Title: Whisper, Part 6
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.
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’).
“I told you, I already checked his apartment,” Buffy insisted as Willow dragged her down Xander’s street. “It was the first place I checked.”
“He could’ve doubled back,” Willow said.
“Something tells me no,” Buffy said, looking up at the familiar exterior of Xander’s apartment. “It’s dark inside.”
“Doesn’t mean he’s not there,” Willow replied.
“His car isn’t here,” Buffy argued.
“That’s because it’s still at the Magic Box,” Willow said. “Buffy, we’ve been all over town. I’ve dragged you to every favorite hiding spot Xander, Jesse, and I had as kids and there’s no sign that anyone has been anywhere near any of them for the past few days.”
“Are you sure you know all of them?” Buffy wheedled.
Willow stopped and sighed. “How bad?”
“What?” Buffy asked.
“How bad was he after Owsley left?” Willow expanded.
“I’m not entirely sure he even saw me,” Buffy said, biting her lip. “Willow, I’m worried. It’s going to be full dark soon and if Xander’s body is wandering around while his mind is somewhere else, he’s vamp bait. We’ve got to find him.”
Willow impatiently tapped her foot. “Swinging by his apartment for a quick check isn’t going to eat a lot of time, especially since we’re already here,” she irritably said. “If he’s not here, we’ll call Dawn and make sure he didn’t check in with her. Then, I’ll grab some of the emergency spell ingredients I’ve got stored in his apartment and do a quick locator spell. He’ll be furious I did, since he made me promise to avoid using magic if I needed to reach him.”
Buffy was shocked. “When did that happen?”
Willow dismissively waved her hand. “After I got back from England and Xander handed me a cell phone. He made me promise to use it instead of magic if I needed to reach him.”
“I told you, he’s not answering—” Buffy began.
“And technically, this is an emergency,” Willow said trying to convince herself. “Worrying about a friend who seems to have gone off the deep end can be considered an emergency.”
“Which is why we should’ve done the spell in the first place,” Buffy insisted.
“Look, I need to be able to look Xander in the eye and say that I tried everything humanly possible before trying to smoke him out using magic,” Willow said. “Considering what he went through a few months ago with me tossing him around on Kingman’s Bluff, I think I owe him at least that much.”
“Fine,” Buffy huffed.
Willow and Buffy walked the rest of the way to the building and up the stairs to Xander’s apartment in silence. Willow dug her keys out of her pocket when they reached the door. She fumbled with the key chain before finding the right key, only to have Buffy impatiently snatch the set out of her hands. Buffy jabbed the key in the lock and struggled with it before Willow finally placed a calming hand on the operation. After a brief pause, Buffy ungraciously stepped aside and let Willow do the honors.
The door swung open and Buffy leaned into Xander’s apartment. She was immediately struck by the overwhelming smell of alcohol. Willow coughed delicately behind her, as if denying the evidence of her nose.
“Xander?” Buffy softly called into the dark. “You here?” She took a step across the threshold and nearly jumped when the sound of broken glass cracked beneath her shoes. The Slayer could feel Willow’s breath in her right ear as the redhead hugged close next to her. “Willow? Close the door,” Buffy said. “Last thing we need is the neighbors calling the cops about a break-in.”
Willow turned and did as she was asked, cutting off the hallway lights and plunging the apartment into near darkness.
“I hate the name Alex.”
Both women startled and began wildly looking around the apartment for the source of the voice. Superior Slayer nighttime vision won out when Buffy spied a Xander-like shape crouched on the floor almost opposite the apartment entrance.
“What?” Willow choked out.
“I hate the name Alex,” Xander repeated, as if the statement explained everything they needed to know.
Willow and Buffy looked at each other, coming almost nose-to-nose to see confusion mirrored in the other woman’s face. The two looked back at the man on the floor, uncertain how to respond.
The impasse lasted a few moments while Buffy searched desperately for something to say. Her mind finally latched onto the glass beneath her feet. “Xander? Have you been—”
“Drinking?” the ghostly voice completed. “Nothing in me. Everything’s on the floor. That’s good, right?”
“Depends. How much destruction to property was involved?” Buffy asked, ignoring Willow’s irritated jab in her back at the insensitivity the question betrayed.
“A few helpless liquor bottles bought it.” The Xander shape waved an arm to mime a football throw. “All left over from my not-a-wedding binge. Told everyone I dumped it down the drain because I didn’t want to admit that I kept some, you know, just in case. But I can’t…if I start...” He interrupted himself with a rueful chuckle. “I’m such a fucking Harris.”
Buffy could feel Willow’s body posture stiffen at this last sentiment. The witch probably knew more than anyone what the resigned tone of Xander’s voice meant. Buffy slowly moved forward, wincing against the sounds of broken glass tracking her’s and Willow’s progress across the apartment. The two women stopped short of the miserable huddled figure and waited.
“So, what’ll be today, ladies?” Xander asked. “A tongue lashing for being an idiot? A righteous smack down for the stunt I pulled in the Magic Box? A lecture on how I should leave stupid shit to the people who actually have power?” He looked up at the women with a face set in stone. “An intervention, maybe?”
“No,” Willow whispered. She dropped to her knees and tentatively reached out a hand to touch him, but froze when Xander’s figure seemed to cringe at the threat of physical contact. “Please, Xander, I need to know.”
Xander’s eyebrows drew together, signaling his confusion.
“I have these letters, see?” Willow shakily drew an envelope from a pocket, holding it out to him as if trying to make a peace offering. Xander’s eyes dropped to the piece of paper, but no sign of recognition crossed his features.
“I could never let them go, because, because…” Willow’s voice trailed off. “You’re important to me and somewhere along the way you got hurt and I didn’t know how to fix it. I think for a long time that I didn’t help and maybe I hurt more than I helped. I need to know how to fix it because you and me...” Willow waved a hand helplessly between the two of them. “I guess we’re the closest we’ll have to siblings and I’ve been a rotten sister for a long time, so I need you to tell me how to fix it. Please.”
Xander stared in silence for something that seemed like eternity. He finally reached out a hand and lightly ran a finger along the edge of the proffered envelope. Buffy could see a spark of life returning to his eyes as if he were regarding a precious relic.
“Xander?” Willow prompted, tears strangling her voice.
“I wasn’t forgotten,” Xander said with wonder.
Willow launched herself at Xander and was caught in an enveloping hug. The pair clung to each other while Willow tearfully muttered apologies and Xander quietly his own set of apologies in response.
Buffy stood and watched while Xander clutched Willow close to him. It had been years since she felt the outsider in their combined presence. She felt the sharp reminder that her two best friends had a link and a history that she didn’t share and couldn’t always understand.
Xander and Willow in unison finally looked up from the floor. Buffy could see Willow’s tear-streaked face and Xander’s relieved expression in the dim light. The silent pair each out an arm to the standing Slayer. Buffy hoped she didn’t look too overjoyed when she dove for the invitation to join them.
A few hours later the three Scoobs sat on the floor of Xander’s apartment eating takeout Chinese by the light of several candles placed strategically around the indoor picnic. There wasn’t a lot of conversation involved with dinner, aside from a short call to Dawn telling her she could stop worrying, questions about who was hungry, a debate about what kind of food they should get, and picking a restaurant that delivered.
It was glaringly obvious to anyone watching the three friends they were delaying the inevitable conversation as long as possible.
Willow finally broke the silence. “Xander? What did the demon mean when it said you’d been tasted?”
Xander closed his eyes and clenched his jaw. He dropped the carton of moo goo gai pan on the floor next to his knee and let out a short painful breath. “It means exactly what it says.”
“Can you just be a little more specific?” Buffy asked. When Willow and Xander fixed her with matching dark expressions, Buffy hastily added, “I can make lots of assumptions, but I really need to hear it from you.”
Xander looked at Willow, jerking his head in Buffy’s direction. “How much does she know?”
Willow cringed. “Everything I do, which isn’t much.”
“Don’t get mad at her, Xander,” Buffy quickly interjected. “I forced it.”
“No you didn’t,” Xander interrupted. He ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “Willow was right to tell you.”
“I was?” Willow asked.
“Yeah,” Xander gave a quick nod. “Way I’ve been acting since this whole mess began…well…I don’t blame you. If our positions were reversed I probably would’ve done the same.” He cast a quick glance in Buffy’s direction. “How long?”
“I told her the last night after Spike asked to move out,” Willow replied.
“Spike moved out?” Xander asked. He winced. “Jesus, my mind really hasn’t been here, has it? Didn’t even register that Spike wasn’t around today.”
“Don’t get too excited,” Buffy responded. “We thought it was best to get him out of your way until we—”
“Figured out if I was going insane?” Xander finished for her.
“When you put it that way, you make it sound like a bad thing,” Buffy lightly said even if her face was deadly serious.
“I guess I better start at the beginning, right?” he sounded resigned as he asked the question.
“I know this must really be hard for you,” Buffy said. “I know you don’t want to admit that you’ve been victimized by—”
“I’m not a victim,” Xander snapped while Willow hissed her disapproval at Buffy.
Buffy met Xander’s eyes, seeing the same determination she saw when Xander first proposed hunting for suicide demons by visiting foster homes. She looked away from him while she stabbed at her food with chopsticks. She felt unaccountably ashamed for her comment under the weight of Xander’s gaze. “You’re right. No. No you’re not. I’m sorry. If you were, you’d be dead. Well, dead or invisible and since you’re definitely alive and definitely worth noticing…” She looked up at him again. “Would survivor be better?”
Xander cocked his head as if thinking about it. He finally shrugged. “Dunno. Is there a PC term for someone who’s been attacked by demons?”
“Not that I know of,” Willow said with a giggle. “Although I’ve been thinking about PC terms for vampires. How does Undead Americans grab ya?”
“Doesn’t take Spike or Angel into account since they’re technically not American citizens. How about the Heartbeat Challenged?” Xander responded with a grin.
“I know!” Willow waved her chopsticks. “Room Temperature Individuals.”
“We could always go with—” Xander began.
“Enough,” Buffy interrupted. “You’re trying to get out of this, Xander, and don’t think I don’t notice you helping him, Willow. No more hiding. No more jokes. Please.”
“You’re right, you’re right,” Xander sighed. “I just don’t know how to begin.”
“Xander? Did your parents, ummm, did they used to, you know…” Willow’s voice sounded tremulous as she danced around the question. “Did they hit you?”
Xander regarded the redhead with surprise. “I guess we could start there,” he dryly commented. “I take it absolute honesty is required?”
Both women nodded in response.
“Right,” Xander quietly said to himself. He just as quietly added, “Sometimes.”
“Meaning?” Buffy prompted.
Xander shrugged. “Exactly what it means. Sometimes my parents could be fast with the fists when they got drunk. It didn’t happen a lot and never when they were sober. Only when I got in the way or I was irritating them. Or I did something wrong, like breathing their oxygen.”
“This isn’t a joke,” Willow said.
“Who’s joking?” Xander asked. “Who knows why they sometimes ignored me, sometimes locked me in the basement, or sometimes cracked me across the room? I sure as hell never figured it out.”
“When did it start?” Buffy asked.
Xander offered Buffy a tight smile. “First time? Sixth birthday. After everyone went home Daddy dearest felt it he needed to drill home that I was a coward for being afraid of a clown. He wanted to toughen me up and make me a real man, I guess.”
“Oh my god. The clown our sophomore year,” Willow said with eyes wide.
“Yeah. Guess that clown nightmare isn’t so stupid now, is it?” Xander asked with a touch of bitterness. “Look, let’s just leave it that sometimes I got in the way when they got drunk, but it wasn’t anything that would make the headlines. Hell, it wasn’t even anything that would attract the attention of public school teachers, so let’s move this along.”
“Fine,” Buffy crossed her arms. “Who figured out what was going on and who decided to yank you out of the house?”
“You know about the fire, right?” Xander asked. Off Buffy’s nod, he continued. “When the firefighters showed up, my parents were completely plastered. They were so wasted that they forgot to mention they might have a son trapped inside.”
“Oh god,” Willow said.
“I got out of the house on my own and was busy throwing up in the backyard when one of the firefighters found me,” Xander continued. “They got me treatment for smoke inhalation while my parents got arrested because they picked a fight with the cops. I think the firefighters were the ones to call social services on my parents.”
“The cops may be deeply stupid, but the firefighters not so much,” Buffy commented.
“Something like that,” Xander agreed. “The social workers figured out pretty quickly that my parents were barely functioning alcoholics that sometimes threw a few punches at convenient targets.”
“Like their son,” Buffy added. She felt the weight of egg foo young sit uncomfortably in her stomach.
“I got questioned a lot while I was in the hospital,” Xander continued as if Buffy hadn’t spoke. “I finally broke and spilled everything. I just didn’t want to go back.”
Willow suppressed a whimper.
Xander quickly focused on the redhead. “Hey,” he softly said. “Not your fault, so don’t go there.”
Willow nodded, but didn’t look at him.
“Right. Back to business.” Xander took a breath. “I finally get placed in this one home. Totally kid heaven. I felt…” his voice trailed off and his eyes closed as if he was fighting with himself.
“Safe?” Willow prompted.
“Sorta. Yeah. I guess,” Xander fumbled.
“You guess?” Buffy asked.
Xander shrugged. “I didn’t have to scramble for breakfast in the morning. Someone made sure I got my summer reading books. Laundry got done on a regular basis. I did chores. I didn’t have to worry about dinner. I had to be indoors by six. I had to be in bed by ten.”
“I don’t understand,” Buffy said.
Xander regarded her and softly said, “No, you really can’t.” He winced against Buffy’s gaze. “Stop it.”
“Stop what?” Buffy protested.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Xander said. “I don’t want your pity.” He looked at Willow and added, “Or yours.”
“Can’t we feel sorry for you?” Willow asked.
“No,” Xander snapped. “It’s over. Done. I’m out of that house. I have my own apartment. A damn good job that I actually like. A nice car. And I actually have the ability to avoid drowning in a bottle. All’s well that ends well.”
“It’s not done,” Buffy said. “You haven’t finished.”
“Right. More info,” Xander said. “Anyway, I was there for two months when…” his voice trailed off. “They believed me that time.”
“Believed what?” Willow prompted.
“One night I got out of bed. I forget why. Anyway, I’m going to do whatever and I hear this sound when I pass the girls’ bedroom,” Xander said.
“A whisper?” Buffy asked, feeling prickling of fear at the base of her spine.
Xander nodded. “I should’ve just ignored it, but, I dunno, something told me that I should check. I cracked open the door and I thought I saw this, this, thing sitting on one of the girl’s chest and it looked like it was whispering in her ear.”
“Did it look at you?” Buffy asked.
Xander shook his head no. “I don’t think it even realized I was there.”
“What did you do?” Willow asked. Her eyes were wide in the candlelight as if she were listening to a particularly gruesome urban legend.
“I attacked it,” Xander mater-of-factly said. When the two women exchanged looks, he tried to explain, “I don’t know why, I just did. It...it…I think it was instinct or something.”
“No one’s saying anything,” Buffy soothed. “I was just thinking that move is typical you.”
“Not then,” Willow corrected.
Xander ruefully chuckled. “Willow’s right. Not my usual first reaction, at least back then. Anyway, we both went tumbling to the floor and the girls started screaming and next thing you know, the whole house is in a total uproar. See, the thing is, when I looked at what I attacked, it turned out to be a ‘who.’ My foster mother had a bloody nose.”
“You’re joking,” Buffy interjected.
“Nope. What I thought was a little grey monster turned out to be a human being. At least, that’s what I thought before…” Xander waved his hands as if dismissing the end of his sentence. “So when social workers started crawling all over the house the next day, I told them what I saw, only instead of saying, ‘I saw a monster’ I said, ‘I saw my foster mother.’”
“What did they do?” Willow asked.
“Children and Family Services pulled every single one of us out of the house and started an investigation,” Xander said. “I wound up in another home.”
“Yup. I remember the sudden change in address,” Willow said. Her eyes narrowed, “I also remember you never explained why you got moved.”
Xander helplessly shrugged. “What was I going to say? ‘Hey Wills, I saw a monster and I tried to beat it up?’ or ‘Hey Wills, I attacked someone so they shipped me to a new place?’ Which would’ve been worse?”
“I see your point,” Willow said. “I don’t want to, but I can.”
“So what happened to the people in the first home?” Buffy asked. “Did the state shut them down? Please tell me that they didn’t get to open up shop somewhere else.”
“I blew it,” Xander flatly stated.
“Blew it?” Buffy asked. “What do you mean?”
“I was in my new place less than three weeks when it happened again,” Xander said. “Same set-up. Walking the halls late one night, I hear whispering from another bedroom, I open the door, see monster, attack monster. Monster turns out to be a human, only the foster father this time. State comes in and I tell the social workers what happened.”
“How did that work out?” Buffy prompted.
“It didn’t,” Xander said. “I think they took one look at my story and realized that it was almost word-for-word similar to the story I told about the last place I stayed. I got yanked from the home, but everyone else, kids, adults, everything, stayed put.”
“I smell a set-up,” Willow said with an undertone of anger.
Xander stopped and regarded his friend. “You know? I didn’t think of that. Hell of a way to discredit an eyewitness if you’re a demon that’s supposed to be extinct and doesn’t want to draw attention to yourself from nosy humans or rival demons.”
“Then what?” Buffy asked.
Xander shrugged. “Brief stop for a week at an inpatient mental health facility. They put me on some sort of medication, nothing really strong I think, and had me talk to a shrink.”
“You didn’t tell him about the demons?” Buffy quickly asked.
“Nope, I wasn’t that far gone yet,” Xander assured her. “I just kept telling the doc that I was telling the truth about seeing various foster parents doing something they shouldn’t be doing with the other kids. Who knows if he believed me. Anyway, I guess the state figured I wasn’t crazy enough to stay locked up and sent me to another home. Only this time I had to take meds before anyone would accept me. Nothing strong because I still had a clear head. Anyway, I think this home specialized in headcases because I remember I wasn’t the only one that had to line up to take pills in the morning.”
“Specialized in…” Buffy began. She closed her eyes and deadpanned, “Like the Owsleys.”
“I…I think so.” Xander picked up the moo goo gai pan. His fingers nervously twitched around the chopsticks as he played with the food. His jaw clenched and unclenched furiously while his eyes unfocused.
Buffy tried not to notice that his hands were shaking.
“Xander?” Willow prompted. “Xander what happened? Is that when…”
“I…I…,” Xander began.
Buffy could swear she could see Xander shrink inside himself, mentally running as fast as he could from an ending all three of them knew but at least two of them needed to hear. “Xander,” she softly prompted.
“The first night I was there, the very first night, a boy in my room was attacked. Not me. One of my bunkmates.” There was no emotion as he stated this.
“You fought it,” Buffy said. It wasn’t a question.
Xander nodded. “This time it left the room and I thought sure…” his voice trailed off. “But no one came to get me the next day. Instead, the foster parents ran an ‘intervention’ about me acting out on my ‘violence issues.’ They even brought in a social worker.”
“They tried to convince you that you were crazy,” Willow said.
Buffy started. She had never heard Xander stutter in her life. She focused on him and noticed that he was staring at the floor while his hands reflexively played with the chopsticks. She blinked hard to erase the illusion that if his hair were longer, he’d be hiding behind it. Tara-shy indeed, she thought.
“They didn’t manage it, did they?” Willow prompted.
“N-n-n-n-n…” Xander at that point gave up trying to get the word out and shook his head.
Buffy watched Willow close her eyes in sympathy. Hard as it was for Buffy to see this version of Xander, Willow probably found it downright painful to come face-to-face with the boy who got buried under Xander’s defense mechanisms.
“What happened?” Willow asked.
Xander’s expression changed and his eyes briefly unfocused. Buffy wondered if he was rehearsing what he said next or if he was trying to calm down enough to get the words out of his mouth in something resembling a coherent manner.
“They worked on me for a couple of days about me seeing things, having violence issues, acting out.” His voice was very careful, the words very precisely pronounced, almost as if English was not his first language. “They finally marched me to a doctor, said I needed help, and had my medication changed.”
“To what?” Buffy asked.
Xander shrugged. “Something really strong. I couldn’t think clearly. I had no energy to do anything. I just, I dunno, it’s like I didn’t even have the energy to care. Little pills three times a day and I didn’t even feel like I was in my own body.”
“I can relate,” Buffy said with dawning surprise. She wondered how things might’ve been different last year if she knew about this hidden piece of the Xander puzzle. Stop it girl, this is about Xander, not you, a corner of her mind ordered.
“That’s when they got you,” Willow said. Her head was bowed and her hair was in her face. “When you weren’t strong enough to fight back.”
“I should’ve!” Xander exploded. “I could’ve! I just let— let—” He hauled himself off the floor and began pacing the apartment. “I just let this happen!”
“You were twelve,” Buffy said.
“Doesn’t matter,” Xander insisted. “I should’ve stopped it before—”
“You were a kid! Damn it, Xander!” Buffy shouted back. “These things knock me, the Slayer, for a loop without breaking a sweat! And you managed to defeat these things twice when you were still a kid! Stop being so hard yourself!”
Xander looked away, waving his hands in front of his face as if warding off a blow. “They’d come in and whisper in my ear. Things I wanted to hear. Things I didn’t want to hear. Promised things I didn’t want to believe. Made me believe things—” He stopped, closing his eyes, dropping his defensive posture into a defeated slump.
“What did they say?” Willow asked.
“No,” Xander quietly said. “I-I-I can’t.”
“Please?” Willow pleaded.
“No!” Xander slammed his right fist down on a table. The sound made the women jump. The action clearly hurt because Xander began nursing his right hand in his left hand. “Don’t make me,” he pleaded.
The women exchanged a look and silently agreed to let that line of questioning go.
“Three weeks,” Xander commented. “I let it happen to me for three weeks.”
“You didn’t let—” Willow protested.
“I was weak and stupid and desperate,” Xander interrupted in a whisper. “My fault. I let it happen. Me. I could’ve run away. I could’ve—”
“What?” Buffy asked. “Do what, Xander? Where you going to go? The streets? Back to your parents? Plus, you said yourself you were drugged to the gills and that you’d been labeled a violent trouble-maker, so who was going to believe you?”
“Still…” Xander said.
“No ‘still.’” Buffy crossed her arms. “You did the best you could and that’s all anyone could ask.”
Xander suppressed a smile. “Look who’s talking.”
“Yeah, well, that’s me. Do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do girl,” Buffy said.
“So if you couldn’t stop it, who did?” Willow asked. “I mean, at some point it stopped because here you are.”
Xander looked away, as if he found the chili lights strung around his apartment more interesting than the faces of his friends. “We did,” he quietly replied.
Buffy and Willow looked at each other before looking back at Xander, confusion evident on their faces. “We?” Buffy asked.
Xander startled and looked at Buffy with wide eyes. He suddenly tilted his head, as if listening to someone. He slowly nodded as if agreeing to something. His next words were very careful.
“I meant me. After three weeks they left me alone and started going after someone else. I guess maybe they were bored or were afraid of running the well dry. Something like that, I guess.” He shrugged, a little too nonchalantly in light of what he was saying. “I…I…think I came up with the plan to make them stop that first night they left me alone.”
“Let me get this straight,” Buffy said. “All it took was one night of being left alone and you came up with a plan? Just like that?”
“Yeah,” Xander said.
“I don’t think having a single night free of those monsters is it, Xander.” Buffy looked at him speculatively as if she were finally figuring something out that she should’ve realized before. “It was because other people were threatened, wasn’t it?”
Xander snorted in response. “It was about saving my own skin.”
Buffy nodded. “Yeah. Sure. Whatever you want to believe, Xander.”
When Xander looked like he was about to angrily retort, Willow stepped in, “What was the plan?”
Xander snapped his attention back to Willow. He smiled a grateful smile, as if he were almost happy about the change in subject. “I started palming my meds and burying them in the backyard, which probably made for some pretty loopy plants. Just stopping the pills was a huge help, even if I did start feeling a little sick. Withdrawal, I think.”
“Then what?” Buffy demanded.
“I managed to sneak a frying pan up to my room, you know, one of those cast-iron things. By that point I had been drug-free and monster-free for three or four days,” he said. “I hid the pan under my pillow, which wasn’t a the most comfortable thing for my head, believe me. I figured I could attack one of them if they came into the room and started feeding off me or one of the other boys.”
“Did it work?” Willow asked.
“Like a charm.” Xander smiled a genuine smile. “A few days after I had my weapon in place, one of those things went after one of my bunkmates. Never saw what hit it.” He stopped and began to shudder. “Problem is, I couldn’t stop. I just kept…I nearly killed…” He took a deep breath. “There was blood everywhere,” he whispered.
“They were demons, Xander. We kill demons, remember?” Buffy gently said.
“You don’t understand,” Xander said. “I’d never done anything like that before and it was…was…it felt…”
“Awful?” Willow asked.
“Wonderful,” Xander corrected, wrapping his arms around himself. He refused to look at either Buffy or Willow, opting to stare at the floor instead. “They took me away after that.”
“To juvie,” Buffy said.
“To a nuthouse,” Xander corrected. “The foster parents refused to press charges, saying that I was a poor troubled child and that I needed help more than I needed punishment. They made sure I got locked up in a psych ward.”
“If your attack was as bad as you say, the state should’ve still pressed charges,” Willow said. “Why didn’t they?”
“That’s the weird part,” Xander said. “I could’ve sworn that I really hurt the one I attacked, but the next day when I got dragged out of the home, all the foster mother had was a few bruises.”
“Glamour,” Willow commented.
“But why bother?” Buffy asked Willow. “Does it really matter where Xander got locked up?”
“Maybe it does,” Willow said. “Okay, think about this, if you’re locked up in juvie, it’s because you’re just violent. If you’re locked up a mental health facility—”
“I’m violent and crazy,” Xander finished. He closed his eyes and let out a shuddering breath. “In short, a double threat and another reason for no one to believe me when I started babbling about what I saw or what I thought I saw.”
Buffy cringed, remembering her own stay in a psych facility early in her Slaying career. “Let me guess. You started talking about monsters, didn’t you?”
Xander nodded. “Didn’t help my case, did it? Or maybe it did. Babbling about monsters probably kept me from being transferred to juvie until I was eighteen. Plus, I had no sign of being a basket case before going into foster care and here I was an over-medicated crazy wreck. I think that was all the leverage my parents needed to yank me out of the state’s clutches once and for all.”
“See? Now this is the part that confuses me,” Buffy stated. “You were taken out of your home because your parents were less than useless and then they got you back. How?”
Xander gave a noncommittal shrug. “They cleaned up their act. Got into AA, lined up a doc for family therapy, the whole nine yards.”
“So they did care,” Willow said.
“More like having your kid taken away by the state puts you over the line into white trash territory,” Xander stated. “It was all about appearances, Wills. I doubt either one of them gave a shit one way or the other about me.”
“How can you say that?” Willow asked. “They—”
“They nothing,” Xander retorted. “Yeah, they got me back. And yeah, I was a grateful kicked puppy. Know how long family therapy lasted? Exactly one year. It ended when the state was done looking over daddy-o’s shoulder.”
“But they stuck with—” Willow began.
“AA? Hah! Big help that was,” Xander angrily replied. “They were still obsessed with getting drunk. Okay, they weren’t actually getting drunk but it was still all about the booze: how to avoid it, worrying endlessly about not giving in to temptation, crossing certain family members off the ‘allow in the house’ list because they might bring the liquid fun.” He slumped against the couch armrest. “Not that it changed anything in the end.”
“When did they start again?” Willow asked.
“Right after our sophomore year, a few days after Buffy left for L.A. to have quality time with her dad,” Xander said. He waved a dismissive hand. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It does,” Buffy said.
“No, it really doesn’t,” Xander corrected her.
“Did they ever, you know…” Willow paused and took a deep breath. “Didtheyeverhityouagain?”
“Nah. I guess that was one good thing. I think they were too afraid the state might step in and take me away again,” Xander said. “Kept it to the words. Leaves fewer bruises that way.”
“But lots of scars,” Willow said.
“Drop it, Willow,” Xander growled.
“Xander, I think—” Buffy started.
“Look, I told you everything I know,” Xander defensively interrupted. “So let’s not run an intervention on poor pitiful me.”
“You don’t even know what I was going to say,” Buffy protested. “I was going to ask you why you never said anything before. I mean, at some point you might’ve mentioned you’d seen demons before you met me. I’ve known you for seven years and you’ve never said anything until now and only because you were forced.”
Xander cringed. “I forgot.”
“You forgot? How the hell could you forget something like this?” Buffy asked.
“Can you say ‘repressed memories’ boys and girls?” Willow muttered.
“I took Psych 101, Willow,” Buffy said. “But something like this—”
“Hello, native Sunnydaler here,” Xander reminder her. “Repressing memories isn’t just for chuckles, it’s a town-wide competitive sport.”
“You’re not exactly normal in that department, Xan,” Buffy said.
“Look, the docs pretty much convinced me I was crazy and seeing things,” Xander tried to explain. “Those little grey men were not monsters, just me hallucinating they were monsters. See? I was attacking real people all along.” He looked to the floor again. “Standard operating defense mechanism for Alexander the great, hunh? See only what I want to see and believe only what I want to believe.”
“Again with the too hard on yourself,” Willow said.
“Am I? Don’t think so. I’m thinking that I’m just a coward at heart,” Xander said.
“Stop it,” Buffy ordered.
“Stop what?” Xander gave a defeated shrug. “The thing is I really wanted to believe I was crazy because, hey! Monsters? Not real.”
“But you knew they were real after you met me,” Buffy countered.
“Yeah, a point driven home when I staked Jesse,” Xander bitterly said.
“So how could you possibly forget?” Buffy asked.
“I told you. Repression. Classic case,” Willow muttered.
“Because I wanted to, okay!” Xander shouted. He suddenly quieted. “I didn’t want to remember so I just buried it. But do you want to know the hell of it? The real hell of it? I think some part of me didn’t want to remember because I bet some part of me even enjoyed it when that thing whispered—”
“Don’t,” Buffy said with horror. “Don’t say that. Don’t even think that. How could you even believe—”
“If I didn’t enjoy it, would I even be in the same room as you? Would I still be friends with Willow? Would I get within a mile of cemetery knowing what I know?” Would I be demon-magnet boy?” Xander asked. “Hell, I almost married an ex-demon, so that has to tell you something.”
“Just means you have rotten taste in women,” Willow said.
“Hey!” Buffy protested.
“Present company excepted, of course,” Willow quickly added.
Xander stifled a broken chuckle.
“You’re not off the hook yet, mister,” Buffy stated.
“I don’t what else I can tell you,” Xander said.
“When did you remember?” Buffy asked. “Because you’ve been acting beyond weird since you saw the suicide demon’s picture in the Magic Box.”
Xander shivered and bit his lip, as if trying to remember. “I honestly don’t know. Kinda came back to me in dribs and drabs. I started having, I dunno, nightmares a few weeks before I noticed the suicides in the paper, but nothing really concrete. Just real general things about that time in…I just thought it was delayed stress over Willow coming back and Anya almost getting—” he looked quickly at Buffy and looked away.
Buffy fought the guilty feeling that her ‘faster pussycat kill, kill’ attitude over Anya may have been a contributing factor to kick-starting Xander’s nightmares.
“Then I saw the picture in the Magic Box and,” he paused, steeled himself, and admitted, “Something in my head just started screaming.”
“Screaming?” Willow asked.
He helplessly shrugged, “It’s the only way I can really explain it.” He began pacing again. “As for remembering everything? Wasn’t until Owsley or whoever the hell it is actually said ‘tasted.’ Right in my ear. God! I can’t believe I let him get that close to me knowing what he was. I was stupid, stupid, stupid…”
“He took you and me by surprise, Xan. I expected him to run screaming out of the Magic Box when we were done with him,” Buffy soothed. “So stop blaming yourself. Again.”
“Ummm, Xander?” Willow cleared her throat, looked quickly at Buffy, and then fixed her attention on Xander. “This isn’t going to be an easy question.”
“Like the two of you have been lobbing softballs at me all night.” Xander sounded defeated. He wandered over to the French doors that led to the balcony outside and leaned against the wall, leaving both women with only a view of the defensive posture of his back. “I’m tired. Really, really tired. Just…ask whatever, okay? Just get it over with already.”
“There’s no good way to word this,” Willow admitted. “When they feed, ummm, what exactly are they eating?”
The silence that met the question seemed to stretch into eternity. Buffy decided that Quiet Xander unnerved her almost as much as Crazy Xander and Violent Xander. “Xander?” she gently prodded.
“I’m thinking,” he said.
“It’s okay to say ‘I don’t know’ if you don’t know,” Willow said. “Don’t feel like you have to—”
“I do know, Wills. I’m just not sure how to explain it.”
“Try,” Buffy said.
Xander turned around, clearly lost in thought. The flicker of intense emotions that seemed to cross his face as he tried to find the right words surprised Buffy. So this is what Xander looks like when his mask gets ripped away, she thought. She was so caught up in the pattern of expressions that she jumped when he finally spoke.
“I think those demons…I think they steal the future,” Xander said.
Willow and Buffy looked at each with confusion before turning back to their friend.
“The future?” Willow asked.
“I don’t mean literally. I think maybe I mean hope for the future?” He explained. He looked at the two women still seated on the floor. “Yeah, actually, I think that’s it. They feed off hope, maybe dreams, make you think that this is the best you can ever hope to get. Maybe I do mean the stealing the future part literally. I don’t know. Know what I mean?”
The look on Xander’s face broke Buffy’s heart just a little as his eyes searched Willow and herself in a silent plea for them to try and understand. Buffy glanced at Willow and noticed the witch seemed paralyzed, too devastated to even speak while she blinked hard in an effort to keep from crying. She wondered just how much Willow was blaming herself for not having this conversation years ago.
Buffy hauled herself to her feet, ignoring the stiffness in her legs from sitting too long in one position on the floor. She hobbled a little as she approached Xander, who stiffened his body posture as she got close. She stopped short, looking up into his face. She tried not to notice the lines of exhaustion around his eyes or the grim set of his mouth while he stared back.
Buffy cautiously reached out a hand and placed the palm firmly over his heart, noticing the subtle start of surprise and the quick thump-thump pattern in his chest. “Hey, we’re here for you. You know that, right?” she quietly said.