol last night?”

“Not good,” came the grim reply.

“Oh? What happened? Nest of vamps?” Willow asked.

“Nope. A demon,” Buffy said as she plopped down into a chair at the research table. “A scary demon that I’ve never seen before.”

“Scary? How so?” Anya’s voice had taken on that excited little girl tone whenever Scooby talk turned to new and interesting demonic life forms.

Buffy frowned in concentration. “Truth to tell, I’m not sure.”

“Not sure it was a demon or not sure it was scary?” Anya asked as she pulled up a chair and joined Willow and Buffy at the research table.

“I’m sure it was a demon, but I’m not sure how to explain its scariness,” Buffy replied.

“Try. I’ll see if I can remember something like it,” Anya said. She slid some sheets of paper and pencils over to the Slayer and added, “While you’re talking, try to make some sketches of what it looked like. It’ll get me thinking in the right direction.”

Buffy did as she was asked and began doodling what she hoped was a close approximation to the demon she saw last night. As she did so, she began her description, “Well, it was grey. I remember that much. Also, it was the size of an average human male. If it weren’t for the fact it was grey and wasn’t wearing any clothing, it could pass as human.”

“Weapons?” Anya asked. Her tone was all business now.

“None, at least, no claws or fangs or anything that I could see that would put a physical hurt on someone,” Buffy absently replied while she concentrated on her doodling. “As far as demon looks go, it wouldn’t stand out as particularly dangerous or threatening. It kinda looks like Clem-level dangerous.”

Anya and Willow looked at each before focusing their attention back on Buffy. Both of them had matching frowns.

“So, how was this demon scary?” Willow slowly asked.

Buffy described her confrontation with the demon, including as much detail as her mind let her remember. When she finished, Anya remarked, “So when this demon looked at you directly, you fainted with fear.”

“I did not faint,” Buffy protested.

“Screamed, collapsed in a fit of sobbing hysterics, and blacked out,” Anya countered. “How very flower of Victorian womanhood of you.”

“Well, when you put it that way, yeah, I guess I wasn’t an example of the modern, self-reliant woman who roars,” Buffy sighed.

“What was it about its face that scared you?” Willow asked.

Buffy shrugged. “Dunno, really. I mean, I have this vague impression of yellow eyes, smooth skin, and a lack of body hair.” She frowned down at her finished doodle. “But details? Why it caused me to react the way I did? No clue. The really weird part about it was that even before I saw its face, I had a hard time looking at it. It’s like my eyes couldn’t really get a lock on it and my mind couldn’t really register that it was there.”

“A cloaking spell!” Willow and Anya said together.

“Cloaking spell? But I could see it.”

“Well, a cloaking spell isn’t the same thing as an invisibility spell,” Willow explained while Anya nodded in agreement. “An invisibility spell takes a lot of power to cast and a lot of power to maintain so you can’t really just cast one and expect it to last.”

“Unless you’re under a lot of stress,” Buffy countered with amusement.

“Willow’s hiccup on the road to recovery aside, it’s generally true,” Anya chimed in. “An invisibility spell isn’t really practical unless you need it for a very short time, like, say, less than an hour. A cloaking spell can be maintained indefinitely because it doesn’t actually make you invisible; it just makes you hard to notice.”

“Hard to notice?” Buffy asked. “In what way?”

“Think of it as a way to will yourself into the background so you blend in with your surroundings,” Willow replied. “As long as you don’t speak, make sudden movements, or draw attention to yourself, you can practically stand next to your target without it noticing. You’ll be seen, but you won’t register as really being there.”

“This actually works,” Buffy deadpanned.

Anya cheerfully waved her hand. “Human wallflowers do it all the time.”

“Point taken,” Buffy allowed, amused by Anya’s deus-ex-demonica tone.

“Some demons do use the spell, but not often since it’s too passive for something that likes to break things,” Anya continued, warming to her subject. “The demons that cloak usually have it as part of their natural defenses because they don’t have any impressive offensive weapons or deadly appendages at their disposal. When it looked at you, it momentarily dropped its cloak so you could see its true form. When you went down for the count, it probably just finished its feeding and went on its merry way.”

“You think it was feeding?” Willow asked.

Anya shrugged. “Probably. That’s what it sounds like.”

“Feeding on what?” Buffy asked.

Another shrug from the ex-vengeance demon. “Don’t know until we figure out what it is. Now that we know it cloaks, it narrows the field candidates.”

Buffy slid her rough sketches over to Anya. “Got a suspect in your mental line-up?”

Anya frowned when she looked at the picture. “Nooooo,” she slowly replied. “Although this sketch and everything you said ... well, I seem to think that it should be familiar.” She closed her eyes. “I swear the knowledge is on the tip of my brain.”

“I think you mean tongue,” Willow corrected.

“No. I mean brain,” came the distracted reply. Anya sighed. “Guess that means we have to hit the books.”

“We?” Willow and Buffy asked together.

“Yes, I’m volunteering for research. It irritates me that I can’t remember what this demon is and it’ll bother me all night until I remember. If my beauty sleep is going to be ruined, I might as well make the most of it.” Anya looked up. “What? Stop looking at me like that.”

“Well, I’d love to join you,” Buffy stood up, “but I gotta motor.”

“Where are you going?” Willow asked suspiciously.

“To check on last night’s victim and see if he’s recovered,” Buffy answered. “If he’s capable of speech, I want to ask him about what happened and what that thing was doing to him. The more information I have before I face this demon again, the better I’ll feel.”

“Where is he?” Willow asked.

“The psych ward at Sunnydale General.”

***

Xander opened the door to his apartment and started laughing when he saw an overly-burdened Willow juggling her laptop, a pile of loose papers, and a couple of books. “Want me to take any of that?” He asked by way of greeting.

“Nope. Got it perfectly balanced,” Willow replied, the strain of keeping the pile together showing in her voice. “Just point me to the kitchen table so I can put this stuff down.”

Xander got out of her way and watched while she stepped quickly to her goal. She barely made it. When Willow’s bundle made it to the flat surface, the precarious balance was upset and the pile collapsed. Papers, books, and computer pooled across the tabletop. “I see I wasn’t jumping at shadows,” Xander dryly said as he closed the door.

“You would guess correctly,” Willow commented as she tried to tidy the mess.

“I’m not sure whether I should be relieved or disappointed,” Xander said. “Make sure you leave enough space for Spike on the table. It’s sunset, which means it’s time for all evil undead to prowl into my kitchen and make a royal mess while they open blood bags and heat the contents in the microwave.”

“Yuck.” Willow made a face. “How do you stand it?”

“Simple, I don’t watch,” Xander replied as he joined Willow at the table. “I turn on the T.V. and let it hypnotize me while he dunks whatever crunchy thing he can find into the blood and eats it.”

“Ewwwww, I really don’t want to know,” Willow shuddered. “You know, you could just not buy crunchy things. It might solve the problem.”

“What? And listen to Spike whine day and night how I’m depriving him of the pleasure of grossing me out?” Xander asked in mock exasperation. “I’m under Buffy’s orders to make sure he doesn’t accidentally hurt himself or anyone else given his current state of ensouledness. Listening to Spike bitch about the accommodations goes way beyond the call of duty. Better to give him crunchy things than deal with that.”

“Seriously?”

“You’ve obviously never heard Spike whine. He can really throw a shrill tone into it,” Xander explained. “It’s enough to make me wish it was okay to chain him up in the tub and leave him there.” He paused. “On second thought, not a good idea. The whine would only echo in the shower.”

“Oh, like you don’t whinge on,” Spike growled as he stalked into the kitchen area. “You’re whinging now, in fact. Why I ever agreed to live with you is beyond me.”

“You could always move back to the high school basement,” Xander shrugged. “I’m not stopping you. Please go. Be my guest. Be sure to stake yourself on the way out.”

Spike snorted. “Like Buffy would let me leave. She’d only drag me back here and yell at you for letting me go. So much as I hate to intrude on your oh-so-precious empty evenings, we’re chained together at the neck.”

“Great. Just great. Now I’ll be fighting the image of Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier invading my brain all night. Thank you so very much,” Xander groused.

Ignoring Xander, Spike’s attention turned to the mess on the table. “I see evil’s afoot.”

“More than one evil in fact,” Willow replied.

“Hunh?” came Xander’s considered response.

“Well, I started looking into those suicides like you asked and your instincts are right, there’s something up,” Willow said.

“Suicides?” Spike asked.

Xander shushed him with a wave of his hand. “Whatchya find, Wills?”

Willow squirmed. “You know me, I don’t like saying anything until I’ve got more solid proof, which I don’t have by the way. Just a very strong feeling that something’s not on the up and up with these deaths. If you look at them individually, they’re weird, yeah, but not Hellmouth-y. When you look at all of them together, well, a pattern emerges and I get a pricking in my thumb.”

“Something wicked this way comes,” Spike and Xander said in unison. Surprised, the vampire and human looked at each other.

“Ray Bradbury?” Xander asked.

“Shakespeare,” Spike snorted. “Kids these days have no culture. They should make you lot learn Latin in school.”

“Care of many, many hours of research, I already read Latin,” Xander shot back. He turned his attention back to his visitor. “Wills?” Xander asked. Clearly she was expected to resolve the non-argument.

“Reference to both, actually,” Willow smiled, “both seem to apply.”

“So, that’s all you got,” Xander deflated, “just an icky feeling that something’s not right.”

Willow shrugged. “Well, I didn’t really get a chance to get into it too deeply. See, that’s the other evil. Buffy stopped by the Magic Box today and mentioned that she’d come across a new demon that freaked her out.”

“Is she all right?” Xander asked.

Spike’s head shot up and he narrowed his eyes as if to study Willow’s answer.

“She’s fine. It didn’t lay a hand on her,” Willow began before launching into Buffy’s story. When she finished, she regarded the vampire and the human, who had by this time taken seats. “So, I kinda got sidetracked because I figured Buffy’s demon is the more concrete immediate threat,” Willow concluded. “Anya and I are researching—”

“Wait a minute,” Xander interrupted. “Anya is doing research? On her own?”

“What’s your problem, Harris?” Spike asked. “Afraid she’ll do a better job at it than donut boy?”

“Spike,” Xander warned, “I haven’t been donut boy for awhile now. And no, I’m not afraid she’ll do a better job at researching demons than I will because I know she will. She’s got almost 1,200 years’ worth of experience compared to my six. It’s just that Anya agreeing to research anything without an, ahhhhh, incentive is a bit unusual.”

“Anya said the demon sounded familiar, but she couldn’t quite place where she heard of it before or any details about it,” Willow explained. “It was bugging her so much that she just threw herself into research.” The witch stopped, a grin playing around her lips. “She was so cute! Especially the way she frowns when she’s frustrated and starts slamming books shut. I’m beginning to see why you had sex with her.”

“WILLOW!” Xander was shocked. “Now I’m fighting images of you and Anya…no, I am so not going to go there.”

“Kidding, kidding,” Willow laughed. “I couldn’t resist. But seriously, she’s still at the Magic Box trying to figure this demon out. It really is driving her nuts.” She looked at the vampire. “Hey, Spike, does this demon sound familiar to you?”

“Nope, can’t say it does,” Spike answered. “Never even heard of something like it.” He shrugged. “Doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, though.”

Willow sighed. “Oh, well. It was worth asking.” Then Xander’s thoughtful expression caught her eye. “Xander?”

Xander snapped out of his reverie and smiled sheepishly. “Sorry, drifted off there for a second.”

“Xander?” Willow tentatively began. “Does this demon sound familiar to you?”

“You must be joking, right?” Spike asked. “If Anya and I don’t know what it is, how can short-life here know?”

“Xander?” Willow asked, ignoring the vampire’s outburst. The thoughtful expression was back on her friend’s face.

“Hunh?” Xander startled momentarily before settling into his characteristic relaxed grin. “You were asking about the demon, right?”

“Yes.” Willow fought the urge to snap at him. She was a little unnerved by Xander’s distracted air.

He nodded slowly. “I’m not sure,” he cautiously replied, “I think…yes? No. I’m really not sure.”

“Out with it, boy,” Spike said.

Xander shrugged weakly. “I seem to remember something that may match the demon’s profile, but I’m really not 100 percent on that. Maybe I read about it during one of many, many all-night research sessions?” He looked to Willow for confirmation. When he got a blank look of surprise in response, he sighed. “I really, really don’t remember anything, but it does seem familiar somehow. Sorry I can’t be of more help.”

“Actually, you have been,” Willow said. “At least we know the answer’s in the books.”

The conversation was interrupted by a knock on the door followed by Buffy’s muffled voice. “Can I come in?”

“You’ve got a key just like everyone else,” Xander shouted back, remembering Scooby Rule Number One: Never, ever, say ‘come in,’ even to someone you know.

Buffy walked into the apartment, her tight expression and body language betraying the tension she felt. “Willow, Anya told me you were here when I stopped by the Magic Box,” she said by way of greeting. “I’m glad the three of you are here. I think we have a huge problem.”

“What happened, Buff?” Willow asked.

“My guy? The victim I saved last night? He’s dead.”

“What?” Xander asked. “How?”

Buffy began pacing the center of Xander’s living room. She looked like she was trying to wrap her mind around something.

“Buffy?” Willow prompted.

Buffy stopped, looked at the trio seated around the kitchen table, and took a deep breath before replying. “He committed suicide.”

“Oh. My. God.” Xander looked distinctly sick.

“But he was in the psych ward, presumably under sedation and close supervision,” Willow protested. “How did he—”

“He waited until he had an audience.” At that, Buffy began slowly rubbing her face, as if trying to wash the images from her mind.

The vampire, the witch, and the human remained silent and waited for Buffy to continue.

“I got to the hospital around 4:30ish and asked to see him. Oh, his name was Michael Cavacci, by the way,” Buffy said. She frowned. “What was I saying? Oh yeah, I went to see him and at first they didn’t want to let me because there’d been a troop of police officers in and out of the ward all day trying to question him. I don’t think the police got anything out of him, if his condition was at all like last night. Anyway, I just explained that I was the one who found him and called the police for help and I just wanted to see if he was okay.”

“And that convinced them to let you see him. Just like that,” Spike commented.

“Umm, sorta,” Buffy said. “They weren’t supposed to even confirm he was there to someone who wasn’t immediate family, so they weren’t eager to bend the rules any further. I just turned on some teary eye, explained that I was very concerned about him, and that I couldn’t sleep a wink all last night because I was so worried that he was hurt. I think the Florence Nightingale act was what convinced them.”

Buffy began pacing again. This time she stopped to pick things up, look at them, and then put them down. Xander, Spike, and Willow exchanged looks but kept silent.

After a few minutes, Buffy calmed down enough to continue. “Well, we get to his room—I guess his insurance was willing to pay for a private room—and there he was standing on the nightstand like he was performing for an audience. Anyway, when he saw us at the door he smiled and said, ‘Not forgotten.’ Then he jumped off the table.”

“‘Not forgotten?’ What the hell does that mean?” Xander asked.

“Was he wearing a noose?” Spike asked.

“He aimed his jump so he’d crack his head on the floor,” Buffy said.

“And a fall from a three-foot high nightstand killed him?” Willows asked, disbelieving.

“He angled his neck just right so that when he hit the hospital-issue floor. He snapped it,” Buffy said.

“What about the orderlies or the doctors or the nurses or whoever the hell else was with you?” Xander sounded distinctly angry. “Why didn’t they stop him?”

“It happened all so fast,” Buffy helplessly said. “I mean he was only standing on a nightstand. Okay, not the most stable perch in the world, but he wasn’t wearing a noose or anything else that indicated he was planning to commit suicide. Of course we rushed into the room when we saw him standing on the furniture, but he was already on the floor by the time I reached him. And I was the first to reach him, so the blame’s on me.”

“Buffy, Xander wasn’t blaming you.” Willow shot her long-time friend a look while a chagrined Xander nodded. “You had no idea what he was going to do and you’re not a trained medical professional. You had no reason to think that what happened would happen. He’s upset with the hospital staff.”

“Yeah, what she said,” Xander echoed softly.

“So this all happened at, what, 4:30ish. It’s now past 6. What kept you?” Spike asked.

Buffy winced. “The police came to the hospital after our victim died and I had to give a witness statement. Oh, the hospital’s lawyers will be contacting me too, just so they can prepare for the lawsuit. Wonderful. Just what I need on my plate right now.”

Xander and Willow looked at each other. “Well,” Xander drawled, “looks like all our thumbs are pricking right about now.”

Buffy stopped her pacing. “What?”

“Xander and I have been looking into a string of public suicides around town,” Willow explained.

“And you didn’t tell me?” Buffy exploded.

“Buffy, calm down,” Xander said. “We weren’t sure there was anything to tell you and we only just started looking into it today. Willow’s here because she found something, we’re not sure what, in her research. Given what you just told us, I’m thinking that your demon and these suicides might be linked.”

“Fabulous,” Buffy commented.

“I think this calls for some splitting up action,” Willow said as she got to her feet. “I’ll go back to the Magic Box and help Anya with research.”

“Right. Xander, you keep looking into the suicides,” Buffy nodded. “Spike and I will go do some monster hunting.”

“Yes!” Spike sounded downright chipper at the prospect as he hopped out of his chair and went to Xander’s room to gather weapons.

When Xander looked like he would protest, Willow jumped in. “Xander, you were the one that first noticed the suicides, so it only makes sense you keep going in that direction.”

“But—” Xander began.

“Xander, this thing defeated me without even trying,” Buffy interrupted. “The affect it has on humans ...” She shuddered. “It was indescribable. I don’t want you or Willow getting anywhere near this thing unless and until we have a way to defeat it.”

“And you’re hoping, what, our resident crazed vampire will be a bulwark of stability when the chips are down?” Xander snarked.

“Key word there is vampire,” Willow soothed. “He may be immune to this demon’s powers where the rest of us aren’t.”

“Great.” Xander leaned back and crossed his arms. “Catch me up on where you left off on the suicide research.”

“I was about to hack into Sunnydale General’s patient records system,” Willow said.

“Uhhh, Wills? You’re the computer genius, remember? Hacking’s your gig,” Xander reminded her. “I know enough to send e-mail and peruse porn sites, but nothing seriously illegal.”

“Pfft, piece of cake,” Willow waved her hand. “Most hospitals have notoriously bad security for their information systems and Sunnydale is no exception. I’ve hacked in before without raising any alarms. Chances are you could do it with no problem. I’ll just write down the instructions.” She fished a notepad out of the pile of papers and began patting down her pockets for a pen. “If you run into trouble, just call me at the Magic Box and I’ll talk you through it.”

“All well and good,” Buffy said, “but how about filling me in on what you two were doing all day.”

Pen found, Willow held it aloft triumphantly. “I’ll tell you on the way to the Magic Box.”

Continued in Part 2

 

 

 

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