liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,
liz_marcs
liz_marcs

FIC: Whisper, 3/12 (PG-13; BtVS; Ensemble)

Continued from Part 2

Title: Whisper, Part 3
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’).

 

Clues, clues, clues. I’m surrounded by clues. Willow lay exhausted on her bed, helplessly staring at the cracks in the ceiling. She rolled over, coming nose-to-keyhole with a dusty lockbox. She ignored the sound of crinkling paper caused by her movement, focusing intently on the intricacies of the lock itself as if it held the answer to all her questions.

She snatched an envelope from inside the box, peering hard at the blurred return address rendered in the careless handwriting of a pre-teen male. She dropped the envelope on the bed. She really didn’t need to read the letter. A quick glance at the date on the postmark was really all she needed to know about the contents.

It scared her that after all these years she knew every single letter word-for-word and by heart. All she needed to do was look at the postmark.

She growled, picked up the discarded envelope, removed the letter, and began reading the contents in earnest, hoping against hope that her memory had erred and that there really was a hidden message she missed.

What was she looking for?

Like all the others this letter was short and filled with chatter, the inane kind of stuff that would enthrall a typical 12-year-old boy: a hike through the woods where no one forgot he was there and left him alone, a birthday party where no one got drunk or got into a screaming fight, a real live baseball game where no one poured beer on his head and laughed.

Well, maybe not your typical 12-year-old boy.

She dropped the letter, uncaring about where it landed. “Please, Xander. Please tell me what happened,” she quietly begged, one fist pounding softly against the bed. She stopped her drumbeat and scrubbed at her face with her hands.

Why the hell did she even keep this stuff?

You know why, she thought. He was different when he came back.

When she got older and less innocent, she wondered if…

She squelched the thought.

Willow heaved a sigh. I’ll never tell. I’ll never tell. I promise I’ll never tell. I’ll pinky-swear on it, Xander.

Promise or no, some part of her refused to let it drop. The box always served as a dirty little secret housing her suspicions and evil thoughts on the matter. I should’ve left it in the dark, Willow angrily thought. This is getting me nowhere.

The letters, the lockbox, and the written contents represented a habit of a lifetime. For all the pain opening that box caused her, she couldn’t help but feel a certain selfish sense of happiness. That box and everything it represented was a reminder that sometimes you can love someone and someone can love you just because.

It amazed her that she somehow forgot that lesson somewhere along the way. Maybe that’s why she continued to carry the burden with her long after any rational reason for doing so disappeared. The box snuggled among the dust bunnies under her bed when she lived with her parents. She hauled it off to college where it was kept safe in a locked trunk. It was securely hidden in the back of a closet when she shared Joyce’s room with Tara. Lord knows what Tara would’ve thought if she found…

Tara.

Willow blinked hard. No. Cry for Tara later. Xander needed her now.

--Are you sure? He seems to be functioning just fine.--

An unbidden thought in that familiar hiss.

--Seems to me he has everything under control.--

“How can you say that?” she whispered. “Didn’t you see—”

--Oh, I saw. I saw just fine. The bigger question is: what did you see? Or rather, what didn’t you see?--

“Go away,” Willow whispered.

--No. You want to help him? You can. Just a word, a simple word. The weapon is in your mind and at your fingertips.--

“No. Buffy will protect—”

--How? And from what? From that? She can’t even protect herself.--

“Buffy will save him,” Willow protested in a small voice.

--Can she save him from himself? Only you have the power to do that. One word. That’s all it takes. It worked very well with Tara.--

“No, no, no, no!” Willow violently sat up, wildly searching the room for her dark-haired, dark-eyed doppelganger. “I can’t! I can’t do this! If I make him forget… What if it puts him in more danger? What if it changes him? I don’t have the right—”

Her answer was dead silence. She shivered.

She wasn’t sure how long she sat there in her nest of ancient letters when she heard the pounding on her bedroom door.

“Willow! Open this door! Willow!”

Oh, god, oh, god, oh, god… Willow thought as she jumped to her feet and frantically gathered the scattered pages up from her bed. “Buffy, wait—”

Buffy burst though the door without any preamble. “This can’t wait.”

“Buffy!” Willow put as much indignation into her voice as she could while guiltily hiding the paper behind her back. “What if I was sleeping? Or not decent? I could’ve been having a wanton moment when you come bursting into my room?”

Buffy snorted, barely casting a glance at Willow’s bed. “Wanton with the homework?”

“I’m capable of wanton. Why wouldn’t I be capable of wanton? Don’t you have wanton moments? Because if you do, I’ll have you know that I can wanton with the best of them. Yes, siree.”

“Willow? Stop. Please, just stop,” Buffy begged through clenched teeth.

Willow began picking up more pages in as casual a manner as she could muster. “Sorry. It’s just you startled me with all the pounding and the racket. I was dozing off and I thought I was having a dream about being trapped in one of Xander’s construction jobs.”

“Look, I’m sorry, okay? I didn’t mean to…” Buffy began before she sat-plopped on the edge of Willow’s bed. The witch tried not to cringe when she heard the sound of a missed page crinkling under the Slayer’s butt. “It’s just…I can’t even…”

That’s when Willow saw the worry etched on Buffy’s face warring with confusion and anger.

“What happened?” Willow asked.

“Xander.”

“What! He’s not hurt is he?” Willow panicked. If something happened because she didn’t speak up, it would be all her fault.

“Calm down, Willow. He’s not hurt. He’s fine,” Buffy said. She thought about it. “Actually, I’m not sure he’s fine, but physically he’s okay.”

“Oh, no. Buffy? Buffy did you find your demon? I…I mean…did it do something to—”

“No. It didn’t. It didn’t hurt him at all.” Buffy watched Willow for her reaction when she added, “He killed it or one like it.”

“What? Didn’t it turn its mojo on him?”

“Yep. Looked him square in the face,” Buffy said.

“Didn’t he—”

“Nope,” Buffy answered before Willow could finish the question. “He laughed Willow.”

“Laughed?” Willow fought the urge to look at the papers in her hands.

“Laughed,” Buffy confirmed. She got up and began pacing Willow’s room. “He knew all along. While I’m out there hunting for it and putting my neck on the line, he knew what I was facing. He knew.

“Buffy, calm down,” Willow urged. “I don’t think he knew that he knew about your demon. Well, I don’t think he knew before he saw the picture in Magic Box.”

Buffy pushed a strand of hair off her forehead before bowing her head in defeat. “You’re right. If Xander knew, he’d tell me. He wouldn’t deliberately hide it from me. I’m sure you’re right, it’s just…” She shuddered. “That laugh, Willow. I’ve heard that kind of laugh before. Nice people don’t laugh like that.” She paused and added, “When he killed it, do you know what he said?”

Willow shook her head, although she was pretty sure she did because she didn’t really want to know.

“He said, ‘I haven’t forgotten.’”

“That sounds awfully close to—” Willow began.

“I know,” Buffy interrupted. “I don’t know what to think. Willow, if you know something you have got to tell me.”

The paper in Willow’s hands suddenly felt very heavy. “Buffy, I swear. I don’t know if I have anything to tell.”

***

Xander remained crouched in a corner of his darkened bedroom and wearily watched the sky brighten through the window. It would be dawn soon.

He was still wearing the same slime-covered clothes he wore yesterday.

He really didn’t want to go to work. He really needed to go to work.

I’m going crazy, he thought with maniacal glee. Correction. I am crazy.

{stop this. you’re not crazy. you’re just tired because you refused to sleep last night.} the whisper said.

Xander bitterly giggled. Oh, but great one, don’t you see? Makes perfect sense. See monsters once, you never stop seeing monsters everywhere you go.

{that’s because the things that go bump in the night are real and they are everywhere.}

No they’re not. Slayers, vampires, werewolves, witches, chaos demons, nasties with big sharp teeth, little grey men that make kids cry in the dark. Not real. All in my head.

{do you believe it because they told you? or do you believe it because you believe it?}

They were right. I should’ve listened to them, Xander desperately thought. A dream. I’ve been dreaming ten years. I’m still 12 and we just left Willow’s party and the only monsters that are real are my parents. This life isn’t real. I don’t want this to be real anymore.

{and there is the crux of the problem. you can’t just see what you want to see. you have to see what is and like it or not, this is what is.}

“I bet if you had a body, you’d be wearing tweed,” Xander muttered.

{you so sound sure when you say that.} the whisper delivered this statement with a dark chuckle.

Xander hugged himself tightly. “I’m forgetting something,” he muttered. “I know I’m forgetting something. What don’t I remember?”

{you’ll remember soon enough.} the whisper warned. {it has to go this way.}

The sound of a slamming door caught Xander’s attention and his body tensed. “Whaddya know. One of the figments of my imagination is here,” he murmured.

Xander painfully hauled himself to a standing position, wincing as his cramped muscles complained about being locked in place for too long. He hobbled to his bedroom door and ignored the feeling the pins and needles in his feet.

***

Spike was in the kitchen heating a cup of blood when he heard the human open the door to his room. The vampire did his best to ignore the boy when he felt the weight of a stare bore into his back. The ding of the microwave announcing that dinner was served provided a welcome relief to the silence that seemed to take on a physical weight with the presence of the construction worker.

Spike turned to face the human, ready to raise his mug of blood in a mock salute, but stopped, leaving the mug and hand frozen in midair.

The dark-haired creature was openly studying him in a way Spike didn’t like one bit. He could see the boy’s dark eyes casually take the measure of his shorter, slighter frame. The considering look in his eyes, the cold expression on his face screamed ‘predator’ to Spike’s own senses.

That’s when the vampire realized what he smelled on the human: the sweet cloying smell of a recent demon kill.

Bloody hell! Look at his clothes! How long has he been wandering around like that?

Given the situation, Spike decided that the better part of valor would to avoid baiting the boy. He was fairly certain that Harris was half-a-step away from staking him good and proper and hiding his ashes in a potted plant.

Without taking his eyes off Xander, Spike carefully put the still-full mug in the sink and slowly raised his hands in the universal language of ‘I have no weapons.’ Spike went to the spare bedroom, which his very reluctant host laughingly called a closet, keeping the human in his peripheral vision at all times.

Spike shut the door behind him and leaned against it as a certain amount of relief flooded through his undead being. He shuddered when he heard a half-sane cackle from the other side of the door.

***

Anya rubbed her bleary eyes when she realized that she’d been reading the same paragraph four times.

She hated research.

She hated getting caught by surprise even more.

Anya dropped her head to the research table with a thunk and groaned in frustration. She’d gone through so many books just to get snippets of information and sniffs of rumors about the latest Sunnydale terror that she was fairly certain she was starting to run out of books to check.

Of course, if she was running out of books to check, Anya knew she could blame Willow, since the redheaded witch was the one that had to go evil and absorb the contents of half the books in the Magic Box. Anya could practically hear Giles’s voice commenting that the books they did have should’ve been sufficient to deal with the typical threats Buffy faced.

Welcome to Sunnydale, where nothing is typical and the word ‘apocalypse’ has a plural. I should’ve never listened when Hallie gave me the heads up about Cordelia. I should’ve never come here, my duty as a vengeance demon be damned. I hate this town, Anya thought.

She was no closer to figuring out what deChantal demons ate, how Buffy could combat their ability to put the whammy on unsuspecting humans, or even why their victims were willing to act like lemmings to the slaughter.

“Lambs, not lemmings. Get it right,” Anya grumbled. She frowned. She wasn’t entirely sure that ‘humans acting like lambs to slaughter’ was exactly right, either. Maybe they just acted like lambs. Or was that lemmings?

“Who the hell cares,” Anya said in the same grumbling voice. “Great. Now I’m talking to myself. Glad no one is around to hear me.”

Bet Giles would know just the right books to check, she thought with a touch of sarcasm as she dropped her head to the table. He should be here doing this instead of me. Giles probably would’ve been able to put the pieces together faster than we would. Giles is the Watcher. Hell, he’d probably just put in a call to the Watcher’s Council and ask them for infor—

Anya’s head shot up. “Why don’t I just call Giles?” she asked her empty shop.

She hurried to the phone, picked up the receiver, and puzzled over the keypad in an attempt to remember if she needed to dial 11 or 13 numbers to get Giles on the phone. She finally gave up and pulled out the Rolodex from under the counter, found Giles’s home phone, and punched the buttons. She impatiently tapped her foot while she waited to be connected.

“Yes?” came the clipped greeting.

“Giles! I’m so glad you’re there, Giles!” Anya said.

“Good, Lord. Anya? What is it? Is everything—”

“Everything’s fine. Well, everything’s not fine, but nothing earth-destroying. At least, I don’t think there’s anything earth-destroying,” Anya began.

“Anya, slow down,” Giles sighed into the phone. Anya briefly wondered if he was polishing his glasses or rubbing his temples as if he had a headache. “What’s wrong?”

“Why does something have to be wrong? Why can’t I just call to say, ‘Hello?’ Just because I’m making a very expensive cross-continental and trans-Atlantic phone call doesn’t mean something’s wrong,” Anya huffed.

She wasn’t sure, but she thought she could hear Giles stifle a chuckle. She relaxed, feeling obscurely pleased that Giles wasn’t annoyed.

“Quite right. However, you expressed relief that I picked up the phone, so I believe that I may not have jumped to an erroneous conclusion that there’s trouble.” The Watcher seemed highly amused with himself.

“Well, there is trouble,” Anya admitted. “We’re doing research on a demon and we’re getting nowhere.”

Giles sighed. “While I am more than happy to help, all of you really need to do more work on your researching skills. I am rather busy dealing with a crisis at my end of the world. Had you called two hours later you would’ve missed me.”

“Sorry.”

“No apologies necessary. Tell me the problem and I’ll help if I can,” Giles replied.

“We’re researching a deChantal demon,” Anya began.

“A what? I don’t think I’ve ever heard… Are you quite certain that’s the proper name?”

“Yes, Giles. It is the proper name,” Anya said, her annoyance showing. “Trust me on this. I’ve heard of these demons before and I know I’m right.”

“I don’t mean to question your knowledge,” Giles hastily allowed. “While I admit that your considerable, ahhh, expertise in this area rivals and surpasses most—”

“And don’t you forget it,” Anya interrupted.

“Quite right.” Anya thought she could hear Giles backpedaling. She was willing to bet he was trying to come up with a more tactful way to question her conclusions. “Clearly, you’ve identified the target, so I don’t understand the problem.”

“We can’t find any information about it,” Anya replied. “There isn’t a lot to go on in the books that are left after Willow tried her black ink diet. I can only find rumors and gossip, which isn’t a whole lot of help, let me tell you. I mean I have no idea what to believe, especially since the main fact about them turned out to be wrong.”

“Oh?”

Anya took a breath. “The main fact is that these demons were supposed to be extinct.”

“I see.”

“The problem is they’re not. See? Main fact about them is wrong.”

“That is a problem. Are you sure?”

“Very sure. They disappeared back when I was in the vengeance biz and I remember the gossip.” Anya twirled the phone cord in her fingers. “Giles? I’m worried about this,” she confessed. “They have the ability to affect people’s minds and drive them to suicide.”

“Good Lord!”

“We don’t know how they do it,” Anya continued as if Giles hadn’t interjected. “Buffy had the whammy laid on her by one of these things.”

“She isn’t—”

“Don’t worry, your favorite Slayer is fine,” Anya quickly said. “It just wanted to incapacitate her so it could finish with its meal. The meal is now dead, by the way.”

“Meal? Oh, you mean the victim. I see.” Giles paused. “Anya, you really shouldn’t call people ‘meals.’”

“What should I call him? He was a meal.”

There was silence at the other end of the line. Anya could picture Giles pinching his nose to collect his thoughts. “Be that as it may Anya, perhaps you should consider refraining from calling humans ‘meals.’”

Anya smiled. “So you’ll help?”

“Yes, yes, of course. I can’t do any of the research myself, understand. However, I will be meeting a colleague this evening. I’ll ask him to handle it and arrange to have his discoveries sent to you as soon as possible.”

Anya let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding. “Thank you, Giles.”

“Any time.” There was a pause. “And good work Anya, since I suspect that you were the one who ultimately identified the demon.”

“Why, yes. Yes I did!” Anya felt a pleased smile stretch out her face. She had to admit it felt good.

After Giles said his good-byes and rung off, Anya contemplated the handset a moment with what she was sure was the closest she could get to a goofy Xander smile. She suddenly frowned. I didn’t like the look on Xander’s face at all when he saw that demon’s picture. Not one bit, she thought. Not that I care, because I really, really don’t.

“Who the hell am I kidding?” she asked as she hung up the phone.

When she heard the shop bell, she automatically said, “We’re open at 10. Please come back in an hour.”

“Anya, it’s me.”

The ex-vengeance demon looked up to see Buffy enter the shop. “Anything new?” the Slayer asked.

“I had to call Giles for help,” Anya admitted.

“You called Giles?” Buffy immediately perked up. “How is he? Did he know anything? Can he help?”

“Giles is Giles only busier. No, he didn’t know anything. Yes, he is going to help,” Anya said. “Hopefully the Watchers Council has something we can use.”

“So you’ve had no luck then.” Buffy deflated.

“Sort of. The problem is that I don’t know what to believe,” Anya shrugged.

Buffy frowned and sat down at the research table. “Tell me what you found anyway.”

“What happened to ‘we don’t need to do more research, just tell me how to kill it?’ Which is a stupid attitude, by the way.”

“Let’s just say I’m a convert. Bring on the knowledge. Leave nothing out, especially the juicy details.”

Anya felt a zing of fear climb her spine. “What happened?”

“Xander and I found it, or one like it,” Buffy said.

“What happened?” Anya repeated.

Buffy hesitated. “We killed it. Actually, Xander killed it.”

“Xander?”

“It was busy concentrating on me as the immediate threat and Xander was able to incapacitate it by slashing its throat,” Buffy sounded nonchalant as she said this. The tone was almost too nonchalant for Anya’s taste. “He killed it by stabbing it in the eyes with a knife.”

“You’re not exactly telling me the whole story,” Anya accused.

Buffy looked troubled. “I’m not sure there’s a whole story to tell, but I promise that I’m telling you the absolute truth. We found it in one of the foster homes we visited just like Xander predicted and Xander killed it while I was down for the count.”

“How did it get in?” Anya she slapped her forehead the moment she asked. “Oh, wait. Cloaking.”

Buffy hesitated. “Not exactly,” she slowly said.

“Come again?”

“The demon we killed was disguised as a human,” Buffy said.

“Was it wearing a rubber mask?”

“No. It was able to project the image that it was human.”

Anya felt her knees go weak and she held on to the counter for support. “An illusion? I didn’t find anything in any of the books that it could do a glamour spell like that. I mean, cloaking, yes. But glamour?”

“Don’t beat yourself up.” Buffy said. “You said yourself that they pretty much kept to themselves and were minor players. You can’t be expected to know everything about every demon. Without you, we wouldn’t even know they were called Dechanters.”

“deChantals,” Anya automatically corrected. She sighed. “This is bad. This is very bad. That means these demons can be anything or anyone and can go anywhere and do anything. How are we supposed to fight it?” She stopped and smiled a relieved smile. “Oh, wait. You said you killed it. Never mind.”

“Not so fast.” Buffy winced. “According to one of the kids in the home, there’s a second one.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much about it,” Anya said. “If it knows its partner, mate, relative, or whatever was killed, it’ll probably clear out of town in short order. So the kids there should be safe.”

“Before or after it does more damage, Anya?” Buffy angrily asked. “One of these things is doing the killing.”

Anya frowned, suddenly remembering something she had read in passing, but had discounted as probably not true. “Or maybe not,” she thoughtfully replied.

“Hunh?”

“I didn’t want to say anything because I thought we were dealing with just one demon. Well, actually, I did see it in our very skimpy book collection, but it didn’t register. Anyway, since we know there’s a second one out there, that means that there’s probably more,” Anya said.

“More?” Buffy’s voice climbed the scale.

“I said ‘probably,’ but I think we should be worried because it’s safer that way,” Anya said. “I came across what passes for a joke in one of the books that basically said if you found one of these things in your closet, you knew you’d find a whole bunch of others hiding in your sock drawer. But only one book said it, so I thought it was some dumb chronicler who got it wrong, which a lot of chroniclers do, by the way.”

“So you’re saying that they’re a lot like cockroaches. Great.”

“More like exactly like cockroaches.” Anya sounded grim. “Just because you killed one and know of a second one, doesn’t mean either one of these two guys is your guy. We could have a colony on our hands.”

“This week is just getting better and better,” Buffy commented. “Please give me some good news.”

“The good news is that they are easy to kill, which you found out. Physically speaking, they’re not much stronger than your average human, which explains why they need such a powerful ability to cloak and cast glamour spells. If you can find something that can see through their cloak and glamour and aren’t affected when they drop either or both, you should have no trouble.”

Buffy immediately perked up at this news. “So, if you can build an immunity—”

“Not possible,” Anya interrupted.

Buffy blinked as if she were trying to process something. “You sound sure.”

“Sure as I can be.”

“Did you find that in the books?”

“Nope. I’m talking from experience,” Anya said.

“Based on?” Buffy prompted. The Slayer was leaning forward as if she were ready to pounce on the answer.

“Think about it, Buffy. Everyone that we suspect has crossed paths with your demon all have one thing in common: they’re dead.”

“Not everyone,” Buffy grimly countered. “At least, not yet.”

“Oh?”

“There was a kid who was there when we took this demon out. He witnessed the whole thing,” Buffy explained. “I think Xander thinks one of the demons in the house was feeding on the kid.”

“Think?”

“Xander wasn’t exactly talking to me after he killed the demon, but I got the sense that he believed that was the case,” Buffy helplessly explained. “Personally, I don’t know what to think. The kid was pretty listless when we first got there, but he wasn’t catatonic like Cavacci.”

“Didn’t either one of you ask?”

The Slayer gave a defeated shrug. “Xander…well…he didn’t ask. He had to calm the kid down long enough to find out if there were any more of these things around. I really don’t think the situation was easy for him.”

“Of all the stupid—”

“Anya, lay off,” Buffy snapped. “It’s a miracle the kid talked to us at all. I let Xander deal with it because, frankly, he was doing better than I could under the circumstances. Plus, I didn’t think to ask either, so if you’re going to be pissed at Xander, be pissed at both of us because we both didn’t think to ask.”

“Calm down,” Anya said. “Okay, fine. This isn’t a tragedy. Just track down the kid and ask—”

“No.”

“No? Buffy! This kid has important information that could answer all our questions, or at least some of them.”

“I said no! Anya, please, let it drop. The kid seemed traumatized enough as it is.”

“We can’t let it drop! What if this kid decides to do the suicide dance?”

“Don’t worry. Willow said she would check state records to see if any suspicious deaths are associated with the foster parents or that address. If it looks bad, we’ll try to do something. Until then I think we should put questioning the kid on our list of ‘final options.’”

Anya threw up her hands. “Why do I bother? You’re tying one hand behind your back by doing this. You know that, right?”

“Anya, you didn’t see this kid.” Buffy gave Anya a pleading look. “It was heartbreaking. He just kept clinging to Xander and wouldn’t let go. When we left him there the look on that kid’s face was pure fear. I’m almost afraid of what Xander’s going to—”

Buffy was interrupted when the shop bell announced a new arrival. Anya turned, prepared to level a warning at the intruder, but stopped when she saw Willow standing uncertainly at the shop’s entrance. The witch looked pale as she hugged a newspaper close to her chest.

Buffy was out of her seat like a shot, but didn’t move from the table. “Willow? What is it?”

“You demon…” Willow began. She shook her head. “It struck again.”

“What happened?”

Willow walked over to the research table and threw the paper onto its surface. She stared at picture of a crying girl being held by another crying girl. The headline was clear:

COLLEGE STUDENT SHOOTS SELF IN FRONT OF FRAT HOUSE

“You didn’t witness this, did you?” Buffy asked, trepidation clearly showing in her voice.

“No. This happened last night while we were home, thank god,” Willow said. “I read the story, though. According to article, the kid stood in front of the frat house and began waving the gun. They thought he was going to shoot someone. Then he basically swallowed the gun and pulled the trig—oh, god.”

Willow began to sob while Anya and Buffy watched helplessly.

***

Willow quietly hiccupped as her sobs dwindled while Buffy held her close in a gentle hug. The blonde didn’t bother to whisper comforting nonsense words into her friend’s ear because she knew it simply wouldn’t work. Anya sat stiffly at the research table, her discomfort with Willow’s emotional outburst showing on her face.

“Buffy, you can let me go, now.” Willow’s voice was hoarse from her 20-minute storm.

“Are you sure?”

“I’ll be fine.” The tremor in Willow’s voice betrayed her words. “Really. Just…I need to sit down.”

Buffy stepped back and watched the redhead collapse in a nearby chair. She simply didn’t know what to say, so she said nothing. She squirmed in the silence that seemed to smother the shop.

Count on Anya to shatter through all that. “I never did tell you that I was sorry that Tara got killed. I liked her. She didn’t deserve to die like that. I can think of lots of people who should be shot, but not Tara.”

Willow’s blotchy face and red eyes swung to Anya, her throat working hard because she wasn’t sure how to respond. “I’m not crying because of Tara.” Willow’s protest was unconvincing at best.

Anya glanced down at the screaming headline. “Are you sure? Because I know when I saw this, my mind immediately went to Tara. I really hope she’s happy in heaven, even if I wish she were here and miserable with the rest of us.” The ex-demon suddenly cringed, as if expecting someone to correct her. “Sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. I…well…I never know what to say.”

“It’s okay, Anya,” Buffy said.

“Are you sure?” Anya looked miserable, convinced her mouth had runneth over again.

“Yes, yes it is,” Willow said. “It’s…it’s…well…I agree with you.” Willow sniffed hard and rubbed her eyes. “Anya, thank you.”

Buffy noticed that Willow seemed to be viewing the other woman with something akin to surprise. Buffy suppressed a smile, remembering how her opinion of Anya had snapped to a positive direction when the ex-vengeance demon fumbled her heartfelt sympathies when her mother died. Buffy shook her head to clear thoughts of her late mother out of her head. Now that Willow’s emotional outburst was over, they had to get down to business.

“Willow? I’m really sorry to bring this up now, but did you get a chance to look into Owsleys?” Buffy asked as gently as she could.

Willow shook her head. “I didn’t. I will later today, I promise. I was busy taking a look at the demon slime you brought home. I have a sample in a jar to take to the chem lab and run some tests.”

“Demon slime?” Anya asked.

“When the suicide demons are killed, they kinda melt into this green goo,” Buffy explained.

“Melt?” Anya asked. She closed her eyes and grumbled. “Great, just great. Another little fact that I didn’t find in any of these stupid books. Wouldn’t surprise me if it turned out these stupid, weak, little demons run the post office and are responsible for the plague of bunnies in Australia.”

***

He was burning up. He kicked the covers off his bed, but it provided no relief from the heat or the pounding headache. He finally scrambled to full wakefulness and realized he was soaking wet.

He didn’t remember having one of those dreams, the dreams where he woke up feeling ashamed of himself for doing that to Willow. If the evidence didn’t dry before morning his mother would punish him. He was sure he didn’t have that dream; he just remembered feeling hot.

Wait a minute. It’s because he was hot.

He sat up in bed and immediately regretted it when a wave of dizziness washed over him. He peered into the gloom and realized that his room was full of smoke.

He couldn’t breathe. Why couldn’t he breathe?

He could smell…something burning?

Then Xander remembered. He had to drop to the floor and find a way out. That’s what the fire safety film said in school. He crawled to the door, remembering that Dick Van Dyke-as-Flame told him to feel the door before trying to open it. His fingers brushed against the wood and he hissed in pain. The door wasn’t just hot; it was scorching.

His bedroom window, then. He’d have to escape to the backyard.

He hoped the world wasn’t on fire.

Dick Van Dyke-as-Flame calmly told him to crawl on the floor and try to keep his head down, otherwise he would be hurt or he could die. He really didn’t want to die.

He was pretty sure it took several days to get to that window.

His head finally bumped against the wall and another wave of dizziness washed over him. He wanted to put his head down and sleep, but Dick Van Dyke in his stupid red suit kept telling him to open the window. He looked up and realized that to open his window, he’d have to stand. He didn’t want to stand. He wasn’t sure if he could.

Something somewhere exploded.

Xander fought the urge to sob as tears fell from his irritated eyes. He unsteadily got to his feet, opening the window and the screen. He heard a roar and looked over his shoulder.

His bedroom door was gone and the flames were already dancing in his room, leaping merrily to his bed and devouring his Dark Phoenix poster.

He flung himself out of the window without another thought and hit the ground with a thud. After a stunned moment, he began to roll away from the house as Dick Van Dyke-as-Flame urged him onward. He stopped when he hit a tree some distance away.

The world kept spinning and Xander gave up, miserably retching on the grass, gasping at the painful shards of glass lancing his lungs. He kept blinking so he could see what was going on, but the world faded in and out using variations on the shade of grey.

A male face suddenly appeared in his blurred vision and seemed to float above him in a halo of yellow. Xander blinked against the bright color and tried to move his chapped lips. His efforts just caused him to dry heave a thin liquid before trailing off into a series of painful wracking coughs.

The man shouted at something over his shoulder. Xander could only hear snatches of words above the roar in his ears.

“…boy back here… came from the house…did those two…a kid…nothing about a kid…former babysitter told us…the kid…worried…just asked about their stuff…drunks…probably…dropped a cigarette…”

Xander began to shake uncontrollably. It was getting harder to breathe. He must’ve lost time because next thing he knew, he could sense he was moving. Something was covering his face. He tried to swipe it away, but found that he was strapped to something. He tried screaming but it only came out as a lung-rattling cough.

Disembodied voices shouted around him as he felt himself being lifted into the air.

“…very bad shape…him to a hospital…taking the kid to the hospital…useless drunks…father to go screw himself…arrest the mother…assault on a police officer…worried about money…screw ’em both…needs attention …bastards…”

Xander was plunged into darkness. A female face swam into his vision. Her mouth was moving but the sound was muted to a pleasant hum after the roar. He felt himself drift away but was shaken by a hand. A bright pinprick of light momentarily blinded him in one eye and he panicked. The light danced away and was soon shining in the other eye.

Scared. He was scared. His parents would punish him for sure.

He hoped they wouldn’t put him in the basement. He hated the basement.

The female face materialized again, mouthing words he couldn’t quite understand. She reached up and knocked on the ceiling, the sound echoing hollowly in Xander’s skull.

He screamed when he heard a door slam.

 

 

Xander jerked awake, shivering in sympathetic memory. He wasn’t surprised to realize that his jaw hurt and that there was a metallic taste in his mouth. “It’s just a dream. Just a dream,” he softly crooned wrapping his arms around himself in a hug. “I’m okay. I’m okay. See? I can breathe and see. Nothing wrong. Just a dream.”

He hadn’t had a nightmare about the fire in years. He swiped a shaky hand over his face and tried to recall the last time it haunted his dreams.

{jesse.} the whisper remarked.

Oh, yeah, he hadn’t had a dream about the fire since the night he accidentally staked Jesse at the Bronze. He wasn’t comforted in the least to realize the fire nightmare had been replaced by the Jesse-exploding-into-ash nightmare.

“Damn it. I fell asleep,” Xander muttered.

{that’s what you get for not sleeping last night} the whisper scolded. {you’ve got to sleep or you’ll be useless.}

“The nightmares,” Xander weakly protested as he flopped bonelessly onto his back. The cool green grass beneath him and the pattern of late afternoon sunlight through the leaves did nothing to wash away the last mental images of the fire. He forced himself to breathe normally and eventually he calmed down enough to struggle into a sitting position with his legs crossed. He reached over and snagged a sturdy twig from nearby and began violently jabbing it into the grass.

{what are you doing?} the whisper inquired.

Xander ignored it and instead focused on the rich loam liberated from its covering. He used the stick to scrape the dirt away and create a small hole.

{stop it.} the whisper ordered. {you do remember why you’re here, right?}

Xander closed his eyes and let out a shuddering breath. Must check Eddie. Must make sure he’s still alive.

{good boy.} the whisper sarcastically answered. {now shoo.}

Xander shakily got to his feet and leaned briefly against the tree for support. God, he was tired. He knew he was thisclose to overloading and collapsing into a whimpering heap in some random place. He just hoped that it would be in the privacy of his own apartment instead of some dark alley where vampires could find him.

He really should’ve gone into work today. He really needed to go to work and focus on something other than—

{why are you still here?} the whisper impatiently asked.

“Right. Getting a move on,” Xander answered. He scrambled up the gentle slope. Just shy of the top, he flopped onto his stomach and shimmied the rest of the way so he could peer over the edge without anyone seeing him.

He could see directly into the Owsleys’ yard from his hiding place in the empty lot across the street. If Xander still believed in gods, any god would do, he’d be mouthing a silent prayer, not that he wasn’t praying in his own way. “Please be okay, please be okay, please be okay…”

When he saw the boy, Xander’s breath caught and his body tensed.

Eddie seemed…better. He was goofing around with a football as he turned the corner of the house. He tossed it to an unseen person and sprinted to the other side of the front yard. Another kid appeared and tossed the football back.

Xander slowly got to his feet, watching the scene intently. When was the last time I tossed a football around with anyone? Did I ever toss a football around with anyone? High school. That’s right. Of course, they didn’t want me to play and just tossed me a bone because I’m so pathetic. Lucky me, it bounced off O’Toole’s head.

Xander cringed at the memory of one of his more humiliating nights. Didn’t matter that he prevented a bomb from blowing up the school. Thanks to the fallout that happened after, there was more about that night that he hated than liked.

{you are so self-absorbed.} the whisper commented.

“Sorry,” Xander whispered back, refocusing his attention on Eddie and his playmate. Xander started when he realized that Eddie was looking right at him. Xander held his hand up in a half-hearted wave and was rewarded with a smile from the boy.

The front door to the Owsley home opened and Xander immediately dropped back to ground. He saw a middle-aged man hold the door open to allow a smart-dressed woman leave. The two appeared to talk for a few moments. The woman then turned on her heel and got into a car parked in front of the house. The man waited for the car to drive away before gesturing to the boys to follow him into the house.

Eddie cast a quick glance in Xander’s direction before doing as he was told.

Xander let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. I’ve got to do something about this, he desperately thought.

{wait. patience. you can’t make a move, yet.}

But what if he’s hurting those kids? I can’t just walk away.

{think about this: if dear old foster daddy disappears so quickly after his dear old wife, that’s going to attract attention. sunnydale pd may be deeply stupid, but they’re not that stupid.} There was a moment of silence in his head before the whisper’s sly tone returned. {besides, he might be more useful alive than dead.}

***

Buffy walked into the Café del Sol with her head down. She dreaded returning to the Magic Box for the evening emergency Scooby meeting. Every time she walked through the shop door her life just seemed to get that much worse. Stopping to get a cup of coffee was just her way of delaying the inevitable.

She bumped up against the counter and ordered, “Quadruple-shot espresso, half-caf, half-decaf, don’t spare the whole milk, with cinnamon on top.”

“Little late for the caffeine, dontchya think?”

Buffy’s head shot up and she almost cried with relief to be staring into the friendly eyes of Dolly, the stereotypical waitress with a heart of gold. “Long night ahead,” Buffy explained.

“Fair ’nuff,” Dolly acknowledged, putting her book down on the counter. “One hot one coming right up.”

“You’re here late,” Buffy shouted over the sound of the espresso machine.

“Sharon called in sick and I could use the money,” Dolly cheerfully shrugged through the steam. “’Sides, never too busy here on a Thursday night. Must be because of Must See TV or CSI. Can’t figure out the cause for sure.”

“Nice idea, except it’s Tuesday,” Buffy commented.

“Tuesday?” Dolly asked. “Hunh. What’s on the tube on Tueday?”

“Nothing worth watching,” Buffy replied. “So, how are you doing?”

“Doing?”

“After the…well…after the woman…”

“Went up in flames,” Dolly finished as she piled the foam into the cup. “A few restless nights, but nothing I can’t handle. She’s dead, by the way.”

“Who?”

“‘Who?’ she asks. The woman who burned herself to death, that’s who.” Dolly closed her eyes a moment. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to snap atchya.”

“It’s okay. Everyone’s on edge.”

“No shit, Sherlock,” Dolly replied, sprinkling the cinnamon on the foam and snapping the lid over the half-caf espresso. “Little incident has even kept Xander away from here.”

“He’s been a bit busy helping me.” Buffy told the truth, just not the whole truth. “Plus, I think he’s been feeling a bit out of sorts.”

Dolly sighed. “Poor kid.” She smiled. “Don’t mind me, blondie. Guess I just miss my morning flirt.”

Buffy looked the waitress up and down with a critical eye. She was clearly in her 40s, but she was a good-looking 40s with a classic hourglass figure and dimpled face. “Something tells me that Xander isn’t the only one flirting with you,” Buffy said.

Dolly fluffed her short, light brown hair in response. “Sweet of you to say, but not so. You’d be surprised how invisible waitresses can be to their customers.”

“No so much,” Buffy replied. “I was a waitress in LA one summer and did a stint at Doublemeat, so I get the invisibility thing.”

Dolly chuckled. “Away you go, little girl. I’m sure you got better places to be than hanging around me.”

“Thanks, Dolly.” Buffy could feel her mood lighten as she grabbed the cup. As she turned to go, she caught the title of the book Dolly was reading. “Bulfinch’s Mythology?”

Dolly looked at the cover in surprise. “What about it?”

“You read Bulfinch’s Mythology for fun?” Buffy asked.

“Yep,” Dolly replied, smiling a blinding smile. “Got a love-on for the classics. Mythology, fairytales, Neil Gaiman, you name it. Right now I’m reading about Perseus facing off against the Medusa.”

“The one with snakes in her hair that could turn men into stone.” Buffy grinned. “Sounds like one of Xander’s better dates.”

“Awww, now dontchya be goin’ bustin’ the chops of my favorite customer,” Dolly chided. “I’m sure it’s not that bad.”

“You have no idea.”

“Anyways, the thing I really like about Perseus and the Medusa is him using a shield as a mirror,” Dolly continued. “How clever is that? He can’t look her in the eye or he turns to stone, but he still has to actually see her to fight her. So, why not try a mirror and fight the reflection? Brilliant thinking there.”

“And kinda dumb,” Buffy interjected. “It wasn’t like he ran a test or anything to see if it would work.”

“Probably right, there,” Dolly shrugged. “Still, sometimes you don’t have time to test all the options, know what I mean? Sometimes you have to go with perspiration and inspiration to get the job done.”

Buffy grinned. “I can go with that, too.”

A decidedly male voice intruded. “Buffy? Hey, Dolly.”

Buffy reluctantly turned to face the owner of that voice, half afraid of what she’d see. Xander looked ghostly standing as he did in the doorway. The overhead lights made him look surprisingly pale for a man who worked most of his life in the outdoors. His hair was unkempt and the bags under his eyes were so dark she almost thought he was sporting a pair of shiners.

“Hey yourself, hun,” Dolly replied, worry reflected in her eyes. “You look like shit.”

Buffy cringed at this fair assessment. She was surprised to hear Xander chuckle.

“Not sleeping well. Well, actually, last night I didn’t sleep at all.”

“Go home,” Dolly ordered.

“Can’t. Got more stuff to do tonight, right Buff?”

“I think Dolly’s right, Xan. Maybe you should—”

“No.” The word was delivered with a certain quiet authority. Much as Buffy was tempted to argue the point, she knew she would ultimately loose, even if she knocked him out and dragged him back to his apartment herself.

Dolly sighed. “Fine. Be stupid. Least I can do is get you caffeine onna house. What’ll it be?”

“Coffee. Black. Hot. Stronger the better.”

“Coming right up.”

Xander grabbed the cup and handed money to the waitress.

“Hey!” she protested. “I said it’s on the house.”

“I know. This is your tip,” Xander said. He quietly added, “Take it, please. Make me feel a little better.”

Dolly cocked her head and studied Xander for a moment. A slow sweet smile brushed her lips and she nodded. “Okay, hun. Your wish is my command.”

Continued in Part 4

 

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