Cold. That was the first thing Xander felt when he awoke, other than the blinding, immeasurable, stinging pain. But even that blazing fire inside couldn’t compare to the freezing room temperature. And the fact that he was only wearing a T-shirt and a pair of denim jeans didn’t help warm him any better than if he’d only worn his boxers. What really plagued him was the insistent question in the back of his skull: Where exactly is here? Xander couldn’t even open his eyes to deduce where he was because anytime he attempted to, an intense throbbing sensation rippled in waves behind his eyelids, which eventually became so painful he’d tightly shut them once again without ever finding out anything more.

What’s more, Xander wasn’t even sure he wanted to see what was around him. The blustery air had the nauseating smell of malodorous meat combined with the putrid reek of garbage. The scurry of rats rebounded off of the walls with a deafening roar, drowning out any other sounds that could be clues as to where the room was. Occasionally, when that sound subsided—he wasn’t exactly sure—but Xander imagined he detected the steady whir of a fan in the background.

When he endeavored to move, Xander discovered his arms and legs useless as they were bound together with rope. He also found out that the stabbing pains in his head weren’t isolated after all. In fact, they flooded his body, piercing every part with thousands of little separate pinpricks. His muscles ached with each tiny movement, and his head pulsated with every thought. But that didn’t stop Xander from immediately thinking of his Buffy and the rest of his beloved friends. Were they okay? Had they been captured too? Xander went numb with fear when he realized Buffy might’ve been kidnapped as well, leaving her in serious pain or worse. What if that were what the shadow wanted to show him: the slayer’s cold, dead corpse. God no! He had to get free; he had to find Buffy. Xander fought down the agony as he struggled frantically with his restraints, but to no avail. The rope held strong, giving him very little leeway with which to work; however, the persistent boy refused to give up. If his friends were indeed in danger, he was going to save them.

After writhing in anger on the floor for what seemed like hours, Xander whimpered softly in defeat. He couldn’t go on fighting any longer; he was physically exhausted. All attempts to escape had been futile, and it seemed that there was no way out. He pleaded silently to God and asked that He keep his friends safe, especially Buffy.

“Morning, sunshine,” a voice taunted. It was difficult for Xander to tell for sure, because of the echoing effects that the walls possessed, but he suspected the owner of the eerie voice to be right in front of him.

“Bastard,” Xander spat as nastily as he could manage.

“Now, is that anyway to speak to your most gracious host, hmm?” The man walked closer to the teenage boy that lay bound before him. He gradually stopped when he was beside Xander’s head, and then he stooped down next to the boy’s ear. “So,” the voice continued, “how have you been? I, myself, wasn’t feeling quite up to par last weekend, but now I’m feeling pretty damn great!

“You know why I wasn’t nearly as enthralled with life last weekend as I am at this moment?” Xander could feel the shadow eyeing over his bruised and beaten body when he spoke, scrutinizing every injury, wondering where to inflict the next vicious one and planning the most painful way to do it.

“Because you were dead, in Hell, where you belong,” he stated matter-of-factly.

“I tend to disagree with the latter, however, the former is true, I was in Hell. And you want to know something else, Xander? I rather liked it there. The unbelievable hurt, the unending torture. That made it all the more appealing to me. To see those thousands of trapped souls screaming for salvation, reaching up toward Heaven, clawing the air, knowing they’d never escape the horrors that encompassed them, really made me think. Hah, it made me think I never wanted to leave. Once I’d seen the wonders of Hell, I realized that I never wanted to go anywhere else, especially Heaven. Perpetual bliss, enlightenment, and total and complete happiness were never really my scene. I dig suffering, death, and pain… They’re fun.” Xander could sense the lunatic’s madness in the air around him, and he felt a ghostly cold shiver chase the warmth down his spine and right out of him. Xander imagined the shadow’s grin growing wider and wider with each new thought that eternal damnation conjured.

“Damn you, Angel, damn you!” Xander growled out of frustration.

“I prefer Angelus; an angel is a servant of God, an entity with which I have nothing in common, as you and your friends well know.”

“That’s for sure.”

“Would you like to know why I brought you here?” Angelus frowned when Xander didn’t answer. He’d rather hoped Xander would start an argument with him and give him reason to beat him further. “Aren’t you the least bit interested?” No reply. Angelus’ scowl deepened even more so. “Oh, I think you’ll be more than interested to hear what I have planned…”

Xander shuddered inside, trying to ignore the icy smile he knew was displayed on Angelus’ face. He bit his lower lip hard and braced himself for what he was about to hear. It was the only way.

@~~`~~~

Ring!

Thank God thought Buffy as she handed in her Trig test. She exhaled heavily.Another one failed.

While Buffy was gathering up her things, Willow approached her. “How do you think you did on this test, Buffy? I actually feel as though I aced this one. I was up all night studying for it,” the red head informed.

“How many points was it worth?”

“50.”

“Okay, let me think for a moment. If ĐO is 67° and side A is 103 cm, then, hold on. Carry the one. Remember, adjust for pi. In that case, if I did my math right, I got a big, fat zero!”

Willow smiled and escorted her now depressed blonde friend out of the room and through the hallways. Along the way, the two conversed about the usefulness of trigonometry in their everyday life: Willow arguing in its defense, and Buffy arguing against it. Then, halfway to Buffy’s locker, they met up with Oz, and Willow seemed happier than ever to see him. Oz greeted Buffy and in one quick movement slipped Willow’s hand into his own, leading her to her next class and away from the slayer. They all exchanged brief good-byes as they went their separate ways.

Once at her locker, Buffy opened it to switch textbooks. She was so busy hurrying to get to her Physics class that she almost failed to notice the envelope addressed to her. It caught her eye just before she slammed her locker door shut. Wondering what it was and whom it was from, she snatched it up and looked curiously at it, turning it over in her hands while exploring it gently with her fingertips.

The envelope was a plain, everyday white with an elaborate blood-red wax seal on the back and strange bulges on the inside. Other than the seal, it was hardly chichi in appearance. The front of it was adorned with naught but black, flowing script that read: To Buffy Summers, V.S. The slayer felt a large bump form in the back of her throat as she read the words, for they immediately made her uneasy. She’d been fighting evil for so long that, by now, she’d learned to trust her instincts. And right then they were telling her that she definitely didn’t want to know what was inside the strikingly simple, yet taunting paper envelope. But, eventually, her curiosity got the better of her—as it often did—and against her better judgment she opened the thing with extreme caution, the back of her mind ululating desperately for her to close it.

The sticky seal hedged, then ripped from the paper, and Buffy tore into the envelope. What she revealed inside terrified her like she had always imagined nothing could. The odd lump she’d felt within it turned out to be a Sunnydale High class ring—gold with a red ruby in the center—resembling the one Xander wore. She looked inside the band for initials and discovered: A.L.H.—Alexander LaVelle Harris. But that wasn’t the only “present” in the paper container. Buffy also extracted two other pieces of folded parchment, one thick and grainy and white, the other one appearing yellowed and aged with time.

Not knowing which to investigate first, Buffy chose the yellowed scrap of paper and found it to be an exquisitely written, yet totally specious note that read:

Hello Lover,

Remember me, your dearly departed? Been a long time since we’ve last tangoed, hasn’t it? I’ve missed you and the way we danced. While I was gone, I had time to look back on all that I’ve done, and I realized how much I love you. My dearest slayer, I need you like never before… I need your love like never before. I’d do anything to be with you again. Unfortunately, for us to reunite we have to free ourselves from all of the roadblocks and barriers that used to keep us from being together, and sadly, this means that your personal bodyguard, Xander stinking Harris, has to die. But worry not, lover. Where you two cannot be together, we can, this time forever, at long last. To show you that I am not heartless, I shall leave these gifts for you to remember him by.

Love always,

Angelus

Buffy shivered so violently that she could hardly conclude reading the obscene note. A few of her tears fell onto the paper, smearing the words. The whole scene became as unreal as her wildest nightmares, and Buffy soon found herself peering down at her own body from above, only to discover herself kneeling on the floor, hands clasped together in prayer. Xander… Please let him be okay! Please keep him safe!

Buffy slowly opened the other piece of paper and examined it, her quaking hands blurring the image on it. She discovered it to be sketch paper, which explained why it was so thick and heavy. “Nooo!” she wailed into the hallway. She grabbed her head with her hands, whipping wildly left and right in an attempt to expel the vicious image now scorched into her mind.

As she grasped her head, Buffy released the paper to let it fall to the ground along with her textbook. It landed with the sound of a pitiful whimper on the linoleum floor—light from the overhead fluorescence streaming down onto it, making the black-and-white drawing glow supernaturally and come alive—its twisted picture writhing in a movement indicative of severe pain. It was one of Angelus’ famous sketches. This time the subject was a bruised, battered Xander lying bound in the dirt, rope scattered everywhere, with his head turned unnaturally far to the side to display a twisted look of horror and pain frozen on his face, lifeless eyes gazing upwards to the heavens as if praying for redemption.

@~~`~~~

Back in the dank room, Angelus began to unfold his plan to a silent, distant teenager. “First, I’m going to torture you—not for any real reason, but just for the pure fun of it. And this torture will be like nothing you’ve ever known before: physical at first, but then reaching to a subconscious level. It’ll be slow, too, unbelievably slow, and I’ll be relentless—a drill in the human mind. Time will inch by, and there’ll be no end to for the suffering I’m going to cause you. When I’m through with you, Xander, you’ll be nothing more than a quivering mass on this floor.

“And that’s when I’ll bring in the big guns; that’s when I’ll bring Buffy here. She’ll charge in, ready to save you and slay me, and then she’ll stop when she sees what I’ve done to you. Probably the first thing Buffy’ll do is run to your side to see if you’re okay, ignoring her own safety and unknowingly placing herself in the very hands of danger. And as she’s kneeling there, cradling your practically lifeless body in her arms, that’s when I’ll finish you off. Only, thing is, I’ll miss your heart, letting you to live long enough to watch me mortally wound your precious little vampire slayer. You’ll both go out watching each other die! Ingenious, isn’t it?

“But I’m not done there. No, I’ll find the rest of the slayerettes, and one by one I’ll waste them. First comes Cordelia, then that menace Oz (I’ll make sure the beautiful Willow Rosenberg gets a front row seat to that show). Then, I’ll kill her, too, but don’t worry, Xander, I’ll do it as quickly as possible, though definitely not painlessly.” He paused to grin with delight at the image.

“And last, but most certainly not least, the watcher, the man who’s been a thorn in my side for so very long. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the reason I was killed in the first place. If that damned Englishman hadn’t been so stubborn, Acthala would have been released, Hell would be on Earth, and I’d be having the time of my life right now! But I’m not, and I blame Giles. So he too shall die, just as slowly as Buffy will. Oh, wait till you see what I do to them! It’ll leave you absolutely breathless.”

“You’re sick, deluded, crazy! You bastard! You, you, slimy little blood-sucker, I’ll kill you!” Xander thrashed about wildly, fighting down the urge to vomit at the extreme pain his motions caused. Angelus kicked him once—hard in the chest—and Xander settled back into silence, his body heaving and his heart pounding painfully against his injured ribcage. But he fought back all the pain by worrying his lower lip with his teeth, and he opened his eyes just a crack so he could get a good look at the beast that was threatening to do all these terrible things to his friends.

“Tough words from a tough man,” Angelus mocked.

“Damn you,” Xander managed between fits of harsh coughing. Angelus’ hollow, throaty laughter echoed throughout the stinking room. What he wouldn’t give to kill the bastard!

“Oh, Xander, I’m going to enjoy torturing you. You’ve always been such a wimp. You won’t last long, which can be a good thing, for then I won’t have to wait much longer to get a chance at that gorgeous slayer. I can tell, Xander, that you’re gonna love watching me kill her. I can see it in your eyes; you’re excited about it. You’ve got the potential for being a ruthless vampire, kid. Ever think about the idea?” The boy’s eyes burned so brightly with fear and hatred that Angelus felt the need to whip out his sunglasses merely to look in them. They were churning with rage, and in the background the vampire saw the tongues of fire and a ring of black smoke billowing.

“Touch her, and I…will…kill you!” he seethed with such conviction that he forced Angelus to take an unnecessary step backwards. Now Angelus didn’t smile when Xander threatened him; instead, he kept a straight face while he stood up and sauntered out.

“Get some rest,” the demon ordered. “You need to be healthy when I start my routine of ‘treatment’ on you. It’ll prolong the enjoyment I get out of it. I’ll be back for you later.” His footsteps resounded throughout the room like mourning bells in a church steeple, and Xander was reminded of a particular scene in a novel he’d once actually read for an English, the classic known as Ethan Frome.

Xander heard the door close with a thud as he shut his eyes quickly. He was alone again with the rats and the rotten meat and dark thoughts. Where ever you are, Buffy, I hope you know how much I miss you, my love.