liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,
liz_marcs
liz_marcs

FIC: Whisper, 5/12 (PG-13; BtVS; Ensemble)

Continued from Part 4

Title: Whisper, Part 5
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’).

 

Xander was dead in the head.

Xander, the dead head.

Xander, the head dead.

Xander, the head of the dead.

“Alex?”

Xander looked away from the window at Sitting Woman before turning back to the view outside. He simply didn’t have the energy to argue.

He’d told her and told her and told her that his name was Xander every time she dropped by for a home visit.

She always forgot the minute he told her.

Still she was safe. And he was safe. As long as she stayed.

Safe from what, he wasn’t entirely sure.

“What are you looking at, Alex?”

Xander shrugged. The action made him tired. He tried to focus on the tire swing in the backyard, but the round shape made his head hurt. He wondered where the tire began and where it ended.

He wondered where he began and ended.

There was another soft knock on the bedroom door. Xander startled and swung his eyes back into the room, cringing into his perch by the window.

“May I come in?”

Xander remembered that voice. Soft. Melodious. Dark.

The Sitting Woman sighed. “Come in. Our time’s up.”

The door swung open and Xander shut his eyes. He didn’t open them again until his head was turned away and his face felt the sunlight streaming through the window. He leaned his forehead against the glass.

He didn’t know why he bothered. Nothing mattered, really. He certainly didn’t.

“He’s not terribly responsive,” Sitting Woman said. “Are you following the physician’s instructions on the medication?”

“To the letter,” Soft Voice replied. “I’ve seen this before. He’s only just started on the meds, so we have to give it a week or so to sort out. If he’s still like this once his system gets used to it, we’ll try another drug combo.”

Xander suppressed an involuntary shudder as the sounds from Soft Voice’s throat crept up his spine and encircled his mind.

He knew that Soft Voice wanted to keep him dead.

Dead in the head.

Head of the dead.

He hated it here. He wanted to leave.

He had nowhere to go. No one wanted him. He didn’t even want him.

He was almost positive that he would kill to hear someone, anyone, call him Xander again.

Except that Xander was dead.

All that was left was Alex.

Bad, stupid Alex who deserved to be deader than Xander.

He sensed movement, but simply lacked the energy to find out who moved where or why.

“His files don’t indicate that he was this bad,” Sitting Woman said.

“He wasn’t when he first got here and he was on that mild sedative,” Soft Voice said. “But he started lashing out at my husband and I so they had to put him on stronger medication and it’s doing a job on him.”

“Monster,” Xander muttered from his perch. He forced himself to look back into the room at the two women. He vaguely waved a hand in their direction to emphasize his point.

“Do you think you’re a monster, Alex?” Sitting Woman’s eyes were bright as she stood next to Soft Voice. Judging by the look of pride around her mouth, you’d think that she, personally, had granted this mute boy the gift of speech.

Soft Voice sighed. “He’s calling me a monster,” she explained. “Did I mention the drugs also make him hallucinate?”

“So I see,” Sitting Woman said. “If anyone can help him, I’m sure you can. This is his third transfer because of violence issues. I don’t have to tell you where his next stop will be if this doesn’t work.”

“I don’t like the thought of institutionalizing children,” Soft Voice flatly stated. “These children have it rough. Tossing them into a system where no one can figure out their names is not the way to help them. Kids like Alex need the personal touch.”

“Bad Alex,” Xander quietly insisted. “Stupid Alex. Dead Alex.”

Sitting Woman continued as if she didn’t hear him. “I know your philosophy. I’m sure you’ll do everything in your power to keep Alex safe and get him on stable ground.” Sitting Woman checked her watch. “I have to go, but I think he may need intensive therapy. I’ll leave some names. After a few weeks, we can review his case and develop an outpatient mental health program for him. Let’s see if we can keep this kid out of the hospital, shall we?”

Soft Voice nodded and smiled.

Xander shivered.

Sitting Woman crossed the room and briefly touched Xander’s shoulder. She started when Xander pulled away and fixed her with a suspicious look. She recovered and flashed him a brave smile. “We’re gong to help you. You can do it. I have faith in you, Alex,” she kindly said.

Xander looked away from her and back out the window, blinking hard against the light. She was leaving. More specifically, she was leaving him. Now the monsters would come out to play.

Sitting Woman made a world-weary sound in her throat, putting lie to her statement about having faith. “I’ll see you soon. I promise. Be good, Alex,” she instructed.

He sensed the two women leave and heard the soft catch as the door shut. “Take me,” he begged an empty room.

Xander was being left because he was dead in the head.

Xander was being left as head of the dead.

Xander was being left for dead.

Xander was dead.

{no!}


He snapped back to reality when he felt something frigid splash on his bare feet. Xander looked down and noted with dull surprise that he’d dropped a gallon of milk on the kitchen floor.

I’m awake? Xander silently asked himself.

But the dream…

He began to shake, feeling the hard tremor radiating out from his solar plexus. “I was awake,” he whispered to the kitchen. “How? Why?”

{focus.} the whisper ordered.

“I was awake and I had a dream.” Xander hated the edge of hysteria creeping into his voice. “Why?”

{the milk. you’ve got to mop up the milk.}

“I’m having a breakdown and you’re worried about milk?” Xander ranted. He stopped. “You were there,” he commented, realization straining through his voice. “You. Were. There.”

{i’ve always been here} the whisper dismissed. {go get some towels, otherwise you’re coming home to the smell of sour milk.}

“Don’t go all Vorlon on me now, oh great one!” Xander shouted. “What is going on? This is just another demon, right? So what if I saw it before I ever met Buffy, right? Just another demon!”

{the fact that you’ve reached a point in your life where you can qualify any demon as ‘just another demon’ pretty much says you had that nervous breakdown years ago.} the whisper stated. {now about that milk—}

“Stop it with the milk!”

{focus on what you can do and right now you can focus on mopping up the milk.} the whisper sounded like it was explaining something very basic to a small child. {you need to calm down.}

“Don’t you get it? YOU WERE THERE!” Xander shouted. “What happened? What do you know? What are you hiding from me? Tell me!”

{i’m hiding something from you?} the whisper sounded incredulous. {it’s not humanly possible for me to hide anything from you.}

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

{you know.}

“No, I don’t. I really, really don’t,” Xander moaned, dropping to his knees on the kitchen floor, heedless of the mess he landed into. “Stop. Just stop. Give me a straight answer. Any answer.”

{it’s not that simple when you already know the answers.}

“Care to vague that up even more?” When no answer was forthcoming, Xander sat back on his haunches. He couldn’t seem to lift his eyes from the floor as he watched the edges of the milk puddle crawl across the kitchen expanse.

He didn’t know how long he kneeled there in the kitchen before he painfully got to his feet and did as the whisper ordered. He tried to ignore the fact that his hands shook as he snatched the roll of paper towels from its holder and began lying out the sheets in a crisscross pattern over the spill. He dully watched the towels turn dark as they absorbed the liquid before layering another round of towels.

When it seemed all the liquid was absorbed, he silently got on his hands and knees, gathering the mess in his hands.

{seems you always try to clean up spilt milk.} the whisper commented. {Buffy. Cordelia. Willow. Anya. All your relationships. You’re always trying to slam the barn door shut long after the horses have run away.}

“I’m tired,” Xander said, stuffing the towels in the kitchen trash and rolling out more paper towels to capture the last of the moisture on the floor. “Stop with the mysterious, or my next step is checking myself in to Sunnydale General for a psych workup.”

{time for us to concentrate on what you can do, right?} the whisper had taken on a sneaky tone.

“I just did that. Milk gone.”

{and you’re much calmer now. that’s good. that means we can go to the next step.} the sense of slyness slithered through Xander’s mind and he realized that he was now just a little afraid of what the whisper would say next.

{we need three things. we need a bottle of scotch and a bottle of pure ethanol.} the whisper paused dramatically before completing the list. {and then we need a certain mr. owsley.}

***

Buffy was bored out of her mind and sorry that she ever agreed to baby-sit the Magic Box. Anya never said that mid-afternoon business could only be described as catatonic. How the hell does Anya afford to eat if business is always like this? she thought as she idly flipped through an old Cosmo she found under the counter.

She impatiently checked the shop’s clock let out an irritated breath. Xander promised he’d show with some coffee at three. Twenty minutes to go and her stomach was tied in knots. She really wasn’t sure how she should act around him, now knowing what she knew.

How am I gonna ask him questions without giving away Willow? Buffy thought. I can’t just let this go. Okay, he sounded fine when he called me this morning and offered the coffee-flavored peace offering, but…

She snorted. Best take it by ear. See how Xander acted when he came into a shop and then decide whether to ask uncomfortable questions. She’d rather face down a nest of vamps in the dead of night without a stake than have the conversation she knew she’d eventually have to have with Xander. Maybe she could put it off a day or two until she processed everything Willow told her.

Denial, thy name is Buffy, she thought with slight irritation with herself. Can I get any deeper into don’t ask, don’t tell mode? Gah! I have no idea what to do.

She stumbled across one of the sex quizzes that Anya had thoughtfully filled out, complete with jotted commentary in the margins. Against her better judgment, Buffy started reading Anya’s answers, biting the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. She felt vaguely dirty, like she was reading Anya’s secret sex diary, not that Anya was all that terribly shy about sharing too much information.

Buffy’s eyes widened in surprise while she read one particular comment. “I didn’t know that Xander enjoyed that!” she blurted to the empty shop. She read the next comment, ignoring the pit of unease in her stomach. “And that! Oh my god! Where did he learn to do that?

She slammed the magazine shut and guiltily looked around the shop’s interior in case a customer snuck in while she wasn’t paying attention. “I must be really freaked if I’m talking to myself,” she said. “See? Doing it again. Must wash mind out with soap. Must pretend I never saw…I mean…wow. Just…words fail…Xander-shaped friends should not do things like that. They should only go for the vanilla. No other flavors need apply.”

“Apply what?”

Buffy quickly tossed the magazine under the counter at the sound of Xander’s voice, ducked out of sight, and pretended she was looking for something to cover her crime. She didn’t remember hearing the shop’s bell, so he must’ve entered through the back entrance to the training room.

“Just talking to myself,” Buffy hurriedly said. “Bored, you know. Hey! Three o’clock already, hunh? Glad you called about getting some coffee ’cause no customers to bring on the fun. Just gotta look for something. Be a minute. Ummm, how much did you hear?”

“Something about me only enjoying vanilla ice cream,” she heard Xander reply. “I like Rocky Road too, you know.”

She heard a slam that sounded suspiciously like Xander had thrown something on the research table. Her head popped up over the counter, but she was not at all prepared for the sight that greeted her.

“Oh. My. God. Xander, what did you do?”

“Me?” Xander grinned a not-quite-right grin. “I was thinking this morning: Why should Willow get all the scientific fun?” He held up a bottle of scotch to illustrate his point. “I have the chemicals. I have the guinea pig.” He patted the head of the terrified, gagged, and bound man lying facedown on the table. “All I need is a neutral witness to support my observations.” He chuckled. “And they say high school chem class was wasted on me.”

Buffy stood up, her eyes widening in shock. “Please don’t tell me that’s Mr. Owsley.”

Xander twisted the top of the scotch. “Okay, it’s not Mr. Owsley.”

“Xander!”

“Okay, it is Mr. Owsley. Your point?”

“You kidnapped him?

“Kidnapped is such a strong word.” Xander tilted his head, his eyes shining with some secret amusement. “Make it sound like I want money from his family or I won’t give him back. Think of it as borrowing him for a couple of hours.”

Owsley’s eyes bugged out of their sockets as he fixed Buffy with a pleading look. He struggled against the ropes, but Xander had bound him so effectively that there was barely any movement. The Slayer fought down the insistent butterflies in her stomach when she saw that the captive had a nasty-looking bruise on his right temple.

“Someone could’ve seen you,” Buffy hissed as she moved from behind the counter.

“Nah. Captured him while he was in the house and threw him in the trunk to get him over here,” Xander cheerfully volunteered as he held the now-uncapped bottle in a parody of a toast. He began to pour the liquid over Owsley’s head. “I made sure the back alley was clear before I carried him in here, so no witnesses. What can I say? I’m making Sunnydale’s collective denial work for me.”

“I…I…coffee! There was supposed to be coffee involved,” Buffy blurted. Her feet felt rooted to the floor as she watched the last of the liquid drip out of the bottle while Xander gave it a shake. “Torture was not on the menu.”

Xander frowned and dropped the bottle on the ground. “Damn. He doesn’t look bright red. Does he look bright red to you?”

“MMMMPPHHH!” Owsley protested.

“Not unless you count the fact he’s beat red with anger and humiliation,” Buffy said. “Xander, I really think—”

“Good thing I brought this!” Xander reached into a bag and held up a bottle full of clear liquid. “Oh, before I forget, the coffee is in the car. I didn’t forget to bring it. I just had my hands full. If you want it, you can get it. I’m parked in back.”

“Xander!” Buffy hated the fact that indecision effectively froze her in place. For the first time in her memory, Xander was genuinely scaring her. She had no idea what to do.

Xander looked down at Owsley while he screwed the cap off the new bottle. “Don’t bother asking her for help,” he told the captive. “She knows what you are and she’s the Slayer in these parts, so nothing for you there.”

Owsley’s eyes widened in surprise before narrowing into a glare as he focused on Buffy. Xander reached down, grabbed Owsley under the chin and roughly pulled his face away. Buffy winced when she heard a crack.

“Don’t worry, still breathing and awake,” Xander assured her. “We need him alive for this little experiment, remember? Besides, when we’re done, I’m thinking it’s question and answer time.” He finished unscrewing the cap and poured the new liquid on Owsley’s head.

Owsley’s exposed skin turned bright red as he began to struggle in earnest.

“Now that worked,” Xander cheered. He ripped the gag off Owsley and asked. “Seems to me you’re in a little pain there, pal. So, in the interests of science, care to tell me if ethanol hurts when it’s poured on your head? Or are you just pissed?”

“Fucking bastard!” Owsley spat.

“Now that’s not being cooperative.” Xander hauled Owsley off the table as if the disguised demon weighed nothing and tossed him in a nearby chair. The chair dangerously wobbled for a few moments while Xander impassively watched.

Buffy couldn’t take any more. She marched to Owsley’s side and stopped the chair’s threat to tip over. “Now what?” she asked, an edge of sarcasm in her voice. “What, exactly, is going to prevent our friend here going to the police?”

“If he goes to the police, I’ll kill him,” Xander coldly replied, not taking his eyes off Owsley.

Owsley’s form began to shimmer and Buffy immediately dove behind the counter, hating the fact that she must look like a coward to both Owsley and Xander.

“That wasn’t very nice,” she heard Xander say. This statement was punctuated with something that sounded like a punch and a cry of pain.

I’ve got to get out there, Buffy desperately thought. Xander is walking a little too close to out-of-control. But for all intents and purposes, she was trapped. If she walked out there and the demon tried his mojo on her, she just knew they’d be scrubbing green goo off the walls for weeks. Her eyes desperately searched the display shelves for something that could help her.

“What…what…how…” Buffy heard the demon stumble its words.

“I’m asking the questions, so I’d suggest you answer honestly.” There was a significant pause. “Don’t try that and don’t try lying because, hey! Guess what! Your mindfuck doesn’t work on me, so chances are I’ll be able to smell a lie before it comes out of your mouth.”

Buffy’s eyes finally alighted on a silver reflective plate that Anya had billed as ‘scrying mirror.’ Buffy knew for a fact that the legit fortunetellers in town wouldn’t touch the thing with a ten-foot pole because real scrying mirrors are concave and dark in color. This article was flat and brightly reflective, a perfect item to sell to the ‘posers,’ as Anya liked to call a certain class of customer.

“Plus, I’m sure Buffy here would be more than happy to rip off your head and go bowling with your skull,” Buffy heard Xander continue. “She hasn’t been able to collect trophies from her recent kills and she’s itching to rectify the situation.”

Yikes! Nice imagery there, Xan. Well, at least I know you’re trying to scare him into talking rather than going straight for the goo, Buffy thought as she reached up and snatched the mirror from the shelf. Well, needs must as the devil drives, as Giles is bound to say.

Buffy eased the 8-inch mirror over the countertop and angled it so that she had a clear view of Xander and the demon. Right, better see if this works, she grimly thought. She stamped her foot on the wooden floor, causing both Xander and the demon to look in her direction. She noticed the demon’s eyes momentarily glowed before Xander once again yanked its head around to face him.

“What did I say about you doing that?” Xander threatened.

“Xander, it’s okay. I’m fine,” Buffy called out. She slowly stood, careful to keep her back to the demon and the pair’s reflection in the mirror. “Looks like he has to look directly at me for the mojo to work.”

She saw Xander break into a delighted grin before his eyes slid to the bound demon cowering in the chair. “You’re in deep shit now. The Slayer found herself a magic mirror,” Xander commented. “I soooo don’t want to be in your shoes.”

The demon whimpered in response.

Buffy clumsily maneuvered her way back to the sales floor, bumping into various obstacles along the way. “Sheesh, no wonder why I always fail the driver’s test when I try to back up the car. I keep forgetting everything is reversed,” she grumbled.

“And objects may be closer than they appear,” Xander added as he reached out a hand to guide her to the table.

“You and I are gonna have a little talk when we’re done, Harris,” Buffy said. She tilted the mirror to get a closer look at their captive, “But not before you and I have a little talk with Mr. Owsley.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Xander give a jaunty salute. “Aye, aye captain,” he said. Xander turned to Owsley, his face hardening. “You heard her. Here are the rules: we ask questions and you answer truthfully. If we’re happy with what we hear, we let you live. Your continued existence is dependent on you agreeing to certain terms.”

“Terms?” the demon asked.

“We’ll get to that, right Buffy?” Xander asked.

“Unh, okay.” Buffy straightened her shoulders and glowered into the mirror so that the demon could see her reflection. “I should smack you for jumping the gun, Alexander. I thought we planned to visit Mr. Owsley tonight.”

Xander’s reflection raised a questioning eyebrow even as it fought a smirk. Buffy heard the demon whimper again.

“Still, doesn’t change anything,” Buffy said with more confidence than she really felt. “We play it just like we talked about. Remember, I get his skull if he doesn’t cooperate.” Good god! Did I just say that? I hope Xander knows what he’s doing, Buffy silently prayed.

“Right,” he gave a curt nod before fixing the demon with a hard look. “One of your kind is raising your species profile here in town. Lots of adults are dying spectacular deaths. One of your evil twins have been spotted with a victim just before they offed themselves. We want a name and a place where we can find it.”

“Can’t give it to you,” the demon replied.

This earned the demon a backhand across the face from Xander. “Wrong answer,” he mildly countered.

“Right answer,” the demon insisted. When Xander raised his hand again, it quickly added, “Not one of mine. Not kin. Stranger.”

“What d’you mean stranger?” Buffy asked while Xander let his hand drop. “Are you saying someone’s horning in your turf?”

The demon vigorously nodded. “The clan has its own network, own rules. Sunnydale and the surrounding area is our territory. Ours.”

“Let me get this straight, your clan set up shop in an area where there’s an active Slayer running around?” Xander asked. “That’s just beyond stupid.”

“We were here first,” the demon hissed. “The town belongs to us. Did you see us? No.” He looked Xander up and down with a sneer. “You’re blind just like the rest. You would’ve let us live and let live if the interloper didn’t kill someone you cared about.”

Buffy quickly shot out an arm to interrupt Xander’s fury-fueled lunge and thanked Slayer strength when she was rewarded with a sharp exhalation of breath caused by the impact from the enraged man. “Xander? Calm down,” Buffy quietly said. She angled the mirror to get a close-up of the demon. “Let’s get back to this interloper. Does it have friends?”

“No,” the demon replied. “Has the scent of an outcast. Plus, the way it is acting indicates that it doesn’t care about our ways.”

“You mean that it’s acting alone and out-of-control by feeding on victims to the point where they kill themselves?” Xander asked.

The demon nodded.

“A demonic serial-killing sociopath,” Xander remarked. “What are the odds?”

“If you’re so worried about it, why didn’t you track it down and take it out before we noticed?” Buffy asked.

“Tried,” the demon attempted a shrug despite the tight bonds. “Couldn’t find it. All we know is that it hunts in bars and among the local human night owls.”

“Do the victims have anything in common?” Xander asked through clenched teeth.

“All unwanted, unneeded, unnecessary,” the demon looked at Xander with a speculative look. “Burdens who bring nothing but misery to people around them. Useless creatures. Wastes of human flesh. People who should’ve never been born. Human accidents.”

Xander took a step back, but refused to drop his eyes. “We were talking physical characteristics,” his voice had a diamond bright edge. “Blonde, brunette? Male, female? That kind of thing.”

“No,” the demon had a slight smile as he said this.

“Something funny?” Buffy clipped.

“Oh, yes,” the demon said not taking his eyes off Xander. “Maybe share the joke?”

“Spare us,” Xander ordered. “How do we find this thing?”

The demon seemed to relax in his chair, a neat trick considering the ropes were cutting into his skin. “Be invisible. Get forgotten. Why be noticed? Why try?”

“Oh, goody,” Buffy growled. “Riddles.”

“I think what our not-very-helpful friend is trying to tell us is that we have to go undercover and play wallflower,” Xander tightly said. “Right?”

The demon had the odd smile again. “That’s one way to take it. I told you everything I know. Let me go.”

“What about Eduardo?” Buffy asked. “How do we know he won’t be the next dead body we find?”

The demon’s smile went into a full toothy grin as he continued to stare at Xander. “You don’t know?”

“Answer her,” Xander ordered.

“Times change, hunting methods change,” the demon said with a bored-but-amused voice. “We take sip instead of consuming human waste whole. Even your kind would notice a trail of dead bodies. Who notices when worthless lives become more worthless? It’s the way of things. We do what your species won’t by separating out the weak. But under the radar. Always under the radar. Much safer that way.”

“For you,” Xander shot back.

“Yes,” the demon acknowledged. “Humans now walk away. What they do in later years when we’re finished is not our concern.” He fixed Xander with an odd look. “Usually,” it added.

“How many in your clan?” Xander asked.

Out of the corner of her eye, Buffy could see Xander’s hands clenched in tight fists in an effort to keep from killing the creature in front of him. She didn’t blame him. She was stepping very close to wanting to bathe in puddle of green goo herself.

“Too many for you to kill,” the demon said. “People would notice if so many foster parents, homeless shelter volunteers, food pantry managers, social workers, and assorted do-gooders disappeared.” It smiled. “All the truly worthwhile people will be missed. Hunt them all, consume them whole, you won’t be. And what are you compared to them? You’ll finally be noticed and we’ll win.”

“How many?” Xander repeated through clenched teeth.

The demon paused and locked eyes with Xander as if waiting for the human to break.

Xander glared back and stubbornly refused to back down.

It finally answered. “Thirty-six all told in Sunnydale and the surrounding area.”

“Any other clans? Aside from the trespasser?” Buffy asked.

“No. Our territory,” the demon insisted.

“Fine,” Xander curtly said. “I want your entire clan out of town by the end of the month. If any member of your family, or any other clan, gets within a hundred miles of Sunnydale I will eventually find out. If I get even a whiff of a rumor that any member of your species is acting up in the Sunnydale Free Zone, I will personally hunt everyone in the offending clan down and make them disappear. If I’m caught by anyone on my little serial killing spree, I will cheerfully admit that I did it, I was glad I did it, and that I would do it again. Then I will turn the reigns over to my best friend the Slayer or my other best friend the witch and see how many demons in your species escapes with their lives.”

“Why not kill us now?” the demon asked.

“He’s got a point there, Xan. We’re kinda shoving the problem off on someone else,” Buffy said.

Xander closed his eyes in defeat. “I don’t like making this deal. If it were up to me, I would paint this town bright green. But you are right. Disappearing thirty-six people in a town this size is not going to work and I’ll never get all of you. Given the choice between live-and-let-live and failing to make you go the way of the dinosaur, I’m settling for a third option. This is it and it’s the best deal you’re going to get. If you don’t take it, we’ll see how close I can get to not only wiping out your clan, but your entire species.”

“The end of the month is two weeks away,” the demon wheedled. “Not enough time to spread the message and find new hunting grounds.”

“I. Don’t. Care,” Xander stressed. “Two weeks is plenty of time to spread the message and clear out. As for finding new hunting grounds? Do me a favor and starve to death.”

“I’d take it if I were you,” Buffy commented. “Think about this. You’re dealing with an expert demon hunter who’s immune to your charms.” Xander looked at her and tried to suppress the look of surprise on his face. “And he’s got a very powerful witch, a 1,200-year-old ex-vengeance demon, a crazed vampire, and a very angry Slayer as his back-up. Who do you think’s gonna win?”

The demon clenched its jaws. “Done and done,” it said. “Untie me.”

“Are we finished?” Buffy asked. When she saw Xander’s reflection nod, she added, “Do it.”

Xander walked over to the customer service counter and grabbed a ceremonial knife from the display case. He returned and loosed the demon from its bonds. As it unfolded from its cramped position, the image shimmered again and Buffy and Xander were once again seeing the deceptively harmless-looking Mr. Owsley, minus the wet head and the bruise.

Buffy gratefully put the mirror on the table and turned to face both Xander and the demon.

“A most educational and interesting afternoon,” Owsley commented as he brushed himself off. “I take it you don’t want the police involved.”

“That’s right,” Xander said.

Owsley cocked his head and fixed his amused eyes on Xander. “Yes, I can see why.” He lightly stepped up to his captor.

Xander glared and stood his ground.

Owsley smiled and stepped in close. “You’ve been tasted,” he said. Before Xander could react, Owsley turned and strode to the shop’s entrance. “No need for a ride,” he said without looking back. “I can get a cab.”

Then he was gone.

“Tasted? Xander? What did he mean?” Buffy asked. Please let me be wrong, please let me be wrong, please let me be wrong… she silently repeated.

Xander didn’t answer. He stood silent in the center of the shop, staring after Owsley’s exit.

“Xander?” Buffy pleaded. She reached out a hand and touched his shoulder in an effort to get his attention.

He whirled to face her and backed up several steps for good measure. His face bore no expression and his eyes seemed turned inward.

“Xander?” Buffy worriedly asked. “C’mon. It’s me. Talk to me.” She took a step forward.

Xander responded by turning on his heel and fleeing from the shop, leaving a stunned Slayer in his wake.

***

Xander walked quickly down the sidewalk with his head bent and mind elsewhere. Other pedestrians quickly made room to let him pass. A few muttered comments about his lack of manners as he blindly strode away from the Magic Box didn’t even register.

Tasted? What did he mean ‘tasted’? Xander desperately asked himself.

{you know.} the whisper insisted.

***

>>I’m the only one who wants you.<<

Stop, please stop. {please.}

>>Can you feel how much I want you?<<

Get off me. I can’t breathe. {no!}

>>Can you think of anyone else who wants you like I do?<<

Stop! Just…no! {makeitgoawaymakeitgoaway…}

>>I’ll never abandon you like everyone else has abandoned you.<<

Go away! Please! I’ll be good. I’ll be good!

{good has nothing to do with it.}

***

Xander broke into a trot. Somewhere in the distance at the edge of his hearing he could hear a familiar female voice yelling a name. He had to get away. He had to. The townie in him directed him down a side alley and backtracked him down a parallel street. He felt a sharp pain in his shoulder as he misjudged a corner and brushed hard against the brickwork.

{be careful.} the whisper sounded slightly panicked. {don’t hurt yourself.}

He ignored the tugging in his mind and refused to slow down.

***

>>They left you all alone, didn’t they? No family. No friends. But you’re not alone. I’m here. Don’t tell me that you’re not happy that someone finally noticed, that someone finally cares.<<

My parents would care.

{no they don’t.}

They’d stop you if they knew.

>>Do you believe that? Do you really?<<

{no.}

Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

>>Like that, do you? Enjoy that, do you? My hand on your face touching you while I whisper in your ear.<<

No! Stop. Please.

***

Xander groaned and lost his footing. He stumbled out of the downtown area before regaining a steady running pace. He loped down a side street, focusing on the steady clop-clop-clop-clop of his work boots hitting the pavement and the measured breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth.

A corner of his mind registered the burn in his thighs as he picked up his pace, the sore spot on his right heel where a wrinkle in a sock irritated the skin, and the pounding pain in his right shoulder where he connected with brick.

He didn’t really feel any of it.

{where are we going?} the whisper pleaded. {slow down.}

***

>>Did they tell you they are doing it all for you? Did they tell you they got married just for you? Did they tell you they stay together just for you? Until death do them part in misery, just for you, Alex. But you don’t love them, do you? You ruined their lives. You destroyed their futures the second you drew your first breath. How could they possibly love you?<<

They do love me! They do!

{no they don’t.}

>>If they loved you, why did they leave you? But I love you. I’m the only one who loves you.<<

You’re hurting me.

{you’re panicking. don’t show weakness. don’t back down. don’t let it do this.}

>>Your parents don’t really want you, do they? It’s okay. You can admit it to me, Alex. I know your dirty little secret. They threw you away. They’re relieved you’re gone. Didn’t they tell you they didn’t want you? Didn’t they admit it to you?<<

No!

{yes.}

***

Xander peeled off the road and dove into a copse of trees. He could hear the muffled sounds of a baseball game in progress. The townie in him tried to guess the park but gave up, since he wasn’t entirely sure how far he ran.

Xander stumbled over an errant root and fell face-first into the dirt.

{get up.} the whisper ordered.

“It’s not true,” Xander insisted as he rolled over onto his back.

{it is.} the whisper admitted.

“No, no, no,” Xander argued. “Other kids. Other people. Not to me.”

{yes it did.} the whisper said. {i’m sorry.}

***

>>I see your father now. He looks so happy. Laughing and joking. I hear what he says. I hear the whispers in your head. He tells you about the mistake. He tells you it wasn’t supposed to happen. You weren’t supposed to happen.<<

He was joking. He was kidding. He was—

{drunk.}

>>What’s the punch line again? Ahh, I hear it echo in your head. We should’ve never drank the abortion money. Funny man, your father.<<

{stop crying. don’t let it see you cry.}

>>What hurts more, Alex? Is it the words themselves? Or the fact that the words are true?<<

***

Xander hauled himself out of the dirt and stumbled over to a tree. He hugged it close for support, insanely grateful for the rough bark cutting into his skin. He was surprised to realize his face was wet. Raining? he thought. He looked up and saw the blue sky mocking him. Crying? he thought with wonder.

He reached up and scrubbed at his eyes to make the tears stop. His traitorous body rewarded him with a sob as he crumbled to the ground. Just another victim, no better than Eddie, no better than Cavacci, he thought.

{eddie and cavacci aren’t to blame here} the whisper murmured. {and neither are you.}

“Make it stop,” he quietly pleaded. “Take it away. Make me forget.”

{i can’t.} the whisper said. {i won’t.}

***

>>Let me do this. Let me show you how much I need you.<<

I can’t. I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.

{close your eyes. you can run away. you’re not here. i’ll hide you. i can do that for you.}

>>Much better now. Don’t fight.<<

{i can take this. let me take this. close your eyes.}

>>Good boy.<<

{safe. you’re safe.}

>>Alex is a very good boy.<<

Continued in Part 6

 

 

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