Xander heard the huge metal door swing open followed by the resounding ring of heavy leaden footsteps crossing the floor slowly to him. All other sounds faded away as the footsteps tried to instill a fear that Xander had just recently conquered.
“Guess what?” Angelus asked.
Keeping unearthly silent, Xander simply stared vacuously at the vampire, as if looking through him; this time he wasn’t going to take the bait, this time he was ready for whatever the vampire threw his way.
“It’s eleven o’clock exactly. You know what that means?” Silence. “It means it’s party time.” The quivering boy heard the soft rustle of shifting fabric as Angelus bent down on one knee next to Xander’s ear and lightly touched his abductee’s neck with his icy fingers, dragging them purposefully along the throbbing artery hidden within the column of his tender throat.
Quietly, he inquired, “Wanna know how this is gonna work?” The only reply Angelus received was Xander’s ragged breathing and the scuffle of a few pairs of rats’ feet as they ran across the cement floor to the twisted monstrosity in the corner.
“Answer me, dammit!” he cried, his booming voice resonating off of the metal walls like a echo in the mountains. When the stubborn teen refused to answer yet again, refused to react at all, Angelus kicked him hard, once for good measure. “Now,” he said in a calmer, hushed tone, “do you want to know how this is going to work?” No reply. The more Xander ignored him, the angrier the demon got, his rage finally bubbling over its rim when he delivered yet another rib-cracking blow to Xander’s side, laughing harshly as Xander choked on his own blood and coughed thickly, a little bit of dark burgundy saliva dribbling onto his chin. “You’re going to answer me now, or else suffer the most painful of consequences,” he uttered, raising his leg threateningly in the air to prepare himself to send another kick into the poor kid’s chest.
“No, I don’t wanna know how this is going to work,” the timorous boy squeaked.
Angelus glared evilly at Xander, his eyes devoid of any compassion or feeling, just black, unending hatred brewing in their murky depths. As Xander stared grievously into them, his gaze unwavering, he swore he saw something move within them—something oily black and serpentine in nature slithered around the pupils and coiled up into a tight ball—something as inherently evil as the being that possessed it. “Wrong answer,” he stated flatly, the shadowy monster in his eyes stirring at the sense of the dark emotion of loathing as he brought his colossal foot down square in the center of Xander’s chest.
He wheezed and moaned, pain coursing throughout his veins, spidery webs of it encasing his chest like a second set of ribs, and a gurgling noise originating from the back of his throat with each passing breath he took. While Angelus cackled at his destroyed body, Xander choked back tears and whimpered miserably from the amount of suffering he’d already had to endure and also for the tremendous amount of suffering he knew was soon to come.
“What’s the correct answer?”
“Yes,” Xander muttered weakly, hurting even more from the fact that he’d given in to the enemy so quickly. He felt as though he had somehow let Buffy down by answering Angel’s question like this, and he feared her opinion that he was a wimpy little coward would lessen even further because of it.
“Excellent! You got one right. Since you want to know so badly, I guess I’ll tell you. What we’re going to do is this: I’m gonna ask you a question, you’re gonna answer it to the best of your knowledge. (By the way, I can tell if you’re lying to me.) If you refuse to comply, then, well…” He paused briefly, “Let’s just say it won’t be pleasant. Clear?”
Through gritted teeth: “Yes.”
“Terrific! Let’s begin.
“First question, hell, let’s just go for the gold,” he interrogated slyly, over-enthused by the recent turn of events, “what are your exact feelings for Buffy?”
Xander was taken aback. He hadn’t really expected anything like that, at least not at this point so early into their “session.” This wasn’t a conversation he wanted to be having with Buffy’s former lover, rather with Buffy herself, someday far down the road. He knew not what to tell Angelus, for he had said that he would know if Xander were lying or not and had implied that he would cause the boy great pain if he did so. But Xander really didn’t want to confess his hidden love for Buffy to Angelus, of all people. Time to see what his choices were: lie, suffer the consequences; tell the truth, suffer the consequences. Not a very wide array of selections for him to pick from. What if Angelus were bluffing about knowing if Xander were lying or not. What if all he wanted was the truth from the slayerette so he could hurt him more? He had to find out before he made such an important decision.
“Ask me another question.”
A smirk inched up Angelus’ face. “Just answer this one.”
“I wanna know if you can tell if I’m lying or not before I answer that one. Ask me a simple, but not obvious question; one that only I would know.”
After a momentary pause, he began. “Very well. Why is it that your parents are never home? Ever?”
Xander pondered over this one for a minute. Good question. His mother, the flight attendant, was always busy with work and was constantly off on some trip somewhere: Barbados, Tokyo, Berlin, it didn’t matter, because most of the time she was with a man other than his dad. On the other hand, there was his father, the good doctor on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but he was no better at keeping his marital vows than his wife was. More than once Xander had caught his dad “examining” one of his female patients a little too closely. Not even Willow knew that his parents weren’t on their current vacation together, but were with one of their numerous love interests (which they had more of than Baskin Robbins has flavors of ice cream).
Xander decided wisely to tell Angelus the complete truth and told him all about his parents many love interests and their frequent absences because they were on vacation, although he did throw in the lie that his parents were actually on vacation with each other this time.
There was another pause as the vampire finished digesting all of the story. “You’re telling me the truth, except for the part about them being together during this current vacation,” Angelus announced rather proudly, giving the boy a strange half-grin.
Okay, so he isn’t bluffing.
“Now, back to the original question. Remember, your words govern my actions.” Angelus’ eyes were brimming with merriment. He had the child exactly where he wanted him: he lies, he’s in trouble; he tells the truth, likewise. In a low, tremulous voice, he answered, “I, I love her.”
“Oh, you love her, sure, but how do you love her? There are many different forms of love, I’m sure you know,” the demon prodded gleefully. “For example: buddy-buddy love, puppy love, true love…”
“I love her,” he began hesitantly, his heart shaking in fear, “more than anything.”
“More than sweet, lovely Cordy?” he inquired, putting extra sarcasm on the sweet.
“More than my life.”
Angelus clapped his hands in joy. Finally, Angelus thought, the truth comes out. He gave a hardy laugh and danced excitedly around the captured slayerette. “I knew it, I knew it!” he chanted, circling his prey like a vulture in the sky. Angelus rubbed his hands together vigorously as he said, “I’ve known it all along, saw it in your eyes, noticed it your actions, heard it in your voice whenever you spoke of her.
“Isn’t it funny how, although you’ve been there for her consistently, been Mr. Dependability—never leaving her side—remaining with her throughout the sunlit day and her cold, dark, lonely nights, she always chose Angel over you? Always. Doesn’t the simple fact that she loves someone else (something else) gnaw at your insides day after interminable day; doesn’t it nibble away at your empty, puny soul?” Angelus was up in Xander’s face by now, breathing disgusting, pungent fumes upon him, causing him to shy away from the vampire. A sudden, concerned look fluttered across Angelus’ face, as fleeting as a solar eclipse. “I’ll bet the fact that she rejected your heart so blatantly is far worse than anything I can ever dish out, and I’ll bet nothing out there can ameliorate that pain.”
Angelus’ capricious attitudes were among his most frightening attributes, Xander reflected. One moment he was the Devil incarnate, and the very next, he appeared concerned and uneasy, like he didn’t know where he was or what he was doing there. At other times, he was uncommonly violent and then promptly calm and collected again. His temper was a volatile chemical that, when mixed with the wrong ingredients—say, for instance, Xander—would subsequently explode like fireworks on the Fourth of July. The vampire’s invariably changing demeanor gave Xander little clue as to what was going on inside that beast’s head, and in all honesty, he really didn’t care to know.
The moment he’d realized Xander was already in more agony than he could ever inflict, Angelus had been upset. Upset? Hell, he was ready to break something, anything, preferably the boy. How could he torture someone now who already felt the effects of it everyday? Now, how was he going to have his fun? The only card he had left in his hand was the queen, Buffy Summers the Vampire Slayer to be exact. He still could murder her, still could make Xander watch, and in doing so, rip out the insides of the boy, the very first thing being his heart.
Oh, why had he asked such a ludicrous question when he knew the answer anyway? It had dragged him from his few triumphant seconds in time, into a pit of depression where the walls of mud and decay were caving in around him. The only light at the end of his blackened tunnel was Buffy…her dead body being cradled by a hollow, ruined Xander. All he had to do was complete the task he’d set out to finish in the first place, and he’d once again experience the zenith of his life as before.
Just kill the slayer and all your problems will simply fade away. Fade away…
The inauspicious weather conditions weren’t aiding them in their quest, but rather hindering their progress (what little of it they’d made), keeping them from finding the crucial clues on the first go-round.
Nobody had called for her yet, so obviously no one had discovered anything of real value or importance. Buffy was beginning to give up hope; they’d never find anything in a storm like this.
Raging winds whipped around her in huge gusts, sweeping her wet, matted hair off of her face and plastering it to the back of her head in a knotted, sticky mess. Fat drops of rainwater clung loosely to her long eyelashes and trails of the crystalline liquid glimmered like diamonds in the headlights of the passing cars. Buffy’s now bedraggled clothing accentuated her already curvy figure to the point where her body resembled that of Betty Boop’s. Row after row of black storm clouds rolled in overhead, bringing with them more torrential rain, blinding lightning, powerful winds, and rumbling thunder; the five seemed to accompany each other everywhere. Nothing stirred within the iron grip of the roaring weather, except maybe a few leaves not yet glued to the water soaked road. There was nothing to see but the rain and lightning; nothing to hear but the incessant grumble of the angry heavens; nothing else to feel but the wind driving the drops of water roughly against the skin. Essentially, there was nothing but the storm and Buffy, left to duke it out to see who would prevail overall.
Trying to find any clue in the storm seemed entirely hopeless to Buffy, and she was sure that the others were probably all feeling the same way right about then—the same desperation and need, the same fear. What would have been left—like a footprint or scuff marks—would be obliterated in the washing machine encasing them.
The lightning’s strange strobe effects increased the slayer’s problems tenfold because now she had a flickering road to contend with, and it jumped before her eyes, making her lose her place consistently. Buffy’s normally relaxed nerves were on end and her head ached with a queer tingling sensation as a direct result of staring at the cursed pavement for so long, straining to find anything at all. Every time the lightning would crash, she would pound one crutch on the road surface in anger and frustration and grunt while clenching and unclenching her hands.
“Anything yet?” cried Buffy out only to find that the howling wind ate her words like a rapacious wolf prowling through woods in search of prey. And that fact was unsettling to the slayer because, in this case, she was the prey. Buffy hadn’t really expected any answer, and she got none.
Returning her eyes to the roadway, she rubbed the back of her crooked neck with her hand as she bent head down to repeat the search one more time—the last time. After this, she decided they were moving on to the next street.
Damn lightning, she cursed as another brilliant bolt of fire yellow and cerulean blue flashed across the undulating empyrean and forced her eyes to skip to the base of the sidewalk, deviating from their proper course. Another flash. Damn— she started silently again, but before she could finish her thought, she had dropped to her knees—crutches thrown carelessly beside her—and began digging furiously at a pile of wet leaves transfixed to the wall of the cement.
Oh, how could I be so stupid? she asked herself as she carefully peeled each gooey leaf from the roadway and quietly thanked the storm, a complete turn around from the few prior seconds when she’d damned it.
There it was, her clue to Xander, her hope, glittering brilliantly in the dazzling slashes of electricity that ripped slices with their burning talons of fire out of the blackened heavens. She knew that what she was holding was Xander’s because she had bought it for him for his birthday a year ago. The clue was a cross, a little gold piece with an inscription Buffy remembered well. It rested long ways, the longer leg pointing up the street, north, to the ends of town. She wished she had noticed it earlier, stopped her complaining and just gotten down to business; they probably would have found Xander by now! What time was it anyway? 12:30 already! Where had the morning gone?
Back to the task at hand. Was the clue planted or not? Most likely yes because the inscription seemed to fit too perfectly to the situation; it was so close it was scary. Whether Xander had left it for her, or Angelus had, it really didn’t matter because it was going to lead her right to him. Even if Angelus had left the cross, he probably still would want Buffy to come right to him. His note had obviously indicated that he was anxious to see her, very anxious. And what better way to get her to come right to him than cryptic notes and backasswards clues? Of course, Angelus could always have wrote her a note showing her where they were, or could have hinted to her in a menacing phone call, but all that was too easy—they weren’t Angelus’ style. Make ‘em work for it, that was his twisted philosophy. Besides, this just bought him time to wear in his new toy.
Once again, her eyes fell to the inscription. Its eerie words that strangely matched what was going on at the moment echoed in the back of her mind, off the walls of her throbbing skull. She unconsciously fingered the cross, rubbing her thumb over the engraved words as if reading them through her fingertips, feeling the smoothness of the strangely heated metal and the cold dampness of the falling rain on the back of her exposed hand contrast sharply. Then, Buffy stared down at the engraving intently for a moment, branding the words in the back of her mind: Let this be your guide. From: Buffy To: Xander. Ooh, eerie, in a really cheesy horror flick sorta way—the phrase was actually kind of corny when she thought about it, but at that point in time it was the furthest thing from her mind. It was practically telling her to follow where the cross was pointing to find her best friend. Like a road map, Only without any real sorta directions, she laughed ironically.
Abruptly, a surge of nostalgia washed through the slayer’s body and propelled her back in time to the day of Xander’s eighteenth birthday…
He came into school all smiles, with Cordelia on his arm and an excited air about him. It was his eighteenth birthday, and he was even happier because of the simple fact that his parents were home to celebrate with him.
Buffy wondered what exactly his parent’s story was, but she didn’t want to spoil his ecstatic mood by going into that obviously uncomfortable topic that wasn’t germane at the time anyway. Instead, she eased over to his side and decided to make him even happier by giving him his gift.
“Happy birthday!” she exclaimed, still concealing his present behind her back.
“Buffy!” he cried. “You remembered!”
“Of course I did. How could you even assume that I’d forgotten the day Alexander LaVelle Harris was born? Why, it’s practically a national holiday. Besides, you’re one of my best friends; there’s no way I could forget something as important as your birthday.” She threw in wounded tone of voice and pouted her lips flirtatiously.
Cordelia, having seen enough for her own tastes, relinquished her grip on Xander’s arm and trotted off down the hallway to her locker, never once turning her head back for even a quick glance at the pair obviously entranced with one another.
The very moment his girlfriend had disappeared from view, Xander threw an arm around Buffy’s shoulder and said, “Walk with me, talk with me, give me my present, hint, hint.” He motioned with his other hand for her to give him what remained still hidden behind her.
“Xander, Xander, Xander. Always ‘gimme, gimme, gimme.’ You need to learn some manners. Besides, who said I even bought you a gift in the first place? Does it look like I have one? No! You never ever mentioned anything about a gift. How was I supposed to know to get you one—think on my own? Xand, you know very well I can’t do that! I get others to do it for me, like Wills.”
“Oh, I’m hurt,” he cried, grabbing his chest, playing heart-broken. “First, you don’t get me a gift. Then, you totally mock me. Does this mean you don’t love me?” Xander tried his best attempt at a sad puppy face, and it was all Buffy could do not to laugh—he looked so silly.
She simply grinned and replied, “Okay, so maybe I did get you a little something.” She handed him a small, wrapped package with a shiny gold ribbon tied about it, excitement evident in both of their eyes as he took the gift into his own hands. He muttered, “What could it be, what could it be?” to himself a couple times, while he shook the box gently next to his ear.
Xander greedily tore at the paper with a child’s spirited enthusiasm, and he yanked off the ribbon, hurrying to find out what was hidden inside the glittering package. What he uncovered was a little cardboard box, nothing fancy, just plain white. Xander carefully lifted the top off and let out an astonished gasp at what he saw within the strikingly simple container.
There, sitting on a bed of white fluff, an aura of mysticism encircling it, was the glowing golden cross, with its pronounced engraving, shining its pure, ethereal, yellow light out onto Xander’s astounded countenance.
“Oh Buffy, it’s fantastic. I’m speechless.”
She raised a curious eyebrow in his direction, “Xander Harris, speechless? Why, aren’t the two words complete opposites? Anyway, every slayerette needs a cross. It’s a must in our line of business, doncha think?”
Xander lifted the sparkling object up and fingered it gently. “‘Let this be your guide.’ How beautiful.” His voice seemed so tender and out-of-character for Xander. “Did you think of this yourself, the engraving, I mean?”
“Well, no, not exactly. There was a list of things they could etch on it. I liked that one the best though. But, but, I did think of the ‘From: Buffy To: Xander,’ thing myself,” she announced proudly, blushing a little.
“Impressive. Anyway, I think it’s fantastic. I’ll keep it with me always. If I ever get lost, you can find me with this,” he beamed.
“Seriously though, I’ll cherish it forever, Buffy. Thank you.” He hugged her quickly, trying not to make her feel uncomfortable, which she wasn’t at all. In fact, in his arms was the only place she felt completely at ease anymore, and recently she’d found herself yearning to be there more and more frequently, much to her sheer amazement.
“Happy eighteenth, Xand,” Buffy whispered into his ear as she pulled reluctantly out of his embrace, taking a single step back. She gave him a playful slap on the back and waved goodbye, thinking, I wish I were Cordelia.
Back in reality, Buffy heard an enormous crack of thunder overhead like the sounds of mountains crumbling under a giant’s cumbersome foot. She was back in the clutches of the swirling storm, no longer within the safe (sometimes not so safe) hallways of Sunnydale High School—back where she belonged. Although still a little disoriented from the bizarre flashback, Buffy noticed that she had clasped Xander’s cross so tightly that it had left an imprint in the soft flesh of her palm. While she rubbed the skin on her hand with her thumb, Buffy leaned her head back into the storm. Boy, was she ever thirsty. She opened her mouth and drank up the rainwater as if it were chardonnay of the finest caliber. Greedily, the slayer licked every droplet from her lips and sighed at how refreshed she suddenly felt.
Then she felt the strangest urge wash through her. The blonde couldn’t place it right then, but she knew this odd feeling. It was familiar, though she knew quite obviously that she had not felt it for some time now. Taking a glance at the gold medallion, Buffy made a startling realization as to what the feeling was—love. I love Xander…