liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,
liz_marcs
liz_marcs

FIC: Whisper, 7/12 (PG-13; BtVS; Ensemble)

Continued from Part 6

Title: Whisper, Part 7
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’).

 

 

He nervously paced in front of the enclosed tent. He was torn. Go in? Walk away?

The carnival midway beckoned with its bright lights and vague promises of ignorant happiness. The laughing screams reached his ears and insistently pulled at him. He should be there, blissfully gorging himself on cotton candy dreams and distracting himself on disorientating rides.

The tent trapped him, refusing to let him go, forcing him to stay in its orbit. The tent played on his curiosity, his need to see, and his desire to know. He shouldn’t want what the tent offered. Its contents were designed for better people who were more equipped to deal with the darkness inside.

Crowds of people passed him, pointedly ignoring of the tent, him, and the stenciled sign bearing the legend, ‘Fortunes.’

He growled and jabbed his hand out to pull aside the flap. He was here, he may as well peek inside before making a decision.

He was surprised, but not really, that the hand attached to his body was his own work-scared adult one. Not the hand of a child, but not really the hand of a man either.

He poked his head into the darkness and stood in that position for what seemed an eternity. The smell of must and dust had an undertone of blood and incense.

He really should go now. People were on the midway and somewhere in that crowd there were humans waiting for him. He should go join them and forget to want. All he had to do was close his eyes and walk away.

Simple.

Except it wasn’t.

It never really was that simple.

“Come in, Alexander.” Despite the invitation, the voice reverberated with a hint of menace and the threat of barely contained violence. It was the kind of voice you expected to hear before its owner killed you and left you dead in an alley.

Xander stepped inside and closed the flap behind him, plunging the tent into near darkness. The only source of light came from the candle sitting in the center of a table.

A cloaked figure sat behind the table and gestured to the empty chair opposite. “Sit,” it ordered.

Xander cautiously stepped to the chair before carefully sitting down.

The figure looked up, revealing a demonic face with eyes that were a little too old.

Xander suppressed a hiss of surprise. “Anya?”

“Does it matter?” she asked.

“Why the demon face?” Xander asked. “You’re not a demon. Not anymore.”

“Who we are, who we will be, can never erase what we once were. What was once done cannot be undone. What was once known cannot be unknown. What was once seen cannot be unseen.”

Xander peered at the too-still Anya/Anyanka while her eyes coolly regarded him. “You’re not Anya, are you?”

“Do you know who you are?” she demanded.

“I’m leaving,” Xander declared.

“Coward,” she challenged. “You aren’t wanted or needed. You don’t belong here. Yes, run away. Join the carnival. Forget.”

“Anya doesn’t talk in riddles, so I’ll take ‘definitely not Anya’ for $500, Alex,” Xander muttered.

“Still here? I think you should leave,” she sneered.

“What the hell do you want from me?” Xander practically shouted the question.

She straightened her posture and indicated a deck of cards located next to the candle with a wave of her hand. “Cut the deck three times, from right to left, using your left hand,” she said.

Xander did as instructed and waited for the next order.

“Pull one card from the left pile, one card from the middle pile, and two cards from the right pile,” she said.

Xander did as he was told, flipping the cards face up as he did so. He sat back, looked at the pictures, and began to shiver. “What does this mean?” he whispered.

The demonic face haughtily watched him but gave no reply.

Xander’s eyes went to the bloody ten of swords on the left, noting how each weapon pinned the face-down bleeding corpse to the ground. His eyes then traveled to the middle card showing the two of swords and noticed how the blindfolded woman balanced her weapons in a defensive crisscross pattern in front of her heart.

But the last two in the right position frightened him the most. The Devil held court over a man and a woman who were chained together and to the demon that ruled them. Death sat astride his white horse bearing a black flag emblazoned with a white rose.

He wanted to flee the tent, leaving it and its occupant and these damned cards behind.

His body tensed for escape, but his move to get away was stalled when a feminine hand touched his shoulder and a female voice ordered, “Wait.”

He looked up and startled when he saw the owner of that voice. “Tara? But you’re—”

The witch cut off his statement with a smile and a shrug. “Everyone’s worried about you, but they don’t know what to do. I thought I’d see how I could help.”

“Ooooohkay. Ummm, Tara-shaped guardian angels should be with Willow-shaped people, not Xander-shaped people,” Xander weakly protested.

“Is there a rule saying I can only hang out with Willow-shaped people? If there is, they forgot to include it in my orientation packet,” Tara replied. She looked down at the cards, eyes twinkling with hidden knowledge. “This isn’t as bad as you think.”

“Not seeing the good.”

Tara pointed to the ten of swords. “This is the past.”

“Whoa, still alive, here. I don’t remember getting stabbed like that, not that you can trust my memories these days.”

“Don’t take it literally,” Tara soothed. “It just means nasty things happened that changed you permanently. Think of it as the end of one story and the beginning of another.”

Xander regarded the card with a little less alarm and a lot more curiosity. “Anything in particular?” he asked.

“My feeling is that it isn’t one thing in particular,” Tara said. “More like a series of little things that lead up to here.” She pointed to the two of swords.

“Not feeling the comforted part of being comforted,” Xander grumbled. “I’m beginning to think that you’re not a Tara-shaped guardian angel. More like a Tara-shaped—”

“This is against the rules,” Anya/Anyanka stated.

Xander regarded Anya/Anyanka a moment before giving a shrug. “If she’s not happy, then something tells me you should stay,” he said.

Tara favored him with a relieved smile and indicated the two of swords again. “This represents your balancing act. You’ve stood too long with a foot in one world and a foot in another. You’ve been so busy striking the balance that you’ve been unable to move beyond the past. In short, it’s time for you to make a choice,” she said.

“That’s it? A choice?” Xander incredulously asked.

“But it’s an important choice,” Tara assured him. She frowned at the card. “Think of it as you reaching a crossroads. You’ll be faced with an either-or because you can no longer choose the neither. Everything you will be rides on it.”

“Hey, Tara, think you can give me hint?” Xander nervously asked. “I’m not very good with the life-altering choices. Ask her.” He indicated Anya/Anyanka with a nod of his head.

The vengeance-faced woman didn’t even dignify Xander’s comment with a response.

“Sorry, much as I want to help you out, I can’t. This is something that only you can decide,” Tara shrugged. She indicated The Devil and Death with a wave of her hand. “That decision will lead to one of these two outcomes here.”

“Great. Dead or demon bait. Just great.” Xander sounded defeated.

“Again, stop taking this literally,” Tara chided. “The Devil means you remain trapped in past patterns of behavior or enslaved to new addictions and distractions. Basically, it means you stop growing.”

“I’m already an adult, so no more growing here,” Xander said.

Tara sighed. “I don’t remember you being this obtuse.”

“Hey! I’ve lost weight! Okay, so I’m not Mr. Count-My-Ribs, but still—”

Tara fixed him with a glare. “Now I know you’re doing that on purpose.”

Xander cringed, amazed that an annoyed Tara could cow him quicker than Willow in resolve face. “Sorry.”

“Listen, I’m running out of time. You’re running out of time,” Tara warned as she glanced over her shoulder. “The Devil represents the choice that will let you walk away from this.” She waved her hand around the emptiness and darkness of the tent to emphasize the point.

“And this is bad, how?”

“If you leave, no one take your place,” Anya/Anyanka growled.

“She’s right. Leaving this isn’t who you are. That’s not saying you can’t leave. You can always choose to stay or leave until you reach the crossroads. Once you move beyond the crossroads, you must live with your choice, for good or ill,” Tara said.

“No pressure, hunh? Guess I’ll get the opportunity to show how my decision-making skills can sparkle under pressure,” Xander groused. “Besides, you’re contradicting yourself. You say The Devil is a bad thing, but the opportunity to get out of here? Not seeing the bad.”

Tara blinked hard and drew a shaky breath as if Xander’s words struck her at her core. “The Death card doesn’t mean you’re going to literally die. What it means is that a key element of who you are changes so drastically that you become a different person.”

“Anyone else thinking ‘psychotic break’?” Xander asked.

Tara shook her head and sighed. “It’s a change for the better. The chains of the past drop away and you can deal with challenges, problems, and choices using a different point of view. I’m not saying you’ll be perfect—”

“In short, Death is a good thing,” Xander said.

“And you will stay here.” Anya/Anyanka smiled and clapped her hands together in glee.

“So Death isn’t a good thing?” Xander ventured.

“It’s a good thing,” Tara quickly assured him.

“You’re not making any sense,” Xander groaned. “Leaving the tent is bad, but I want to leave the tent. Staying in the tent is good, but I don’t want to stay here.”

“This isn’t about what you want—” Tara began.

“—this is about deciding who you are,” Anya/Anyanka finished.

“So what are you saying? I belong here? That I don’t deserve to be out there?” Xander stood so violently that he up-ended the table, scatting the cards and throwing the candle to the ground. “I think the two of you are trying to trick me. Yeah, that’s it. You’re basically telling me that I’m an evil bastard and should just accept it. Right? Right?”

“He doesn’t get it,” Tara sadly said.

“Did you really expect anything different? He’s too stupid to get it,” Anya/Anyanka said.

A wind blew through the tent, disturbing the canvas as it invaded the space and swirled around the occupants.

Tara looked frightened. “I have to go. I’ve said too much.” She looked at Xander and offered him a weak smile. “Good luck. I know you’ll know what to do when the time comes.”

Xander suddenly found himself alone in the tent as the wind picked up speed and howled. “Wait!” he shouted as he raced for the exit. “Don’t leave me!”

The tent collapsed and Xander fought the folds of the canvas. He had to get out. He had find them. He had to make sure they were safe.

 

Xander sat bolt upright in bed and panicked when he couldn’t see. He struggled, punching and clawing into the darkness until it suddenly dropped away, revealing his own room.

“Hunh? Wha?” he asked.

Buffy barreled through the bedroom door. “Xander? Are you all right? Xander?”

Before he could reply, a blonde Xander-seeking missile tackled him with such force that he found himself on his back, staring up at the ceiling, and trying to catch his breath.

“Are you okay?” she demanded as she stared down at him with concern.

“I was going to say hunky dory before you showed how worried you were by trying to knock me unconscious,” Xander said.

Buffy grimaced. “You yelled. I thought you were in trouble.”

“I was having a nightmare and when I woke up I was tangled in blankets and panicked,” Xander said.

Buffy’s eyes widened. “Another one? It isn’t about—”

“No,” Xander cut her off. “This one. It was different. I can’t explain it. Actually, come to think of it, I’m not sure it was a nightmare, either. Just a really, really disturbing dream.”

“What was it?” Buffy asked.

“Ummm, kinda hard to say. It didn’t make a lot of sense.” Xander squirmed uncomfortably. “Uhhh, Buff? Think you might want to get off me? I’m not exactly dressed in anything more than boxers.”

“Eeeep!” Buffy hopped off the bed with an embarrassed smile.

“Not that I don’t appreciate Slayer-induced concussions,” Xander quickly added. “What time is it?”

“Almost three.”

“Three o’clock? You let me sleep until—”

“You needed it,” Buffy shot back. “When was the last time you slept the whole night through?”

Xander sighed. “Fine. Point taken. I need a shower.” A mischievous grin spread across his face. “Now the shower is dangerous. Wanna be my bodyguard while I steam up the bathroom?”

Buffy giggled. “Someone’s feeling better.”

***

Buffy looked up from the couch when she heard the key in the lock. She smiled when Willow cautiously poked her head into the apartment. “Come in. He’s taking a shower,” Buffy said.

Willow walked in, hugging and armload of books close to her chest. “How’s he doing?” she asked.

“All things considered? Pretty good,” Buffy acknowledged. “He slept most of the day away. Woke up thanks to some dream that weirded him out. He got up about 20 minutes ago, but he still looks exhausted. I don’t think he’s slept for a month.”

Willow dropped the books on the coffee table and sat on the couch. “The Watchers Council came through today,” she explained.

Buffy glanced at the books. “Any new information?”

Willow squirmed. “Some small things and one really big bombshell, which I’ll hold off telling you until Xander gets out of the shower.”

“Hey, Wills. Have fun in the fabulous world of retail today?”

“Xander!” Willow hopped off the couch, zipped over to Xander, and crushed him in a hug.

“Ooof! Take it easy. You’re stronger than you look,” Xander complained good-naturedly.

“Sorry,” Willow apologized. She stepped back and took a good look at him. Buffy was right. He did look tired, but the life seemed to have returned to his eyes and his expression was more relaxed than it had been in a week. “You look better.”

Xander grinned, opened his mouth, and then seemed to think better of what he was going to say. His expression dimmed. “Standard operating procedure indicates I should crack a joke right now, but I won’t.” He rocked a hand. “I feel so-so. Could be better, could be a hell of a lot worse.”

“Are we smothering you? We don’t mean to smother. Well, maybe we do. Not smother smother, more like make sure you’re okay smother—” Willow started.

“Willow, it’s okay. You really don’t—” Xander began.

“We’re just worried. Can’t we be worried? Worrying is good and—”

“Willow!” Xander exclaimed in frustration. “It’s good. Really. I don’t mind.” He looked at Buffy and added, “Thanks for staying with me today, even if I wasn’t exactly, you know, awake.” His eye caught the pile of books. “The Council?”

“Yup,” Willow nodded. “Most of it is a day late and a dollar short.”

Xander plopped onto the couch next to Buffy. “Most of it,” he repeated.

“I’ll get to that. The Council’s records indicate that the suicide demons are extinct, which we know is wrong,” Willow said. “Oh, and you’re gonna love this. Since they know they’re wrong, they want us to file a complete report about what we know.”

“You’re joking,” Xander deadpanned.

“Nope,” Willow giggled. “They want everyone involved to file separate detailed narratives, including Spike and Anya.”

“Spike’s report should make for interesting reading, that’s assuming we can even get him to write it,” Buffy remarked. “For some bizarre reason, I keep picturing him putting it in iambic pentameter.”

“Here I thought I’d never have to write a term paper again after I graduated high school,” Xander grumbled.

“You’re not actually planning to tell them everything, are you?” Willow asked.

“I am.” Xander avoided Willow’s questioning gaze as he answered.

“Why?” Buffy asked. When he looked at her, Buffy could see a hint of steel under the determined look. The look gave her the answer she needed. “It’s your way of giving the Council ammunition to fight these demons if future Watchers or Slayers stumble across them, isn’t it?”

Xander gave a short nod. “There’s no way I can wipe ’em out, but maybe someone else can give it a good shot, right?”

“Right,” Buffy softly replied.

“Oh, and we get to keep the books as payment for filing the reports,” Willow said with something akin to childish glee.

“The Council is actually giving us something? Wow, wonders never cease,” Xander said.

“What else did the Council say about the suicide demons?” Buffy asked. “You said you’d share when Xander was ready to hear it.”

“Like I said, not much we didn’t already know or figure out on our own,” Willow said. “The Council information says they’ve got cloak-and-glamour defense. They’re not much stronger than humans. Oh, and that they have to look directly at you to knock you for a loop, so you can use something shiny to watch them and avoid getting whammied.”

“Which Buffy figured out in a clinch,” Xander said. “Way to go, Buff.”

Buffy frowned. “Wish I could take credit for it. Dolly gave me the idea.”

Xander sat up. “Dolly? How does she know—”

Buffy waved a dismissive hand. “She doesn’t. I was talking to her the other night and she was going on and on about Perseus and the Medusa. Something she said must’ve stuck in the back of brain when I tried the mirror. So, Will, did the Council tell us anything we didn’t already know?”

“Yes and no,” Willow said. “The books said these demons attack on two fronts.”

“Two fronts? I’m not going to like where this is going, am I?” Xander asked.

“The first attack is an empathetic attack. That’s the one where they look at you and your knees turn to jelly because they’re broadcasting overwhelming negative emotions directly into your mind,” Willow said.

“This is your brain, this is your brain on suicide demon,” Xander muttered.

“Shush, let me finish,” Willow interrupted him. “The interesting bit that we didn’t know is that the demons have to drop both their cloak and glamour to use it.”

“Something we probably would’ve figured out anyway,” Xander grumbled.

“Still, it’s a good thing to know. That means they probably won’t try to put the whammy on any of us in public,” Buffy said.

“Probably,” Willow agreed. “The other attack is a kind of a combination psychic-verbal attack. The key here is that the demon not only has to drop the cloak and glamour, but it also has to actually get close enough to whisper in your ear to use it.”

Xander perked up at this information. “Did the Council records say why?”

“A few theories, nothing concrete, mostly because no one could figure out what the demons were consuming when they attacked humans,” Willow said. “Some of the theories postulated that the demons need physical contact to feed. Others seemed to go with the idea that some sham form of intimacy was necessary.”

“Good thing I’ll be full-disclosure boy, not that anything I have to say will help them figure it out,” Xander winced.

“Something else. The demons aren’t exclusive. They’ll feed off anything: humans, vampires, other demons, provided the targets are sentient and capable of feeling emotion,” Willow continued.

“Which explains why they were so popular in the demon world. Also explains why they probably went into hiding if they started snacking on the wrong kinds of creatures,” Buffy commented. She cringed. “Sorry, Xander.”

“S’okay. You’re probably right,” Xander shrugged.

Willow nervously cleared her throat. “There’s more.”

“This is the part I’m not going to like, is it? I can tell by the tone of your voice and your resolve face,” Xander said.

“Yeah,” Willow quietly said as she studiously looked at her shoes. “All the victims have one thing in common: they were outcasts, lived on the fringes of society, or were simply invisible to the population at large. Basically, people or demons that were unwanted or unwelcome in whatever you call mainstream.”

“Something we all knew even if Anya was the only one willing to say it,” Xander tightly said.

Buffy glanced at Xander out of the corner of her eye. She saw that his set jaw and knew he steeling himself for the real blow. “There’s something else, isn’t there?” she asked.

Willow looked at Xander and took a deep breath before answering. “Turns out you can develop a partial immunity to their mojo. You can develop an immunity to their initial empathetic attack, provided you’ve survived several direct psychic-verbal attacks.”

Xander picked up a book and hefted it, as if weighing its contents. “So, my dirty little secret would’ve been blown wide open whether or not I said anything.”

“Looks like it,” Willow admitted.

“Wait a second. I heard ‘partial immunity’ in that sentence,” Buffy said.

“Xander? You’re still vulnerable to the psychic-verbal attack,” Willow said.

Buffy saw a flash of something in Xander’s eyes that looked a little like worry and a lot like fear.

“So, if one of these things get close enough actually start whispering in my ear—” Xander shivered.

“It will affect you just the same as it would anyone else,” Buffy finished for him.

“Since our lone serial killer likes to pull out all the stops rather than sip, that means you’re in as much danger as the rest of us,” Willow said.

“Still a yes and no there, Willow,” Xander corrected. “I have a lot more leeway in fighting this demon than anyone else. It has to actually get close enough to start the whispering campaign. I’m pretty sure if I pulled a sniper attack on this thing I could kill it before it even got close.”

“Nice thought, Xan, but we still have the problem of identifying the single demon needle in the Sunnydale-sized haystack,” Buffy countered. “For that, we need to get up close and personal.”

“Spoil sport. Ruin a perfectly good plan by applying logic.” Xander sat back and crossed his arms. “Giles trained you just a little too well.”

“Yeah, well, I just felt we needed a little Giles to make the meeting complete,” Buffy grinned.

“You forgot to do the accent,” Willow said.

“And there is a distinct lack of tweed in your wardrobe,” Xander agreed. “Maybe we can call London and huddle up to the receiver so we can get our fix.”

“Very funny, guys,” Buffy‘s grin turned sad. “But Giles is running all over the place playing international man of mystery for the Council, so he might not even be home. I’m a poor substitute, I know.”

“So we won’t be seeing you perform a sexy singing number at the Espresso Pump?” Xander wheedled. “Damn.”

Willow raised an eyebrow. “Sexy? You’re finally admitting Giles is sexy?”

“Hey! I’m just going on the female reaction,” Xander said with a grin. “I like my men dark and mysterious.”

“So you have the hots for Angel, then? Knew it,” Willow smugly replied.

“GAH! Deadboy! Stop it!” Xander protested with a laugh.

“Guys!” Buffy shouted while she suppressed giggle. “I think I know why Giles spent so much time cleaning his glasses. It was to keep from strangling the pair of you.”

“Oh, like you never caused your share of glasses-polishing,” Willow retorted.

“Most certainly not,” Buffy sniffed. “I was the perfect, obedient Slayer. You can ask Giles. If he were here, he’d agree with me.”

“So it’s a good thing we have you here to speak for him?” Xander asked. His smile quickly faded. “We have to come up with a plan, don’t we?”

“Yup,” Buffy agreed as Willow plopped back on to the couch next to Xander.

“I have to be the point man,” he stated.

“Xander! No!” Willow protested. “You heard me. If that thing gets close to you you’re as vulnerable as the rest of us.”

“Wills, we don’t know how it’s luring people into dark secluded areas,” Xander pointed out. “And, once it gets them away from the crowd, it could be giving them the evil eye to make them complacent. I’m the only one we know who has even a fighting chance.”

“It could be knocking people out and waiting for them to wake up before it starts feeding,” Buffy said.

“Could be, but I doubt it,” Xander said. “We already know these things are only slightly stronger than your average human, so I’m thinking the first mode of attack isn’t going to involve hitting people. All I have to do is be alert, stay on my toes, and play along if one of these things approach me.”

“Play along?” Willow asked. “Xander, you better not be suggesting what I think you’re suggesting.”

“I’m demon bait guy, remember?” Xander reminded her. “I say it’s time we put my bad luck and lousy romantic taste to good use.”

***

“So, what do you think?”

Buffy sipped her coffee and growled. “Bad plan. Very bad plan.”

Willow stifled a giggle while she paid for her coffee. “Cave Slayer needs more coffee. Mainline caffeine, stat.”

“Not addicted. Can quit any time,” Buffy mumbled into the plastic top.

“Hmmph, gonna have to stop with the talk-until-three-in-the-morning sessions then,” Willow cheerfully said.

“I hate you. How can you always be so cheerful first thing in the morning?” Buffy complained.

The pair turned out of the Espresso Pump and headed for the Magic Box. Willow was on first shift since Buffy had to play peer counselor at the high school.

“Still a bad plan. I don’t like it. It leaves Xander too vulnerable,” Buffy stated.

“I agree, but it’s the best plan we’ve got,” Willow shrugged. “I wasn’t exactly hearing you come up with any alternatives.”

“I did. I pointed out that any of us could be bait,” Buffy said.

“Yeah, but if that thing can differentiate normal humans from Slayers who aren’t immune to the evil eye or ex-ex-vengeance demons, we’ll never catch it,” Willow said. “Plus, Spike’s out because god knows what would happen if our suicide demon got its hands on a recently souled vampire riding the midnight crazy train to Georgia.”

“Fine. You got me. Still, it’s not fair you get to play bait, too,” Buffy muttered.

“Only in one instance and only because Xander would kinda stick out like a sore thumb if he tried, which is the only reason why he agreed to it,” Willow reminded her. “You know, if you’re that worried about overburdening Xander, we could always ask Dawn—”

“Finish that sentence and you’ll be missing limbs.”

Willow snorted a laugh. “Hey, I agree with you. Besides, if Xander won’t let you play bait and is only letting me do it because there’s no choice in that one case, I really don’t see him letting Dawn anywhere near the situation.”

“I still don’t like it.”

“We’re here,” Willow announced, pulling the shop key from her pocket. The door flung open before she could put key to lock revealing Anya.

“I’m baaaa-aaaa-aaaa-ck,” Anya sing-songed. “Want to tell me why you guys closed the shop early two days in a row?”

Willow and Buffy quickly looked at each other and quickly looked back at Anya.

“Ummm, stuff came up?” Buffy ventured.

“Unh-hunh,” Anya nodded with an evil glint in her eye.

“Suicide demon stuff,” Willow quickly added. “Lots of info broke while you were away and we had to follow up on it.”

“Oh. Well. Still feeling annoyed, but more understanding,” Anya stepped aside and let Willow and Buffy into the shop. She turned and went back to the cash register. “I lost sales because we closed early two days this week. Good thing Christmas is right around the corner.”

“The Council came through with information,” Willow said.

“That was fast,” Anya commented from behind the customer service counter. “Any information on why Xander is immune?”

“No,” Willow answered. “Probably just one of those things. Some people are immune to empathetic attacks. The side bonus of that immunity is that it lets him actually see these demons even if they’re disguised.”

Buffy quickly glanced at Willow. The witch was famous for being unable to tell a lie, so she was shocked to see the redhead keeping a perfectly straight face while feeding Anya a line of bullshit. Ahhh, Xander-protection mode has just engaged. Anya won’t be able to get it out of Willow even if she applied truth serum, Buffy thought.

Anya’s eyes widened. “This thing is an empath, too? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Oh, yeah,” Willow began.

What followed was a highly edited version of the events of the past two days. Willow took the lead in laying out the bare-bone facts while Buffy grunted in agreement and said very little. Willow mentioned nothing about how anyone could develop an immunity, Xander’s previous encounters with the demons, how those encounters came about, and breakdown that lead to his admission to all of the above.

Buffy had to admit that leaving this information out was probably not fair to Anya, but…Screw it. They’re not dating any more. If Xander wants to tell her, he’ll tell her. And no, I don’t think I’m a hypocrite, Buffy thought. She inwardly winced. Okay, maybe just a little.

“Well, you have been busy little bees,” Anya said. “Okay, not when it comes to the retail side of this operation and I suppose I’ll have to tighten the belt a little at the end of the month thanks to lost income. I’ll get by. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty, by the way. Not at all.” She smiled a painfully bright smile. “I don’t suppose Spike would be willing to pay rent?”

“Spike’s moving back in with Xander tonight,” Buffy said.

“Oh, well. That’s good news.” Anya’s brow furrowed with concern as she added, “I think.”

“Yeah, Spike’s not too happy and Xander has refused to promise that he wouldn’t stake Spike if Spike starts sniffing his neck, so, all’s back to normal,” Willow cheerfully nodded.

“Speaking of which…” Anya began.

Both Buffy and Willow tensed.

“…how is Mr. Emotionally Stable? Blown a gasket yet? Not that I care. I am full of not caring.”

“He’s, ummm, better,” Buffy said. “Much, much better. Stress. There was stress. Work-related…umm…family…no…just free-floating…”

“Stress,” Willow lamely finished. Her eyes widened and she waved her hands, “Something came up with his family!”

Anya raised an eyebrow in response.

“It kinda broke when we started to look into the suicide demons and he didn’t want to tell us,” Willow quickly added.

Anya regarded the redhead a few seconds before snorting. “Typical. Bottle it up inside because that’s what ‘real men’ do. No wonder he was a walking nervous breakdown waiting to happen.” She paused. “There was a nervous breakdown, right?”

“No. It’s all straight now, so, no more wobbly Xander,” Buffy answered.

Anya gave a relieved nod. “Well, good.” She thought about it. “Not good for Xander, you understand. Good for us because, well, he’ll be back to being Xander. Not that being Xander is good, it’s just that—”

Buffy tried not to laugh. “You’re gonna hurt yourself there, Anya.”

“We know what you mean,” Willow assured her.

Despite herself, Anya gave a half-smile in response before quietly adding, “Good.” She cheerfully clapped her hands together. “This means you guys are free and clear. Go. Go away so I can actually make money and pay my rent.”

Buffy shook her head and smiled while Willow giggled. Everything was falling into what passed for normal.

“Right, on our way,” Willow said. “Oh, by the way, Scooby meeting here tonight so we can go over our plan to hunt the suicide demon. If you’re too tired—”

“I’m good,” Anya said with a wave of her hand. “Now go. Shoo!”

Anya watched the pair head for the Magic Box entrance when she saw Buffy pause. The Slayer turned to the ex-demon, a thoughtful look crossing her face.

Willow seemed to realize that her shadow was no longer attached to her. She turned and saw her friend standing still in the center of the shop. “Buffy?” the witch asked.

“Anya, I hate to bring up a sensitive question, but I have to ask you something,” Buffy said.

“Shoot,” Anya said.

The Slayer took a breath. “You’re not going to like it. It’s about Hallie. Halfrek.”

Anya stiffened while Willow let out a horrified, “Buffy!”

“It’s okay, Willow. I’ll answer it if I can. Buffy, why do you want to know about Halfrek?”

Buffy was silent a moment, as if she were trying to phrase her question just right. It made Anya wonder if the Slayer was actually attempting to be diplomatic. “You know how I’m the peer counselor at the high school, right?” the blonde asked.

“Okay, yes.” Anya wondered where this conversation was going.

“Well, I have this kid who’s come by a couple of times and I recently found out that when this kid was younger there was some physical abuse,” Buffy said.

“Buffy,” Willow warned.

“I see. You do know that you have to do something about that,” Anya remarked. “Since this is a human thing, so maybe you should talk to your boss.”

“Let it go, Buffy,” Willow hissed. Anya looked at the witch, who seemed parts disturbed and parts angry. Willow’s attitude struck Anya as somewhat strange. The shop owner bit her tongue rather than come back with a comment and waited for Buffy’s answer.

Buffy suddenly seemed small and a little lost, just like a typical 21-year-old woman dealing with a situation that was over her head. “The abuse stopped and the kid’s parents cleaned up their act,” Buffy explained.

Anya could tell she was choosing her words very carefully, probably to prevent herself from accidentally leaking the identity of the student in question.

“While I’m not saying that this kid’s childhood became perfect, it improved for awhile,” Buffy said.

Willow folded her arms and glared at Buffy.

“So, you’re wondering if a vengeance demon had a hand in—” Anya began.

“No,” Buffy interrupted. “I know enough information to say that I don’t think Halfrek or anyone else even bothered to show up to help this kid. Well, for a start, things got better after a series of really bad events that I can’t really get into here, so it seems to me that the situation improved thanks or no thanks to human meddling.”

“So what does this have to do with Halfrek?”

“Well, this kid’s abuse was going on when Halfrek was active, so I guess I just wondered—”

“Why Halfrek didn’t step in,” Anya finished. “I really don’t want to speak ill of the dead.”

Buffy smiled a thin smile. “Gossip away.”

Anya saw Willow’s scowl deepen, but dismissed it. The witch was probably annoyed that Buffy was concentrating on something other than the deChantal.

“Well, see, Halfrek was a good vengeance demon. She liked her job, gave good wish, the whole bit,” Anya said. “But, Halfrek was a bit lazy. She liked ‘the easy job,’ you know, jobs that didn’t have a whole lot of complications and weren’t really messy. She tended to focus on kids that were simply neglected rather than out-and-out abused. Abused kids in messy situations had to deal with a different vengeance demon. Trust me when I tell you, if your kid dealt with that particular demon you would know.”

“How?” Buffy asked. Willow suddenly seemed very interested in the answer.

“The parents’ blood would’ve been used to decorate the town, for a start,” Anya said. She looked around carefully, lowering her voice. “I don’t want to say her name because I don’t want to capture her attention. If you thought I was bad, you really don’t want to meet—” She stopped. “Let’s just say if she got involved, there’d be no doubt in your mind, even if the kid didn’t remember making a wish. She’s legendary. I’ve heard rumors that gave me nightmares.”

“I see,” Buffy thoughtfully said. “Is there any way for us to find out if a vengeance demon got involved this kid? I mean, maybe you or one of your former coworkers or something?”

“Nope. Even if I still had my powers, I couldn’t do it. No vengeance demon can pick up on wishes made to another vengeance demon,” Anya said.

“Why?” Willow asked.

Anya shrugged. “I don’t know. If I were feeling particularly uncharitable about D’Hoffryn, I’d say it was so he could reap as much misery as he could from vengeance demons granting as many wishes as possible. The way the whole wish thing works is that a single person can make as many wishes as they want to as many vengeance demons as they want, provided they meet the correct criteria.”

“Like a genie in the lamp,” Buffy said.

“If you survive,” Willow added.

“And there’s no guarantee even the kid would’ve made it out alive if…well…not just her, but if any of us were involved,” Anya admitted.

“What about if another demon was interfering? A nonvengeance demon-type demon,” Buffy asked.

“I don’t follow,” Anya said.

Buffy took a breath. “Say, just say, this kid was victimized by a demon at the same time all this bad stuff was going on in this kid’s life. Would a vengeance demon steer clear of the situation because it was too messy?”

That’s a really odd question, Anya thought. She mentally shrugged. “Depends on the vengeance demon. If the kid were a potential client for Hallie, I’d give it an unequivocal yes. If you’re talking about me back in the day or…well…the other vengeance demon who-will-remain-unnamed, most certainly not. Another demon messing in a client’s life really has no bearing on what a vengeance demon does.”

“I see,” Buffy thoughtfully said.

“Hey! I get it. You think this high school kid may have been a past victim of a deChantal.” Anya brightened, happy that she figured out where Buffy was going.

Willow’s expression hardened again and she glared at Buffy.

“What?” Buffy startled out of her reverie. “No, no, nothing like that. One more question. Are there any circumstances that you can think of where a vengeance demon would have the perfect client, but wouldn’t go to that person to grant a wish?”

“If we’re talking about your kid with the rotten parents, this particular vengeance demon might’ve just ignored him if he willingly went back to his parents after he had the opportunity to get out of the home,” Anya said. “I always considered her stance kind of odd, but that was always how she played it.”

“Oh. I see.”

Anya noticed Buffy’s troubled frown as the Slayer spoke.

“Buffy, I really think you can’t afford to be distracted right now,” Anya stressed. “The situation we’re dealing with is bad enough. Unless you think your high school kid is in immediate danger—”

“He isn’t. At least, I’m pretty sure he isn’t any more,” Buffy smiled. “It’s just that this kid is my first appointment of the day and there were a couple of things I wanted to check, you know, so I’d know if any Slayerness needed to be applied to the situation.” She turned to walk out the door, hesitated, and added, “Thanks, Anya. For everything.”

Anya watched Willow and Buffy leave, a look of pleased wonder dawning on her face. At moments like this, it was hard to know what to think. “Hunh,” she remarked. Then she prepared to open the store for the day.

***

At that very moment, Xander was on the other side of town leaning against his car studying the seedy lawn, the house’s peeling exterior, and the ancient jalopy sitting against the curb.

God, the place had gone to seed.

{never underestimate the power of determined alcoholics to cause damage.}

Xander sighed. “Maybe it always looked this bad. Maybe I didn’t notice.”

{how could you not notice?}

“Maybe I just didn’t want to.”

{one of these days you’re going to have to start seeing what is instead of seeing just what you want.}

“So you keep telling me. I sure as hell don’t want to see this.”

{well, that’s a start.} the whisper paused. {why are you here?}

“I’m not entirely sure.”

{is this really necessary? what are you trying to prove?}

“Again with the not sure.”

At that moment the front door opened and a shabby man leaned out, peering angrily at the front porch. He was clearly unsteady on his feet as he clumsily scanned the ground.

Xander decided he was probably looking for the newspaper.

He uncharitably wondered if the man was already drunk before 8 o’clock in the morning.

Not that he would’ve keeled over in shock if that were actually the case.

“Right. I have to do this.”

{do what?}

Xander pushed himself away from his car and unsteadily stood on his own two feet. Before he could take a step, the man had withdrawn back into the house.

Tony Harris never noticed that his son was standing on the walkway.

***

Buffy and Willow silently stood outside the Magic Box and watched people as they walked by them. Any one of them could be the next suicide waiting to happen. Any one of them could be the demon that would trigger the suicide.

“What was the point of grilling Anya about her old job?” Willow growled.

“Just wanted to eliminate the possibility that Xander crossed paths with a vengeance demon,” Buffy said.

“We already know the answer to that.” Willow rolled her eyes. “You do remember Anya’s recent and not-so-recent dicey past, right?”

“That’s not what I mean,” Buffy said. “I wanted to find out if a vengeance demon had a hand in shaping Xander’s childhood. I’d rather that than simple chance just leaving him to face what he faced alone.” Her voice tailed off as she listlessly stared at the pedestrians.

Willow softened. “You just can’t let it drop, can you?”

Buffy turned her haunted eyes on her friend. “No. I can’t. After what I witnessed the other day? After what you told me and Xander admitted? I just can’t.”

Willow sighed. “There’s nothing you can do about it now.”

“I can kill this suicide demon, stick its head on a pike, and plant it next to the ‘Welcome to Sunnydale’ sign as a warning to all of its cousins for a start.”

“Wow. How very bloodthirsty of you.”

“You haven’t heard what I plan for Xander’s parents yet.”

“You must be feeling really guilty,” Willow remarked.

“More than a little,” Buffy admitted.

Continued in Part 8

 

 

Subscribe
  • Post a new comment

    Error

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

  • 0 comments