Author: Lizbeth Marcs <vblackheart[at]yahoo.com>

Hey All,

I'm attempting to translate one of my longest-running fics (to date) into TXT so I can post it on a couple of different boards (including here). You can read the complete fic over of "Map of the Human Heart" or Darkness Within, if you want.

Anyway, just posting it here on the group. "Whisper" is pretty much a non-shippy, straight-up mystery that takes place after "Him" but before "Conversations with Dead People." The only AU element is the Magic Box got rebuilt (I started writing before S7 started airing.) Other than that, everything stays frighteningly within canon.

Liz ;)

Summary: A raft of Sunnydale residents are committing spectacular suicides in public. The most likely culprit is a mysterious demon with odd powers of its on. The key to solving it is locked in the mind of one Scooby who refuses to remember what he knows, despite urgings from a whisper.

Spoilers: Early S7. Takes place immediately after "Him" but before "Conversations with Dead People."

Rating: PG-13 for violence, mild language, and some implied situations. Any similarities to a certain scandal currently rocking a certain religion in the Greater Boston Area is purely coincidental, even if it did originally provide the spark for this idea.

Beware, some AU here: The only thing AU is that the Magic Box got rebuilt. I started working on this before S7 started, so I made one big assumption that didn't turn out right. I'm keeping it because I hate using the Summers living room as a research space and because some important action needs to take place there. Otherwise, everything should match up to early S7 canon.

Ships: NONE! Bwahahahahahaha! Seriously. I meant it when I said no ships. Faith doesn't even show up.

Required legal disclaimer: I own nothing. Really, I don't. All characters, settings, and the basic reality of the Buffyverse is owned by ME. Don't sue me. You'll only get some pocket lint for your troubles.

Archive allowed: XanderZone, obviously. Otherwise, please let me know if you want it for your Web site or to share on your mailing list. However, credit me and keep my name on it, otherwise I will be very, very annoyed.

Feedback: Yes! Yes! Yes! Private or public. Good or bad. While I won't remove bad reviews and will take constructive criticism to heart, I reserve the right to ignore you if your review boils down to two words: "It sucks." without telling me WHY it sucks. Trolls, on the other hand, will be summarily shot.

*whew* On to the story.

Latest addition

Chapter 1

*Bored, bored, bored,* Buffy thought. Patrol had been a total bust. No vampires, no demons, no tingling Slayer-sense, no nothing. All she got for her trouble this evening was a quiet stroll through some of Sunnydale's finest cemeteries. It was enough to make her hang up her stake and declare victory.

Horrified by the jinxy thought, Buffy shoved her hands in her coat pockets and began thinking Hellmouthy thoughts by listing all the potential bad things that could interrupt her evening. Crazed robot attacks were always a favorite scenario. How about an alien invasion of the *X-Files* variety to liven things up? She hoped by letting her imagination expect trouble, trouble would stay away.

*Whenever one of us thinks things are going well, trouble of the big bad kind always jumps up and bites us in the ass,* she thought ruefully. *Here's hoping that expecting big, bad things will keep the big bads away.*

Of course, she'd probably already jinxed herself by feeling bored, so she might as well enjoy the quiet while it lasted. She turned left outside of Restful Haven and drifted down a side street that eventually wound its way to her front door. At one point she took her stake out and lazily flipped it in the way some bored folks might flip a quarter.

She was about ready to begin whistling when her sensitive hearing picked up a sound. She stopped her stake mid-flip, cocked her head, and listened intently, straining her ears as she did so. She was assaulted by resounding silence. Buffy snorted to herself. *You're jumping at shadows girl. Stop it. Call it a night and just go home.*

Buffy was about to begin moving again when a sound once again caught the edge of her hearing. She frowned. Whatever the source, the sound was subtle. Subtlety usually meant she was being followed. Her frowned deepened. That wasn't right. Subtle 'I'm following you sounds' were a very different animal than this particular noise. It was frustrating.

*What is it?* Buffy asked herself as she tried to catalog what she was hearing. *It sounds like ... like ... wind? No, that's not right. There's something vocal about it. Breathing?* She closed her eyes and concentrated. *Not breathing. Whispering.*

Her eyes snapped open and she slowly began to scan the surrounding area, but she wasn't able to see anything amiss. There was no sign of movement, no implication that anyone or anything was in the immediate vicinity. *Here's a question boys and girls: If there's no one close enough for me to hear if they're talking in a normal voice, how come I can hear a whisper?*

Buffy sighed. So much for her quiet night. She would have to investigate. It was probably nothing, but her inner Giles nagged her to check just to be sure. After a few minutes of standing stock still and sensing, rather than hearing, the whisper, she began creeping toward what she thought was the source: a copse of trees surrounded by a thick clump of bushes set a few yards back from the road.

When Buffy's Slayer-sense started tingling, she forced herself to stop just short of the riot of greenery. Some part of her mind screamed in frustration: *Just kill it! No hesitation! No mercy!* Buffy shook her head. Charging through brush wouldn't get her anywhere. If it were something sinister, loudly crashing the party would just give her position away and warn whatever big bad she was about to face that someone was out to get it.

If something more innocent were happening on the other side of the bushes, say, two high school students making with the lust on a moonlit-filled romantic evening, she would die of embarrassment. Not to mention if she confronted two high school students in a compromising position, word would get around the high school that the new peer councilor was a perv. That would mean her nifty part-time gig at the high school would go bye-bye, along with the stipend that helped pay her bills. It also meant she'd have to crawl back to the Doublemeat Palace and beg to get her job flipping burgers back.

*Right. Can't let that happen,* Buffy winced at the painful memories of the past year. *Last thing I need is Dawn whining about a return to the fast-food diet. Ugh. No thanks, I'll pass. Life's getting better Summers. Don't blow it before you have a chance to enjoy.*

The part of her mind that always perked up at the prospect of inflicting violence on Sunnydale's resident evil grumbled itself into submission. Pleased that she won her inner argument that caution was the best approach, Buffy searched the bushes for an opening that would let her peek into the clearing without giving her presence away.

*Is it my imagination, or is that whispering getting louder?* At that thought, she intensified her search.

A new sound interrupted the whisper. Something between a whimper and a moan. That definitely did not sound good. "Aw, hell," Buffy muttered.

All thoughts of caution and the need to be discreet were thrown to the wind as Buffy dove ahead. She barely felt the branches slash at her face during her charge. She crashed into the clearing, ready to do battle but was up brought short, mostly because she wasn't sure whether she should believe her eyes.

A human male was pinned to the ground and whimpering, tears streaming from his eyes. It was a sight that was sure to inspire a display of what Xander half-jokingly called Buffy's patented Slayer-fu technique, but the something sitting on top of man's chest gave her pause. It seemed every time she tried to look at it her eyes slid off it, almost like she didn't want to see what she was seeing and admit that something like it even existed.

The demon was crouched on the man's chest, leaning over, and whispering softly into the man's neck. One of its hands was softly stroking the victim's face in some twisted parody of offering comfort even as it inflicted hurt. The man wasn't even struggling, remaining passive underneath the horror above him.

Truth to tell, the demon didn't look all that impressive. It was an indistinguishable grey and was human-sized. It didn't even seem to have any built in weapons, like claws. Buffy had tangled with uglier and more impressive-looking demons in her time. The worst that you could say about it was that it was utterly forgettable. If it weren't for the fact that the man was whimpering and crying, a casual observer would think she'd stumbled upon two lovers.

*Maybe he's willing?* Buffy asked herself. *Not the first time demons and humans have decided to get it on Hellmouth-style.* The tightening in her chest and screaming Slayer-sense seemed to think otherwise. "Hey, ugly," she shouted. "Ever thought of getting a room?"

The startled demon looked up, spied the small blonde woman, and turned to look her full in the face.

And for the first time since Willow's ill-timed and ill-fated mass forgetfulness spell that temporarily wiped out a Scooby Gang full of memories, Buffy screamed.


When Buffy came to, she realized that she was sobbing and covering her eyes. Was she hurt? She quickly did a mental check for any injuries. Nope. No broken bones. No bruises. Hell, her hair hadn't even been mussed. She cautiously peeked out between her fingers and realized that she was crouched precisely where she stood when she first burst into the clearing.

Buffy frowned. *It didn't do anything to me. Nothing at all. Just left the clearing and me unmolested. How long was I out? What in the hell was that? Why did it scare me?*

Removing her hands from her face, she suddenly realized that she wasn't alone. The victim of the week was still lying on his back in the position where the demon left him, staring blankly up at the sky. Since she wasn't sure if the man was dead or undead, Buffy cautiously crawled forward, reached out, and touched his hand. It was still warm, but he didn't react. Emboldened now, but still expecting an attack, Buffy moved herself closer and took a good long hard look at her companion.

There was nothing to him. He had mousy brown hair, murky hazel eyes, a face and neck that softening from leanness of youth to a more jowlly look that betrayed a diet of too much take out and too many drinks. His clothes were generic; he clearly bought off the rack. Nothing he wore was cheap, but it certainly was not expensive or flash. His looks weren't hideous, nor were they exactly handsome. It was a face you'd forget moments after you were introduced to him. The best that could be said about him was that he was utterly forgettable.

*Kinda like the demon that was here earlier, that is until you got a good look at it.* Buffy shuddered, repressed the thought, and turned her attention back to the victim. He seemed catatonic. She tentatively took a hold of his arm and raised it in the air, positioning it so that it appeared he was pointing to the sky, if you could ignore the way his hand hung limp at the wrist. When she let go, she was strangely fascinated to notice that the arm remained in place, even without her support.

She looked down at the man and mumbled, "What happened to you?"

Chapter Two

*Ahhhh, caffeine. How I love ya my friend,* Xander thought happily as he sipped from the cafe-issued mug. He casually munched his toasted bagel as he opened the newspaper. A sudden breeze ruffled the pages and he grunted in frustration.

"Insist on sitting outside for breakfast and that's what you get, hun."

Xander looked up and smiled at the waitress brandishing a pot full of coffee. "Ahh, Dolly. Stop busting my chops. I'm trying to get some peace and quiet before dealing with the horrors of construction workers ogling high school hotties."

The newly promoted construction project manager held out his cup for a warm-up while Dolly continued the morning ritual of 'Tease the Xander.' "It's just you come here every morning before going to the worksite, you always insist on sitting outside, and you always get annoyed when the newspaper doesn't behave."

"I like the sun. Sunlight means safety." The minute he said it, Xander wanted to slap himself. It was an unthinking reply. *When am I going to learn to think before I open my idiot mouth?*

Dolly's usually flirty banter suddenly shifted to tight concentration. The change in demeanor made Xander squirm. "I wasn't going to say anything, hun, but you look like shit this morning. You sleeping?"

*Oh, what to say, what to say,* Xander thought with a touch of panic.

{tell the truth, but not the whole truth}, came the whispered voice at the back of his mind.

Xander plastered his best 'Who me? I didn't do it officer' smile across his face. "I've been having a little trouble sleeping these days. Happens every once in awhile. Seems my mind won't shut up when I try to get some shut eye."

Dolly snorted. "A good belt of scotch would fix ya up right up. If it didn't knock ya for a loop, it might relax ya enough to get some sleep."

Xander inwardly cringed at a lifetime's worth of bad memories involving him and alcohol. The less said about the past year, and all the years before that, the better. "Prefer not to if I can help it." Off Dolly's look he added a little more information. He told the truth, but not the whole truth. "A few months ago I started relying on the liquid courage a little much. Thought it best if I and demon alcohol go for a trial separation."

Dolly's eyes widened slightly in surprise before her face broke out into a genuine grin. Not the flirtatious grin of a 40-something-year- old waitress having fun with her 20-something-year-old patron in the name of friendly banter and a decent tip. This was a grin that could light up rooms and guide airplanes down runways. "Good on you," she said with a firm nod.

Xander shrugged, embarrassed at the unexpected praise implicit in Dolly's voice. He expected, what? Recrimination? Snide comments? Disappointment? Certainly not delight. "Poured every bit down the drain. Don't get me wrong. I still like the occasional beer, but coffee's my drug of choice these days."

Dolly looked thoughtful, and nodded again. "Probably just a phase. Good to know you didn't have to join the club."

"The club?"


Xander fought the urge to wince at the mention of AA, which had provided a three-year respite from parents' drinking. It goes without saying that, true to Harris form, they ultimately failed. Fighting down the familiar ache in the vicinity of his heart, Xander responded, "Nope, no need to go that far. Once I sobered up, I was too busy with other stuff to really miss it."

{now there's an understatement of epic proportions}, the whisper commented.

"Let me guess," Dolly said. "You know someone who tried it and it didn't take."

Xander opened his mouth to protest, but snapped it shut. He chose his next words very carefully. "Something like that, I guess." He shrugged to emphasize his point. "Doesn't matter."

After a brief, awkward pause while Xander squirmed under the waitress's sympathetic gaze, Dolly snapped to business. Flirtatious smile and tone firmly back in place, she said, "You better get to reading your paper, hun, else you'll be late to work."

"Awww, Dolly. You know I just want to stay here all day and hang with you. Where else am I gonna get the love?" Xander answered, gratefully fleeing back to the normal level of their usual conversation.

As Dolly snorted derisively and moved to the next table, Xander glanced at his watch and silently swore. If he didn't leave now, he would be late.

*The hell with it. So I'm a few minutes late. Gotta make my patrol rounds before I face normalcy.* He turned his attention back to the fluttering pages, glancing at and dismissing headlines screaming about international incidents, rumors of war, layoffs, corporate greed, and state budget cuts. A small local item caught his Scooby- trained eye. With an irritated move, he held the paper still and studied it. Another spectacular public suicide had claimed yet another Sunnydale citizen.

{how many this week? how many this month?} Xander's mind whispered.

*It's just a suicide. No need to wig. Nothing Hellmouthy here. Move it along. Nothing to see. Probably a spate of copy-cat suicides triggered by the first one back in …* Xander frowned, trying to remember when the first public suicide happened. He seemed to recall that there was a trickle of them over the summer, but lately they'd been happening more often.

When did the first one happen?

Xander concentrated. Was it before the disastrous almost-wedding with Anya? After? During what he dubbed his 'naked now time' when he was staring at the bottom of more than one beer bottle or shot glass? Did it happen before or after Willow decided to take on the world by taking it out of commission?

{you don't know, do you?} the whisper sarcastically asked.

*Why is this bothering you? I told you. It's nothing.*

{it bothers you. you've been so busy avoiding any and all painful issues and so wrapped up in your own problems that this could've slipped under the radar. and no, it's not 'nothing.' it's something, and you know it.} the whisper accused.

"Stop it," Xander muttered quietly to himself. "Let me think."

Not for the first time he wondered if everyone had a whisper that seemed to enjoy making comments from the peanut gallery. Xander had dubbed it his survival instinct voice, although how anything that kept pushing him to take chances in a fight where he was outgunned, underpowered, and would probably result in him being left as a bloody smear on the sidewalk at a young age went way beyond his limited insight into himself.

So he coped the same way he always coped by not thinking about it too hard. It wasn't like he couldn't shut the whisper out. He could. Although when he did things tended to go really wrong. Case in point: all of last year. Things only started to turn around when he started listening to the whisper again. When was that? Oh, yeah. When he ran to find Willow when she decided it was time to end the world.

He snapped out of his reverie. Somewhere in his mind, the whisper paused, waiting to see what he would do. Xander studied news item, frowning in concentration while his finger tapped a frustrated tattoo on the newsprint. His expression suddenly brightened as he flipped out his cell phone.

"Willow!" Xander said by way of greeting, sounding a little too loud and cheerful even to his own ears. He winced. "It's not that early, college girl. It's almost 8."

An observer watching the one-sided conversation would've seen the young man pause while he listened to what was probably and irritated, sleepy girl on the other end.

"Yeah, yeah. Studying late. I get it." Xander's joking tone took a turn for the serious. "Listen, I swear I wouldn't've called this early if it wasn't important." He glanced down at the news item again. "I think something may be up, I honestly don't know." He furtively looked around and lowered his voice. "Can't say anything at the moment. In public. Anyway, I've been noticing there's lately been a string of suicides in town."

Another pause while he listened to the response. "I know. On the surface it doesn't seem to be … well ... something Unusual, but there's been an awful lot of them lately." A shrug. "I dunno. I seem to recall seeing a couple of stories in the paper over the summer, but suicide fever seems to be picking up speed and a body count." Another pause. "It's making me feel uneasy. I can't explain it."

Xander let out a sharp breath. "Look, all I'm asking is for you just to do a quick newspaper search when you get a chance so we can pinpoint when a whole bunch of people suddenly started losing the will to live." He attempted to fold the paper up in one hand, but was losing the battle. "Maybe it's nothing. Maybe it's something. No. No point in worrying Buffy about it unless it's something. Life's going smooth, well smoother, for her right now. I don't want to mess it up unless we have to."

Another long pause before breaking into a genuine Xander grin. "Thanks, Wills. I owe you a pint of Ben & Jerry's for this. Fine. Dinner at an expensive French restaurant."

Satisfied that he got his way, Xander closed the cell phone with a click, thanking the whisper for the millionth time for insisting he invest in wireless technology for all the Scoobs.

{pitiful. is that the best you can do? shove the problem off on someone else and let them deal with it? you should be the one looking into this.} the whisper sulked.

*Hey, what do you want?* Xander silently argued back. *I have to go to work. I've rent to pay, food to buy, a gym club membership to cover, and the chipped, souled undead to baby sit until he finds all his marbles. All of this benefits you, by the way. Willow's good. She said she'd look into it and she'll look into it.*


Chapter 3

Willow stared dumbly at her Apple laptop, daring herself to ignore the uneasy tickling of her thoughts. When Xander called her this morning insisting that she look into the recent spate of suicides in town she was more than a little irritated. Now? She wasn't so sure he was overreacting.

Unless he was overreacting.

"Please don't tell me. Another apocalypse."

Willow jumped and shot Anya an exasperated glance. The ex-vengeance demon was practically hanging over her shoulder to look at the screen.

"No. At least I don't think so."

Anya frowned. "So, what's with the research mode? Research mode usually means trouble of the painful kind."

Willow sighed. "Not sure really. Xander noticed that a lot of people seem to be dying..."

Anya interrupted with a dismissive wave of her hand. "That's not anything new. Living on a Hellmouth isn't exactly a guarantee of long life, health, or happiness. Trust me. I know."

"Before you rudely interrupted with your comments, I was going to say 'dying by their own hand.'"

Anya merely shrugged to indicate 'So what?' She wandered over to the magazine rack to straighten the periodicals.

"I know, I know. Suicides. Normal. High suicide rate in Sunnydale. Duh. Hellmouth. But this is more than normal. Even for us. Sunnydale, I mean." Unaware or uncaring that Anya wasn't paying her much attention, Willow turned her attention back to the laptop screen. "I mean, this is weird. None of the people here have anything in common. They didn't even know each other. At least, I don't think they did. I mean, one person's a secretary at some architectural firm and the next one's a vice president at a bank. The only thing they have in common is they died publicly and in front of witness."

"By committing suicide. You forgot to mention that part," Anya said with a distracted tone as she stepped back to survey her work. "Look, you sure Xander isn't just looking for trouble to get his mind off his, well, troubles?"

"You mean you?" Willow shot back. She cringed. "Sorry Anya, I didn't mean... "

"Yes, you did and yes, that's what I meant."

"If it makes you feel any better, I kinda thought that at first, too." On Anya's unreadable look, Willow changed tact. "Listen, I know he's been trying to get back into your good graces. I know he won't get a do-over from you." Willow hastily added, "Not that I blame you. See? No blame here."

"You're starting to babble," Anya commented.

"Right. Stopping babbling now. I do that when I'm uncomf... "


"Right. To the point. I know that any hope of, well, whatever you two had is over. Xander knows that, too." Off Anya's disbelieving eyeroll, Willow added, "He does! It's just that, well, he needs to tell himself that. He will. It's just that he's always been emotionally needy. I mean he makes me look like a monument to emotional stability." When Anya fixed her a look, she cringed. "Okay, so he probably wouldn't trash a magic shop, try to kill his friends, and end the world, but he did trash his apartment. Buffy told me."

Anya threw up her hands in frustration. Willowbabble could go on all day. Time to get to the point. "So what does he want from me?"

"To make it all right with you."

"Not gonna happen."

"I don't mean, all right 'let's go back to the way things were before I messed up our lives' all right." Willow couldn't believe that she had to explain this to a woman who'd been sleeping with Xander for more than two years. "I mean, all right 'we can be friends or at least polite to one another without ripping each others' throats out' all right."

"Why doesn't he just say that?" Anya asked in frustration. If she was annoyed that Willow could figure out her weird relationship with her ex, she had the barely-suppressed good grace not to show it.

"I don't think he knows how. I mean you guys kinda jumped into the sex before you jumped into a relationship. Maybe the problem is that you two don't know how to be friends."

"Like you two," Anya deadpanned.

"Hey! That's different!"

Anya crossed her arms in response.

"Look, I've known Xander for most of my life. And, sure, sometimes we drift apart, but we're still friends and that's what keeps pulling us back together," Willow said. "There's nothing saying that you two can't at least build a friendship. I think you'll find him a loyal friend. He's probably a better friend than a boyfriend, if one's to judge how all his romantic relationships turn out."

Anya snorted as she snagged a feather duster and began her ritual I'm-feeling-uncomfortable-let's-make-my-newly-constructed-store-sparkly-clean action.

"I'm just saying," Willow said helplessly. When no answer was forthcoming from Anya, Willow turned back to her laptop. "And I'm beginning to think Xander may be on to something."

Chapter 4

Willow was still hunched over her laptop when Buffy swung into the Magic Box during the late afternoon. The red-haired witch looked up at the sound of the shop's bell and, upon seeing the non-customer, broke into a grin. "Buffy! How was patrol last night?"

"Not good," came the grim reply.

"Oh? What happened? Nest of vamps?" Willow asked.

"Nope. A demon," Buffy said as she plopped down into a chair at the research table. "A scary demon that I've never seen before."

"Scary? How so?" Anya's voice had taken on that excited little girl tone whenever Scooby talk turned to new and interesting demonic life forms.

Buffy frowned in concentration. "Truth to tell, I'm not sure."

"Not sure it was a demon or not sure it was scary?" Anya asked as she pulled up a chair and joined Willow and Buffy at the research table.

"I'm sure it was a demon, but I'm not sure how to explain its scariness," Buffy replied.

"Try. I'll see if I can remember something like it," Anya said. She slid some sheets of paper and pencils over to the Slayer and added, "While you're talking, try to make some sketches of what it looked like. It'll get me thinking in the right direction."

Buffy did as she was asked and began doodling what she hoped was a close approximation to the demon she saw last night. As she did so, she began her description, "Well, it was grey. I remember that much. Also, it was the size of an average human male, hell, if it weren't for the fact it was grey and wasn't wearing any clothing, it could pass as human."

"Weapons?" Anya asked. Her tone was all business now.

"None, at least, no claws or fangs or anything that I could see that would put a physical hurt on someone," Buffy absently replied while she concentrated on her doodling. "As far as demon looks go, it wouldn't stand out as particularly dangerous or threatening. It kinda looks like Clem-level dangerous."

Anya and Willow looked at each before focusing their attention back on Buffy. Both of them had matching frowns. "So, how was this demon scary?" Willow slowly asked.

Buffy described her confrontation with the demon, including as much detail as her mind let her remember. When she finished, Anya remarked, "So when this demon looked at you directly, you fainted with fear."

"I did not faint," Buffy protested.

"Screamed, collapsed in a fit of sobbing hysterics, and blacked out," Anya countered. "How very flower of Victorian womanhood of you."

"Well, when you put it that way, yeah, I guess I wasn't an example of the modern, self-reliant woman who roars," Buffy sighed.

"What was it about its face that scared you?" Willow asked.

Buffy shrugged. "Dunno, really. I mean, I have this vague impression of yellow eyes, smooth skin, and a lack of body hair." She frowned down at her finished doodle. "But details? Why it caused me to react the way I did? No clue. The really weird part about it was that even before I saw its face I had a hard time looking at it. It's like my eyes couldn't really get a lock on it and my mind couldn't really register that it was there."

"A cloaking spell!" Willow and Anya said together.

"Cloaking spell? But I could see it."

"Well, a cloaking spell isn't the same thing as an invisibility spell," Willow explained while Anya nodded in agreement. "An invisibility spell takes a lot of power to cast and a lot of power to maintain so you can't really just cast one and expect it to last."

"Unless you're under a lot of stress," Buffy countered with amusement.

"Willow's hiccup on the road to recovery aside, it's generally true," Anya chimed in. "An invisibility spell isn't really practical unless you need it for a very short time, like, say, less than an hour. A cloaking spell can be maintained indefinitely because it doesn't actually make you invisible; it just makes you hard to notice."

"Hard to notice?" Buffy asked. "In what way?"

"Think of it as a way to will yourself into the background so you blend in with your surroundings," Willow replied. "As long as you don't speak, make sudden movements, or draw attention to yourself, you can practically stand next to your target without it noticing. You'll be seen, but you won't register as really being there."

"This actually works," Buffy deadpanned.

Anya cheerfully waved her hand. "Human wallflowers do it all the time."

"Point taken," Buffy allowed, amused by Anya's deus-ex-demonica tone.

"Some demons do use the spell, but not often since it's too passive for something that likes to break things," Anya continued, warming to her subject. "The demons that cloak usually have it as part of their natural defenses because they don't have any impressive offensive weapons or deadly appendages at their disposal. When it looked at you, it momentarily dropped its cloak so you could see its true form. When you went down for the count, it probably just finished its feeding and went on its merry way."

"You think it was feeding?" Willow asked.

Anya shrugged. "Probably. That's what it sounds like."

"Feeding on what?" Buffy asked.

Another shrug from the ex-vengeance demon. "Don't know until we figure out what it is. Now that we know it cloaks, it narrows the field candidates."

Buffy slid her rough sketches over to Anya. "Got a suspect in your mental line-up?"

Anya frowned when she looked at the picture. "Nooooo," she slowly replied. "Although this sketch and everything you said...well, I seem to think that it should be familiar." She closed her eyes. "I swear the knowledge is on the tip of my brain."

"I think you mean tongue," Willow corrected.

"No. I mean brain," came the distracted reply. Anya sighed. "Guess that means we have to hit the books."

"We?" Willow and Buffy asked together.

"Yes, I'm volunteering for research. It irritates me that I can't remember what this demon is and it'll bother me all night until I remember. If my beauty sleep is going to be ruined, I might as well make the most of it." Anya looked up. "What? Stop looking at me like that."

"Well, I'd love to join you," Buffy stood up. "But I gotta motor."

"Where are you going?" Willow asked suspiciously.

"To check on last night's victim and see if he's recovered," Buffy answered. "If he's capable of speech, I want to ask him about what happened and what that thing was doing to him. The more information I have before I face this demon again, the better I'll feel."

"Where is he?" Willow asked.

"The psych ward at Sunnydale General."

Chapter 5

Xander opened the door to his apartment and started laughing when he saw an overly-burdened Willow juggling her laptop, a pile of loose papers, and a couple of books. "Want me to take any of that?" He asked by way of greeting.

"Nope. Got it perfectly balanced," Willow replied, the strain of keeping the pile together showing in her voice. "Just point me to the kitchen table so I can put this stuff down."

Xander got out of her way and watched while she stepped quickly to her goal. She barely made it. When Willow's bundle made it to the flat surface, the precarious balance was upset and the pile collapsed. Papers, books, and computer pooled across the tabletop. "I see I wasn't jumping at shadows," Xander dryly said as he closed the door.

"You would guess correctly," Willow commented as she tried to tidy the mess.

"I'm not sure whether I should be relieved or disappointed," Xander said. "Make sure you leave enough space for Spike on the table. It's sunset, which means it's time for all evil undead to prowl into my kitchen and make a royal mess while they open blood bags and heat the contents in the microwave."

"Yuck." Willow made a face. "How do you stand it?"

"Simple, I don't watch," Xander replied as he joined Willow at the table. "I turn on the T.V. and let it hypnotize me while he dunks whatever crunchy thing he can find into the blood and eats it."

"Ewwwww, I really don't want to know," Willow shuddered. "You know, you could just not buy crunchy things. It might solve the problem."

"What? And listen to Spike whine day and night how I'm depriving him of the pleasure of grossing me out?" Xander asked in mock exasperation. "I'm under Buffy's orders to make sure he doesn't accidentally hurt himself or anyone else given his current state of ensouledness. Listening to Spike bitch about the accommodations goes way beyond the call of duty. Better to give him crunchy things than deal with that."


"You've obviously never heard Spike whine. He can really throw a shrill tone into it," Xander explained. "It's enough to make me wish it was okay to chain him up in the tub and leave him there." He paused. "On second thought, not a good idea. The whine would only echo in the shower."

"Oh, like you don't whinge on," Spike growled as he stalked into the kitchen area. "You're whinging now, in fact. Why I ever agreed to live with you is beyond me."

"You could always move back to the high school basement," Xander shrugged. "I'm not stopping you. Please go. Be my guest. Be sure to stake yourself on the way out."

Spike snorted. "Like Buffy would let me leave. She'd only drag me back here and yell at you for letting me go. So much as I hate to intrude on your oh-so-precious empty evenings, we're chained together at the neck."

"Great. Just great. Now I'll be fighting the image of Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier invading my brain all night. Thank you so very much," Xander groused.

Ignoring Xander, Spike's attention turned to the mess on the table. "I see evil's afoot."

"More than one evil in fact," Willow replied.

"Hunh?" came Xander's considered response.

"Well, I started looking into those suicides like you asked and your instincts are right, there's something up," Willow said.

"Suicides?" Spike asked.

Xander shushed him with a wave of his hand. "Whatchya find, Wills?"

Willow squirmed. "You know me, I don't like saying anything until I've got more solid proof, which I don't have by the way. Just a very strong feeling that something's not on the up and up with these deaths. If you look at them individually, they're weird, yeah, but not Hellmouthy. When you look at all of them together, well, a pattern emerges and I get a pricking in my thumb."

"Something wicked this way comes," Spike and Xander said in unison. Surprised, the vampire and human looked at each other.

"Ray Bradbury?" Xander asked.

"Shakespeare," Spike snorted. "Kids these days have no culture. They should make you lot learn Latin in school."

"Care of many, many hours of research, I already read Latin," Xander shot back. He turned his attention back to his visitor. "Wills?" Xander asked. Clearly she was expected to resolve the non-argument.

"Reference to both, actually," Willow smiled, "both seem to apply."

"So, that's all you got," Xander deflated, "Just an icky feeling that something's not right."

Willow shrugged. "Well, I didn't really get a chance to get into it too deeply. See, that's the other evil. Buffy stopped by the Magic Box today and mentioned that she'd come across a new demon that freaked her out."

"Is she all right?" Xander asked.

Spike's head shot up and he narrowed his eyes as if to study Willow's answer.

"She's fine. It didn't lay a hand on her," Willow said began before launching into Buffy's story. When she finished, she regarded the vampire and the human, who had by this time taken seats. "So, I kinda got sidetracked because I figured Buffy's demon is the more concrete immediate threat," Willow concluded. "Anya and I are researching..."

"Wait a minute," Xander interrupted. "Anya is doing research? On her own?"

"What's your problem, Harris?" Spike asked. "Afraid she'll do a better job at it than donut boy?"

"Spike," Xander warned. "I haven't been donut boy for awhile now. And no, I'm not afraid she'll do a better job at researching demons than I will because I know she will. She's got almost 1,200 years' worth of experience compared to my six. It's just that Anya agreeing to research anything without an, ahhhhh, incentive is a bit unusual."

"Anya said the demon sounded familiar, but she couldn't quite place where she heard of it before or any details about it," Willow explained. "It was bugging her so much that she just threw herself into research." The witch stopped, a grin playing around her lips. "She was so cute! Especially the way she frowns when she's frustrated and starts slamming books shut. I'm beginning to see why you had sex with her."

"WILLOW!" Xander was shocked. "Now I'm fighting images of you and Anya…no, I am so not going to go there."

"Kidding, kidding," Willow laughed. "I couldn't resist. But seriously, she's still at the Magic Box trying to figure this demon out. It really is driving her nuts." She looked at the vampire. "Hey, Spike, does this demon sound familiar to you?"

"Nope, can't say it does," Spike answered. "Never even heard of something like it." He shrugged. "Doesn't mean it doesn't exist, though."

Willow sighed. "Oh, well. It was worth asking." Then Xander's thoughtful expression caught her eye. "Xander?"

Xander snapped out of his reverie and smiled sheepishly. "Sorry, drifted off there for a second."

"Xander?" Willow tentatively began. "Does this demon sound familiar to you?"

"You must be joking, right?" Spike asked. "If Anya and I don't know what it is, how can short-life here know?"

"Xander?" Willow asked, ignoring the vampire's outburst. The thoughtful expression was back on her friend's face.

"Hunh?" Xander startled momentarily before settling into his characteristic relaxed grin. "You were asking about the demon, right?"

"Yes." Willow fought the urge to snap at him. She was a little unnerved by Xander's attitude.

He nodded slowly. "I'm not sure," he cautiously replied. "I think. Yes? No. I'm really not sure... "

"Out with it, boy," Spike said.

Xander shrugged weakly. "I seem to remember something that may match the demon's profile, but I'm really not 100 percent on that. Maybe I read about it during one of many, many all-night research sessions?" He looked to Willow for confirmation. When he got a blank look of surprise in response, he sighed. "I really, really don't remember anything, but it does seem familiar somehow. Sorry I can't be of more help."

"Actually, you have been," Willow said. "At least we know the answer's in the books."

The conversation was interrupted by a knock on the door followed by Buffy's muffled voice. "Can I come in?"

"You've got a key just like everyone else," Xander shouted back, remembering Scooby Rule Number One: Never, ever, say 'come in,' even to someone you know.

Buffy walked into the apartment, her tight expression and body language betraying the tension she felt. "Willow, Anya told me you were here when I stopped by the Magic Box," she said by way of greeting. "I'm glad the three of you are here. I think we have a huge problem."

"What happened, Buff?" Willow asked.

"My guy? The victim I saved last night? He's dead."

"What?" Xander asked. "How?"

Buffy began pacing the center of Xander's living room. She looked like she was trying to wrap her mind around something.

"Buffy?" Willow prompted.

Buffy stopped, looked at the trio seated around the kitchen table, and took a deep breath before replying. "He committed suicide."

"Oh. My. God." Xander looked distinctly sick.

"But he was in the psych ward, presumably under sedation and close supervision," Willow protested. "How did he... "

"He waited until he had an audience." At that, Buffy began slowly rubbing her face, as if trying to wash the images from her mind.

The vampire, the witch, and the human remained silent, waiting for Buffy to continue.

"I got to the hospital around 4:30ish and asked to see him. Oh, his name was Michael Cavacci, by the way," Buffy said. She frowned. "What was I saying? Oh yeah, I went to see him and at first they didn't want to let me because there'd been a troop of police officers in and out of the ward all day trying to question him. I don't think the police got anything out of him, if his condition was at all like last night. Anyway, I just explained that I was the one who found him and called the police for help and I just wanted to see if he was okay."

"And that convinced them to let you see him. Just like that," Spike commented.

"Umm, sorta," Buffy said. "They weren't supposed to even confirm he was there to someone who wasn't immediate family, so they weren't eager to bend the rules any further. I just turned on some teary eye, explained that I was very concerned about him, and that I couldn't sleep a wink all last night because I was so worried that he was hurt. I think the Florence Nightingale act was what convinced them."

Buffy began pacing again. This time she stopped to pick things up, look at them, and then put them down. Xander, Spike, and Willow exchanged looks but kept silent.

After a few minutes, Buffy calmed down enough to continue. "Well, we get to his room--I guess his insurance was willing to pay for a private room--and there he was standing on the nightstand like he was performing for an audience. Anyway, when he saw us at the door he smiled and said, 'Not forgotten.' Then he jumped off the table."

"'Not forgotten?' What the hell does that mean?" Xander asked.

"Was he wearing a noose?" Spike asked.

"He aimed his jump so he'd crack his head on the floor," Buffy said.

"And a fall from a three-foot high nightstand killed him?" Willows asked, disbelieving.

"He angled his neck just right so that when he hit the hospital-issue floor, he snapped it," Buffy said.

"What about the orderlies or the doctors or the nurses or whoever the hell else was with you?" Xander's tone sounded distinctly angry. "Why didn't they stop him?"

"It happened all so fast," Buffy helplessly said. "I mean he was only standing on a nightstand. Okay, not the most stable perch in the world, but he wasn't wearing a noose or anything else that indicated he was planning to commit suicide. Of course we rushed into the room when we saw him standing on the furniture, but he was already on the floor by the time I reached him. And I was the first to reach him, so the blame's on me."

"Buffy, Xander wasn't blaming you," Willow shot her long-time friend a look while a chagrined Xander nodded. "You had no idea what he was going to do and you're not a trained medical professional. You had no reason to think that what happened would happen. He's upset with the hospital staff."

"Yeah, what she said," Xander echoed softly.

"So this all happened at, what, 4:30ish. It's now past 6. What kept you?" Spike asked.

Buffy winced. "The police came to the hospital after our victim died and I had to give a witness statement. Oh, the hospital's lawyers will be contacting me too, just so they can prepare for the lawsuit. Wonderful. Just what I need on my plate right now."

Xander and Willow looked at each other. "Well," Xander drawled, "looks like all our thumbs are pricking right about now."

Buffy stopped her pacing. "What?"

"Xander and I have been looking into a string of public suicides around town," Willow explained.

"And you didn't tell me?" Buffy exploded.

"Buffy, calm down," Xander said. "We weren't sure there was anything to tell you and we only just started looking into it today. Willow's here because she found something, we're not sure what, in her research. Given what you just told us, I'm thinking that your demon and these suicides might be linked."

"Fabulous," Buffy commented.

"I think this calls for some splitting up action," Willow said as she got to her feet. "I'll go back to the Magic Box and help Anya with research."

"Right. Xander, you keep looking into the suicides," Buffy nodded. "Spike and I will go do some monster hunting."

"Yes!" Spike sounded downright chipper at the prospect as he hopped out of his chair and went to Xander's room to gather weapons.

When Xander looked like he would protest, Willow jumped in. "Xander, you were the one that first noticed the suicides, so it only makes sense you keep going in that direction."

"But..." Xander began.

"Xander, this thing defeated me without even trying," Buffy interrupted. "The affect it has on humans..." She shuddered. "It was indescribable. I don't want you or Willow getting anywhere near this thing unless and until we have a way to defeat it."

"And you're hoping, what, our resident crazed vampire will be a bulwark of stability when the chips are down?" Xander snarked.

"Key word there is vampire," Willow soothed. "He may be immune to this demon's powers where the rest of us aren't."

"Great." Xander leaned back and crossed his arms. "Catch me up on where you left off on the suicide research."

"I was about to hack into Sunnydale General's patient records system," Willow said.

"Uhhh, Wills? You're the computer genius, remember? Hacking's your gig," Xander reminded her. "I know enough to send e-mail and peruse porn sites, but nothing seriously illegal."

"Pfft, piece of cake," Willow waved her hand. "Most hospitals have notoriously bad security for their information systems and Sunnydale is no exception. I've hacked in before without raising any alarms. Chances are you should do it, no problem. I'll just write down the instructions." She fished a notepad out of the pile of papers and began patting down her pockets for a pen. "If you run into trouble, just call me at the Magic Box and I'll talk you through it."

"All well and good," Buffy said, "but how about filling me in on what you two were doing all day."

Pen found, Willow held it aloft triumphantly. "I'll tell you on the way to the Magic Box."

Chapter 6

*Why was he here? Where was here? Xander shook. He was cold. He could barely keep his teeth from chattering. He was lead to a plush couch located against one of the office walls, but remained standing. He was confused. What was he supposed to do? Sit? Stand? His head was full of cotton. His teeth hurt. Oh, his teeth were chattering. Must be why his jaw hurt, too. He shifted uneasily from side to side. He needed to pee. He needed to get warm. He needed to sit. He needed to sleep. He needed to think.*

*Someone Xander dubbed WhiteCoatGuy appeared in his field of vision and gently guided him to a sitting position on the couch. He felt the sensation of sinking into the upholstery and wanted to curl up and fall asleep.*

*"Alex?" WhiteCoatGuy asked.*

*Alex? Who's Alex?*

*"Alex? Can you hear me?" WhiteCoatGuy sighed. "Alex, your parents are coming to see you. You don't have to see them if you don't want to. Just say the word and I'll remove you from the room."*

*"Parents?" Xander croaked. He frowned. His voice didn't sound right. It sounded like his voice was breaking.*

*"Yes, Alex. Your parents are coming to see you." WhiteCoatGuy seemed to be pleased to get a response. "They're very concerned about you."*


*"Would you like to take a short nap before they get here?"*

*Didn't have to tell Xander twice. He promptly curled into a fetal position and put his head on the armrest. Not more than a few seconds after he did so, he heard voices. Did he fall asleep? Did he loose time again? He tried to concentrate. What were the voices saying? Where was his whisper?*

*"What do you mean violent?"*

*A male voice. Who's? He tried to focus on the people in the room, but his sight was too blurry. He lifted his hand and swiped ineffectually at his eyes and concentrated again. There was WhiteCoatGuy, AnotherGuy, and WomanGuy. WhiteCoatGuy had said something about his parents. What did he say again?*

*"Since Alex has left your house, he has shown increasing signs of violence," WhiteCoatGuy said. "Child Protective Services had to keep moving him from home to home because of his outbursts. He's here because he's become uncontrollable and our regular homes simply don't have the resources to deal with him."*

*"Is he bullying the other children?" WomanGuy asked.*

*"No. He's attacking the foster parents. I would say Alex..."*

*"Xander, my name's Xander," Xander said. He must not have said it loud enough because no one in the room gave any sign they heard him.*

*"...is acting out on his authority figure issues. Specifically, I think in his mind he is attacking you again and again."*

*"No, it's the monsters," Xander explained. "I have to stop the monsters."*

*This time the trio must've heard him because they turned to look at him.*

*"Not lying," Xander mumbled. "Monsters..." Wait? What was he saying again? Why couldn't he focus?*

*The trio exchanged a look before returning to the argument already in progress. WomanGuy started to cry. "Did you hear that? What have you done to my baby?"*

*"He is under sedation to keep him under control, Mrs. Harris," WhiteCoatGuy said. "When he was first brought in here, he was in a state of high agitation. He managed to seriously injure one of the orderlies when they took him to his room. He's stronger than he looks."*

*"My son is not a nutjob," AnotherGuy growled.*

*WhiteCoatGuy sighed. "Your son is a very sick little boy. To put it in simple terms, he believes that he's battling against 'monsters' that are harming both him and other children in various foster homes. He already needs hospitalization and he'll only get worse as he gets older. With time and the right medication, we might be able to stabilize him enough to place him in a half-way house."*

*"Funny how he seemed perfectly normal before the state got its mitts on him," AnotherGuy growled. "We'll see about you keeping what's mine."*


Xander woke with a start. Nightmares. Damn it. What time? He automatically glanced to his right and momentarily panicked when he couldn't see his alarm clock. *Oh, right. I fell asleep at the keyboard.*

Xander stood and stretched his back, sighing contentedly as he felt the vertebrae snap into place. He looked back down at the glowing computer screen, blinking quickly a few times at its brightness in contrast with the rest of his darkened home office. Willow's hacker instructions worked like a charm. He got into Sunnydale General's patient database without a glitch and had been reading all of the suicides' medical reports when he must've dozed off. He rooted around beneath the mess of papers on his desk for the tiny digital clock. When he found it he groaned. *It's 1 AM. Oh yeah. I'll be fresh as a daisy tomorrow.*

He left the office and began prowling his apartment, rubbing his face as he did so to shake off the last vestiges of his dream. He winced slightly as his calloused hands made a sandpapery sound against the beginnings of a beard. Yup. It was going to be one of those days when he was so tired that it would be a miracle if he didn't slit his throat while attempting to shave.

Somewhere in the middle of his living room he stopped and frowned. Another nightmare. He's had one every night this month. If he were the paranoid sort, he'd think his brain was trying to tell him something.

{that's because it is.} the whisper said.

*Ahhhh, there you are. Wondering when you'd show. Go away.*

{no.} the whisper said. {think back to what you were doing when you fell asleep.}

*Reading the medical reports.* Xander flopped down on the couch with a groan. He found the common link. At least he thought he did. He'd only managed to work his way through only half the list. Almost all of them had made a brief appearance at a psychiatric facility before taking the final exit in a public way.

Xander sat bolt upright. Was that it? Was it something in the psych ward driving all those people to suicide? He slumped back into the couch. Couldn't be. Not all of them checked into SunnyD's shrine to sickness and injury. Some of them went to private facilities and others were sent out of town, so the place wasn't the common link.

*Maybe it was the fact they needed psychiatric help in the first place. What were they in for?* Xander hauled himself out of the couch, sat back down at the computer, and flicked the browser's back and forward buttons a few times. He finally stopped and tapped his finger against the computer screen under the heading, "Diagnosis." When they were checked in every single one the suicides had variations of the same thing: mild catatonia, deep debilitating depression, and some mild hallucinations. None of them were violent. Most of them were downright pliable if he was reading these reports correctly.

With a huff of breath, Xander shut down the computer and leaned back in his chair. All of the medical reports he read indicated that the suicides seemed to recover, or at least partially recover, after a few days and all of them checked themselves out of their respective hospitals.

Less than two weeks after checking out, those people died.

*Perfect. Play into the stereotype. Anyone looking into a single suicide's background would see that information and just conclude that they were well on their way to doing the deed before they did the deed.*

Obviously Buffy's mysterious demon had a hand in all these deaths, or at least the deaths he'd looked into so far, but how?

{you mean you still don't know?} the whisper incredulously asked.

Xander groaned with frustration as he began restlessly prowling his apartment again. *No, I don't know, oh great one. Care to share with the rest of the class? Some of us here were too stupid to go to college, lest you forget.*

{if you can't figure it out, i can't help you.} Was it his or imagination, or did the whisper seem sad?

"No, no, no! I am not having this conversation with you!" Xander shouted. He stopped, unbelieving he just said that out loud. Grateful that no one was around to hear his sudden outburst, Xander began pacing his apartment again. His research must've set off his memory, resulting in yet another a fun, new nightmare to add to the rotation. He stopped again. Not a new nightmare; a very old one.

He humorlessly laughed to himself. *Oh yeah, last year was nowhere near as bad as…*

He put a brake on that thought. No need to go there.

{but…} the whisper began.

"Shut up," Xander gritted through clenched teeth.

The sound of a key in the lock brought his head up sharply, just in time to see a dispirited Buffy and subdued Spike enter the apartment.

"Lemmie guess. No joy in Mudville," Xander commented.

Buffy startled, but relaxed when she saw Xander standing near his kitchen area. "Up for an early morning snack Xan?"

"Hunh?" came Xander's intelligent reply. He looked around and realized that he was near the fridge. He obviously hadn't been paying attention to his surroundings.

"Thought you were trying to keep off the weight you lost over the summer," Buffy continued her monologue while she watched Spike go to Xander's bedroom to put the weapons away. "Snacking in the wee hours when you think no one's looking is not the way to go about it."

"Actually, I was going to go for a glass of water," Xander covered. He yawned to telegraph a tiredness he really didn't feel. "I've been up all night going through our victims' medical reports."

Spike re-entered the room and fixed Xander with a look that seemed to say that he knew his unwilling roommate was hiding something. The vampire looked like he wanted to make a comment to that effect, but for once he mercifully kept his mouth shut.

Buffy either didn't notice or didn't care that Spike's usual off-center chatter was non-existent. "Hope your search was better than ours," she said.

"Actually, I think it was. You both better sit down and get comfortable before I start…"

Chapter 7

The following morning Xander was enthroned at his customary table at the Café del Sol fighting his never-ending battle with newspaper and breeze. The front page of the paper boasted a picture of the unfortunate Mr. Cavacci, complete with story about his suicide. Thankfully, Buffy's name wasn't mentioned in the article.

Xander paused a moment to study Cavacci's picture. He was discomforted to notice that with the addition of a few years and the pounds he lost over the summer, he could pass as a relative. Not a close blood relative, but certainly something from the same family tree.

With a brief shudder, Xander flipped the newspaper pages to read the obituary. Xander thought he should have been more surprised to see that Cavacci's death made far more of an impact on the world than his life.

A quick review of the obit information revealed the victim had no close blood relatives still alive, wasn't originally from the area, and barely made mention that he worked in the IT department at some big company located out of town. The sparse write-up made no mention of any clubs, friends, professional organizations, or houses of worship. For all intents and purposes, Cavacci would have lived and died as a flesh-and-blood ghost were it not for the manner of his death.

{'not forgotten' indeed.} the whisper commented.

Xander winced at the intrusion. He turned his full attention to the rest of the paper, scouring every word for any hint that someone else in town was planning to hurt themselves in new and spectacular ways.

*Yep. Nothing to see here. No siree. Looks like Buffy gave that demon a big ol' scare and its moved on to greener pastures. Let's hear it for the almighty Buff. No demon means no suicides on the doorstep and that's all of the good.*

{so, you're hoping that the demon has moved on to a town where there's no Slayer to stop it?} the whisper growled. {coward.}

Xander was willing to give the whisper points on that score. He doubled his concentration on the newspaper, so engrossed in his task, that he barely noticed when Dolly put his customary bagel on the table in front of him. His coffee turned frigid as Xander flipped to the classifieds in an effort to find any tucked-in-the-back-of-the-paper articles hinting that more trouble was brewing.


Xander startled and nearly ripped the newspaper in half. He looked over the top of the pages and glared at the woman sitting across from him. "Hey," he said by way of greeting.

"So, what? You're channeling Oz now?" Buffy asked.

"Sorry, I was engrossed in research."

"So I see," Buffy chirped. "I sashay over to your table using my best sexy walk and you don't even have the decency to drool."

"I do not drool. I appreciate the view," Xander replied.

"I sit down at the table and you don't even comment on how perfect my hair looks today," Buffy grinned. "I never thought I'd see the day when you'd rather read the paper than pay attention to my wonderful self."

"My, aren't we chipper this morning," Xander grumbled.

"It's completely forced," Buffy cheerfully waved her hand. "After talking to you last night and Willow this morning, I'm torn between screaming and uncontrollable sobbing."

Xander looked closely at the Slayer's face and noted the signs of strain showing around her million-dollar smile and eyes. "Did Willow find something?"

"Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero," Buffy replied as she signaled Dolly for a cup of coffee.

"So what's the big?" Xander asked. "We haven't found anything yet. It's not like we've come up empty-handed before on the research front."

"Yeah, but the last time that happened we got Glory," Buffy said.

"Point taken," Xander responded quietly. He snapped his mouth shut when he saw Dolly approach his table with cup in hand.

"Well, looks like you and your girlfriend have finally made up," Dolly remarked. "Maybe you'll be in a better mood."

"Girlfriend?" Xander asked while Buffy giggled. "Buffy? No. Absolutely not. Not in this lifetime. No. No way, José."

"Hey!" Buffy exclaimed in mock irritation. "What's the matter with me?"

"N-n-n-n-nothing," Xander stuttered. He had to be very careful with his response, otherwise he'd probably get a few 'accidental bruises' in his next training session with the Slayer. "It's not you. I fear your sister. Dawn'll kill me if I break your heart."

"Awww, that's not it and you know it," Dolly interrupted. "This little girl here looks like she can kick your sorry ass up and down Main Street and not so much as break a nail."

Buffy's giggle turned into a full-out guffaw while Xander bit his tongue so hard he thought he could taste blood. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Dolly's expression turn thoughtful. Xander shook himself out of his impending laughter and noticed that the waitress was now stroking the picture of Cavacci with one finger.

"What is it?" Xander sharply asked.

"I think I know this guy," Dolly thoughtfully replied.

"Think?" Xander prompted while Buffy calmed down and studied the exchange.

"I'm not sure," Dolly shrugged, dismissing the thought and Cavacci's picture. "I think he came in here a couple of times for breakfast. But then again, almost everyone in town stops by for breakfast at least once. Frankly, if it weren't for the article I doubt I'd even remember. Hunh. He committed suicide. At the hospital, no less."

"Nice to know he finally made an impression," Xander bitterly remarked.

"Hey, Xan, be fair," Buffy piped up. "Dolly deals with something like a million people a day. You can't expect her to remember every face that walks through the door. As a graduate of the Doublemeat Experience, I can tell you there are days you're lucky to remember your own name, let alone the name of a customer."

"But she remembers me," Xander protested.

"You're kind of hard to miss, hun," Dolly said.

"Hunh?" Xander felt like the conversation had suddenly taken off at warp speed while he was left eating photon dust.

"You've been coming in for breakfast almost every workday for the past few months. You always sit at the same table, you always fight with the newspaper, and you always order the same thing," Dolly cheerfully shrugged. "Things like that tend stay with busy waitresses."

"I'm memorable because I'm predictable," Xander muttered. "Got it."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that," Buffy said with a teasing smile before she turned away and began casually watching people walk by their table. Xander realized with a start that Buffy had just paid him a compliment.

"Nah, hun, that's not it at all," Dolly said, misreading Buffy's statement. "I noticed you because you're a creature of habit. I remember you because you've got a nice smile. And you leave a big tip."

Xander grinned in response. People noticed him! He was notice-worthy! Even normal people! He startled when Dolly placed a gentle hand on his bicep. "This guy's death," she began, jerking her head in the direction of the newspaper. "It's really bothering you, isn't it?"

Before he could respond, Buffy announced, "Does anyone smell gasoline?"

Xander was about to say 'they who smelt it, dealt it' when the same aroma hit his nose. He joined Buffy in scanning the crowd for the source of the smell.

"Probably someone's leaky gas tank," Dolly speculated as she straightened her apron. "Smells like that will happen when you're sitting in the unhealthy fresh air."

Buffy and Xander were so engrossed in studying every passer-by that they barely registered the woman who stopped a few feet from their table. She took out a cigarette and a lighter and studied both, as if contemplating the wisdom of putting yet another nail in her coffin. She paused a moment before flicking the Zippo lighter.

"Not forgotten," she announced.

Then she went up in flames.

Chapter 8

"Xander was freaked," Buffy concluded. "I mean, he looked like he was taking everything in stride and was actually trying to calm down our waitress, but you could see it in his eyes. He's probably going to have nightmares for weeks."

"Oh, God. How awful," Willow said, doing her best to ignore Anya's frustrated muttering while the ex-demon ploughed through books in an attempt to find Buffy's demon.

"That's not the worst of it," Buffy continued. "The victim was still alive when the ambulance and police arrived."

"Maybe she'll survive," Willow said hopefully.

"Doubt it," Buffy said. "She had third-degree burns over 90 percent of her body." Buffy fought the urge to add, *She looked like someone had ripped off her of her skin.* The last thing she needed was to give Willow any reminders about what happened to Warren. "The EMTs didn't look particularly hopeful when they got her into the ambulance. I think even the cops were in shock."

"That's saying a lot, given this town." Willow looked as shaken as Buffy felt, a neat trick since Buffy was actually there.

"Of course, everyone in the café had to then wait around for the police to question us," Buffy said. "Didn't exactly ease the tension or the hysteria for anyone."

Willow's eyes widened. "Oh, no. Buffy, what if they find out that you were at the hospital last night?"

"Which is why I told the police right away. Better to come clean than have them find out on their own," Buffy said. "I really don't want the cops knocking on my door with more questions."

"How'd the police react to that piece of news?" Willow asked.

"They gave me a business card with the name of a good therapist and told me to call if I started feeling depressed or anxious," Buffy said. "I'm pretty sure they think I might be next."

"So what did you and Xander do after the police were done?" Willow asked.

"I went home and had a good cry. I think Xander went to work."

"You let him go to work?" Willow yelped. "Buffy, with everything that happened, do you think…"

"Look, he's a grown man and he knows what he can and can't handle," Buffy interrupted. "Besides, the bossman, remember? It's not like he handles hammery or pointy objects all day long. If that were the case, I would've talked him into calling in sick. I think he just wanted to hide in the Normal World a bit just to get away from…" Her voice trailed off while she shuddered. "Wonder if Xander will take me on vacation to Normal World. I bet it's nice there."

"Overrated," Willow said, doing her best to cheer Buffy. "If it was so great, why would he hang out with us?"

"Force of habit?" Buffy asked.

Anya's obscenely cheerful voice interrupted the conversation. "Hey, guys! I think I found something!"

Chapter 9

Xander parked his car in front of the Magic Box, turned off the engine and sat in silence for a few moments. He felt his mask of the day slip from his face as he tried desperately to think about nothing. He prepared to get out of the car, but froze when yet another vision of that woman's charred body crossed his mind's eye.

{stop poking at it} the whisper ordered. {it's not going to make this any better or easier.}

"So you're saying this is gonna get worse before it gets better," Xander grumbled. "Great." He silently cursed as he clambered out of the car and pressed the button on the remote. He found the mundane sound of the beep and the subtle click of the locks engaging oddly comforting.

*Oh, yeah. Today was quite the day, *Xander thought. *I think I may have removed some drywallers' heads when they tried to talk to me. Way to go, taking your frustrations out on other people. Let's try to keep our inner Daddy Harris under wraps until we collapse into bed.*

Bed. Sleep. Now there was a worthwhile goal. If he were really lucky, he'd be able to go through the whole night without any nightmares.

Xander opened the door and stepped silently into the Magic Box. The three women looked up from the scattered books and papers before returning to their conversation.

"What did I miss?" Xander asked.

"Lots of dot-connecting," Willow grimly replied.

"As I was saying before I was rudely interrupted by what I thought was a customer," Anya began. "This demon is probably your perp. It has to be, as hard as it is for me to believe. I can't believe I forgot about it. Well, actually, now that I think about it, I can."

"Because of the cloaking spell?" Buffy asked.

"No, because they're extinct."

"Extinct? It sure looked like a demon of the not-extinct variety to me," Buffy growled, leaning back in her chair and crossing her arms. "I thought extinction was forever. Damn. One more t-shirt slogan bites the dust."

Xander continued listening as he drifted over to the customer service counter. The only available chair was between Anya and Willow. Since he wasn't in the mood to deal with uncomfortable vibes from his ex, leaning against the counter was his only option.

"Hey!" Xander jumped at the sound of Anya's voice. "I just cleaned that glass! Lean somewhere else."

"Sorry," Xander muttered. He straightened up so he didn't touch the counter, but otherwise stayed where he was.

"Anya, focus," Buffy ordered, sparing Xander a sympathetic glance. "What can you tell me about this thing?"

"Well, back in the day, by that I mean pre-Renaissance, they would feed off the people we'd banish from the village," Anya explained.

"You mean you fed people to them?" Willow asked. "Why? Did you think they were gods?"

"No, we thought they were vengeance spirits. Like these guys could even make the grade," Anya chuckled. "What I mean is, the village would sometimes kick the undesirables out. You know, thieves, murders, heretics, basically anyone who wasn't wanted or didn't fit in and they'd have to go live in the woods and not bother any of us."

"So, why didn't they just move on to another town?" Buffy asked.

"Buffy, they couldn't just pick up and move to another village," Willow said. "I mean, 1,200 years ago being banished was basically a death sentence."

"More ways than one," Anya grimly replied. "Sometimes we'd find their bodies in the woods. I mean, by the time, we stumbled across them it was pretty clear the animals had gotten there first, but the looks on their faces…" Anya let the thought hang.

"So what happened these demons?" Buffy asked. "Why'd everyone think they died off?"

"They just up and disappeared one day," Anya said. "It was no big deal, really. They really weren't big players in the grand scheme of things, so no one in the lower depths got their tail in a kink over it. I remember they were tribal, which means they not only kept to themselves, but they didn't even mix with others of their own kind if they weren't part of the same clan."

"Hello, inbreeding," Xander muttered. "Bet they're related to my parents." Anya's mouth twitched in an aborted smile, signaling that she heard him. Xander felt himself relax, grateful to see a friendly, well, friendly-ish response from his ex.

"When did they disappear?" Buffy asked.

"Somewhere around the time the printing press made its splashy debut," Anya said. She got a dreamy look on her face. "The printing press. Such a boon to the vengeance industry."

"Now that's interesting," Willow interrupted. "Right around Guttenberg's time the threat of banishment became less of a threat. The printing press led to the reformation, the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment, all that stuff. I mean, there was a lot going on around that time so people could consider just going to another town if they got kicked out of their homes."

"So where'd these demons go?" Buffy asked. "I mean, if what I'm hearing is right, they just completely dropped off the radar."

"Probably big noisy cities." Willow practically bounced with excitement. "Think about it! All that chaos and all those people, so it wouldn't be hard to just snatch someone off the streets. Ooooh, they probably went after victims who wouldn't be missed, you know, like sailors, cut throats, criminals, prostitutes. Hey! I wonder if Jack the Ripper was one."

"I doubt it," Xander said. "Jack the Ripper butchered his victims. It doesn't fit in with this guy's MO." On the women's stunned looks, Xander replied, "What? I watch *CSI*."

Anya shot Xander a look as she said, "Willow makes some good points. Well, not about Jack the Ripper, but the other stuff. Going after people who aren't wanted or won't be missed seems to fit the pattern."

"So, what did they eat?" Xander asked. "I mean, these guys are eating something, right? What's the food? Emotions? Thoughts? Souls? Something tells me they don't walk down to the local Taco Bell and take a bite out of the dog."

"I'm thinking their diet isn't important," Buffy said. "Just tell me how to kill it."

"Actually Buffy, Xander may have a point," Willow said. "We need to do more research before we go hunting."

"'We?' There is no 'we' here," Buffy said firmly. "This thing is dangerous. I don't want any of you anywhere near this thing."

"Which is why we need more research," Willow wheedled. "Buffy, it nearly took you out, so I think facing this thing alone may not be such a good idea."

"Willow…" Buffy began.

Xander tuned out the impending argument, having heard it and its cousins too many times before. He drifted over to the table and collapsed heavily in the chair, far too tired to care about uncomfortable vibes. He reached across the table and snatched a book from in front of Anya, ignoring the glare she shot in his direction.

*Well, might as well see what the new ugly looks like because sooner or later you just know ol' demon magnet man is gonna run into it*, Xander thought.

He looked down to study the picture and froze.

In that moment, the whisper turned into a scream.

Chapter 10

The growing argument between Buffy and Willow slammed to a halt when they heard a crash. They spun around to read Xander the riot act. Any words they may have flung at him for playing the clown never made it past their lips.

For his part, Xander was standing, hand planted firmly on the book, eyes staring hard at the picture of their demon. The tension in his body practically screamed at them while his jaw muscles worked furiously.

"Xander?" Willow hesitantly asked.

No response. The three women exchanged glances.

Willow tried again. "Xander, what is it?"

Xander seemed to shake something off. Willow could practically see Xander mentally ordering his muscles to relax as he slowly straightened back up to his full height. When he finally looked at the still-seated trio, she wasn't surprised to see that his face was utterly devoid of any expression.

*Oh, god,* Willow thought. *He's shut down on me. He hasn't done that since…*

"I know where you can start your hunt," Xander said. Willow started as if she were slapped. She also remembered that tone.

Buffy warily regarded Xander. "Xander? Are you all right?" she asked.

"Foster homes," Xander said, as if he didn't even hear Buffy's question.

"What?" Buffy asked.

"Foster homes," Xander repeated. "We start our hunt with foster homes."

"Again with the 'we'…" Buffy began. She stopped when Xander pinned her to her chair with an unreadable look.

"Yes, we," Xander said. "And by 'we,' I mean 'me.' I'm taking some vacation time and we are going to make some home visits. Willow?"

"Y-y-y-esss?" Willow cringed at the sound of her own voice. She felt like she was regressing back to junior high.

"Think you can get a list of every foster home in town?" Xander asked. His eyes were flat as they regarded her.

"I don't know where to…" Willow began.

"Hack into the state's Children and Family Services database. I'm sure you'll find a list," Xander said in an even voice.

"Even if you get your hands on that list, what makes you think that Buffy will be able to just drop by all of these houses for a visit?" Anya asked.

When Xander swung his gaze around to Anya, the ex-vengeance demon refused to back down. She haughtily met his gaze and didn't break eye contact. If Willow squinted, she was pretty sure she'd be able to see to see Anya's hot temper clash against the cold shield Xander seemed to have erected around himself.

Then Xander smiled. It wasn't a particularly nice smile and it certainly didn't reach his eyes. "Buffy is the new peer counselor at the high school," Xander remarked. "I'm pretty sure we can come up with something using that little fact to make sure we meet all of the foster parents."

"Just a sec," Buffy interrupted. "I'm not exactly keen on using my fuzzy job to investigate this hunch of yours."

"It's not a hunch," Xander said.

Buffy glanced at Willow, who shook her head. Buffy raised her eyebrows in surprise. Apparently Willow's nonverbal message of 'don't argue' was heard loud and clear.

"Okay, fine," Buffy said. "Why isn't it a hunch?"

*Okay, maybe she didn't get the message or she got it and doesn't care,* Willow thought.

Xander smiled that unpleasant smile again. "Fits with the MO, doesn't it? A messy situation, lots of unwanted people or people who wouldn't be missed, a system that can't keep track of anything, and it's the perfect place to hide in plain sight. Can you say, 'All-you-can-eat buffet?'"

"You can say the same thing about a lot of other places, like homeless shelters," Buffy argued. "How do you know?"

Xander paused a moment, looking intently at Buffy. "I just know," he said quietly. "Trust me." On that, he spun on his heel and headed for the Magic Box door. "I'm going to get some sleep so I can be ready first thing tomorrow morning. Willow, think you can have the list ready for me by 8?"

"I-I-I-I'll try," Willow hesitated.

"Don't try. Do," Xander ordered. With that, he walked out the door.

"What the hell?" Buffy exploded.

"Buffy, calm down," Willow soothed, casting glances at the door. "I think Xander knows what he's talking about."

"How?" Buffy demanded.

"I really don't think I…"

"Anya?" Buffy interrupted.

The ex-vengeance demon shrugged. "I don't know any more than you do. I mean, I thought I saw cold after you guys saw me and Spike…" She hesitated before meeting the Slayer's glittering eyes. "What I mean to say is that I saw cold fury. This was just, well, cold. I've never seen it from Xander before."

*I have,* Willow grimly thought.

"So, back to you, Willow," Buffy said. "What's going on?"

"I can't…" Willow began. "Look, I have an idea, but I can't tell you anything. I mean, even if I hadn't made a promise, I don't know anything to tell."

"A promise?" Anya asked. "What kind of promise?"

"See, again, that's something I really can't tell you," Willow replied.

Buffy's expression softened. "Willow, we're all Xander's friends, right Anya?" Silence. "I said, 'Right, Anya?'"

"Oh, all right. I suppose," Anya grumped.

Buffy sighed. "Willow, something about this demon has obviously upset Xander. We all want to help him and kill this thing, right?"

"Buffy, I really don't know anything that will help you and what I do know, it's not for me to tell," Willow insisted. "I mean, you pointed out that Xander is a grown man. If he thinks you should know, he'll tell you."

"I see," Buffy deadpanned.

"Don't bother trying to force it out of him, either," Willow warned. "You won't get anywhere. If anything, he'll just retreat even more than he already has."

Buffy sighed again. "Fine. No twisting of arms. Got it. Just answer me one question. Do you think Xander may be on to something?"

"I think that Xander most definitely knows something," Willow said.

Chapter 11

*To this day, he couldn't tell you why he left his room that night. Maybe he was thirsty, or hungry, or had to go to the bathroom. He really doesn't know or remember. He couldn't answer that key question of 'why' if you held a gun to his head and threatened to make him dead. He couldn't even answer it if you pointed a vampire at his neck and threatened to make him undead.*

*In the end, the reasons why he crept out of the room he shared with two other boys in the dead of night are unimportant. The fact is, he did and maybe, just maybe, that fact changed everything that came after.*

*He walked down the hallway, each step getting a little more hesitant. He really didn't know what would happen if he were caught roaming the halls.*

*He passed the girls' bedrooms and paused, noticing that the door was cracked open. He heard the sounds of whispering and shrugged. The ways of girls were mysterious to him and he, for one, had no interest in cracking their code. He really had to get…*

*What was he looking for again?*

*Not that it matters.*

*He tried to will his feet to move away from the door, but each step only took him one step closer to the girls' bedroom. He was surprised, but not really, to notice that his hand was smaller than he expected as it paused above the doorknob.*

*Oh, he really shouldn't do this. He could get into so much trouble. He remembers one of the other boys telling him that some other boy once walked into the girls' room in the middle of the night and did something bad. The next day that boy was taken away and never seen again.*

*The story went something like that.*

*The whispering was getting more urgent.*

*He really should walk away now. It wasn't too late. He could just go back to his room and pretend he didn't hear anything. No one would ever have to know how close he came to being bad.*

*Except he is bad. He's bad, stupid Xander and he's pushing the door open because he has to see. He has to know.*

*The door swung open and he's standing there and watching. It is straddling one of the girls on the bed, crouched low and whispering into her ear. She's crying. He can see the tears. She's not making a sound.*

*And for the first time in his life, Xander Harris threw his tiny child body into a fight he knew he couldn't win.*


Xander woke with a start, heart pounding, every muscle screaming that he needed to engage in fight or flight right now. His eyes looked wildly around the room, checking to make sure he was safely in his own bed.

Clock to his right, check. Strange art print Anya hung on the wall because it reminded her of the 'good old days' of the French Revolution. Check. Bed pushed up against the wall so that any unfortunate girl who shared it with him would have to crawl over him to escape. Check.

He slowly forced his body to relax, each nerve ending screaming as he did so. When he finally felt he could move, he rolled over to face the clock.

{3 a.m.} the whisper remarked. {midnight of the soul.}

Xander whimpered and tucked himself into a tight fetal ball. He was inordinately grateful that there was no one else in the room. He didn't think he could stand someone trying to comfort him right now.

Chapter 12

Buffy focused her attention on the passing landscape, noting the lush green lawns and the white picket fences. Several yards were littered with abandoned bikes, sports equipment, and assorted toys. It never ceased to amaze her that in a town as dangerous as Sunnydale, front yard thievery and late night burglary weren't even considered a threat by most of the residents.

She stole a glance at her traveling companion. Xander watched the road, occasionally checking a street map to make sure he was driving in the right direction. She looked back out the car window, her fingers nervously playing along the edge of the sheaf of papers in her lap. The rustling paper provided the only sound in the car.

She briefly thought of turning on the radio just to break the silence. She did that the first day when it became clear that the most she could expect out of Xander were single-syllable answers to anything she said. When Buffy reached over and snapped the radio on, Xander said nothing, even when she tuned the radio to a college station playing house and hip-hop music, genres she knew he hated. His utter lack of reaction to music that would normally send him off a two-hour rant was unnerving enough that Buffy eventually shut the radio off herself. It stayed off.

*Three days. Three veeeeerrrryyyyyy long days,* Buffy thought. *We are so chasing a false trail.*

The first day went easily enough. Willow was able to cross-reference her list of foster homes with the names of students in the Sunnydale school system. By mutual unspoken agreement, Xander and Buffy hit the foster homes housing high school-age students the first day. Her cover story that she, as the new peer counselor, was making home visits to meet the families of students that might require extra support in a school environment went over very well. In fact, her stated intention won the pair of them an invite into almost all of the homes.

A few moments after entering each house Xander snapped out of whatever funk had gripped him. He'd joke around with whatever child was in the immediate vicinity while Buffy chatted with the foster parents over cups of coffee, tea, and snacks. Everyone she talked to was invariably polite, caring, committed, unbelievably nice, and, far as she could tell, completely human.

The part of her mind that wasn't occupied with looking for something wrong with the house or the people was amazed at the ease Xander seemed to gain the kids' trust. He had a knack for zooming in on their interests, whether it was television, video games, music, comics, or science fiction.

Yet, the second they left the warm embrace of each house, Xander seemed to shut down again. He'd bow his head as if he found the ground far more interesting than his surroundings and would walk to the car. Just as he clicked his remote to release the locks he would comment, "They seem like very nice people." He did this each and every time they ended a visit.

After going through this ritual and hearing the statement no less than nine times, Buffy grumped, "Yes, Xander. They all seem like nice people. Not a demonic one in the bunch. Can you please tell me what we're be looking for? Because, I gotta tell you, we're coming up short if we're supposed to be checking these people for horns and pitchforks."

Xander paused, his hand halfway to the driver's side door. "Just for something wrong."

"'Something wrong?'" Buffy asked, walking around the car to get to the passenger side. "Care to vague that up a little more?"

He shrugged, not meeting her eyes. "I can't explain it. I'll know it when I feel it."

Buffy huffed an irritated breath as she opened the door. "Great. But how will I know it, Xander?"

She never got an answer to that question.

The second day went much the same as the first. Before noon, they were still hitting foster homes sheltering high school students. After a quick and silent meal in the car, they started on the pages listing the middle school students. They tackled this group by age, since Buffy's cover story held up better under scrutiny if the kids in the home were actually slated to enter high school next year.

It was now day three and Buffy was sick and tired of it. She was sick of feeling like she was running around in circles, enduring Xander's moody silence, and drinking yet another coffee with yet another overeager and overly helpful adult.

"After this house, we stop," Buffy said.

"Stop?" Xander asked. She noticed he didn't look at her.

"Xander, we've tried it your way and we've come up with nothing," Buffy said. "I'm tired. I'm cranky. And I'm pretty sure my bladder's going to float away if I have one more damn cup of coffee. Whatever you think we'd find, we're not finding it."

Xander glanced at his watch before signaling to make a left turn. "It's almost three o'clock. What say we call quitting time at six? If we don't find anything by then, we'll go back to the drawing board."

Buffy glared at his side profile then shook her head and sighed. "Fine. Fine. Until six, then." She turned to look out the window. "It's not like the entire day hasn't been wasted already," she muttered.

"It hasn't been wasted," Xander commented.

Buffy looked at him. She was relieved to see that the expression on his face had softened. The harsh determined look of the past three days was gone, replaced by something that could almost be described as Xander-like. It wasn't completely there, but it was a start.

"Care to explain?" Buffy felt the tension from her own face drain away.

He shrugged. "If we haven't found anything, it probably means that whatever your demon is, it or its relatives haven't added Sunnydale kids to the dinner menu."

For the millionth time in three days Buffy fought the urge to ask Xander why he would even think her demon had any interest children since all the victims they knew about were adults. "Well, I'm glad you feel that way, because my cover story is starting to get a bit thin," Buffy said. "We're starting to hit kids that won't be in the high school for another two years."

"You're right," Xander acknowledged, his face twitching into a partial, tight smile. "Of course you're right. We've probably been chasing after phantoms. Oh, here's our next stop."

The car slid smoothly to a halt outside in front of a two-story ranch that looked like every other house on the street, complete with the scattered mess of playthings on the front lawn that announced the presence of children. The pair got out of the car and trundled up the sidewalk. Buffy rang the doorbell and stepped back, glancing casually around the porch.

The front door swung open and Buffy sensed, rather than saw, Xander's body posture stiffen. She cast a quick glance at him before addressing the person who answered the door.

"Hi! I'm Buffy Summers and I'm the new peer counselor at the high school," she said, putting on her best chipper cheerleader voice. "I'm just stopping by to introduce myself and get to know you and your foster children."

The short, slightly overweight woman pushed a stray strand of dark hair out of her face. "Miss, I think you've made a mistake. None of the children here go to the high school," she said.

"Oh! I know that," Buffy chirped. "See, I'm working on this project. My boss wants me to develop some programs for students that might need some extra support in their first year of high school. Since a lot of students who see me live in foster homes…" Buffy let her voice trail off as she shrugged. "Well, I just figured if I talked to some foster parents, I might get some ideas on how to do that without, you know, attaching any stigma to the kids."

"What a great idea!" The woman broke into a friendly smile that lit up her moon-shaped face. "Please, come in." She glanced at Xander. "Are you also counselor?"

"No. I'm the chauffer," Xander said shortly as he followed Buffy into the house.

"Oh, somebody's grumpy," the woman said cheerfully. "Where are my manners? I'm Mrs. Owsley. And you are?"



Buffy looked sharply at her male shadow, surprised that Xander had used his formal name to introduce himself. For his part, Xander was intently studying the house and standing in what could best be described as 'parade rest.' His posture, his expression, his tone of voice announced that he didn't find this house or their hostess at all to his liking.

Buffy turned her focus back to Mrs. Owsley. She seemed no different than the 30 or so other foster parents they had met: nice, cheerful, eager to help, the whole enchilada. "Please excuse my friend," Buffy apologized. "He's been forced to drive me around for three days. I promised I would give him a big reward tonight." She flirtatiously batted her eyes at Xander to emphasize her point.

Mrs. Owsley chuckled. "Something tells me that this reward better involve a home cooked dinner and Victoria's Secret if you want to make it up to him. Come on, I'll make you some fresh coffee."

The trio headed for the kitchen, passing by a staircase along the way. Buffy's mind scrambled to come up with a list of 'suggestions' that she could claim came from other foster parents while Mrs. Owsley nattered on about her relief that Buffy and Alexander weren't trying to get her to read *The Watchtower.*

"…I don't have a problem with anyone or their religion. Live and let live, I say," Mrs. Owsley said, scooping coffee into a filter. "But it is really necessary to knock on my door to tell me that I need to change my evil ways? And in the middle of *Passions,* too."

"What is it about that show?" Buffy asked, quickly warming to the woman. "Almost everyone I know is totally into it."

"Well, it's all about the supernatural and the fantastic, isn't it?" Mrs. Owsley said, setting out cups and spoons. "Witches, zombies, enchanted dolls, and the like all acting on the worst of human impulses and doing maximum damage to each other just because they can."

"Sounds like real life," Buffy dryly commented.

"I can tell you're not exactly a fan," the woman responded with a chuckle. She looked around. "Where'd you're friend go?"

Friend? Oh, no. "Xan--Alexander?" Buffy called. "Alexander, where are you?" She looked back through the kitchen door and saw him standing at the base of the stairs staring up at the second floor. Buffy moved quickly to his side, half afraid he'd start to go upstairs and blow their cover story out of the water. "Xander, what is it?" she asked quietly, turning to follow his gaze.

She saw a small boy, maybe about 10 or 11, sitting on the stairs and listlessly staring back down at them. His expression was blank and his face seemed shadowed, as if the weight of the world was pressing on his mind. Looking between the boy above her and the man next to her, Buffy ventured, "Xander?"

Xander shook himself slightly and looked at her, his expression unreadable. He looked back up at the boy, gave him a slight nod, and turned to follow Buffy into the kitchen.

"Did you get lost?" Mrs. Owsley greeting him.

"There was a boy…" Xander began.

"Eduardo. Eddie. He's home sick from school today," Mrs. Owsley explained, setting out a pound cake and a knife. "I'm surprised you saw him. He hasn't gotten out of bed all day."

"I'll bet," Xander growled as he launched himself across the kitchen at the cheerfully oblivious woman.

"What the…" Mrs. Owsley began before she found herself shoved against the counter, one very large male hand clamped around her throat.

"Xander!" Buffy yelled.

"Show yourself! Damn it!" Xander shouted in Mrs. Owsley's face. "I know what you are! Show yourself!"

"Xander! Let go!" Buffy pulled him off the terrified woman, trying her best not to exert too much pressure out of fear of breaking a bone.

"What…what…what…" the shaken woman began, clutching her throat.

Xander struggled in Buffy's grip, managing to get her off-balance enough to slip from her grasp. He went after the woman again. This time he picked her up and threw her against the opposite wall of the kitchen with so much force that Mrs. Owsley bounced down to the floor. Buffy lunged after Xander, but missed as he moved just out of her reach. He strode over to the woman and kicked her viciously in the ribs.

"Take off that goddamn mask!" Xander ordered, delivering one more swift kick before Buffy was able to wrestle him away. "I can sense you. Take it off!"

"Damn it, Xander! Calm the fuck down!" Buffy ordered. She turned to help Mrs. Owsley, but stopped short when she saw the human form begin to shimmer around the edges. "What the hell?" She asked.

In answer to her question, Xander charged past her and went after the woman again, snatching the knife off the table as he did so. He hauled Mrs. Owsely to her feet and, holding the knife to her throat, shoved her against the wall. He leaned all of his weight against her to prevent her escape. "Don't you dare," he warned. "Don't you fucking dare. Show her. Show her what you are."

Mrs. Owsley's form began to loose its cohesion, showing flashes of grey skin and yellow eyes interspersing with the pleasantly human form. The woman, or creature, struggled weakly against Xander hissing, "Let me go, little boy."

The violence of Xander's attack, the struggling creature pinned to the wall, the whole situation floored Buffy. "Xander? What…" she began.

Mrs. Owsley's human guise dropped completely and the demon underneath fixed Buffy with a look. Buffy felt her knees give way as she fought the overwhelming despair grip her heart. *Oh my god, it's the same demon. Oh my god, oh my god…* Buffy hugged herself close and felt tears sting her eyes in helpless sadness. Somewhere at the edge of her hearing, she heard Xander growl, "I don't think so. Try looking at me."

The crushing weight of despair lifted from her shoulders, allowing Buffy to look up from her crouched position. She saw the demon turn its attention to Xander and stare him full in the face.

Xander laughed.

"Nice try," he said, stepping back from the confused demon. With a movement almost too quick for Buffy to see, he stabbed the demon in the throat and twisted the knife before pulling it back out. The demon gurgled and dropped to the floor.

Buffy shot off the floor and moved to Xander's side, staring down at the creature now ineffectually clutching at its throat. "I think you've killed it," she said with wonder staining her voice.

"Does this look like your demon?" Xander asked tightly.

"Dead-ringer," Buffy answered. "It can't be that easy to kill."

"It's not dead, yet," Xander grimly replied. He dropped to the ground and stabbed the creature in the eye, releasing a flood of green goo. The creature convulsed, but was still alive. "Damn, what does it take?" he asked, pulling the knife out and stabbing the demon in the other eye. The last blow finally did it and the demon stopped moving.

"What? How? Who? How?" Buffy sputtered as Xander climbed to his feet, staring down at his handiwork.

All the rage seemed to drain out of him. Xander's shoulders slumped and the knife dropped out of his nerveless hands. He muttered, "I haven't forgotten."

Buffy startled at the statement. That sounded awfully close to… "Xander? Have you seen one of these things before?"

He ignored her question and walked out of the kitchen, Buffy ineffectually following from behind. "Xander? Damn it. Talk to me!"

Xander stopped short just beyond the kitchen doorway, forcing Buffy to halt her own forward progress. "Xander…" she warned before peering around him. The boy was now standing at the base of the stairs, eyes wide. *Oh, no! How much did he see?* Buffy thought desperately as she tried to come up with a list of excuses that would make sense.

What happened next took her by surprise.

Eduardo…Eddie…picked his way over to the frozen pair, stopping just short of Xander. The boy peered up at him, as if trying to make out what he was. After a moment's pause, Xander dropped to one knee. "Hey, you okay in there?" he softly asked.

In response the boy flung himself at Xander, arms wrapping around his neck, as he started sobbing. Xander helplessly looked at Buffy before returning the hug, rocking the child back and forth, murmuring, "It's okay now, shhhh. It's over. I promise."

Buffy felt like she was intruding on something that she had no right to see. She retreated back to the kitchen. Keeping one eye on the huddled pair, she turned to inspect the demon. Her eyes widened in surprise. "Xander? Come here. Look at this," she called.

Xander disengaged as best he could from Eddie, but his hushed request that the boy stay put was clearly going to be ignored since the child had attached himself to the man's leg and refused to let go. With a sigh, Xander returned to the kitchen, frightened kid in tow. "What is it?" he asked.

"Our demon is melting," Buffy commented.

"Melting?" Xander's eyebrows shot up in surprise.

"It's turning into a puddle of green slime."

Xander looked down at his kill, his face hardening into the same cold expression Buffy remembered from the Magic Box. "Maybe we should grab a sample. Give it to Wills for study," he said.

"Good idea," Buffy nodded as she began searching the cupboards for a glass bowl to collect the slime. She shot a significant glance at the boy. "What are we going to do about him?"

The boy in question whimpered while Xander scowled.

"Okay, maybe not the best way to phrase it, but we have to do something," Buffy said, opening and closing doors. "Chances are someone is going to notice one foster mother missing."

Xander nodded. He dropped back to one knee so he was eyelevel with the boy. "Eddie?" Xander asked. "Eddie? Look at me."

The boy peeked at Xander from underneath an unruly mess of bangs, but remained silent.

"Eddie, we're not going to hurt you. Why would we hurt you if we just helped you?"

The boy seemed to think about this. He slowly nodded.

"Eddie, how many of them are in the house?" Xander gently pushed.

The boy's eyes widened and he slowly began to back away. Xander reached out a hand and grabbed the child's wrist.

"Eddie, we need you to be brave," Xander quietly urged. "You have to tell me if you want us to help you. How many are in the house?"

"Two," the boy responded in a small voice.

"Is the other one your foster father?"

"Yes." This response was even softer than the first.

Xander let out a puff of breath. "Thank you, Eddie."

The boy rewarded Xander with a wan smile.

"Now Eddie? Listen to me, Eddie. I need you to be brave a little longer. Think you can do that?"

The boy's posture changed. He looked like he was trying to stand at attention, but Buffy could see the kid was still scared out of his mind. Xander nodded his approval and took a deep breath. "I need you to lie for us."

The kid started as if he were slapped.

Xander held his hands up in a calming gesture. Buffy thought he looked like he was surrendering. "I know. I know. You don't want to lie anymore, right?" A nod from the kid. "I don't blame you. And I don't want you to lie anymore, either. But you have to tell this one lie for us and I'll never ask you to do it again. I promise."

Eddie seemed to think about this. "Okay," he whispered.

Bowl in hand, Buffy returned to Xander's side and watched intently. She was tempted to interrupt, but Xander seemed to be handling the kid equation better than she could. Xander looked up at her before returning his attention back to Eddie. "Okay, Eddie? Here's what I want you to tell your foster father and the cops when they ask you…"

Chapter 13

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

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

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

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

What was she looking for?

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

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

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

Why the hell did she even keep this stuff?

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

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

She squelched the thought.

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

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

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

It amazed her that she somehow forgot that lesson somewhere along the way.

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


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

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

An unbidden thought in that familiar hiss.

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

"How can you say that?" she whispered. "Didn't you see…"

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

"Go away," Willow whispered.

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

"No. Buffy will protect…"

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

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

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

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

Her answer was dead silence. She shivered.

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

"Willow! Open this door! Willow!"

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

Buffy burst though the door without any preamble. "This can't wait."

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

Buffy snorted, barely casting a glance at Willow's bed. "Wanton with the homework?"

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

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

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

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

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

"What happened?" Willow asked.


"What! He's not hurt is he?" Willow panicked. If something happened because…

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

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

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

"What? Didn't it turn its mojo on…"

"Yep. Looked him square in the face," Buffy said.

"Didn't he…"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"He said, 'I haven't forgotten.'"

"That sounds awfully close to…" Willow began.

"I know," Buffy interrupted. "I don't know what to think. Willow, if you know something you have got to tell me."

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

Chapter 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I bet if you had a body, you'd be wearing tweed," Xander muttered.

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

Xander hugged himself tightly. "I'm forgetting something," he muttered. "I know I'm forgetting something. What don't I remember?"

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 15

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

She hated research.

She hated getting caught by surprise even more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anya's head shot up. "Why don't I just call Giles?" she asked her empty shop.

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

"Yes?" came the clipped greeting.

"Giles! I'm so glad you're there, Giles!" Anya said.

"Good, Lord. Anya? What is it? Is everything…"

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

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

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

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

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

"Well, there is trouble," Anya admitted. "We're doing research on a demon and we're getting nowhere."

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


"No apologies necessary. Tell me the problem and I'll help if I can," Giles replied.

"We're researching a deChantal demon…" Anya began.

"A what? I don't think I've ever heard… Are you sure that's the proper name?"

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

"I don't mean to question your knowledge," Giles hastily allowed. "While I admit that your considerable, ahhh, expertise in this area rivals and surpasses most…"

"And don't you forget it," Anya interrupted.

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

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


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

"I see."

"The problem is they're not. See? Main fact about them is wrong."

"That is a problem. Are you sure?"

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

"Good Lord!"

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

"She isn't…"

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

"Meal? Oh, you mean the victim. I see." Giles paused. "Anya, you really shouldn't call people 'meals.'"

"What should I call him? He was a meal."

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

Anya smiled. "So you'll help?"

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

Anya let out a breath she didn't know she was holding. "Thank you, Giles."

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

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

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

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

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

"Anya, it's me."

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

"I had to call Giles for help," Anya admitted.

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

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

"So you've had no luck then." Buffy deflated.

"Sort of. The problem is that I don't know what to believe," Anya shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

"What happened?" Anya repeated.

Buffy hesitated. "We killed it. Actually, Xander killed it."


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

"You're not exactly telling me the whole story," Anya accused.

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

"How did it get in?" Anya thought about it. "Oh, wait. Cloaking."

Buffy hesitated. "Not exactly," she slowly said.

"Come again?"

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

"Was it wearing a rubber mask?"

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

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

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

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

"Not so fast." Buffy winced. "According to one of the kids in the home, there's a second one."

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

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

"Or maybe not," Anya thoughtfully replied.


"I didn't want to say anything because I thought we were dealing with just one demon. But, since we know there's a second one out there, that means that there's probably more," Anya said as if she were talking to herself. She shuddered and returned her focus to Buffy. "Okay, back to being a little worried. Remember how I said they were tribal? I came across what passes for a joke in one of the books that basically said if you found one of these things in your closet, you knew you'd find a whole bunch of others hiding in your sock drawer."

"Like cockroaches. Great."

"Exactly like cockroaches." Anya sounded grim. "Just because you killed one and know of a second one, doesn't mean either one of these two guys is your guy. Looks like we could have a colony on our hands."

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

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

Buffy immediately perked up at this news. "So, if you can build an immunity…"

"Not possible," Anya interrupted.

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

"Sure as I can be."

"Did you find that in the books?"

"Nope. I'm talking from experience," Anya said.

"Based on…" Buffy prompted. The Slayer was leaning forward as if she were ready to pounce on the answer.

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

"Not everyone," Buffy grimly countered. "At least, not yet."


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


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

"Didn't either one of you ask?"

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

"Of all the stupid…"

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

"Calm down," Anya said. "Okay, fine. This isn't a tragedy. Just track down the kid and ask…"


"No? Buffy! This kid has important information that could…"

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

"We can't let it drop! What if this kid decides to do the suicide dance?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What happened?"

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


"You didn't witness this, did you?" Buffy asked, trepidation clearly showing in her voice.

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

Willow began to sob while Anya and Buffy watched helplessly.

Chapter 16

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

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

"Are you sure?"

"I'll be fine." The tremor in Willow's voice betrayed the words. "Really. Just…I need to sit down."

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

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

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

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

"It's okay, Anya," Buffy responded.

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

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

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

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

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

"Demon slime?" Anya asked.

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

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

Chapter 17

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

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

*Wait a minute. It's because he was hot.*

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

*He couldn't breathe. Why couldn't he breathe?*

*He could smell…something burning?*

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

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

*He hoped the world wasn't on fire.*

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

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

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

*Something somewhere exploded.*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*He screamed when he heard a door slam.*


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

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

{jesse.} the whisper remarked.

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

"Damn it. I fell asleep," Xander muttered.

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

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

{what are you doing?} the whisper inquired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 18

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

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

"Little late for the caffeine, dontchya think?"

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

"Fair 'nuff," Dolly acknowledged, putting her book down on the counter. "One hot one coming right up."

"You're here late," Buffy shouted over the sound of the espresso machine.

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

"Nice idea, except it's Tuesday," Buffy commented.

"Tuesday?" Dolly asked. "Hunh. What's on the tube on Tueday?"

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


"After the…well…after the woman…"

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


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

"It's okay. Everyone's on edge."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You read *Bulfinch's Mythology* for fun?" Buffy asked.

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

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

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

"You have no idea."

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

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

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

Buffy grinned. "I can go with that, too."

A decidedly male voice intruded. "Buffy? Hey, Dolly."

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

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

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

"Not sleeping well. Well, actually, last night I didn't sleep at all."

"Go home," Dolly ordered.

"Can't. Got more stuff to do tonight, right Buff?"

"I think Dolly's right, Xan. Maybe you should…"

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

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

"Coffee. Black. Hot. Stronger the better."

"Coming right up."

Xander grabbed the cup and handed money to the waitress.

"Hey!" she protested. "I said it's on the house."

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

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

Chapter 19

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

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

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

Dawn slammed her book shut with a relieved sigh. "Nothing that Anya hasn't already found."

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

"I just thought a pair of fresh eyes…" Dawn began.

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

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

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

"They've got naked male demons in them for a start," Dawn added with a wicked grin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You son of a bitch!" Anya shot back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Package? Council?" Xander asked.

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

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

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

"What's your problem?" Dawn demanded.

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

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

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

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

"I still don't get that," Anya commented. "How'd you manage that, Harris?"

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

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

"Don't be too sure about that," Anya volunteered.

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

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

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

"Get to the point," Xander growled. "We don't need a run down of a science fair experiment."

"I was only explaining my process so you'd understand…" Willow began.

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

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

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

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

"Ethanol?" Dawn asked.

"Ethyl alcohol," Willow explained.

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

Willow sighed. "You're confusing ethanol with isopropyl alcohol."

"There's a difference? Isn't alcohol just alcohol?" Buffy asked.

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

"How come you know this?" Buffy asked.

Xander shrugged in response, but didn't answer.

"Xander's got it right," Willow said. "Ethanol is a component in beer, wine, bourbon, and scotch."

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

"Hello assault charges," Xander remarked.

"Although we'd get lots and lots of volunteers if we tried it," Anya added.

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

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

"Right, back to the swabs idea," Buffy said.

"What happens when goo and ethanol meet?" Xander asked.

"Goo turns red, a nice bright red," Willow answered.

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

"Assuming it even works," Anya interjected.

Xander straightened his body posture. "Why wouldn't it?"

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

"Didn't think of that," Willow muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

"Anya…" Xander warned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xander didn't even notice.

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

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

"I'm going to be ill," Xander commented. He began to restlessly stalk the shop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xander froze. "It makes perfect sense, doesn't it?" His voice was very careful.

"It does? How?" Buffy asked.

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

"Nice imagery, Dawnie," Willow complained.

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

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

"Eddie's not," Xander snapped.

"You sure?" Buffy asked.

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

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

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

"Xander, calm down. I'm just saying…" Buffy began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"But it could be done?" Buffy asked.

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

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

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

"He'll be fine," Xander said.

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

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

"Promise me you'll just watch," Buffy insisted. "If Mr. Owsley goes missing…"

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

"Why don't I find that a comfort?" Willow murmured.

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

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

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

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

"Buffy, Anya, please," Willow said. "Let it go."

"No." Buffy glared at the redhead. "Start talking, Willow."

"Talk about what?" Dawn asked.

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

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

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

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

Chapter 20

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

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

"Not here for booze, smokes, or money," Spike growled. "I'm here for my health."

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

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

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

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

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

"He hasn't, although I well think he might," Spike said.

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

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

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

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

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

"Listen, L'il Bit…" Spike began.



"You call me, Dawn," the teen said, her voice grim. "I think I'm being pretty clear."

"Dawn…" Buffy began.

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

"Takes one to know one," Anya muttered.

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

"Well, nothing, exactly, specifically…" Spike winced. "Well, there's the looking. And the nightmares."

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

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

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

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

"Did anyone else's mind go to a very scary place?" Dawn asked.

Three women solemnly raised their hands in response.

"Just checking that it wasn't just me," Dawn commented.

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

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

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

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

"How the hell do I know?" Spike asked. "Seems he's had them since I moved in."

"Maybe it's your charming presence?" Anya asked.

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

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

"Yes!" Spike pumped a fist in the air.

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

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

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

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

"But…" Spike began.

"It is Anya's shop," Buffy conceded. "So it's up to her, Spike."

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

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

"Do I have a choice?" Spike responded.

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

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

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

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

"D'oh! Why didn't we think of that?" Buffy exclaimed.

"I did think of it and it won't work," Willow said.

"Why not?" Buffy asked.

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

"I said I'd pay for the damage," Willow protested.

"Still waiting for the first installment," Anya said, crossing her arms. "Anyway, locator spells aren't going to work because deChantals have a cloak and a glamour around them. It's a double threat."

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

"You're beginning to think in circles," Dawn said. "You're going to start talking like Willow in a moment."

"Hey!" Willow protested. "I'm nowhere near that bad."

Chapter 21

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

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

She sighed, fingers nervously twiddling. At least Dawn was safely in bed since she had school the next morning. She wasn't sure she could share if Dawn was involved.

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

"I really don't have any information that'll help," Willow insisted.

"Willow, Xander is hiding something and what's more you know he's hiding something. So spill."

"Look, whatever might of happened, and I'm not saying something did happen, because I don't know if something did happen…"

Buffy shook her head in frustration. "Willow…"

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

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

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

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

"Why would you think that?"

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

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

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

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

"How can you be sure?"

"Because I've seen him in cold mode before. So have you."

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

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

"Back from where? You're still not sharing that part, Will."

Willow sighed words of a promise extracted under duress ringing in her head. *I'll never tell. I'll never tell. I'll never tell. I'll never tell. I'll never tell…*

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

Willow laughed. "Seems to me that he's the one doing the protecting here."

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

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

"Taken away? What do you mean?"

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

"I'm surprised your parents invited them."

"I don't think any of us realized how bad it had gotten."

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

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

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

"That's because you met him after…wait…shush. My story. You listen."

"Fine." Buffy sat back, eyes not leaving Willow's face. "Tell me what happened."

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

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

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

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

"You sure?"

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

"Don't worry about it. I think it stopped after…"

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

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

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

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

"From Xander."

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

"Sounds very *Love Letters.*"

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

"So this happened every week while he was 'away,' as you put it."

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


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

"What did you do?"

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

"Wait! Wait!" Buffy interrupted. "I thought Jesse was Xander's friend. Are you telling me…"

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

"Go on."

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

"How so?"

"He was different."

"Different? Different how?"

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


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

"Ummm, okay. Nice way to confuse me because I don't understand what this has to do with…" Buffy began.

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

"Invisible? As in not noticed?" Buffy looked horrified.

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

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

"…are safe," Willow finished the thought.

Buffy dropped her head in her hands. "I really don't want to know this, do I? I really, really don't."

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

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

Willow hesitated. "No."

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

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

"Well, after he was back for a week I went over his parents' house, well, their new house, which is where they live now…"

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

"You make it sound like Xander's a puppy."

"That's not what I meant and you know it."

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

"When did that change?"

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

"Cordelia said this? When? I don't remember…"

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

"She did?" Buffy looked thunderstruck.

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

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

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

"Carry on."

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

"A one-woman intervention," Buffy commented. "I take it didn't go well."

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

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

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

"Xander? Our Xander said that?"

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

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

Willow sniffled in response.

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

"He won't."

"You seem really sure about this."

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

"Why don't I remember this?"

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

Buffy focused tightly on Willow's last statement. "What do you mean?"

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

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

The clink of Buffy putting her cup in the sink snapped Willow out of her thoughts. "So basically, we think Xander has run into one of these things before but we don't know for sure," Buffy said.

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

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

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

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

Willow's eyes widened. "'Lots of unwanted people…can you say all-you-can-eat-buffet.' Buffy? You don't think…"

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

"Questions?" Willow asked. "What kind of questions?"

"Top of my list? Why is Xander still alive?"

Chapter 22

*Xander was dead in the head.*

*Xander, the dead head.*

*Xander, the head dead.*

*Xander, the head of the dead.*


*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 medication, 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.*



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.}

Chapter 23

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 decide then 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, guiltily looking 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, as if something was being thrown on the research table. Her head popped up over the counter. "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."


"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 supplied 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 and marched to Owsley 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 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 finished 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 here, 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 here."

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Xander give a jaunty salute. "Aye, aye mon capitan," 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 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, stubbornly refusing 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.

Chapter 24

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?*


*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…*


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?*




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…*


*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.*

Chapter 25

"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 said.

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. Better to remove temptation that way." A rueful chuckle accompanied this statement. "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 murmured something 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.

Chapter 26

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 ruefully chuckled. "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 for 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.

Chapter 27

*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.*


*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."*

*"Woah, 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."

Chapter 28

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 chuckled. "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 sadly grinned. "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."

Chapter 29

"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, 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, she 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.

Chapter 30

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 mean 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.


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.

Chapter 31

Buffy tripped over the pile of barbells, letting out a very un-Slayer-like squeak.

"I feel like I'm wearing a retainer," Willow complained. She was doing slightly better than Buffy and Anya maneuvering around the obstacle course Xander had set up in the training room. She continuously glanced at the mirrors framing her face as she walked backwards through a series of tires.

"This is stupid," Anya muttered while she tried to maneuver around the couch. She finally whipped the headpiece bearing two mirrors off her head and whirled around to face the room's lone spectator. "Couldn't you design something more comfortable, Harris? These things are heavy! I'm getting a headache just wearing them."

"I'm getting a headache just looking at the mirrors," Buffy complained as she got to her feet and tried to walk backwards to the couch. She over-estimated the distance and found herself falling into a sitting position. "You would think with my reflexes I'd be better at this."

"Your reflexes might be part of the problem," Willow commented as she stumbled backwards out of the tires.

Spike wandered by Xander to start his second circuit around the course when the human shot out a hand to stop him.

"Ummm, Spike? Why are your mirrors positioned like that?" Xander asked.

Spike turned to face him. One mirror framed his right cheek while the other mirror was placed in front of his left eye. "Don't have a reflection, do I?"

"I don't…" Xander began.

Spike sighed as if he were dealing with the dullest creature on the planet. "I don't have a reflection which means that when I look into the shiny surface in front of my face I can see what's behind me. Got it?"

"Ahhhh, I see," Xander nodded. "Uh, Spike? Doesn't that leave you with a blind spot in front of your face?"

"Better than the big gapping blind spot everyone else has," Spike growled. To illustrate his point, he walked up behind Willow, who was slowly positioning herself for another tire pass-through, and tapped her between the shoulder blades.

Willow squealed and jumped, reflexively striking out to land a solid punch on Spike's arm. "Don't do that!" Willow shouted. "It's not nice to sneak up and…"

"He didn't sneak, Wills." Xander cringed. "I didn't think about the fact that…"

"Blind spot like a tractor-trailer," Spike commented. He began to gracefully walk backwards through the tires.

Anya marched up to Xander and thrust out her headgear. "Fix it," she demanded.

Xander tentatively took the contraption in his hands and looked it over. "I suppose more mirrors…"

Buffy groaned from her position on the couch. "Noooooo. No more mirrors. These things are heavy enough as it is."

"Buffy's right," Willow agreed. "Even if you added more mirrors, you're not going to completely eliminate the blind spot directly behind us."

"So much for my brilliant idea," Xander said as he handed back the headband to Anya.

"So we don't have to wear it?" Anya asked. "Goody!"

"It's not a bad idea," Willow assured him as she walked backwards to the punching bag. "Actually, it's kind of a clever idea. We just need to…" she whapped into the bag "…get our mirror legs."

"Damn," Anya muttered, fixing the headband on her head, adjusting her two side mirrors for maximum reflection.

Buffy hauled herself off the couch, turned her back to the room, and began her awkward walk. "Could be worse. At least you aren't restricted as well, Xan."

Xander heard the shop's bell. "Hey, Dawnie's here with the coffee and donuts. I'll just…" his voice trailed off as he watched Anya, Willow, and Buffy stumble and curse their progress around the obstacle course. Spike practically danced pirouettes around the various piles of books on the floor, clearly enjoying the fact that he had no trouble maneuvering.

Xander sighed and didn't bother finishing the sentence since no one really seemed to be paying him any mind. *And why should they. It's not like you're going to be fighting. You're just the bait,* he thought.

He turned and left the training room.

Dawn looked up from the research table, half-eaten jelly donut halfway to her mouth. "Where's everyone? I was positive everyone would be running out here when I came in," she said.

Xander dropped in a chair. "Busy. Training," he shrugged. He snagged a coffee cup and took a sip. "Thanks, by the way."

Dawn snorted. "Yeah, like I get to be anything more than donut girl these days."

Xander fixed her with a stern look. "Don't say that. It's not true and you know…"

"Yeah, yeah. Whatever," Dawn waved a dismissive hand. "It's just that… well…I'm no more or less vulnerable than anyone else to this suicide demon, well, except for you, and I'm still getting sidelined at the house. You guys were fighting demons at fifteen, younger than me."

"Technically, you're not even three," Xander joked. When he saw Dawn's face fall he winced. "Dawnie, look, I'm sorry, okay? Foot-in-mouth disease strikes again. You're right. When you're right, you're right. But this demon, Dawn, this demon is really up there on the bad-o-meter and I just don't want…" *You to go through what I went through,* he mentally added.

Dawn offered him a weak smile. "I know you want to protect me. All of you. But I just want to make a contribution. A real contribution."

"Buffy was training you over the summer…" Xander began.

"Which has been called on account of Spike and the seasonal Hellmouth festivities," Dawn replied. "Look, half the reason why I wind up needing to be rescued is because I don't have any practical experience. I mean, I can't go and fight evil with my friends. I don't have my own Scooby Gang for backup because none of my friends even get that there's something seriously weird about the Sunny-D. The only people who can teach me are you guys."

Xander looked down at the table. "I know, I know," he quietly admitted. "Look, give it a little time, okay? Buffy gets the whole deal that you need training and she's started to rectify that. In the meantime, just, I dunno, figure out what you can do and get really good at that. You've been great filling in for Willow as research girl while she was in England and, hey! You've got some decent instincts for gumshoe work. I'd go with that."

Dawn tilted her head and regarded him. "Guess I didn't think of that. I figured that maybe I had to learn to…"

"Kick ass?" Xander finished for her.

Dawn giggled. "Xand, you make a great big brother but a lousy father figure."

Xander felt his smile freeze into a rigor mortis grin. "Why's that?" He tried not to choke on the question.

"For a start, you use words like 'ass' and 'shit' in the presence of my virgin ears," Dawn giggled into her donut, oblivious to Xander's sudden tension. "Plus, if you look at the combined dadage of the Scooby gang? Dads don't give pep talks like you do."

Xander relaxed. *Oh, she meant it as a compliment*.

{a sad state of affairs indeed.} the whisper agreed using its best tweed-is-god voice.

"So, tell me about this plan," Dawn said, whipping the powdered sugar on her fingers on her jeans. "I may be banned from the front lines, but I still wanna hear it."

"And maybe use that big brain of yours to poke holes?" Xander grinned back.

Dawn gave him an exaggerated look that telegraphed *Moi? Perish the thought*.

Xander shrugged. "Might as well. If you can see holes, we'll be able to improve the plan."

Dawn rewarded him with a happy smile and a small salute. "General Dawn reporting for duty, sah. Lay it on me."

Xander chuckled. "Right. Me. Bait."

"With you," Dawn said.

"I go into a bar…"

"This sounds like one of those jokes where there's a duck on someone's head," Dawn interrupted. "Or one of those where there's a priest, a rabbi, and a minister."

"Are you listening or not?"

"Sorry," Dawn cowed with a grin. "Please continue."

"I go into a bar, club, restaurant, basically, your run-of-the-mill hotspot or not-so-hotspot, sit at the bar, order a drink, and play wallflower."

"Ahhh, bait," Dawn said. She blinked. "Not bad. Time consuming, though."

Xander shrugged. "Not like we have a team to help us out and I'm the only one immune to the empathy attack, so not much choice there."

"Best of a bad situation," Dawn agreed. "Backup?"

Xander smiled. "Good thinking there, kiddo. Already covered. Five minutes after I start my mope-o-rama, one of the gang, sans mirrored headgear but armed with a cell, enters the place of establishment and takes up position."

"To watch your back," Dawn nodded. "They get to play P.I. and see what happens."

"You are following this, General Summers," Xander said.

"Strategic genius. That's me. Alcohol swabs?"

"I don't need 'em because of, you know, my incredible X-ray vision when it comes to this demon's cloaking spell…" Xander began.

{the bigger question is whether you'll be able to hide your reaction when our killer approaches you.} the whisper commented.

*Will you shut up!* Xander thought.

"Xander?" Dawn prompted. She was clearly concerned. "You blanked out on me for a second."

Xander gave her a relaxed smile that he didn't really feel. "Sorry, just trying to get my thoughts in order. Backup will have alcohol swabs to slap on the hands of anyone suspicious who approaches them. Safety precaution in case the demon goes after my shadow."

"Good, good," Dawn nodded. "Where's everyone else?"

"Out of sight and around the corner waiting for the bat signal."

"A.K.A., the call from your backup telling the gang that something fishy is going on," Dawn giggled.


"So, how will your backup know to call?"

"When I get up off the barstool and head for the exit in the company of a mysterious stranger." Xander's tone was light, but he could feel his hands tighten around the coffee cup. He carefully forced his hands to release the cup and as surreptitiously as possible put his hands under the table.

{you're shaking.} the whisper commented.

*Not now!* Xander fiercely thought back.

"Good. Liking it so far. Except for the part where everyone charges around the corner running backwards, swords drawn, and accidentally decapitates innocent bystanders when they trip and fall."

"I don't recall mentioning that as part of the plan," Xander dryly responded.

"But that appears to be the logical conclusion," Dawn said.

"We're not that bad," Xander protested.

"True. Usually you guys are worse. Usually you don't bother to have a plan," Dawn sniffed.

"See, now I know makin' fun."

"My prerogative as a little sis," Dawn grinned. "So, if charging to your rescue isn't part of the plan, what is?"

"The first call is to put the rest of the gang on alert that I've engaged the target," Xander explained. "While the gang gets ready to race to my rescue, backup follows me."

"Okay, problem here," Dawn said. "What if your 'date' wants to go for a ride?"

Xander felt his fingernails reflexively dig into the palms of his hands on the word 'date.' He winced.

"Didn't think of that, didjya?" Dawn sounded smug.

"Actually, we did," Xander countered. He brought his hands to the tabletop and tightly folded them. "Prior to me entering the bar, we choose a predetermined secluded area that's close to the gang's hiding place. My job is to maneuver our demon to that spot. When I get there, backup makes a second call."

"How are you gonna manage that?" Dawn asked.

Xander shrugged. "I'll think of something. Instinct tells me this thing is used to easy prey so I'm hoping that it won't realize that it's being manipulated until it's too late."

"You're betting an awful lot there," Dawn commented.

*More than you know.* Xander immediately quashed the thought.

"Okay, so you're immune to the mojo, right? And you've already killed one of these things. So, answer me this X-man, why do you need the rest of the gang to help you take out this one demon?" Dawn patiently waited for an answer.

"If we go by the clan Buffy and I evicted, this particular suicide demon is a little on the crazy side," Xander shrugged with a nonchalance he didn't feel. "Besides, in the case of the not-so-dear departed Mrs. Owsley, I took her by surprise. Same thing when I nabbed Mr. Owsley. I can't count on the same luck if it figures out that it's been tricked."

"In short, you're not confident you can kill it alone, hence the overkill," Dawn said.

"That's part of it," Xander winced.

"What's the other part?" Dawn asked.

"I'm not immune if it starts…" he waved vaguely his left ear. "You know."

Dawn sat up, eyes wide. "I didn't know! Xander!"

"Look, Dawnie. S'okay. I'm sure I can take this thing by surprise and I'm sure I'll have it gooed before the gang gets anywhere near me," Xander assured her with a confidence he didn't really feel. "The whole business in the training room is just a precaution in case something goes really, really wrong."

"I don't like the plan." Dawn said. "It sucks."

Xander wilted. "What don't you like about it?"

"The whole thing! What if you get brain-sucked?" Dawn asked.

Xander grinned and shook his head. "You'll have to find a new ride to the mall?"


"Look, Dawnie, it's just part of the Scooby deal. Sometimes you gotta take some risks," Xander said. "I'll be fine."

Dawn gave him one of those looks.

"Really," Xander said in a reassuring tone. "I'll be really, really careful. I swear."

"Promise?" Dawn asked in a tiny voice.

Xander put on his best serious face and held out a fist with pinky upraised. "Promise. I'll even pinky swear on it."

Chapter 32

*"No more questions.*


*No more jests.*

*Comes the day you say,*

*'What for?'*


*No more…"*

Dolly stood in the middle of the closed Café del Sol, head thrown back, eyes closed, as she swayed slowly to the song.

The end was coming and she couldn't feel better about it.

All that was needed was a push in the right direction.

Too bad the ending wasn't up to her. The ending, good or bad, always was, always is, and always will be in someone else's hands.

She really hoped she wouldn't be disappointed.

*"We disappoint*

*We disappear*

*We die, but we don't…*


*They disappoint*

*In turn, I fear.*

*Forgive, though, they won't."*

Dolly shuddered in anticipation. The old cassette tape of the original New York cast soundtrack may be battered, but age simply couldn't dim the Baker's sweet voice on the next part, raised in rage and confusion.

*"No more riddles.*

*No more jests.*

*No more curses you can't undo,*

*Left by fathers you never knew.*

*No more quests.*

*No more feelings.*

*Time to shut the door.*


*No More…"*

Dolly found herself loudly singing along, keeping in perfect harmony with not-at-all-extraordinary Baker, the unwitting catalyst for a whole lot of changing fates, or maybe, the catalyst for a whole lot of people accepting their fate. It was that kind of grey area that Dolly loved: the chicken-and-egg scenario. Was it wishes that created your fate, or are you fated to make the wishes that sent you into the woods in the first place?

Damn, Sondheim is a genius.

*"…The trouble is, son,*

*The further you run,*

*The more you feel undefined*

*For what you have left undone*

*And, more, what you've left behind."*

How many copies of *Into the Woods* did she have stashed in various towns around the world?

The answer, sadly, was not as many as she would like. Less than five at any given time, truth to tell.

Then again, even one was far too many in her humble opinion.

She picked up the battered cassette case and giddily remembered the blustery day she bought this particular copy in March 1993.

*"No more Giants*

*Waging War.*

*Can't we just pursue our lives*

*With our children and our wives?*

*Till that happy day arrives,*

*How do you ignore*

*All the witches,*

*All the curses,*

*All the wolves, all the lies,*

*The false hopes, the goodbyes,*

*The reverses,*

*All the wondering what even worse is *

*Still in store?*

*All the children…*

*All the Giants…*

*No more."*

As the strains of the song died away, Dolly walked calmly across the shop and clicked off the boombox. She enjoyed the silence, hugging tight to her good mood.

She didn't always finish the soundtrack. If she had to stop half way through the tape, it meant that she had to abandon yet another town and another failed story. It meant she would see the people involved in that failed story again and not in a good way.

That very reality always broke her heart.

But when she got this far into the play, she could almost smell the happy ending.

"Don't get too excited," Dolly chided herself. "We haven't yet seen the curtain call."

Dolly glanced up at the clock, reading the time in a dim light. She smiled. "Ahhh, time for me to hit my mark," Dolly said.

She pulled on her coat, glancing around the abandoned café, smiling fondly at the interior. "Think he'll be on time?" she asked the empty room.

She happily nodded. "Yup. I think so, too."

And on that note, she was gone.

Chapter 33

*Milk, eggs, pasta. Am I forgetting something? I know I'm forgetting something,* Xander thought. He hated paying the insane prices demanded by Sunnydale's lone Store24, but he simply wasn't in the mood to drive to the 24-hour grocery store located two towns away. Training was still ongoing at the Magic Box, but Buffy declared that he, Xander Harris, needed to be 'tanned, rested, and ready' for the hunt to begin tomorrow night.

He wasn't allowed to argue.

Xander wondered if there was a spell somewhere out there that would allow him to stop time.

{yeah, you and magic. there's a match made on the hellmouth.} the whisper snorted.

He ignored the comment from the peanut gallery as he quick-timed his way to the shop's well-lit entrance. Although he had never encountered the local denizens of the dark hanging around the front of the store bumming cigarettes, it always paid to be cautious. He stepped into light pouring out of the store's window and breathed a sigh of relief.

{oh, like fluorescent lights make a good replacement for good ol' sunlight.} the whisper groused. {you could do this tomorrow, you know.}

*Look, it was on my home, I'm here. Shut up, already.*

The whisper grumbled itself into impatient quiet.

Xander took a deep breath, steeled himself for the overwhelming smell of Camels that the night clerk favored, and prepared to open the door. His hand barely touched the door handle when he heard a blood-curdling scream.

"Damn it," he muttered as he scanned the area, trying to find the source of the sound. "Please, lady. Scream one more time so I can find you."

The lady in question obliged.

*Great, just great. It's coming from in back of the store,* Xander thought as he tore into the shadows away from the well-lit windows.

{do we even have a stake?} the whisper asked.

"Left in the car. No time," Xander replied as he peeked around the corner. He breathed a sigh of relief. He was in luck. Only two vampires and neither one of them were aware he was there. They were too busy concentrating on the woman crouched against the wall.

He scanned the area and spotted a splintered pallet leaning against the store dumpster. He looked to the heavens and silently thanked whoever decided to watch over fools and children tonight and scuttled over to the ready-made weapon.

The woman screamed again.

Xander grabbed a six-inch long wooden shard and charged into the darkness behind the store. One vampire was crouched over the woman struggling in his grip while the other stood with his back to the approaching human.

*This one is a gimmie,* Xander thought as he slammed the stake home into the vampire's back, causing it to explode into ash.

The second vampire looked up in surprise from his impending meal and snarled.

*Oh, oh,* Xander thought. *Where's a Slayer when you need one?*

{you can't leave her there} the whisper ordered.

"No one's leaving anyone," Xander quietly said.

The vampire launched itself at Xander and slammed him into the store's back wall.

"Ungh!" Xander grunted as he struggled in the vampire's grip, panicking because he had dropped his stake on impact with the hard brick surface.

"Two for the price of one," the vampire hissed.

Vampire and human scuffled while Xander tried to break free and the vampire tried to get better purchase on the human's head.

*This is not going to work. I have to get the damn stake,* Xander wildly thought. Said stake unfortunately was on the ground between him and his opponent. Nothing for it then, he was going to have to take a dive for the ground and hope the vampire didn't expect it.

Xander let his legs give out from beneath him, angling his fall so he'd at least land near the stake.

The vampire was so taken by surprise that he was dragged to the ground with his intended meal. The vampire's fall kicked the stake away and closer to the frightened woman.

Xander managed to wriggle out of the vampire's suddenly tentative grasp and dove facedown for the pallet shard. He almost shouted with relief when his right hand closed around wood.

"Trying to run?" the vampire chuckled as he flipped the struggling human onto his back.

Xander quickly arced his arm up, managing to slam the stake home. *I'll never in a million years be able to pull that off again,* he thought as vampire exploded ash into his face. He rolled over onto his side, coughing and sneezing. *Ouch. I think I bruised some ribs. I think I've got splinters, too. Fabulous.*

"What…what…what…" a female voice stuttered.

*Shit! I forgot about the witness!*

{play it cool.} the whisper urged.

Xander slowly sat up and looked at the cowering woman. "Hey, you okay?" He congratulated himself for keeping his voice strong and steady, despite the shortness of breath.

The woman looked directly at him.



Chapter 34

Xander sat uncomfortably on the couch and wondered how in hell he wound up in Dolly's apartment. He remembered trying to get out of the invite to come in when he walked Dolly to her door, but the 40-something waitress simply refused to take no for an answer.

He tried not to openly study his surroundings, but curiosity quickly overcame politeness as his eyes drank in evidence of Dolly's world-wandering ways.

Photos adorned the walls showing Dolly standing in the in front of the Kremlin in Moscow, at a Himalayan base camp, on an outcropping at Machu Picchu in Peru, in front of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, at the base of a pyramid in Egypt, and on and on and on. In every picture Dolly wore her blinding smile and was waving wildly at the camera, almost as if she were shouting 'look at me now mom' for the benefit of people back home. Wherever she considered home, that is.

Xander's townie self burned with an envy he didn't dare openly admit. When he set out on the road after high school he half-hoped that the images in Dolly's pictures would loom large in his future. He sighed. *One night at the Fabulous Ladies Nightclub and I crawl back to my parents on hands and knees.*

{you felt like you were running away from your responsibilities here.} the whisper said.

Xander quietly snorted in response as he listened with half-an-ear to Dolly rummaging around in her medicine cabinet. *More like I was afraid to even try,* he silently corrected. He looked down at his hand and counted the splinters. *Besides, I'm not really needed here. Sometimes I feel like I'm just marking time and waiting for life to begin,* he dejectedly thought.

The whisper sighed. {i'm pretty sure dolly would disagree. stop looking at the pictures. you're just going to make yourself crazy. besides, it's not like you can't do the same thing. there's nothing stopping you if you want nip over to greece for a week and check out athens.}

"My, aren't we being encouraging," Xander muttered. *How the hell am I gonna get out of this one? What am I going to say to Dolly?*

{muggers.} the whisper reminded him.

Xander startled when a first aid kit plopped on the coffee table in front of him. He looked up to see Dolly standing with her hands on her hips. A streak of dirt striped down her left cheek and Xander made a motion to indicate she had something on her face.

"What?" she asked.

"Dirt," Xander said.

A teakettle whistled in the kitchen.

"Be right back," Dolly said without bothering to wipe at her face. She was halfway across the living room before she whirled around and pointed at her guest. "Don't even think of moving."

Xander held up his hands in surrender.

Dolly nodded once and disappeared into the kitchen.

Xander reached over and opened the first aid kit. His eyebrows shot up in surprise. Her package was almost as well stocked as the one in his apartment. He pawed through the contents and pulled out some Band Aids and antibacterial ointment. He continued digging to find a needle to remove the splinters.

A cup clinked when it landed on the coffee table next to the first aid kit. He looked up.

"Scooch over, will ya?" Dolly indicated with a wave of her hand. The dirt streak was still there.

Xander shifted to make room for Dolly on the couch. "I can't find…"

"Got a needle here, hun," Dolly said as she settled on the couch. She reached over to dip the needle in a cup of hot water. "Gotta sterilize," she explained.

"Right. Ummm, sorry about the run-in with the local nightlife," Xander began.

"Shush. Gimmie your hand, hero."

"Hero?" Xander asked while Dolly grabbed his right hand and began working.

"Yah. Saved me from those… What were they?"

"Muggers. Muggers on PCP," Xander replied using the party line. "PCP. Big problem in…"

Dolly gave him a jab with a needle, eliciting a hiss of pain from Xander.

"Don't give me that," Dolly retorted. "I know men. I like men. Those things? Not men."

"Really? They looked man-shaped to me." Xander desperately hoped the Sunnydale Denial would kick in really soon because he knew that a more detailed lie was not going to hold up under Dolly's current level of scrutiny.

"Man-shaped things that explode when you stick something sharp in 'em ya mean," Dolly said bending to her task.

"You don't have to do this you know," Xander said, changing the subject. "I'm an expert at getting splinters…"

"Oh, stick man-shaped things with pointy things often, do ya?"

"No!" Xander said. "I mean, I work in construction. I get lots of splinters, hence the expertise."

Dolly grunted as she pulled a splinter from his hand. She wiped the needle on her skirt and dipped it back in the cup of hot water. "Ya looked like ya knew what you were doin' back there."

"Really? I thought I looked like a guy who was desperately fighting for his life." Xander immediately wanted to slap himself for making the unthinking comment.

"That too," Dolly said as she continued her operation. "But ya looked like ya knew what to do." She looked up and the threatening gleam in her eye promised a lot more painful pokes with the needle if Xander didn't come clean. "I know what I saw, hun. I saw ya charge inta the fray like you was some avengin' angel. I saw ya stick a sharp piece of wood into one man-shaped thing and then inta another. I saw two man-shaped things explode inta dust…" Dolly's voice trailed off and her eyes widened in shock.

"Dolly?" Xander asked. He snapped fingers in front of her face to get her attention. When the waitress looked at him, Xander added, "Dolly? Are you okay?"

"Hun? Should I be thinkin' Dracula-like thoughts?"

"No. Dracula has this mind-control thing…"

{will you shut up!} the whisper yelled.

"I mean, no!" Xander corrected himself. "Why would you think…"

Dolly jabbed him with the needle.

"Ow! What happened to 'hero'?"

Dolly fixed him with a glare. "I know what I saw," her voice had an undertone of threat, "I want the truth. Not some crap PCP story, got it?" She held up the needle with a nasty smile. "Feed me a line…"

Xander closed his eyes in defeat. Dolly wasn't going to buy anything less than the truth. Fine. Truth she was going to get.


An hour later Dolly was owlishly blinking at her guest. "Vampires. Are real," she said.


"Demons. Are real."


"Things that go bump inna night…"

"Are real," Xander finished for her.

"And the town?"

"Is on top of a Hellmouth."

"Hunh," Dolly commented. "Okay, I knew there was a reason rent in this town was so cheap. I knew I shoulda never bought the real estate agent's line about the shortage of Starbuck's storefronts."

"The real estate agent probably believes it," Xander replied.

"No one in this town knows," Dolly flatly stated.

"Correction. No one in this town wants to know."

Dolly's face screwed up as she chewed over that statement. "But you want to know?"

"Not really," Xander admitted. "I don't have a choice."

"Because of your friend. The little blonde one."

"The Slayer. Right."

"The one who can kick your ass and not break a nail."

"That's the one."


The pair sat in silence for a few seconds.

"And she has other friends?"

"My friend, Willow. She's the witch, like I said."

"Right. And you mentioned an Enya?"

"Anya. Ex-vengeance demon."

Dolly blinked. "A what-a-what demon?"

"Vengeance demon, but former," Xander quickly said. "She used to, ummm, exact vengeance on men who did women wrong."

"I see," Dolly said. "But she's not now?"

"No, but she's got 1,200 years' worth of experience being a demon, so that's been a big help."

Dolly blinked. "Then there's a vampire. Which you don't stake. Because of a chip that gave him a soul."

"No. Chip first. Soul later." Xander grimaced. "I think there's a soul involved. Hard to tell if you ask me. Buffy and Anya believe it. I'm not sure I want to believe it, but until proven otherwise I'm stuck with going along."

"If what ya told me about vampires is true, that's gotta be a first," Dolly said.

"Nope. It's a second. There's another one."

"Another one?" Dolly asked.

"Don't sweat it. He lives in LA, so no big."

"Are there a lotta these vampires with souls?"

"Nope. Just the two. At least the only two I know about and that's enough if you ask me."

"So Anne Rice is fulla shit then."

"Pretty much."


That sat a few more seconds in silence.

"What's your secret?" Dolly asked.

"Mine?" Xander squeaked.

"Slayer, witch, vampire, ex-demon of some sort. We're talkin' Justice League here. What's your super-cool secret?"

Xander squirmed. "Don't have one. What you see is what you get."

"Ahhh, you're Batman then."

"More like Batmite, but okay."

Dolly started giggling. Soon she was laughing. Laughing edged up into hysterical howling as she fell off the couch and onto the floor.

"Dolly! Hey, Dolly? Are you okay?" Xander dove for the floor to check his hostess.

She stopped laughing long enough to look up at the young man looming over her prone form. She stared up into his concerned brown eyes. Then she was off on another wave of hysterical laughter.

Xander sat back on his haunches. "Right. I'll wait until it all sinks in."


Twenty minutes later Dolly was calm enough to talk, aside from the occasional hiccup indicating that she was dangerously close to laughing again. "So, that explains why you insisted on drivin' me one block home," she said.

"Please don't tell me you walk home from the café when you work nights," Xander said. "It's dangerous out there."

"I can take care of myself, ya know," Dolly huffed. "I'm not some damsel in…"

"I didn't say you were," Xander quickly interrupted. "I mean, Jesus, look at all the traveling you've done. I'm pretty sure you do know how to take care of yourself. It's just normal people in this town have a tendency to become dinner if they're not careful."

"Well, I didn't know that before tonight, did I?" Dolly sniffed. "Besides, I'm not stupid, ya know. There are lots of bad things that lurk in the dark and most 'em are human. I drove home from work."

"So what were you doing behind the convenience store without a car?"

Dolly sighed. "Had a date at Chez Robert's two blocks over. I dumped my car off here and walked over to save some gas. The store was on my way home from the restaurant and I needed a coupla things so I thought I'd stop and get 'em."

Xander looked at the time. "It's only 11 o'clock, so I take it the date didn't go well."

"Could say that, hun. My date didn't even show."

{her date probably got eaten.} the whisper commented.

"Didn't call me at work to let me know that he wasn't gonna be there," Dolly continued. "I called my answering machine from the restaurant and there was no message here either."

{definitely something's dinner.} the whisper opined.

"Ahh, Dolly. Forget about it," Xander said. "Something just probably came up and he didn't get a chance to call."

Dolly chuckled. "Nah. I'll just chalk it up to one more frog wearing a prince charmin' mask."

"Well, for the record, the guy's an idiot."

Dolly grinned. "You're pretty good at this cheerin' up thing, hun. You're sorta like a man-shaped girlfriend."

Xander winced. "I've heard that before," he muttered.

Dolly patted his arm. "Reaction like that? I'm guessin' someone's goin' through a dry spell. Cheer up! I'm sure your princess in shinin' armor will ride up on her white horse and sweep ya offa ya feet."

"Sounds good to me," Xander nodded. "But the day that happens, I'm checking the white horse because it's probably a paint job."

"Now that's cynical," Dolly laughed.

"Nope. That's life on the Hellmouth," Xander shrugged. "Look, Dolly, next time you find yourself stuck for a ride after dark, call me and if I can I'll come get you. Save you the cab fare at least."

Dolly stopped laughing and regarded him with something close to surprise. "You'd do that for me?"

"Well, yeah." Xander felt distinctly uncomfortable with the look Dolly was giving him. "If something happens to you I'd, I dunno, I'd miss you and the whole flirting thing in the morning."

"Nice to know someone out there notices waitresses."

"I also noticed you still have dirt on your face," Xander said.

Dolly wrinkled her nose. "Not important, hun. I figured your paw was more important. I can wash my face later."

"Thanks." Xander ducked his head so Dolly wouldn't see him blush. "Look, I better go. I have a long day ahead tomorrow."

"Sure thing, hun." Dolly stood and waited for Xander to do the same before she lead him to the apartment door.

Xander nodded a goodnight as she let him out but stopped when she put a restraining hand on his arm. He looked at her in surprise and noticed she was worrying her bottom lip with her teeth. "Dolly?"

"Look, hun, I know ya probably doin' what ya think is right an' I respect ya an all…" she began.

*Here it comes,* Xander thought. *She's going to tell me I should let the people with the real power do the fighting.*

"Just promise me you'll be careful, hunh?" Dolly finished with a pleading look. "I don't have too many friends an' I'd hate to lose one."

The sentiment surprised a broad smile out of Xander. He gave a mock bow. "As you wish."

"*The Princess Bride.* One of my all-time favorites," Dolly said with pleased happiness. "And just for the record hun, that's my line."