liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,
liz_marcs
liz_marcs

FIC: Whisper, 4/12 (PG-13; BtVS; Ensemble)

Continued from Part 3

Title: Whisper, Part 4
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’).

 

Buffy trotted through the door of the Magic Box with Xander close on her heels. The three women in the shop looked up to see the latest arrivals and without a word went back to their tasks. Buffy couldn’t help but notice the shop’s smothering silence, as if someone had suddenly turned off the volume.

Anya stood at the customer service counter, reconciling the day’s sales receipts with the cash, checks, and credit card slips. Willow hunched over the laptop, eyes glued to the screen as she flicked from one Web page to the next. Dawn was engrossed in the books, her fingers playing nervously with a pencil that could indicate agitation, nervousness, or simple boredom.

“What do we have? Anything new?” Buffy asked as she sat at the research table. She fought to keep her tone somewhat cheerful in the teeth of grim silence.

Dawn slammed her book shut with a relieved sigh. “Nothing that Anya hasn’t already found.”

“I told you,” Anya said, not taking her eyes off the balance sheet.

“I just thought a pair of fresh eyes—” Dawn began.

“Will only result in eyestrain for both of us,” Anya interrupted. “Shouldn’t you be doing something homework-y right now? Rumor has it you actually attend a school, even if it is located on top of a Hellmouth.”

“But the pictures in these books are soooo much more interesting than the pictures in my biology book,” Dawn casually said.

Buffy noticed the glint in her sister’s eye and realized that Dawn was deliberately baiting Anya.

“They’ve got naked male demons in them for a start,” Dawn added with a wicked grin.

Okay, maybe not baiting Anya but baiting me, Buffy thought. “I’m done protecting your virgin eyes. You wanna look, go look. Don’t come crying to me if you get nightmares.” Buffy folded her arms, satisfied that she wasn’t letting Dawn get the best of her.

“Who said anything about looking? I was picking up some tips.” Dawn shrugged. “I’m trading e-mails with this really cute boy with goat horns growing out of his head, see, and I wanna—”

“Give me that!” Buffy swiped the book Dawn was reading while the teen giggled. She snorted in disgust when she realized that the book was one Anya had been using for research. “Brat!” she spat with a certain amount of affection.

“Are we finished?” Xander scowled, his expression bordering on deeply pissed. “Now that I have your attention, think we can actually trade some useful information? Sometime tonight? Before I collapse in an overtired heap? Or is that too much to ask?”

Dawn muttered a quiet apology while Willow hunched closer to her computer. Anya shot Xander a dark look.

“For your information, I’ve been researching a whole week and I’m fresh out of information and sources of information. Life has to go on in between tragedies,” the ex-demon snapped. “Not all of us can be obsessive-compulsive about latching on to problems just so we can forget our troubles.”

“Here I thought you’d really developed a taste for research,” Xander coldly remarked. “Bored already? Lack motivation to stick with it? Guess the almighty dollar is more important than doing this, right? Guess you don’t feel all that bad about leaving us on a lurch.”

“You son of a bitch!” Anya shot back.

“Guys! Stop it! Not now!” Buffy shouted. “You two have personal issues, fine. Do me a favor and take it outside. Beat each other to death if it’ll get this out of your system!”

Xander’s eyes widened in shock and he took a step back, bumping into a table displaying assorted candles and candleholders. “I…I…I…” he seemed completely at a loss. Eventually he snapped his mouth shut and refused to meet anyone’s eyes.

Anya continued to glare at her ex. “I’m not going to apologize because I didn’t do anything wrong,” she announced. “I’ve been a good little soldier up to now, but life outside of Slaying has caught up with me and I’ve got to do something about it.”

“What do you mean?” Buffy asked. “You’re not going to just quit, are you? Anya, we need you for this. I mean you’ve been the one digging up the solid leads.”

Anya smiled at the praise. “Not dropping out, promise.” She gave Xander a smug look. “I just have to leave town on business for a couple of days. I forgot that I had scheduled some meetings with different buyers in La Jolla until I looked at my calendar earlier today.”

“When are you going?” Buffy asked, feeling a weight in the pit of her stomach.

“Tomorrow morning,” Anya said. “I promise I’ll try to cut it short and get back tomorrow or Thursday. I’ll be back Friday the latest.”

“But what about the information package from the Council?” Buffy protested.

“Package? Council?” Xander asked.

“Later, Xander.” Buffy vaguely waved an arm in his direction to keep him from asking more questions.

“The package will be delivered here, so someone will need to watch the shop during regular business hours while I’m gone,” Anya said. “I doubt it’ll show up before I get back, but if it does there shouldn’t be any problem if anyone here signs for it.”

“Great, we’re expecting a mysterious package from what I assume is the Watchers Council, Anya’s out of town for the next couple of days, Scooby research central will be staffed by volunteers, did I miss anything?” Xander asked. “Did we come up with anything solid on our demons today? Or have we just been dealing with scheduling issues?”

“What’s your problem?” Dawn demanded.

Before Xander could retort, Willow spoke up. “I…I have something, I think.”

Buffy noticed that Willow remained focused on the screen in front of her and that she kept her hands in her lap. She suddenly realized that Willow hadn’t said a blessed word since she and Xander walked into the shop, not even ‘hello.’

Xander leaned against a wall, one hand buried deep in his pocket as the other held his coffee cup in a death-like grip. “Well?” he demanded.

“I skipped some classes today to run some tests in the chem lab on the slime you guys collected and found out something very interesting,” Willow replied. “We might have a way to identify our guy even if he/she/it is in disguise. Well, something short of making Xander look directly into the eyes of everybody walking down a Sunnydale street at any rate.”

“I still don’t get that,” Anya commented. “How’d you manage that, Harris?”

Xander glowered in response, clearly not pleased that his apparent immunity was now public knowledge among the Scoobs.

“Yes! Good news!” Buffy cheered a little too loudly. The last thing she needed was yet another round between Xander and Anya.

“Don’t be too sure about that,” Anya volunteered.

“Why not?” Xander’s voice dropped an octave, telegraphing a sense of simmering anger returning to a boil.

“I don’t want to hear it. Will, tell me that Anya’s just being melodramatic.” Buffy looked to her friend in hopes that Willow would disagree with the ex-vengeance demon’s assessment.

“I tested the slime to see what chemical compounds would react with it. Well, I immediately disregarded the gases and stuck to liquids and solids if they were ground up in a fine powder and then I—”

“Get to the point,” Xander growled. “We don’t need a run down of a science fair experiment.”

“I was only explaining my process so you’d understand—” Willow began.

“We don’t care,” Xander stated firmly, crossing his arms as he maintained his hold on the coffee cup. “I think I speak for all of us when I say spare us the details and give us the highlights.”

“Xander,” Buffy warned. She held her ground when Xander focused on her, his expression closed and his face a blank slate.

Xander’s jaw tightened, as if he were rethinking his next words. What the group heard was probably much more mild than what he wanted to say. “Frustration talking, that’s all. Be honest, though. Do we really need a blow-by-blow? We’ll be here half the night asking Willow to explain all the big words to us non-college people.”

“Fair enough,” Willow said before Buffy could open her mouth in protest. The witch gave the Slayer a significant look before she continued. “The long-and-short of it is that the only thing that seemed to react to your goo was ethanol.”

“Ethanol?” Dawn asked.

“Ethyl alcohol,” Willow explained.

“So, what? We have to go around spilling rubbing alcohol on people?” Buffy asked. “If we have to do it can we use a hose or something? Because chasing innocent people around town with an alcohol swab is not the way I pictured hunting this thing.”

Willow sighed. “You’re confusing ethanol with isopropyl alcohol.”

“There’s a difference? Isn’t alcohol just alcohol?” Buffy asked.

“Ethanol gets you drunk and hurts when you pour it on a cut,” Xander grumbled. “Isopropyl alcohol just gives you the ouchies when you pour it on a cut and isn’t a good idea to drink. Two different things.”

“How come you know this?” Buffy asked.

Xander shrugged in response, but didn’t answer.

“Xander’s got it right,” Willow said. “Ethanol is a component in beer, wine, bourbon, and scotch.”

“Right, back to my original question but a little edited,” Buffy nodded. “Are we gonna have to go around randomly pouring drinks on people’s heads or can we go with my hose idea?”

“Hello assault charges,” Xander remarked.

“Although we’d get lots and lots of volunteers if we tried it,” Anya added.

“I say we start with the local frat houses,” Dawn said. “I volunteer to hold the hose.”

“Guys! Can we let the hose idea go?” Willow pleaded. “Plus, I don’t know if going around spilling alcoholic drinks on suspects is gonna work. I was using pure ethanol, not something mixed with other compounds. I don’t know if a diluted version will work.”

“Right, back to the swabs idea,” Buffy said.

“What happens when goo and ethanol meet?” Xander asked.

“Goo turns red, a nice bright red,” Willow answered.

“Not exactly subtle,” Xander commented. “I’m pretty sure our demons probably know about this particular test. If they see some body part turning bright red, they know we’re on to them.”

“Assuming it even works,” Anya interjected.

Xander straightened his body posture. “Why wouldn’t it?”

“We know it reacts to the goo that’s left after deChantals are dead,” Anya said. “Do we know for sure that it’ll react to them when they’re still alive?”

“Didn’t think of that,” Willow muttered.

“Okay, someone explain the problem to me,” Buffy said. “The Slayer here is learning as she goes about this nifty new test, so someone catch me up.”

“We know it reacts to dead demon slime, we don’t know if it’ll react to live demons with intact skin and no leaking goo,” Xander explained.

“Right. Thought that. Needed to be sure,” Buffy said as she gave a half-embarrassed nod. “So we have a test that, technically, we can’t use because we don’t know if it’ll work.”

“’Fraid not,” Willow said. “Sorry to get your hopes up. Don’t worry, Buffy. We’ll think of something. I’ll also run some more tests using different compounds. I’m sure something will work.”

“Something tells me the clock’s ticking before our next victim makes a big bloody splash,” Anya commented. “Wonder how the next one will kill themselves because we’ve got quite the collection of different scenarios.”

“Anya…” Xander warned.

“It’s true and you know it, Harris,” Anya said. “It would be nice if I didn’t have to read about our next failure on the front page of the newspaper.”

“Willow, please tell me you had a chance to check in the Owsleys,” Buffy pleaded.

“Yeah, actually. I’ve totally been productive girl today.” Willow’s eyes seemed to take on more of a spark. “I’ve finished research on the Owsley record to date.”

Buffy felt a trill of fear travel her spine. “And?” she prompted.

“Nothing. Well, not nothing. More like commendations from Children and Family Services,” Willow explained.

“Let me see,” Xander growled. He launched himself across the room and landed with one hand firmly planted on the back of Willow’s chair. He leaned over her shoulder, glaring angrily at the screen while he placed his cup on the research table.

Willow shied away from physical contact, practically curling her upper body to stay away from her friend.

Xander didn’t even notice.

“Unbelievable,” Xander muttered, tapping the screen with his free hand. “They’ve been running a foster home for years and they’ve gotten nothing but high praise for their work in ‘helping the helpless’ and ‘showing devotion to the cause of providing a safe, stable environment for the unfortunate.’ Letters on record from the governor’s office, letters of recommendation from various administrators in Children and Family Services, high marks across the board from social workers…”

“The list goes on,” Willow added. “Basically, everything on record says the Owsleys are fine upstanding citizens that exemplify everything that’s good in society. If they get any more perfect, they’ll hold them up as model foster parents.” She paused. “Oh, wait, they did. Two years ago, but still—”

“I’m going to be ill,” Xander commented. He began to restlessly stalk the shop.

“There must be something indicating that something wasn’t right about them,” Buffy desperately interjected. “Some dark clouds? Some questionable anythings? Deaths? Injuries? Hints that something wasn’t on the up-and-up?”

“No.” Willow seemed defeated. “There’s nothing on record indicating anything suspicious about the health of the children in their care. In fact, some of the praise indicates that they take, well took, the really tough cases where the kids were in bad shape before they got there.”

Xander froze in the middle of the shop. “Tough cases,” he thoughtfully repeated to himself. His eyes snapped to Willow. “Tough cases in what way? They take on kids that are sick? Or kids who are so emotionally messed up that no other home can or will take them?”

Willow’s eyes slid to her friend, but she quickly looked away as if she found the computer keyboard more comforting. “Kids with emotional problems. Most of the children in the Owsley home were transferred from other homes where they caused problems.”

“Outbursts of violence, temper tantrums, mental illness issues that made them difficult to control,” Xander rattled off in a ghostly voice. He closed his eyes and rubbed his face with his hands. “I’m going to guess some of the kids were on medication to deal with behavior problems.”

Willowed bowed her head and her hair fell into her face, hiding her eyes from anyone who chanced to look at her. “You seem to know what I know,” she commented. “Sure you weren’t doing research on your own today?”

Xander froze. “It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?” His voice was very careful.

“It does? How?” Buffy asked.

“Who’s gonna believe screwed up kids?” Dawn asked. “I mean these kids are trouble, right? They’ve got a bad history and all. Plus some of them are doped up on Ritalin and Prozac and god knows what else. So if these demons are chowing down—”

“Nice imagery, Dawnie,” Willow complained.

“What Dawn’s trying to say is that who’s going to believe a bunch of kids no one wants anyway when they level an accusation at the foster parents of the century?” Xander bitterly asked. “Throw in the history of violence on the part of the kids, and you’ve got a win-win for the bad guys.”

“One eeeeeeensy little problem that I think you’re all overlooking,” Anya broke in to the conversation. “Everyone that we suspect has crossed the paths of the deChantals are dead and fodder for the front page of the newspaper.”

“Eddie’s not,” Xander snapped.

“You sure?” Buffy asked.

“I saw him today,” Xander explained. Off Buffy’s darkening look, he added, “I didn’t engage anyone. I just watched to see if he was okay and he seemed better than we last saw him. He was tossing around a football with another kid, so he didn’t act like Cavacci or the other walking wounded.”

“That doesn’t mean it won’t affect him later, though,” Buffy worried. “I mean getting victimized by something like this has to leave a mark for life.”

“What? Is he supposed to bear a brand on his forehead? Because, you know, if he’s damaged goods, maybe it’s best if everyone knows about it up front,” Xander demanded. “Oh, wait! I know! He must’ve done something wrong or stupid to be just another victim and it would be a real crime if he gets to survive while everyone else is dead.”

“Xander, calm down. I’m just saying—” Buffy began.

“You were just…whatever.” Xander began prowling the shop again.

Buffy fought the urge to slam Xander against a wall, search for the bug up his ass, and demand that he explain why he was ready to rip his friends’ collective heads off their shoulders. She took a deep breath, counted to ten, and said, “Xander, stop taking it out on us. We’re all in this together, right?”

Xander bowed his head. “Sorry. I just…sorry.” He waved his hand to indicate a feeling of uselessness. “It’s getting to me. The more we look at it, the more complicated it gets.”

“Amen,” Buffy sincerely replied. “So, Wills, is there some way we can figure out if this demon has any long-term affects on victims it leaves alive? Like, can we expect Eddie at some point to become front page news?”

Buffy saw Willow twitch her head, as if trying to stop herself from looking at Xander. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed that Xander’s posture seemed to stiffen in response to Willow’s aborted attempt to make eye contact with him. What the hell? Buffy thought, eyes narrowing. There is something definitely going on here and Willow damn well knows what it is. She and I are gonna have a little talk.

“Yo, Willow? Earth to Willow,” Dawn said. “We have a question on the floor and I’m pretty sure Xander’s gonna explode again if you don’t answer it.”

“I’m not going to explode,” Xander gritted through his teeth. “See? My temper is very much in check. In fact, the check is even in check. I’m so checked, that I’m fairly certain I’m wearing an anger straightjacket.”

Dawn opened her mouth to respond, but Willow beat her to the punch.

“Buffy, what you’re asking is kinda impossible,” the witch said. “I could try to get at least a partial list of names belonging to kids that have passed through the Owsley home, but you’re asking me to track those kids down—kids who are now adults and could be living anywhere in the world—and find out whether they’re dead or alive.”

“But it could be done?” Buffy asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe.” Willow shrugged. “But it’s not really the most efficient use of our time.”

“Agreed,” Xander said. “We need to get this demon now and the longer we spend running off on tangents the less time we can dedicate to finding this thing and killing it.”

“Okay, you convinced me,” Buffy said. “Xander, maybe you should keep an eye on Eddie since you seem to be doing that anyway. Make sure he isn’t getting worse.”

“He’ll be fine,” Xander said.

“You sound so sure when you say that,” Buffy commented. “Care to tell me why you’re so damn sure?”

“Probably because the state is eventually going to transfer those kids out,” Xander said. “Something tells me that they’re not going to just leave them there when one of the foster parents is among the missing.” The cold smile made a return. “In the meantime, I’ll keep a close eye on Mr. Owsley and Eddie.”

“Promise me you’ll just watch,” Buffy insisted. “If Mr. Owsley goes missing—”

“I know, suspicion rises and people start looking where they shouldn’t, yada, yada, yada.” Xander dismissively waved his hand. “I promise I won’t kill him.”

“Why don’t I find that a comfort?” Willow murmured.

Xander glared at Willow, who seemed to be trying to merge with the chair beneath her. “That’s all you get,” he quietly said. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going home. I desperately need some sleep. If I’m really lucky, I’ll oversleep and Spike will remember my rule that he has to stay the hell out of the shower until I’m done using it.”

Xander approached the research table, swooped the cup up in one hand, and stalked out of the shop, leaving a black cloud in his wake.

Buffy let out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding. “Hello, Mr. Bipolar. Where have you been all my life?” she sarcastically asked.

“Yes, fun seeing Xander act like a ticking time bomb,” Anya remarked. “Makes me suddenly glad I didn’t change my last name.”

“Buffy, Anya, please,” Willow said. “Let it go.”

“No.” Buffy glared at the redhead. “Start talking, Willow.”

“Talk about what?” Dawn asked.

“Willow’s keeping secrets. Xander-shaped secrets,” Anya stated. “I should be the one keeping Xander-shaped secrets since I actually had sex with him, but nooooo.”

“Look, I told you, there’s nothing for me to volunteer. I swear!” Willow protested. There was an edge of desperation in her voice.

Willow was interrupted by the sound of the shop’s bell. She rolled her eyes to heaven and mouthed, “Thank you” to some unseen deity.

“Slayer, we have to talk,” came the English-accented voice. “Your boy has gone stark raving loony.”

***

Spike stood near the entrance of the shop in his customary dark clothes looking surprisingly sane for someone who as recently as a few weeks before could’ve posed for the cover of Insanity Fair.

“Spike! What brings you to my fine shop?” Anya chirped. “If you’re looking for booze, I’ve thrown it all out.”

“Not here for booze, smokes, or money,” Spike growled. “I’m here for my health.”

“Well, that’s good, right Buffy? The fact that you’re now worried about keeping alive, healthy, and sane…” Willow’s voice trailed off when she realized what she babbled. “I mean, not that you weren’t worried about it before but…Hey! Are those new clothes?”

Spike stalked his way into the shop. “I want out. I don’t care. I want to move to my own home-sweet-crypt or back to the blasted high school basement. Anywhere but staying with someone who hogs all the hot water.”

“No.” Buffy crossed her arms with a frown. “You know the deal. You stay with Xander until we’re sure you won’t backslide into throwing yourself on crosses and having whole conversations with the thin air. When I’m satisfied that you’re not a danger to yourself or anyone else, we’ll review the situation.”

“If I live that long!” Spike threw his hands up in the air. “Living with the King of the Concrete Jungle is going to literally kill me!”

Buffy sighed. “Look, I know you and Xander will never attend a mutual love-in, but I don’t see how pointed sarcasm is a threat if he doesn’t back it up with a pointed stake.” She stopped and thought about it. “He hasn’t threatened you with a stake, has he?”

“He hasn’t, although I well think he might,” Spike said.

“Is this over leaving wet towels on the bathroom floor? Because I know that habit really bugs him,” Willow said. “The simple way to solve that is to just pick them up.”

“Oh fer god’s sake, people! He’s not tying me down during the day and menacing me with a pointy stake, wooden or otherwise.” Spike stopped mid-rant. “And now that I think about it, did any of you consider the sheer stupidity of forcing me to live with someone who hates me and plays with wood for a living? Anyone?”

“Spike! Focus! Has Xander done anything to threaten you? And if so, why has he threatened you, since soggy towels isn’t the issue,” Buffy said.

“Look, he hasn’t made any specific threats, but he’s looking at me in a way that I don’t entirely like.” Spike folded his arms in a way indicate his unhappiness with the situation.

“So your complaint boils down to, ‘Mom, he’s looking at me?’” Dawn asked. She turned to Buffy. “Geez, glad we don’t have to take a long car trip with Xander and Spike in the backseat.”

“Listen, L’il Bit…” Spike began.

“Dawn.”

“What?”

“You call me, Dawn,” the teen said, her voice grim. “I think I’m being pretty clear.”

“Dawn…” Buffy began.

“S’alright. Let it go,” Spike said. He inclined his head to the teen. “Sorry. Dawn. Message heard on JazzFM. As for the rest of it, what I’m trying to say is that your boy is not exactly all right in the head.”

“Takes one to know one,” Anya muttered.

“What’s he doing?” Buffy was immediately on alert. She really didn’t want to hear more about Xander’s erratic behavior, but if they were going to loose a Scoob to insanity it might be good if she were warned in advance.

“Well, nothing, exactly, specifically…” Spike winced. “Well, there’s the looking. And the nightmares.”

“Nightmares?” Willow piped up. “How do you know? I mean you don’t exactly strike me as the kind of creature of the night who stays in at night.”

“I’m not out every night. And some nights I’m back early, right? ’Sides, sometimes the smell sweat and adrenaline pouring out of his room when he opens the door in the morning could knock me cold,” Spike complained. “I really don’t get where he thinks he’s such a nummy treat because it’s not a pleasant smell at all.”

“‘Nummy treat?’” Buffy asked. She winced and waved her hands in the air. “No. Wait. I really, really don’t care and really, really don’t want to know. Let’s pretend I never asked.”

“Right, less I remember the time I spent tied to broken down Barcalounger in Chez Harris’s basement, the better I like it,” Spike nodded.

“Did anyone else’s mind go to a very scary place?” Dawn asked.

Three women solemnly raised their hands in response.

“Just checking that it wasn’t just me,” Dawn commented.

“I had to live it,” Spike grumbled. “Look, much as this trip down memory lane has been fun, what are you going to do about your boy?”

Buffy shook her head. “Okay, I can’t do anything about dirty looks. If you can’t snit your way out of that, that’s your problem.”

“I’m trying to tell you! This is more than just a dirty look! This is a look where he’s seriously measuring me to fit in a Dustbuster!” Spike threw his hands up in the air. “With this chip in my head, I’m not entirely sure I can stop him if he decides to see how well I tan by throwing me out on the balcony during the day!”

“Look, can we get back to the nightmares?” Willow asked. She leaned forward, as if she were preparing for a blow. “When did they begin?”

“How the hell do I know?” Spike asked. “Seems he’s had them since I moved in.”

“Maybe it’s your charming presence?” Anya asked.

“Fine. Don’t believe me,” Spike complained. “But if you show up at his apartment looking for me one day and spot a pile of ash that Xander claims he got by sweeping out from under the rug, you’ll be sorry.”

“Look, Spike, it’s not that we don’t believe you…” Buffy winced. “Fine. You can sleep in the Magic Box’s training room. There’s a couch back there you can use.”

“Yes!” Spike pumped a fist in the air.

“Hey!” Anya protested. “That’s a building code violation! If someone finds out that a vampire is crashing in the backroom, there’s going to be fines to pay missy, and I won’t be the one paying them.”

“Look, Anya, it’s just for tonight,” Buffy pleaded. She thought about it. “Or is that tomorrow morning?”

“Hey!” Spike said. “I was hoping for it to be more of a long-term thing.”

“My shop. I vote no.” Anya crossed her arms. “I’m not at all thrilled with the idea a barely-sane vampire sleeping in the backroom while I’m not here, soul or no soul.”

“But—” Spike began.

“It is Anya’s shop,” Buffy conceded. “So it’s up to her, Spike.”

Anya thought she was going to faint. Buffy taking her side? Either she just got shifted into a parallel universe or Buffy decided that Anya was more useful to this particular fight than Spike was. It was so rare Anya had the upper hand, she decided to reinforce her claim. “No to the shop,” Anya restated. “But maybe Clem?”

“Fine, we’ll ask Clem to take you for a few days until we get things sorted with Xander.” Buffy sounded downright relieved that Anya had offered an alternative. “Is that acceptable, Spike?”

“Do I have a choice?” Spike responded.

“Make that ‘a world of no,’” Buffy said, getting up from her seat. “Let’s get going then. We’ll get you over to Clem’s and then I’m going to collapse into bed. I’m tired and I need some sleep. I’m no good to anyone like this.”

“So I take it you’re leaving off the hunt for your latest demon flora, then,” Spike said.

“We don’t even know where to begin,” Willow said. “We know where one demon is located, but it turns out that there might be nest.”

“So, just fire up the wicked witch of the west routine and do a spell to find ’em,” Spike shrugged.

“D’oh! Why didn’t we think of that?” Buffy exclaimed.

“I did think of it and it won’t work,” Willow said.

“Why not?” Buffy asked.

“Cloaking spell, remember?” Anya replied while Willow nodded. “Part of the charm is that it shields you from magical sight. Willow can pour all the powder she wants on all the maps she wants and set as fire to as many rugs as she wants in the process…”

“I said I’d pay for the damage,” Willow protested.

“Still waiting for the first installment,” Anya said as she crossed her arms. “Anyway, locator spells aren’t going to work because deChantals have a cloak and a glamour around them. It’s a double threat.”

“So, you’re basically saying we may be reduced to having Xander walk up and down every Sunnydale street and shaking hands with every pedestrian like a demented politician if we want to find any of them,” Buffy said. “Somehow I don’t think he’s gonna go for that idea, guys. It’s almost as stupid as my alcohol swabs idea.”

“You’re beginning to think in circles,” Dawn said. “You’re going to start talking like Willow in a moment.”

“Hey!” Willow protested. “I’m nowhere near that bad.”

***

Willow miserably sat in the kitchen, leaning her elbows on the island countertop. She knew walking back from the Magic Box that she couldn’t delay the conversation she was about to have any longer. Buffy’s frustration with Xander’s erratic behavior was reaching a boiling point and the last thing she wanted was either one of her friends to come out of the threatening drag-down-knock-out with impossible-to-heal emotional wounds.

There’s no way I can get Buffy to understand without explaining everything, can I? Willow desperately thought. I really don’t want to talk about this. Xander should be the one having this conversation because I really don’t know anything.

She sighed and nervously twiddled her fingers. At least Dawn was safely in bed since she had school the next morning. She wasn’t sure she could share if Dawn was involved.

The teakettle whistled as Buffy re-entered the kitchen. “So, talk,” the Slayer ordered as she poured the water into cups.

“I really don’t have any information that’ll help,” Willow insisted.

“Willow, Xander is hiding something and what’s more you know he’s hiding something. So spill.”

“Look, whatever might of happened, and I’m not saying something did happen, because I don’t know if something did happen—”

Buffy shook her head in frustration. “Willow…”

“What I’m trying to get out is that it must’ve happened when Xander was out of town when he was a kid,” Willow lamely finished.

“Wait a minute. I thought Xander was a townie to the bone, outside of his aborted road trip to see the world,” Buffy said, carrying two cups of tea to the kitchen island. “I thought you guys were practically attached at the hip from the time you were sharing a playpen until after the infamous clothes fluke senior year.”

Willow miserably regarded the steaming tea as Buffy gently set it down in front of her. “This is really hard,” she muttered.

“Willow, please. You have to try,” Buffy urged. “Xander knows more than he’s letting on about these suicide demons. I’m beginning to think that he’s tangled with them before.”

“Why would you think that?”

“Willow? You do remember what happened when Xander met Mrs. Owsley, right? Hell, it looks like he can sense these things when he’s in close proximity, even when they’re in disguise. Plus, he seems to be immune to their mojo. If you know something, you have to tell me.”

“Because you suddenly have this burning desire to know all of Xander’s secrets?” Willow tried to keep the sarcasm out of her voice.

“You have eyes, right?” Buffy bit her lip. “I mean, look at him! He’s all over the map. One minute he’s a ghost, dead man walking. The next minute he’s practically manic. But underneath it all is this coldness like he doesn’t feel a damn thing. I don’t know who this guy is, but he’s not Xander. I’m worried about him.”

“Don’t be. He’ll come through this fine.” Willow sounded like she was trying to convince herself of this fact.

“How can you be sure?”

“Because I’ve seen him in cold mode before. So have you.”

Buffy dropped her spoon on the table. She didn’t seem to notice the clattering sound the utensil made when it hit the Formica. “We’ve seen him like this before?”

“The first time I saw him like this was after he came back,” Willow softly said to herself as if Buffy hadn’t reacted.

“Back from where? You’re still not sharing that part, Will.”

Willow sighed as the words of a promise extracted under duress whispered in her mind. I’ll never tell. I’ll never tell. I’ll never tell. I’ll never tell. I’ll never tell…

“Willow, please?” Buffy begged. “If these demons pose a threat to Xander, I need to know. I won’t be able to protect him if you don’t…”

Willow laughed. “Seems to me that he’s the one doing the protecting here.”

“Okay, you have me. I don’t like feeling so…so…helpless,” Buffy shrugged.I like my fights short and simple: see evil demon, slay evil demon, eat nonfat yogurt in celebration of a job well done. Something tells me that this problem isn’t going to be that simple.”

Willow sipped her tea, trying not to wince at the burning sensation on her tongue. “Xander was taken away when he was 12.”

“Taken away? What do you mean?”

“It was a couple of weeks after my Bat Mitvah. Remember how I told you his family was like a pack of wild animals? Well, that’s an understatement. His parents showed up drunk, insulted everything Jewish, his dad threw up in one of the favors, and his mother passed out in the middle of the dance floor.”

“I’m surprised your parents invited them.”

“I don’t think any of us realized how bad it had gotten.”

Buffy leveled her gaze at Willow’s face. “How bad…you mean his home life was bad and your family knew and did nothing about it?”

“Look, I’m not proud of this, you know,” Willow snapped. “We were kids and Xander, well, Xander was not big on talking. He was really shy. I mean, Tara-shy. Do you understand? Complete with the ‘not looking directly in your eyes and stuttering’ shy.”

“Xander and shy.” Buffy seemed to taste the concept and found it wanting. “Not two words that to go together.”

“That’s because you met him after…wait…shush. My story. You listen.”

“Fine.” Buffy sat back, eyes not leaving Willow’s face. “Tell me what happened.”

“Xander’d sometimes have these bruises, you know? Not often. Once in awhile. Enough, I guess.” Willow quickly added when she saw Buffy about to speak, “There was always a reason. Fell off his bike. Fell out of tree. Fell down stairs. That sort of thing.”

“You’re going to tell me that those were lies, aren’t you?” Buffy looked slightly ill as she asked this.

“I don’t know!” Willow helplessly waved her hands. “I know what you’re thinking, but at the time it never crossed my mind that he might be lying or that his parents might have…” Her voice trailed off. “I was such a bad friend.”

“How come I never knew about this?” When Willow incredulously looked at her, Buffy explained. “I mean I got the hints in high school that his whole family wasn’t exactly respectable. But, c’mon, physical abuse? I think I might’ve noticed Xander showing up with bruises that didn’t fit with our extracurricular activities.”

“You sure?”

“Yes.” Buffy thought about it. “I’m pretty sure. Well, maybe. Oh, hell. I don’t know. Maybe I’m a worse friend than you are.”

“Don’t worry about it. I think it stopped after—”

“After what? Willow, you keep saying that there is a before and after with Xander. So, after what?”

Willow nervously fiddled with her spoon. This was going to be much harder than she thought. “A couple of weeks after Rosenbergs decided the Harrises were white trash of the worst kind, there was a fire at Xander’s house. I mean the whole place was just gutted. His parents stayed in town and found another place to live, but Xander just disappeared.”

“Into foster care.” Willow could see the light dawning on Buffy’s face while she made the connections. “Oh, god.”

Willow dejectedly nodded. “Yep. I had no idea where he went. All I knew was that he was gone and I was really upset. A week later I got a letter.”

“From Xander.”

“Right again.” Willow happily smiled at the memory. “He wanted to let me know he was fine and where he was and to ask me to write back.”

“Sounds very Love Letters.”

“Not exactly,” Willow chuckled. “More like a list of stuff we did that week, but when you’re 12, that pretty much defines love letters, doesn’t it.”

“So this happened every week while he was ‘away,’ as you put it.”

Willow’s face darkened. “No. For more than four months, yeah. Letters back and forth. Didn’t matter how much they moved him around, I still got a letter. It was great. Then just one day they stopped and nothing.”

“Nothing.”

“Nope. Not a peep.” Willow sighed. “I was, well, devastated doesn’t really come close to how I felt, but you get the idea.”

“What did you do?”

“What could I do? Xander was gone and that was that.” Willow shrugged. “I tracked down the phone number that belonged to his last address, but when I asked for him they hung up on me. So I figured I had to get used to no Xander. When school started, I met Jesse—”

“Wait! Wait!” Buffy interrupted. “I thought Jesse was Xander’s friend. Are you telling me—”

“Jesse was my friend first,” Willow quietly said. “He was kind of my Xander-replacement, except that Jesse talked a lot more, so it wasn’t a perfect fit. Plus, he didn’t really fit into the Xander-shaped hole in my heart, even if I did try to squish him in there.”

“Go on.”

“Well, a month after school started, which was almost two months after the letters stopped, Xander was back. He one day just showed up in class right out of the blue. I was so excited to see him again, but I knew right away something was really wrong.

“How so?”

“He was different.”

“Different? Different how?”

“Basically, he was the Xander you met in high school,” Willow explained. “I have no idea where shy stuttering Xander went. I mean, sometimes I wonder if that Xander ever really existed because this Xander seems to be more real.”

“Hunh?”

“Look, Buffy, no matter what you think, Xander and I weren’t picked on when we were kids.”

“Ummm, okay. Nice way to confuse me because I don’t understand what this has to do with—” Buffy began.

“No, no. You don’t understand,” Willow waved her hands to emphasize her point. “Nobody picked on us because nobody noticed us. Well, that’s not true. Teachers noticed me because I was smart, but Xander was practically invisible boy to teachers. But the other kids really didn’t bother with either one of us, so we were just invisible to everyone in our peer group.”

“Invisible? As in not noticed?” Buffy looked horrified.

Willow grimly nodded. “When Xander came back he was talkative, funny, outgoing to the point of getting on people’s nerves. He drove teachers nuts playing the class clown. Sometimes I think he went out of his way to bait people like the Cordettes just to get a reaction from them.”

“Because bad attention is better than no attention at all,” Buffy mused. “Only invisible people get eaten by monsters. People who are noticed—”

“—are safe,” Willow finished the thought.

Buffy dropped her head in her hands. “I really don’t want to know this, do I? I really, really don’t.”

“Don’t feel bad. It happened in front of my eyes and I didn’t want to know it. I still don’t want to know it.”

Buffy raised her head and looked at Willow. “Please tell me that he said something to you after he got back. Did he mention demons? Well, maybe not demons because you guys didn’t know about them before I came along. Something about monsters, maybe? Or aliens? Master villains? Mutants? Anything?”

Willow hesitated. “No.”

Buffy picked up on Willow’s reluctance and quickly zeroed in on it. “But he said something, right?”

Willow took a breath. This part was the hardest part. I’ve already really betrayed his trust by saying this much. I might as well go all the way.

“Well, after he was back for a week I went over his parents’ house, well, their new house, which is where they live now—”

“Whoa. Hold up there,” Buffy ordered, shaking her head. “I knew something about this was bothering me. The state obviously gave him back to his parents after they removed him from the home. So why’d they give him back?”

“You make it sound like Xander’s a puppy.”

“That’s not what I meant and you know it.”

“You’re right. Sorry,” Willow apologized. “I’m not dealing very well. The short answer: his parents got Xander back because they cleaned up their act. I know his parents were sober for a couple of years before you moved to town because Jesse and I were there all the time. We didn’t see anything resembling empties and his parents seemed pretty straight.”

“When did that change?”

Willow cringed. “I don’t know. I really don’t. Funny how that works, hunh? Me, who used to know almost everything about him can’t even answer that question. I would guess sometime between the time you showed up and he and Cordelia started dating because she mentioned something about his family’s drunken Christmas fights.”

“Cordelia said this? When? I don’t remember—”

“She said it right in front of you.” Willow was stunned. She just assumed Buffy had adopted a ‘don’t ask-don’t tell’ attitude when it came to the Harris clan.

“She did?” Buffy looked thunderstruck.

“It was right around Christmas our senior year. Remember?” When Buffy shook her head, Willow tried to say something encouraging. “Well, it was only in passing and it was just another classic Cordelia post-breakup jab at Xander. You were kinda caught up in Angel issues and I, uh, was trying to make things right with Oz.”

Buffy slumped in her seat. “Way to make me feel not guilty, Willow.”

“Well, do you want me to finish this or not?”

“Carry on.”

Willow took a deep breath and continued. “See, I went over his house and I asked him if he was okay and why he was so different now.”

“A one-woman intervention,” Buffy commented. “I take it didn’t go well.”

“No. It really, really didn’t,” Willow miserably said. “The more I pushed, the more he just retreated. You should’ve seen it, Buffy. Remember what he was like that night in the Magic Box when he first saw the picture of your demon? Now imagine seeing that look and hearing that tone of voice from a 12-year-old kid.”

The look on Buffy’s face was all the answer Willow needed to see.

“Well, anyway, he finally snapped and coldly told me that if I asked any more questions, he wouldn’t be my friend any more,” Willow added.

“Xander? Our Xander said that?”

“He…he…made me promise never to ask again.” Willow looked miserable. “He made me promise never to tell anyone where he was or anything about his parents. He made me pinky-swear upon pain of death that I was to never, never, never ask any more questions about his parents or where he was. Nothing. I was to never bring it up to him or anyone. And now I’ve broken my promise and he’s going to hate me for it and he’s never going to forgive me and I don’t think I could take that after all we’ve…we’ve…we’ve… ”

Buffy shot out of her seat and wrapped comforting arms around her friend. “Hey, Will, it’s okay. You did the right thing. I promise I won’t mention anything to Xander about this.”

Willow sniffled in response.

“Besides, this is Xander we’re talking about,” Buffy continued. “I’m sure given the circumstances he’ll forgive…”

“He won’t.”

“You seem really sure about this.”

Willow pulled away. “I’ve seen that coldness and anger come and go over the years. I know what it means. It means he’s just shut down and nothing will get through to him. I mean, nothing. It also means he won’t forgive. The last time I saw this is was when Angelus was in the middle of his Sunnydale killing spree.”

“Why don’t I remember this?”

“You were so distracted and twisted up, I think you barely noticed anything that wasn’t connected to Angelus,” Willow said. She sighed. “I haven’t seen him shut down like this since then.” Willow shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. “Knowing what I now know, I feel very sorry for whatever gets in his way.”

Buffy focused tightly on Willow’s last statement. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing,” Willow mumbled, carefully avoiding her eyes. “Just that he can do some pretty questionable things when he cuts himself off and he thinks it’s the right thing to do.” She chanced a glance at Buffy’s face and saw the disturbed frown. “Don’t worry. He wouldn’t hurt the people he cares about on purpose. At least I don’t think he would.”

Buffy slowly nodded, got up from her chair, and moved to put her cup in the sink. Willow inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. She still wasn’t sure how she felt about Xander lying to Buffy about the attempt to re-soul Angelus and she didn’t want to even try telling Buffy or confronting Xander about it until she sorted out her thoughts on the matter. Focus on the problem before us, deal with that lie later, Willow thought. The clink of Buffy putting her cup in the sink snapped Willow out of her thoughts.

“So basically, we think Xander has run into one of these things before but we don’t know for sure,” Buffy said.

“I think circumstantial evidence would make that a yes,” Willow glumly replied.

“Okay, fine as far as that goes. Look at the facts: shy stuttering kid slammed into the foster care system and the only thing that sets him apart from being just another number is a series of letters from a friend back at home, right?”

“R-i-i-i-i-i-ght.” Willow’s voice was suspicious. She really wasn’t sure where Buffy was going with this.

Buffy turned to face Willow, her face telegraphing that she just realized something that was too disturbing to contemplate. “Then one day those letters just stop. No explanation. No warning. He’s now totally invisible. Nothing tying him to anyone outside of his foster care situation.”

Willow’s eyes widened. “‘Lots of unwanted people…can you say all-you-can-eat-buffet.’ Buffy? You don’t think…”

“I don’t want to think. God, I hope not because, I gotta tell you; if we’re right, that raises a whole host of very disturbing questions.” Buffy looked grim as she made this pronouncement.

“Questions?” Willow asked. “What kind of questions?”

“Top of my list? Why is Xander still alive?”

Continued in Part 5

 

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