liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,
liz_marcs
liz_marcs

FIC: Whisper, 2/12 (PG-13; BtVS; Ensemble)

Continued from Part 1

Title: Whisper, Part 2
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’).

 

Why was he here?

Where was here?

Xander shook. He was cold. He could barely keep his teeth from chattering. He was lead to a plush couch located against one of the office walls, but remained standing. He was confused. What was he supposed to do? Sit? Stand? His head was full of cotton. His teeth hurt. Oh, his teeth were chattering. Must be why his jaw hurt, too. He shifted uneasily from side to side. He needed to pee. He needed to get warm. He needed to sit. He needed to sleep. He needed to think.

Someone Xander dubbed WhiteCoatGuy appeared in his field of vision and gently guided him to a sitting position on the couch. He felt the sensation of sinking into the upholstery and wanted to curl up and fall asleep.

“Alex?” WhiteCoatGuy asked.

Alex? Who’s Alex?

“Alex? Can you hear me?” WhiteCoatGuy sighed. “Alex, your parents are coming to see you. You don’t have to see them if you don’t want to. Just say the word and I’ll remove you from the room.”

“Parents?” Xander croaked. He frowned. His voice didn’t sound right. It sounded like his voice was breaking.

“Yes, Alex. Your parents are coming to see you.” WhiteCoatGuy seemed to be pleased to get a response. “They’re very concerned about you.”

“Tired.”

“Would you like to take a short nap before they get here?”

Didn’t have to tell Xander twice. He promptly curled into a fetal position and put his head on the armrest. Not more than a few seconds after he did so, he heard voices. Did he fall asleep? Did he loose time again? He tried to concentrate. What were the voices saying? Where was his whisper?

“What do you mean violent?”

A male voice. Who’s? He tried to focus on the people in the room, but his sight was too blurry. He lifted his hand and swiped ineffectually at his eyes and concentrated again. There was WhiteCoatGuy, AnotherGuy, and WomanGuy. WhiteCoatGuy had said something about his parents. What did he say again?

“Since Alex has left your house, he has shown increasing signs of violence,” WhiteCoatGuy said. “Child Protective Services had to keep moving him from home to home because of his outbursts. He’s here because he’s become uncontrollable and our regular homes simply don’t have the resources to deal with him.”

“Is he bullying the other children?” WomanGuy asked.

“No. He’s attacking the foster parents. I would say Alex—”

“Xander, my name’s Xander,” Xander said. He must not have said it loud enough because no one in the room gave any sign they heard him.

“— is acting out on his authority figure issues. Specifically, I think in his mind he is attacking you again and again.”

“No, it’s the monsters,” Xander explained. “I have to stop the monsters.”

This time the trio must’ve heard him because they turned to look at him.

“Not lying,” Xander mumbled. “Monsters ... ” Wait? What was he saying again? Why couldn’t he focus?

The trio exchanged a look before returning to the argument already in progress. WomanGuy started to cry. “Did you hear that? What have you done to my baby?”

“He is under sedation to keep him under control, Mrs. Harris,” WhiteCoatGuy said. “When he was first brought in here, he was in a state of high agitation. He managed to seriously injure one of the orderlies when they took him to his room. He’s stronger than he looks.”

“My son is not a nutjob,” AnotherGuy growled.

WhiteCoatGuy sighed. “Your son is a very sick little boy. To put it in simple terms, he believes that he’s battling against ‘monsters’ that are harming both him and other children in various foster homes. He already needs hospitalization and he’ll only get worse as he gets older. With time and the right medication, we might be able to stabilize him enough to place him in a half-way house.”

“Funny how he seemed perfectly normal before the state got its mitts on him,” AnotherGuy growled. “We’ll see about you keeping what’s mine.”

 

Xander woke with a start. Nightmares. Damn it. What time? He automatically glanced to his right and momentarily panicked when he couldn’t see his alarm clock. Oh, right. I fell asleep at the keyboard.

Xander stood and stretched his back, sighing contentedly as he felt the vertebrae snap into place. He looked back down at the glowing computer screen and blinked quickly a few times at the brightness contrasting with the rest of his darkened home office, which was now serving as Spike’s bedroom.

Willow’s hacker instructions worked like a charm. He got into Sunnydale General’s patient database without a glitch and had been reading all of the suicides’ medical reports when he must’ve dozed off. He rooted around beneath the mess of papers on his desk for the tiny digital clock. When he found it he groaned. It’s 1 AM. Oh yeah. I’ll be fresh as a daisy tomorrow.

He left the computer and began prowling his apartment, rubbing his face as he did so to shake off the last vestiges of his dream. He winced slightly as his calloused hands made a sandpapery sound against the beginnings of a beard. Yup. It was going to be one of those days when he was so tired that it would be a miracle if he didn’t slit his throat while attempting to shave.

Somewhere in the middle of his living room he stopped and frowned. Another nightmare. He’s had one every night this month. If he were the paranoid sort, he’d think his brain was trying to tell him something.

{that’s because it is.} the whisper said.

Ahhhh, there you are. Wondering when you’d show. Go away.

{no.} the whisper said. {think back to what you were doing when you fell asleep.}

Reading the medical reports. Xander flopped down on the couch with a groan. He found the common link, at least he thought he did. He’d only managed to work his way through only half the list. Almost all of them had made a brief appearance at a psychiatric facility before taking the final exit in a public way.

Xander sat bolt upright. Was that it? Was it something in the psych ward driving all those people to suicide? He slumped back into the couch. Couldn’t be. Not all of them checked into SunnyD’s shrine to sickness and injury. Some of them went to private facilities and others were sent out of town, so the place wasn’t the common link.

Maybe it was the fact they needed psychiatric help in the first place. What were they in for? Xander hauled himself out of the couch, sat back down at the computer, and flicked the browser’s back and forward buttons a few times. He finally stopped and tapped his finger against the computer screen under the heading, ‘Diagnosis.’ When they were checked in every single one the suicides had variations of the same thing: mild catatonia, deep debilitating depression, and some mild hallucinations. None of them were violent. Most of them were downright pliable if he was reading these reports correctly.

With a huff of breath, Xander shut down the computer and leaned back in his chair. All of the medical reports he read indicated that the suicides seemed to recover, or at least partially recover, after a few days and all of them checked themselves out of their respective hospitals.

Less than two weeks after checking out, those people died.

Perfect. Play into the stereotype. Anyone looking into a single suicide’s background would see that information and just conclude that they were well on their way to doing the deed before they did the deed.

Obviously Buffy’s mysterious demon had a hand in all these deaths, or at least the deaths he’d looked into so far, but how?

{you mean you still don’t know?} the whisper incredulously asked.

Xander groaned with frustration as he began restlessly prowling his apartment again. No, I don’t know, oh great one. Care to share with the rest of the class? Some of us here were too stupid to go to college, lest you forget.

{if you can’t figure it out, i can’t help you.} Was it his or imagination, or did the whisper seem sad?

“No, no, no! I am not having this conversation with you!” Xander shouted. He stopped, unable to believe he just said that out loud. Grateful that no one was around to hear his sudden outburst, Xander began pacing his apartment again. His research must’ve set off his memory, resulting in yet another a fun, new nightmare to add to the rotation. He stopped again. Not a new nightmare; a very old one.

He humorlessly laughed to himself. Oh yeah, last year was nowhere near as bad as—

He put a brake on that thought. No need to go there.

{but—} the whisper began.

“Shut up,” Xander gritted through clenched teeth.

The sound of a key in the lock brought his head up sharply, just in time to see a dispirited Buffy and subdued Spike enter the apartment.

“Lemme guess. No joy in Mudville,” Xander commented.

Buffy startled, but relaxed when she saw Xander standing near his kitchen area. “Up for an early morning snack Xan?”

“Hunh?” came Xander’s intelligent reply. He looked around and realized that he was near the fridge. He obviously hadn’t been paying attention to his surroundings.

“Thought you were trying to keep off the weight you lost over the summer,” Buffy continued her monologue while she watched Spike go to Xander’s bedroom to put the weapons away. “Snacking in the wee hours when you think no one’s looking is not the way to do it.”

“Actually, I was going to go for a glass of water,” Xander covered. He yawned to telegraph a tiredness he really didn’t feel. “I’ve been up all night going through our victims’ medical reports.”

Spike re-entered the room and fixed Xander with a look that seemed to say that he knew his unwilling roommate was hiding something. The vampire looked like he wanted to make a comment to that effect, but for once he mercifully kept his mouth shut.

Buffy either didn’t notice or didn’t care that Spike’s usual off-center chatter was non-existent. “Hope your search was better than ours,” she said.

“Actually, I think it was. You both better sit down and get comfortable before I start…”

***

The following morning Xander was enthroned at his customary table at the Café del Sol fighting his never-ending battle with newspaper and breeze. The front page of the paper boasted a picture of the unfortunate Mr. Cavacci, complete with story about his suicide. Thankfully, Buffy’s name wasn’t mentioned in the article.

Xander paused a moment to study Cavacci’s picture. He was discomforted to notice that with the addition of a few years and the pounds he lost over the summer, he could pass as a relative. Not a close blood relative, but certainly something from the same family tree.

With a brief shudder, Xander flipped the newspaper pages to read the obituary. Xander thought he should have been more surprised to see that Cavacci’s death made far more of an impact on the world than his life.

A quick review of the obit information revealed the victim had no close blood relatives still alive, wasn’t originally from the area, and barely made mention that he worked in the IT department at some big company located out of town. The sparse write-up made no mention of any clubs, friends, professional organizations, or houses of worship. For all intents and purposes, Cavacci would have lived and died as a flesh-and-blood ghost were it not for the manner of his death.

{‘not forgotten’ indeed.} the whisper commented.

Xander winced at the intrusion. He turned his full attention to the rest of the paper, scouring every word for any hint that someone else in town was planning to hurt themselves in new and spectacular ways.

Yep. Nothing to see here. No siree. Looks like Buffy gave that demon a big ol’ scare and its moved on to greener pastures. Let’s hear it for the almighty Buff. No demon means no suicides on the doorstep and that’s all of the good.

{so, you’re hoping that the demon has moved on to a town where there’s no Slayer to stop it?} the whisper growled. {coward.}

Xander was willing to give the whisper points on that score. He doubled his concentration on the newspaper, so engrossed in his task, that he barely noticed when Dolly put his customary bagel on the table in front of him. His coffee turned frigid as Xander flipped to the classifieds in an effort to find any tucked-in-the-back-of-the-paper articles hinting that more trouble was brewing.

“Xander!”

Xander startled and nearly ripped the newspaper in half. He looked over the top of the pages and glared at the woman sitting across from him. “Hey,” he said by way of greeting.

“So, what? You’re channeling Oz now?” Buffy asked.

“Sorry, I was engrossed in research.”

“So I see,” Buffy chirped. “I sashay over to your table using my best sexy walk and you don’t even have the decency to drool.”

“I do not drool. I appreciate the view,” Xander replied.

“I sit down at the table and you don’t even comment on how perfect my hair looks today,” Buffy grinned. “I never thought I’d see the day when you’d rather read the paper than pay attention to my wonderful self.”

“My, aren’t we chipper this morning,” Xander grumbled.

“It’s completely forced,” Buffy cheerfully waved her hand. “After talking to you last night and Willow this morning, I’m torn between screaming and uncontrollable sobbing.”

Xander looked closely at the Slayer’s face and noted the signs of strain showing around her million-dollar smile and eyes. “Did Willow find something?”

“Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero,” Buffy replied as she signaled Dolly for a cup of coffee.

“So what’s the big?” Xander asked. “We haven’t found anything yet. It’s not like we’ve come up empty-handed before on the research front.”

“Yeah, but the last time that happened we got Glory,” Buffy said.

“Point taken,” Xander responded quietly. He snapped his mouth shut when he saw Dolly approach his table with cup in hand.

“Well, looks like you and your girlfriend have finally made up,” Dolly remarked. “Maybe you’ll be in a better mood.”

“Girlfriend?” Xander asked while Buffy giggled. “Buffy? No. Absolutely not. Not in this lifetime. No. No way, José.”

“Hey!” Buffy exclaimed in mock irritation. “What’s the matter with me?”

“N-n-n-n-nothing,” Xander stuttered. He had to be very careful with his response, otherwise he’d probably get a few ‘accidental bruises’ in his next training session with the Slayer. “It’s not you. I fear your sister. Dawn’ll kill me if I break your heart.”

“Awww, that’s not it and you know it,” Dolly interrupted. “This little girl here looks like she can kick your sorry ass up and down Main Street and not so much as break a nail.”

Buffy’s giggle turned into a full-out guffaw while Xander bit his tongue so hard he thought he could taste blood. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Dolly’s expression turn thoughtful. Xander shook himself out of his impending laughter and noticed that the waitress was now stroking the picture of Cavacci with one finger.

“What is it?” Xander sharply asked.

“I think I know this guy,” Dolly thoughtfully replied.

“Think?” Xander prompted while Buffy calmed down and studied the exchange.

“I’m not sure,” Dolly shrugged, dismissing the thought and Cavacci’s picture. “I think he came in here a couple of times for breakfast. But then again, almost everyone in town stops by for breakfast at least once. Frankly, if it weren’t for the article I doubt I’d even remember. Hunh. He committed suicide. At the hospital, no less.”

“Nice to know he finally made an impression,” Xander bitterly remarked.

“Hey, Xan, be fair,” Buffy piped up. “Dolly deals with something like a million people a day. You can’t expect her to remember every face that walks through the door. As a graduate of the Doublemeat Experience, I can tell you there are days you’re lucky to remember your own name, let alone the name of a customer.”

“But she remembers me,” Xander protested.

“You’re kinda hard to miss, hun,” Dolly said.

“Hunh?” Xander felt like the conversation had suddenly taken off at warp speed while he was left eating photon dust.

“You’ve been coming in for breakfast almost every workday for the past few months. You always sit at the same table, you always fight with the newspaper, and you always order the same thing,” Dolly cheerfully shrugged. “Things like that tend stay with busy waitresses.”

“I’m memorable because I’m predictable,” Xander muttered. “Got it.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” Buffy said with a teasing smile before she turned away and began casually watching people walk by their table. Xander realized with a start that Buffy had just paid him a compliment.

“Nah, hun, that’s not it at all,” Dolly said, misreading Buffy’s statement. “I noticed ya because you’re a creature of habit. I remember ya because you’ve got a nice smile. And you leave a big tip.”

Xander grinned in response. People noticed him! He was notice-worthy! Even normal people! He startled when Dolly placed a gentle hand on his bicep. “This guy’s death,” she began, jerking her head in the direction of the newspaper. “It’s really bothering you, ain’t it?”

Before he could respond, Buffy announced, “Does anyone smell gasoline?”

Xander was about to say ‘they who smelt it, dealt it’ when the same aroma hit his nose. He joined Buffy in scanning the crowd for the source.

“Probably someone’s leaky gas tank,” Dolly speculated as she straightened her apron. “Smells like that will happen when you’re sitting in the unhealthy fresh air.”

Buffy and Xander were so engrossed in studying every passer-by that they barely registered the woman who stopped a few feet from their table. She took out a cigarette and a lighter and studied both, as if contemplating the wisdom of putting yet another nail in her coffin. She paused a moment before flicking the Zippo lighter.

“Not forgotten,” she announced.

Then she went up in flames.

***

“Xander was feaked,” Buffy concluded. “I mean, he looked like he as taking everything in stride and was actually trying to calm down our waitress, but you could see it in his eyes. He’s probably going to have nightmares for weeks.”

“Oh, God. How awful,” Willow said, doing her best to ignore Anya’s frustrated muttering while the ex-demon ploughed through books in an attempt to find Buffy’s demon.

“That’s not the worst of it,” Buffy continued. “The victim was still alive when the ambulance and police arrived.”

“Maybe she’ll survive,” Willow said hopefully.

“Doubt it,” Buffy said. “She had third-degree burns over 90 percent of her body.” Buffy fought the urge to add, She looked like someone had ripped off her of her skin. The last thing she needed was to give Willow any reminders about what happened with Warren. “The EMTs didn’t look particularly hopeful when they got her into the ambulance. I think even the cops were in shock.”

“That’s saying a lot, given this town.” Willow looked as shaken as Buffy felt, a neat trick since Buffy was actually there.

“Of course, everyone in the café had to then wait around for the police to question us,” Buffy said. “Didn’t exactly ease the tension or the hysteria for anyone.”

Willow’s eyes widened. “Oh, no. Buffy, what if they find out that you were at the hospital last night?”

“Which is why I told the police right away. Better to come clean than have them find out on their own,” Buffy said. “I really don’t want the cops knocking on my door with more questions.”

“How’d the police react to that piece of news?” Willow asked.

“They gave me a business card with the name of a good therapist and told me to call if I started feeling depressed or anxious,” Buffy said. “I’m pretty sure they think I might be next.”

“So what did you and Xander do after the police were done?” Willow asked.

“I went home and had a good cry. I think Xander went to work.”

“You let him go to work?” Willow yelped. “Buffy, with everything that happened, do you think…”

“Look, he’s a grown man and he knows what he can and can’t handle,” Buffy interrupted. “Besides, the bossman, remember? It’s not like he handles hammer-y or pointy objects all day long. If that were the case, I would’ve talked him into calling in sick. I think he just wanted to hide in the Normal World a bit just to get away from…” Her voice trailed off while she shuddered. “Wonder if Xander will take me on vacation to Normal World. I bet it’s nice there.”

“Overrated,” Willow said, doing her best to cheer Buffy. “If it was so great, why would he hang out with us?”

“Force of habit?” Buffy asked.

Anya’s obscenely cheerful voice interrupted the conversation. “Hey, guys! I think I found something!”

***

Xander parked his car in front of the Magic Box, turned off the engine and sat in silence for a few moments. He felt his mask of the day slip from his face as he tried desperately to think about nothing. He prepared to get out of the car, but froze when yet another vision of that woman’s charred body crossed his mind’s eye.

{stop poking at it} the whisper ordered. {it’s not going to make this any better or easier.}

“So you’re saying this is gonna get worse before it gets better,” Xander grumbled. “Great.” He silently cursed as he clambered out of the car and pressed the button on the remote. He found the mundane sound of the beep and the subtle click of the locks engaging oddly comforting.

Oh, yeah. Today was quite the day, Xander thought. I think I may have removed some drywallers’ heads when they tried to talk to me. Way to go, taking your frustrations out on other people. Let’s try to keep our inner Daddy Harris under wraps until we collapse into bed.

Bed. Sleep. Now there was a worthwhile goal. If he were really lucky, he’d be able to go through the whole night without any nightmares.

Xander opened the door and stepped silently into the Magic Box. The three women looked up from the scattered books and papers before returning to their conversation.

“What did I miss?” Xander asked.

“Lots of dot-connecting,” Willow grimly replied.

“As I was saying before I was rudely interrupted by what I thought was a customer,” Anya began, “this demon is probably your perp. It has to be, as hard as it is for me to believe. I can’t believe I forgot about it. Well, actually, now that I think about it, I can.”

“Because of the cloaking spell?” Buffy asked.

“No, because they’re extinct.”

“Extinct? It sure looked like a demon of the not-extinct variety to me,” Buffy growled, leaning back in her chair and crossing her arms. “I thought extinction was forever. Damn. One more t-shirt slogan bites the dust.”

Xander continued listening as he drifted over to the customer service counter. The only available chair was between Anya and Willow. Since he wasn’t in the mood to deal with uncomfortable vibes from his ex, leaning against the counter was his only option.

“Hey!” Xander jumped at the sound of Anya’s voice. “I just cleaned that glass! Lean somewhere else.”

“Sorry,” Xander muttered. He straightened up so he didn’t touch the counter, but otherwise stayed where he was.

“Anya, focus,” Buffy ordered, sparing Xander a sympathetic glance. “What can you tell me about this thing?”

“Well, back in the day, by that I mean pre-Renaissance, they would feed off the people we’d banish from the village,” Anya explained.

“You mean you fed people to them?” Willow asked. “Why? Did you think they were gods?”

“No, we thought they were vengeance spirits. Like these guys could even make the grade,” Anya sniffed. “What I mean is, the village would sometimes kick the undesirables out. You know, thieves, murders, heretics, basically anyone who wasn’t wanted or didn’t fit in and they’d have to go live in the woods and not bother any of us.”

“So, why didn’t they just move on to another town?” Buffy asked.

“Buffy, they couldn’t just pick up and move to another village,” Willow said. “I mean, 1,200 years ago being banished was basically a death sentence.”

“More ways than one,” Anya grimly replied. “Sometimes we’d find their bodies in the woods. I mean, by the time we stumbled across them it was pretty clear the animals had gotten there first, but the looks on their faces…” Anya let the thought hang.

“So what happened these demons?” Buffy asked. “Why’d everyone think they died off?”

“They just up and disappeared one day,” Anya said. “It was no big deal, really. They really weren’t big players in the grand scheme of things, so no one in the lower depths got their tail in a kink over it. I remember they were tribal, which means they not only kept to themselves, but they didn’t even mix with others of their own kind if they weren’t part of the same clan.”

“Hello, inbreeding,” Xander muttered. “Bet they’re related to my parents.” Anya’s mouth twitched in an aborted smile, signaling that she heard him. Xander felt himself relax, grateful to see a friendly, well, friendly-ish response from his ex.

“When did they disappear?” Buffy asked.

“Somewhere around the time the printing press made its splashy debut,” Anya said. She got a dreamy look on her face. “The printing press. Such a boon to the vengeance industry.”

“Now that’s interesting,” Willow interrupted. “Right around Guttenberg’s time the threat of banishment became less of a threat. The printing press led to the reformation, the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment, all that stuff. I mean, there was a lot going on around that time so people could consider just going to another town if they got kicked out of their homes.”

“So where’d these demons go?” Buffy asked. “I mean, if what I’m hearing is right, they just completely dropped off the radar.”

“Probably big noisy cities.” Willow practically bounced with excitement. “Think about it! All that chaos and all those people, so it wouldn’t be hard to just snatch someone off the streets. Ooooh, they probably went after victims who wouldn’t be missed, you know, like sailors, cut throats, criminals, prostitutes. Hey! I wonder if Jack the Ripper was one.”

“I doubt it,” Xander said. “Jack the Ripper butchered his victims. It doesn’t fit in with this guy’s MO.” On the women’s stunned looks, Xander replied, “What? I watch CSI.”

Anya shot Xander a look as she said, “Willow makes some good points. Well, not about Jack the Ripper, but the other stuff. Going after people who aren’t wanted or won’t be missed seems to fit the pattern.”

“So, what did they eat?” Xander asked. “I mean, these guys are eating something, right? What’s the food? Emotions? Thoughts? Souls? Something tells me they don’t walk down to the local Taco Bell and take a bite out of the dog.”

“I’m thinking their diet isn’t important,” Buffy said. “Just tell me how to kill it.”

“Actually Buffy, Xander may have a point,” Willow said. “We need to do more research before we go hunting.”

“‘We?’ There is no ‘we’ here,” Buffy said firmly. “This thing is dangerous. I don’t want any of you anywhere near this thing.”

“Which is why we need more research,” Willow wheedled. “Buffy, it nearly took you out, so I think facing this thing alone may not be such a good idea.”

“Willow…” Buffy began.

Xander tuned out the impending argument, having heard it and its cousins too many times before. He drifted over to the table and collapsed heavily in the chair, far too tired to care about uncomfortable vibes. He reached across the table and snatched a book from in front of Anya, ignoring the glare she shot in his direction.

Well, might as well see what the new ugly looks like because sooner or later you just know ol’ demon magnet man is gonna run into it, Xander thought.

He looked down to study the picture and froze.

In that moment, the whisper turned into a scream.

***

The growing argument between Buffy and Willow slammed to a halt when they heard a crash. They spun around to read Xander the riot act. Any words they may have flung at him for playing the clown never made it past their lips.

For his part, Xander was standing, hand planted firmly on the book, eyes staring hard at the picture of their demon. The tension in his body practically screamed at them while his jaw muscles worked furiously.

“Xander?” Willow hesitantly asked.

No response. The three women exchanged glances.

Willow tried again. “Xander, what is it?”

Xander seemed to shake something off. Willow could practically see Xander mentally ordering his muscles to relax as he slowly straightened back up to his full height. When he finally looked at the still-seated trio, she wasn’t surprised to see that his face was utterly devoid of any expression.

Oh, god, Willow thought. He’s shut down on me. He hasn’t done that since…

“I know where you can start your hunt,” Xander said. Willow started as if she were slapped. She also remembered that tone.

Buffy warily regarded Xander. “Xander? Are you all right?” she asked.

“Foster homes,” Xander said, as if he didn’t even hear Buffy’s question.

“What?” Buffy asked.

“Foster homes,” Xander repeated. “We start our hunt with foster homes.”

“Again with the ‘we,’” Buffy began. She stopped when Xander pinned her to her chair with an unreadable look.

“Yes, we,” Xander said. “And by ‘we,’ I mean ‘you and me.’ I’m taking some vacation time and we are going to make some home visits. Willow?”

“Y-y-y-esss?” Willow cringed at the sound of her own voice. She felt like she was regressing back to junior high.

“Think you can get a list of every foster home in town?” Xander asked. His eyes were flat as they regarded her.

“I don’t know where to—” Willow began.

“Hack into the state’s Children and Family Services database. I’m sure you’ll find a list,” Xander said in an even voice.

“Even if you get your hands on that list, what makes you think that Buffy will be able to just drop by all of these houses for a visit?” Anya asked.

When Xander swung his gaze around to Anya, the ex-vengeance demon refused to back down. She haughtily met his gaze and didn’t break eye contact. If Willow squinted, she was pretty sure she’d be able to see to see Anya’s hot temper clash against the cold shield Xander seemed to have erected around himself.

Then Xander smiled. It wasn’t a particularly nice smile and it certainly didn’t reach his eyes. “Buffy is the new peer counselor at the high school,” Xander remarked. “I’m pretty sure we can come up with something using that little fact to make sure we meet all of the foster parents.”

“Just a sec,” Buffy interrupted. “I’m not exactly keen on using my fuzzy job to investigate this hunch of yours.”

“It’s not a hunch,” Xander said.

Buffy glanced at Willow, who shook her head. Buffy raised her eyebrows in surprise. Apparently Willow’s nonverbal message of ‘don’t argue’ was heard loud and clear.

“Okay, fine,” Buffy said. “Why isn’t it a hunch?”

Okay, maybe she didn’t get the message or she got it and doesn’t care, Willow thought.

Xander smiled that unpleasant smile again. “Fits with the MO, doesn’t it? A messy situation, lots of unwanted people or people who wouldn’t be missed, a system that can’t keep track of anything, and it’s the perfect place to hide in plain sight. Can you say, ‘All-you-can-eat buffet?’”

“You can say the same thing about a lot of other places, like homeless shelters,” Buffy argued. “How do you know?”

Xander paused a moment, looking intently at Buffy. “I just know,” he said quietly. “Trust me.” On that, he spun on his heel and headed for the Magic Box door. “I’m going to get some sleep so I can be ready first thing tomorrow morning. Willow, think you can have the list ready for me by 8?”

“I-I-I-I’ll try,” Willow hesitated.

“Don’t try. Do,” Xander ordered. With that, he walked out the door.

“What the hell?” Buffy exploded.

“Buffy, calm down,” Willow soothed, casting glances at the door. “I think Xander knows what he’s talking about.”

“How?” Buffy demanded.

“I really don’t think I…”

“Anya?” Buffy interrupted.

The ex-vengeance demon shrugged. “I don’t know any more than you do. I mean, I thought I saw cold after you guys saw me and Spike…” She hesitated before meeting the Slayer’s glittering eyes. “What I mean to say is that I saw cold fury. This was just, well, cold. I’ve never seen it from Xander before.”

I have, Willow grimly thought.

“So, back to you, Willow,” Buffy said. “What’s going on?”

“I can’t…” Willow began. “Look, I have an idea, but I can’t tell you anything. I mean, even if I hadn’t made a promise, I don’t know anything to tell.”

“A promise?” Anya asked. “What kind of promise?”

“See, again, that’s something I really can’t tell you,” Willow replied.

Buffy’s expression softened. “Willow, we’re all Xander’s friends, right Anya?” Silence. “I said, ‘Right, Anya?’”

“Oh, all right. I suppose,” Anya grumped.

Buffy sighed. “Willow, something about this demon has obviously upset Xander. We all want to help him and kill this thing, right?”

“Buffy, I really don’t know anything that will help you and what I do know, it’s not for me to tell,” Willow insisted. “I mean, you pointed out that Xander is a grown man. If he thinks you should know, he’ll tell you.”

“I see,” Buffy deadpanned.

“Don’t bother trying to force it out of him, either,” Willow warned. “You won’t get anywhere. If anything, he’ll just retreat even more than he already has.”

Buffy sighed again. “Fine. No twisting of arms. Got it. Just answer me one question. Do you think Xander may be on to something?”

“I think that Xander most definitely knows something,” Willow said.

***

To this day, he couldn’t tell you why he left his room that night. Maybe he was thirsty, or hungry, or had to go to the bathroom. He really doesn’t know or remember. He couldn’t answer that key question of ‘why’ if you held a gun to his head and threatened to make him dead. He couldn’t even answer it if you pointed a vampire at his neck and threatened to make him undead.

In the end, the reasons why he crept out of the room he shared with two other boys in the dead of night are unimportant. The fact is he did and maybe, just maybe, that fact changed everything that came after.

He walked down the hallway, each step getting a little more hesitant. He really didn’t know what would happen if he were caught roaming the halls.

He passed the girls’ bedrooms and paused, noticing that the door was cracked open. He heard the sounds of whispering and shrugged. The ways of girls were mysterious to him and he, for one, had no interest in cracking their code. He really had to get…

What was he looking for again?

Not that it matters.

He tried to will his feet to move away from the door, but each step only took him one step closer to the girls’ bedroom. He was surprised, but not really, to notice that his hand was smaller than he expected as it paused above the doorknob.

Oh, he really shouldn’t do this. He could get into so much trouble. He remembers one of the other boys telling him that some other boy once walked into the girls’ room in the middle of the night and did something bad. The next day that boy was taken away and never seen again.

The story went something like that.

The whispering was getting more urgent.

He really should walk away now. It wasn’t too late. He could just go back to his room and pretend he didn’t hear anything. No one would ever have to know how close he came to being bad.

Except he is bad. He’s bad, stupid Xander and he’s pushing the door open because he has to see. He has to know.

The door swung open and he’s standing there and watching. It is straddling one of the girls on the bed, crouched low and whispering into her ear. She’s crying. He can see the tears. She’s not making a sound.

And for the first time in his life, Xander Harris threw his tiny child body into a fight he knew he couldn’t win.

 

Xander woke with a start, heart pounding, every muscle screaming that he needed to engage in fight or flight right now. His eyes looked wildly around the room, checking to make sure he was safely in his own bed.

Clock to his right, check. Strange art print Anya hung on the wall because it reminded her of the ‘good old days’ of the French Revolution. Check. Bed pushed up against the wall so that any unfortunate girl who shared it with him would have to crawl over him to escape. Check.

He slowly forced his body to relax, each nerve ending screaming as he did so. When he finally felt he could move, he rolled over to face the clock.

{3 a.m.} the whisper remarked. {midnight of the soul.}

Xander whimpered and tucked himself into a tight fetal ball. He was inordinately grateful that there was no one else in the room. He didn’t think he could stand someone trying to comfort him right now.

***

Buffy focused her attention on the passing landscape, noting the lush green lawns and the white picket fences. Several yards were littered with abandoned bikes, sports equipment, and assorted toys. It never ceased to amaze her that in a town as dangerous as Sunnydale, front yard thievery and late night burglary weren’t even considered a threat by most of the residents.

She stole a glance at her traveling companion. Xander watched the road, occasionally checking a street map to make sure he was driving in the right direction. She looked back out the car window, her fingers nervously playing along the edge of the sheaf of papers in her lap. The rustling paper provided the only sound in the car.

She briefly thought of turning on the radio just to break the silence. She did that the first day when it became clear that the most she could expect out of Xander were single-syllable answers to anything she said. When Buffy reached over and snapped the radio on, Xander said nothing, even when she tuned the radio to a college station playing house and hip-hop music, genres she knew he hated. His utter lack of reaction to music that would normally send him off a two-hour rant was unnerving enough that Buffy eventually shut the radio off. It stayed off.

Three days. Three veeeeerrrryyyyyy long days, Buffy thought. We are so chasing a false trail.

The first day went easily enough. Willow was able to cross-reference her list of foster homes with the names of students in the Sunnydale school system. By mutual unspoken agreement, Xander and Buffy hit the foster homes housing high school-age students the first day. Her cover story that she, as the new peer counselor, was making home visits to meet the families of students that might require extra support in a school environment went over very well. In fact, her stated intention won the pair of them an invite into almost all of the homes.

A few moments after entering each house Xander snapped out of whatever funk had gripped him. He’d joke around with whatever child was in the immediate vicinity while Buffy chatted with the foster parents over cups of coffee, tea, and snacks. Everyone she talked to was invariably polite, caring, committed, unbelievably nice, and, far as she could tell, completely human.

The part of her mind that wasn’t occupied with looking for something wrong with the house or the people was amazed at the ease Xander seemed to gain the kids’ trust. He had a knack for zooming in on their interests, whether it was television, video games, music, comics, or science fiction. Although it could be because Xander was usually such a big kid himself.

Yet, the second they left the warm embrace of each house, Xander seemed to shut down again. He’d bow his head as if he found the ground far more interesting than his surroundings and would walk to the car. Just as he clicked his remote to release the locks he would comment, “They seem like very nice people.” He did this each and every time they ended a visit.

After going through this ritual and hearing the statement no less than nine times, Buffy grumped, “Yes, Xander. They all seem like nice people. Not a demonic one in the bunch. Can you please tell me what we’re be looking for? Because, I gotta tell you, we’re coming up short if we’re supposed to be checking these people for horns and pitchforks.”

Xander paused, his hand halfway to the driver’s side door. “Just for something wrong.”

“‘Something wrong?’” Buffy asked, walking around the car to get to the passenger side. “Care to vague that up a little more?”

He shrugged, not meeting her eyes. “I can’t explain it. I’ll know it when I feel it.”

Buffy huffed an irritated breath as she opened the door. “Great. But how will I know it, Xander?”

She never got an answer to that question.

The second day went much the same as the first. Before noon, they were still hitting foster homes sheltering high school students. After a quick and silent meal in the car, they started on the pages listing the middle school students. They tackled this group by age, since Buffy’s cover story held up better under scrutiny if the kids in the home were actually slated to enter high school next year.

It was now day three and Buffy was sick and tired of it. She was sick of feeling like she was running around in circles, enduring Xander’s moody silence, and drinking yet another coffee with yet another overeager and overly helpful adult.

“After this house, we stop,” Buffy said.

“Stop?” Xander asked. She noticed he didn’t look at her.

“Xander, we’ve tried it your way and we’ve come up with nothing,” Buffy said. “I’m tired. I’m cranky. And I’m pretty sure my bladder’s going to float away if I have one more damn cup of coffee. Whatever you think we’d find, we’re not finding it.”

Xander glanced at his watch before signaling to make a left turn. “It’s almost three o’clock. What say we call quitting time at six? If we don’t find anything by then, we’ll go back to the drawing board.”

Buffy glared at his side profile then shook her head and sighed. “Fine. Fine. Until six, then.” She turned to look out the window. “It’s not like the entire day hasn’t been wasted already,” she muttered.

“It hasn’t been wasted,” Xander commented.

Buffy looked at him. She was relieved to see that the expression on his face had softened. The harsh determined look of the past three days was gone, replaced by something that could almost be described as Xander-like. It wasn’t completely there, but it was a start.

“Care to explain?” Buffy felt the tension from her own face drain away.

He shrugged. “If we haven’t found anything, it probably means that whatever your demon is, it or its relatives haven’t added Sunnydale kids to the dinner menu.”

For the millionth time in three days Buffy fought the urge to ask Xander why he would even think her demon had any interest children since all the victims they knew about were adults. “Well, I’m glad you feel that way, because my cover story is starting to get a bit thin,” Buffy said. “We’re starting to hit kids that won’t be in the high school for another two years.”

“You’re right,” Xander acknowledged, his face twitching into a partial, tight smile. “Of course you’re right. We’ve probably been chasing after phantoms. Oh, here’s our next stop.”

The car slid smoothly to a halt outside in front of a two-story ranch that looked like every other house on the street, complete with the scattered mess of playthings on the front lawn that announced the presence of children. The pair got out of the car and trundled up the sidewalk. Buffy rang the doorbell and stepped back, glancing casually around the porch.

The front door swung open and Buffy sensed, rather than saw, Xander’s body posture stiffen. She cast a quick glance at him before addressing the person who answered the door.

“Hi! I’m Buffy Summers and I’m the new peer counselor at the high school,” she said, putting on her best chipper cheerleader voice. “I’m just stopping by to introduce myself and get to know you and your foster children.”

The short, slightly overweight woman pushed a stray strand of dark hair out of her face. “Miss, I think you’ve made a mistake. None of the children here go to the high school,” she said.

“Oh! I know that,” Buffy chirped. “See, I’m working on this project. My boss wants me to develop some programs for students that might need some extra support in their first year of high school. Since a lot of students who see me live in foster homes…” Buffy let her voice trail off as she shrugged. “Well, I just figured if I talked to some foster parents, I might get some ideas on how to do that without, you know, attaching any stigma to the kids.”

“What a great idea!” The woman broke into a friendly smile that lit up her moon-shaped face. “Please, come in.” She glanced at Xander. “Are you also counselor?”

“No. I’m the chauffer,” Xander said shortly as he followed Buffy into the house.

“Oh, somebody’s grumpy,” the woman said cheerfully. “Where are my manners? I’m Mrs. Owsley. And you are?”

“Buffy.”

“Alexander.”

Buffy looked sharply at her male shadow, surprised that Xander had used his formal name to introduce himself. For his part, Xander was intently studying the house and standing in what could best be described as ‘parade rest.’ His posture, his expression, his tone of voice announced that he didn’t find this house or their hostess at all to his liking.

Buffy turned her focus back to Mrs. Owsley. She seemed no different than the 30 or so other foster parents they had met: nice, cheerful, eager to help, the whole enchilada. “Please excuse my friend,” Buffy apologized. “He’s been forced to drive me around for three days. I promised I would give him a big reward tonight.” She flirtatiously batted her eyes at Xander to emphasize her point.

Mrs. Owsley chuckled. “Something tells me that this reward better involve a home cooked dinner and Victoria’s Secret if you want to make it up to him. Come on, I’ll make you some fresh coffee.”

The trio headed for the kitchen, passing by a staircase along the way. Buffy’s mind scrambled to come up with a list of ‘suggestions’ that she could claim came from other foster parents while Mrs. Owsley nattered on about her relief that Buffy and Alexander weren’t trying to get her to read The Watchtower.

“I don’t have a problem with anyone or their religion. Live and let live, I say,” Mrs. Owsley said, scooping coffee into a filter. “But it is really necessary to knock on my door to tell me that I need to change my evil ways? And in the middle of Passions, too.”

“What is it about that show?” Buffy asked, quickly warming to the woman. “Almost everyone I know is totally into it.”

“Well, it’s all about the supernatural and the fantastic, isn’t it?” Mrs. Owsley said, setting out cups and spoons. “Witches, zombies, enchanted dolls, and the like all acting on the worst of human impulses and doing maximum damage to each other just because they can.”

“Sounds like real life,” Buffy dryly commented.

“I can tell you’re not exactly a fan,” the woman responded with a chuckle. She looked around. “Where’d you’re friend go?”

Friend? Oh, no. “Xan— Alexander?” Buffy called. “Alexander, where are you?” She looked back through the kitchen door and saw him standing at the base of the stairs staring up at the second floor. Buffy moved quickly to his side, half afraid he’d start to go upstairs and blow their cover story out of the water. “Xander, what is it?” she asked quietly, turning to follow his gaze.

She saw a small boy, maybe about 10 or 11, sitting on the stairs and listlessly staring back down at them. His expression was blank and his face seemed shadowed, as if the weight of the world was pressing on his mind. Looking between the boy above her and the man next to her, Buffy quietly ventured, “Xander?”

Xander shook himself slightly and looked at her, his expression unreadable. He looked back up at the boy, gave him a slight nod, and turned to follow Buffy into the kitchen.

“Did you get lost?” Mrs. Owsley greeting him.

“There was a boy…” Xander began.

“Eduardo. Eddie. He’s home sick from school today,” Mrs. Owsley explained, setting out a pound cake and a knife. “I’m surprised you saw him. He hasn’t gotten out of bed all day.”

“I’ll bet,” Xander growled as he launched himself across the kitchen at the cheerfully oblivious woman.

“What the—” Mrs. Owsley began before she found herself shoved against the counter, one very large male hand clamped around her throat.

“Xander!” Buffy yelled.

“Show yourself! Damn it!” Xander shouted in Mrs. Owsley’s face. “I know what you are! Show yourself!”

“Xander! Let go!” Buffy pulled him off the terrified woman, trying her best not to exert too much pressure out of fear of breaking a bone.

“What…what…what…” the shaken woman began, clutching her throat.

Xander struggled in Buffy’s grip, managing to get her off-balance enough to slip from her grasp. He went after the woman again. This time he picked her up and threw her against the opposite wall of the kitchen with so much force that Mrs. Owsley bounced down to the floor. Buffy lunged after Xander, but missed as he moved just out of her reach. He strode over to the woman and kicked her viciously in the ribs.

“Take off that goddamn mask!” Xander ordered, delivering one more swift kick before Buffy was able to wrestle him away. “I can sense you. Take it off!”

“Damn it, Xander! Calm the down!” Buffy ordered. She turned to help Mrs. Owsley, but stopped short when she saw the human form begin to shimmer around the edges. “What the hell?” She asked.

In answer to her question, Xander charged past her and went after the woman again, snatching the knife off the table as he did so. He hauled Mrs. Owsely to her feet and, holding the knife to her throat, shoved her against the wall. He leaned all of his weight against her to prevent her escape. “Don’t you dare,” he warned. “Don’t you fucking dare. Show her. Show her what you are.”

Mrs. Owsley’s form began to loose its cohesion, showing flashes of grey skin and yellow eyes interspersing with the pleasantly human form. The woman, or creature, struggled weakly against Xander hissing, “Let me go, little boy.”

The violence of Xander’s attack, the struggling creature pinned to the wall, the whole situation floored Buffy. “Xander? What—” she began.

Mrs. Owsley’s human guise dropped completely and the demon underneath fixed Buffy with a look. Buffy felt her knees give way as she fought the overwhelming despair grip her heart. Oh my god, it’s the same demon. Oh my god, oh my god… Buffy hugged herself close and felt tears sting her eyes in helpless sadness. Somewhere at the edge of her hearing, she heard Xander growl, “I don’t think so. Try looking at me.”

The crushing weight of despair lifted from her shoulders, allowing Buffy to look up from her crouched position. She saw the demon turn its attention to Xander and stare him full in the face.

Xander laughed.

“Nice try,” he said, stepping back from the confused demon. With a movement almost too quick for Buffy to see, he stabbed the demon in the throat and twisted the knife before pulling it back out. The demon gurgled and dropped to the floor.

Buffy shot off the floor and moved to Xander’s side, staring down at the creature now ineffectually clutching at its throat. “I think you’ve killed it,” she said with wonder staining her voice.

“Does this look like your demon?” Xander asked tightly.

“Dead-ringer,” Buffy answered. “It can’t be that easy to kill.”

“It’s not dead, yet,” Xander grimly replied. He dropped to the ground and stabbed the creature in the eye, releasing a flood of green goo. The creature convulsed, but was still alive. “Damn, what does it take?” he asked, pulling the knife out and stabbing the demon in the other eye. The last blow finally did it and the demon stopped moving.

“What? How? Who? How?” Buffy sputtered as Xander climbed to his feet, staring down at his handiwork.

All the rage seemed to drain out of him. Xander’s shoulders slumped and the knife dropped out of his nerveless, goo-covered hands. He muttered, “I haven’t forgotten.”

Buffy startled at the statement. That sounded awfully close to… “Xander? Have you seen one of these things before?”

He ignored her question and walked out of the kitchen, Buffy ineffectually following from behind. “Xander? Damn it. Talk to me!”

Xander stopped short just beyond the kitchen doorway, forcing Buffy to halt her own forward progress. “Xander…” she warned before peering around him. The boy was now standing at the base of the stairs, eyes wide. Oh, no! How much did he see? Buffy thought desperately as she tried to come up with a list of excuses that would make sense.

What happened next took her by surprise.

Eduardo…Eddie…picked his way over to the frozen pair, stopping just short of Xander. The boy peered up at him, as if trying to make out what he was. After a moment’s pause, Xander dropped to one knee. “Hey, you okay in there?” he softly asked.

In response the boy flung himself at Xander, arms wrapping around his neck and completely oblivious to the fact that Xander was covered in gore, as he started sobbing. Xander helplessly looked at Buffy before returning the hug, rocking the child back and forth, murmuring, “It’s okay now, shhhh. It’s over. I promise.”

Buffy felt like she was intruding on something that she had no right to see. She retreated back to the kitchen. Keeping one eye on the huddled pair, she turned to inspect the demon. Her eyes widened in surprise. “Xander? Come here. Look at this,” she called.

Xander disengaged as best he could from Eddie, but his hushed request that the boy stay put was clearly going to be ignored since the child had attached himself to the man’s leg and refused to let go. With a sigh, Xander returned to the kitchen, frightened kid in tow. “What is it?” he asked.

“Our demon is melting,” Buffy commented.

“Melting?” Xander’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.

“It’s turning into a puddle of green slime.”

Xander looked down at his kill, his face hardening into the same cold expression Buffy remembered from the Magic Box. “Maybe we should grab a sample. Give it to Wills for study,” he said.

“Good idea,” Buffy nodded as she began searching the cupboards for a glass bowl to collect the slime. She shot a significant glance at the boy. “What are we going to do about him?”

The boy in question whimpered while Xander scowled.

“Okay, maybe not the best way to phrase it, but we have to do something,” Buffy said, opening and closing doors. “Chances are someone is going to notice one foster mother missing. Plus, he looks like he‘s been playing in the goo.”

Xander nodded. He dropped back to one knee so he was eyelevel with the boy. “Eddie?” Xander asked. “Eddie? Look at me.”

The boy peeked at Xander from underneath an unruly mess of bangs, but remained silent.

“Eddie, we’re not going to hurt you. Why would we hurt you if we just helped you?”

The boy seemed to think about this. He slowly nodded.

“Eddie, how many of them are in the house?” Xander gently pushed.

The boy’s eyes widened and he slowly began to back away. Xander reached out a hand and grabbed the child’s wrist.

“Eddie, we need you to be brave,” Xander quietly urged. “You have to tell me if you want us to help you. How many are in the house?”

“Two,” the boy responded in a small voice.

“Is the other one your foster father?”

“Yes.” This response was even softer than the first.

Xander let out a puff of breath. “Thank you, Eddie.”

The boy rewarded Xander with a wan smile.

“Now Eddie? Listen to me, Eddie. I need you to be brave a little longer. Think you can do that?”

The boy’s posture changed. He looked like he was trying to stand at attention, but Buffy could see the kid was still scared out of his mind. Xander nodded his approval and took a deep breath. “I need you to lie for us.”

The kid started as if he were slapped.

Xander held his hands up in a calming gesture. Buffy thought he looked like he was surrendering. “I know. I know. You don’t want to lie anymore, right?” A nod from the kid. “I don’t blame you. And I don’t want you to lie anymore, either. But you have to tell this one lie for us and I’ll never ask you to do it again. I promise.”

Eddie seemed to think about this. “Okay,” he whispered.

Bowl in hand, Buffy returned to Xander’s side and watched intently. She was tempted to interrupt, but Xander seemed to be handling the kid equation better than she could. Xander looked up at her before returning his attention back to Eddie. “Okay, Eddie? Here’s what I want you to tell your foster father and the cops when they ask you…”

Continued in Part 3

 

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