The oddly mixed group marched to the end of the road and found it connected perpendicularly with the other street Willow had mentioned.
Looking up and down the flattened earth, Faith discovered Willow to be right about this section of the Hellmouth; it appeared economically depressed and uncommonly dirty—where the indigent lived out their meager lives in squalor, quite unlike the rest of Sunnydale.
Empty, silent, crumbling factories lined the sides of the road and were intermixed with drab, uni-colored apartment complexes, where cracks in the windows were duct taped up tight and iron bars decorated the front door, giving the buildings a penitentiary type of look. Few people were outside, even for a strong storm like this one. No cars drove through the liter-lined streets and none were parked along the curb. All of the factories were gray from years of running and from more years of just gathering dirt and pollution; all that is, except one.
It stood towering like Mount Everest betwixt the tiny two- and four-story buildings neighboring it. Its blunt, overt face gleamed white like a pearl fresh out of an oyster, and its spotless, scorn-filled glass eyes stared contemptuously at the group. The building, Anderson’s Meats, was definitely abandoned, for its doors were nailed shut and all of its lower windows were boarded up with thick hunks of solid oak. The walkway out front was immaculate—the only place in the area that was—and it seemed to carry a halo of cleanliness all about it.
“Factory seems a little outta place, wouldn’t ya say?” suggested Faith as she kicked off the conversation. They all nodded in unison.
Once more, Buffy seized the silence brought on by the menace before them and took charge of the situation by beginning to hand out orders as fast as she could speak them. “Let’s split up since we don’t know for sure whether this’s the place or not.”
Willow glared warily at the ruined factory and announced, “They’re in there. We know it; we can feel it.”
Oz looked at his redheaded girlfriend in shock, for he had never doubted Willow’s brilliance and erudite nature, nor her ability to give out sage advice. She was by far the most intelligent woman he had ever met, and that was one of the million reasons why he loved her. But it was just that she seemed so wise, so omniscient, at that moment, that it chilled the very marrow of his bones, sent a cold shiver down his spine. Willow had practically read his mind, all of their minds, in fact. Oz felt the evil presence and had the distinct feeling that Angelus was in there with Xander—torturing him even as they spoke—and so far as he could tell, so did everyone else there. Just by the look on her face, he judged that even Buffy knew that Xander and Angelus were inside the marvelously constructed building. However, Oz figured Buffy knew what was best for the situation, and he was prepared to follow her orders readily should she request anything at all of him, even if that included splitting up.
“Now, Willow, we don’t know that for sure. I, I second Buffy’s motion for, um, splitting up. It might get the task done more expediently if we do it this way,” Giles interrupted. “We’ll have Xander back in no time t’all.”
Buffy clapped her hands together quickly. “Right! We’ll break off into three groups of two each: Oz with Willow at Turner’s Juice Factory; Giles with Cordy at Sunnydale Fabrics; and Faith, you’re with me, here at Anderson’s.
“Now, I know we all feel Xander’s here, but maybe, maybe this place is just a diversion, you know, to get us away from the real place that bastard’s got Xand. And if he’s not here, I certainly don’t wanna take the chance of wasting anymore time to find him than we have to. This is the quickest way to Xander; you know that, Willow.”
“NO! It’s not! He’s here, right here, and you know it, too, otherwise, you wouldn’t have chosen Anderson Meats for yourself. Why not let Oz and I go in if you’re so damned confident that he’s not in there, hmm?” Willow snapped acidly.
“Willow…” Oz soothed as he placed a loving hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it away bitterly, as if it were so foul as to be Angelus’ taloned hand itself.
Buffy paused briefly, knowing that Willow was right—he was in there—but she didn’t want her to know that she thought that, too. “Will, I, I… Please, I beg you, just go to the juice factory? There’s still a slight chance that he’s there and not here. And even if Xander is here, don’t you think Faith and I would be the best to handle the job of rescuing him?”
“I think you’d have a better chance if all of us were here, in case you need back up,” she insisted further. But, eventually, Willow resigned, and Oz led her down the blackened pathway into the oblivion of the hungry beast that was the pure wrath of Mother Nature herself.
The slayer made a final call to the couples to keep their weapons handy at all times, adding, “And remember, even if you find Xander, don’t drop your weapons. You’re no use to him if you’re dead!” The sullen pairs trudged on through the storm, all wanting to find Xander, not Angelus; all, except Buffy and Faith.
Buffy prayed she would find Xander. She wanted to be the first person Xander saw and the very first one to see Xander. She wanted to be the very first to hold him, the very first to inform him that everything was going to be fine.
And as for Faith, Buffy’s night to her day, she wanted desperately to be the one who stabbed Angelus in the heart with her unyielding stake that she’d secretly smuggled along with her. She wanted to feel the dust that he’d become explode upon her face in a combination of fury and evil and joy. Faith had never met him, but she didn’t care; she yearned to kill him. To Faith, a vampire was a vampire; there was no such thing as an in-between vampire. They were merely cattle for the slayers, meant only to be exterminated. Even Buffy Summers couldn’t deny this now. Faith doubted that Angel had ever been truly good; she believed that there had always been a bit of the real Angelus in him. But, of course, she hadn’t known him then, and still, she didn’t want to. “Ready, B?”
“Ready, F.” They turned to each other and nodded together, starting up the spotless walkway to the locked and boarded up door. “This way’s too noisy,” observed Faith.
“Let’s try for those windows up there,” Buffy suggested, motioning to a row of windows higher up that hadn’t been boarded shut. Faith questioned Buffy’s capabilities to get up there with her crutches, but Buffy insisted that she wasn’t going to let them limit her; she was going to rescue her friend with or without the crutches. Once a slayer has made up her mind, there is no turning back, no way to get her to change it. Faith knew this fact all too well.
The blonde slayer looked next door and spotted an old, rusty fire escape that lead up the side of a little brown sandstone tenement to its roof. Because the buildings were so close, Buffy supposed they could jump from one roof to the other and weasel their way in from there. Of course, with her bum ankle it was going to be a stretch, but Buffy calculated that with a correct running start she could make it easily (although landing would be a problem).
The pair of slayers raced to the ladder and yanked it down harshly, the screech of old age echoing almost soundlessly in the storm. Hurrying up the disintegrating iron ladder, the girls watched out of the corners of their eyes as flakes of oxidized metal drifted lazily to the ground, in no real rush, much unlike the them. Rung after rung they climbed, faster and faster with every step, racing across the grated metal platforms beneath each window and immediately moving on to the next set of rungs. Lights inside a few windows indicated to Buffy and Faith that the nasty apartments were actually occupied, a revelation that startled Buffy most of all. To think that people would seriously live in these types of crumbling dwellings in a dying neighborhood was a hard thought for Buffy to manage, coming from a more plush lifestyle; although Faith, understanding their situations perfectly for having been there herself, took the discovery as less of a shock.
When they reached the rooftop, all thoughts of the people inside the complex faded—now there was only Anderson Meats and the slayers. They gracefully hopped onto Anderson Meats’ roof without problems and walked lightly so as muffle any footsteps that’d alert Angelus inside to their presence, if he didn’t already detect it.
“There,” mouthed the blonde, pointing to the ledge. They crept cautiously to the edge and peered over it, anticipating anything, but finding only a row of cracked open windows.
“What luck!” exclaimed Faith in a severely hushed voice.
“Maybe not luck at all, maybe a trap.”
“Are you always such a cynic?” the dark-haired woman questioned, not expecting an answer and not getting one. Still, she heeded her friend’s warning, and her eyes narrowed at the darkness pouring out of the factory. “Let’s look inside, B.”
Though the whole inside of the factory appeared upside-down from their vantage point, they had no problem seeing that no one was on the top floor of the building.
Faith went first through the open window, easing through gently for she wasn’t sure if it would squeak on its ancient hinges, which, thankfully, it didn’t. Buffy immediately followed, and the two quickly moved into their defensive stances: Buffy holding Mr. Pointy, and Faith with her foreboding crossbow sticking out like an extra appendage in front of her. “Let’s start searching. You take that end, I’ll take this one,” the blonde commanded sternly.
“Gotcha, B.” With that, the two parted, each one wishing the other luck. We’re gonna need it, Faith thought miserably.
Sunnydale Fabrics. Just another rundown, dilapidated outlet store/factory in the endless line of abandoned buildings along the roadside in the depressed part of town. Its skeletal face was enough to chill anyone’s bone marrow, especially when a light glowed inside, turning the empty skull into a devilish jack-o-lantern straight out of the maws of Hell. When it was framed by billowing black clouds—such as it was now—it added the effect of Einstein-like hair, making the face that of a deranged geriatric, eyes of fire and fury, mouth toothless and crooked with age.
Giles pounced at any and all sounds he heard in the factory, staying consistently on guard. He desperately wished Buffy hadn’t assigned him to this place; it was filled with horrible mannequins, and some looked so realistic the watcher imagined they were the twisted, bloodless bodies that were left over after Angelus had eaten a meal. Their hideous physiognomies watched him and Cordelia surreptitiously, or at least that’s what they seemed to do. At times, Giles swore he could hear their plastic limbs squeak on their pins as they moved when his and Cordy’s backs were turned away from them.
That was another thing Giles hated about this mission: he was paired with Cordelia Chase. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Cordelia; there were just certain aspects about her that grated roughly on his nerves. For instance, her innate ability to find something wrong with anything anyone wore, or the way everything dealing with the occult was either “Gross!” or “Ewww!”-worthy was enough to make him go literally crazy. And from the looks of it, there was no escaping these qualities today. “Did you see Buffy’s little ensemble today? That shirt totally does not even go with her pants, and those clips in her hair! They’d look fantastic on me, but Buffy? No way. Even a blind, deaf man with no legs or arms or fashion sense would agree with me. Now, maybe if she had—”
“Cordelia, please! We’ve been sent on a mission, remember? Now, may we please get back to the task at hand: finding Xander? Oh yes, and do keep your voice down; these walls might very well have ears,” Giles urged through clenched teeth.
“Could you imagine how gross it would be to clean a pair of ears that big? Ewww…” Giles cringed noticeably at the word.
“As of now, Cordelia, we are both to refrain from speaking any further unless it is vital. Are we clear about this?”
“Yeah, geez. Tweed’s a little too tight today, isn’t it?” His brow furrowed and his glasses slipped down his nose. “Sorry,” she quickly apologized as Giles continued his search.
Finding only piles and piles of plastic mannequins, the odd couple decided it would be best to leave and check next door at Discount Ted’s. As they eased out the doors, Giles looked back at the diabolic figures and cast a very sorrowful glance upon them—like looking at a room crammed full with corpses. The plant seemed to own a doleful air, and that, on top of the sea emotionless faces that undulated beneath his watchful eyes, had the effect of almost getting Giles to cry.
He didn’t know why, but he just had the strongest urge to weep like a newborn baby. It was a peculiar sensation that the old British watcher wasn’t used to experiencing, and frankly, he found it downright unusual. For a watcher, guardian of the Vampire Slayer, it wasn’t weird for him to experience strange, unknown things because he encountered them all the time in his line of work. But this feeling frightened Giles in a way practically nothing else could; he felt something inherently evil lurking within there.
When Cordelia noticed that Giles wasn’t following her, she turned to find him staring back into Sunnydale Fabrics with an inquisitive look on his aged face. “What is it?”
He brought a single finger to his lips to signal her silent for a moment. “Do you feel it?” he questioned cryptically.
“What?” asked Sunnydale High’s most notorious fashion critic.
Cordelia leaned closer to the decaying building, then announced that she did. “Something’s wrong here, Giles, very wrong.”
At Giles’ request, the two searched the place a second time only to once again come up empty-handed. “There’s nothing here except a bunch of naked plastic people and a truckload of monstrously out-of-fashion clothes.”
Giles begged to differ, but he knew they still had yet to find Xander, and with time running out, he gave up the investigation in favor of moving on to the next building with the fashion queen. He resolved to return to Sunnydale Fabrics in hopes of uncovering the problem once this whole ordeal was over.
Strangely enough, the place beckoned to him for his return. It took all of the watcher’s strength to resist the simple urge to just run right back inside and ignore the siren’s call of the dilapidated premises. What is in that place?
Oz watched his frazzled girlfriend search the juice factory furiously; to put it correctly, she was a woman possessed. Willow tossed aside empty grape drink boxes and flipped huge wooden crates over like they were nothing more than piles of shoddily glued-together toothpicks. All he could think as he watched her was how he wished he could read minds because he was intensely curious as to what she was thinking. Instead, he was content to watch her furtively while he worked in his quest. Willow’s hair tossed about her head soundlessly, stirring the moldy air around her and creating tiny whirlpools in it. Her eyes burned with a fury all but unknown to them; they were used to the soft, gentle looks of Willow Rosenberg, not this crazed person tromping ridiculously loud about the factory. Still, the wholesome goodness Oz had fallen in love with was present underneath this ugly mask she wore.
They both knew well that Xander wasn’t in the place, but they searched like mad anyway. Willow had explained her gut feeling earlier and Oz had felt it, too, but he also knew for sure that no human was in the factory, for the full moon was only a few short days away.
Being a victim of lycanthropy, Oz certainly knew what it was like to be an outsider; hell, he became a werewolf: half-human, half beast. However, it wasn’t all that bad. One boon was that a few days before the moon became full, Oz’s senses of hearing, smell and sight increased tenfold, and he was able to hear sounds and smell smells no one else could. For instance, if someone had been in that deathly quiet juice plant, Oz would have heard even the softest footstep or the slightest breath. But there was nothing more to be heard other than Willow’s racing heartbeat and his own quickened breath, along with the movements of the mobs of rats within the walls.
Oz lifted a box of grape drink and glanced at the expiration date: May 17, 1982! “Hey, Will, look!”
“What!” she exclaimed, slamming her shin hard into a crate as she dashed to his side. “Did you find a clue?”
“Not exactly… This is the same stuff they sell us in school. And check out the expiration date. May of ’82! Can you believe it?”
“I believe you’re wasting time on the stupid thing—”
“I dare you to drink it.”
The slender red head glared viciously at the boy as she snarled, “You’re such a little child, Oz. I’m not going to drink it!” She snatched the carton from his hand, quick as lightning. “Get back to work!”
Who was this person? Oz certainly didn’t know her.
“Sorry, Will, I just thought this situation could use a little levity.”
“Well, you thought wrong!” she snapped. “There’s nothing funny about Xander being kidnapped and tortured until death, now is there?” Oz shook his head. “Move it!”
He apologized, but she replied, “Just work.” Immediately Willow regretted being so rough with Oz. After all, he was her boyfriend and she cared about him deeply; she hadn’t meant to be quite that rude and callous; in fact, she didn’t know she could be. She’d never acted like that before, and it wasn’t fair for her to dump all her anger and frustrations out on the boy. “Look, don’t apologize. I should be the one doing that. I really shouldn’t have been so mean.”
Her hurt and apologetic eyes were more than enough needed for his forgiveness. “I understand, honey. Your best friend is MIA, and you’re scared for him and for yourself.”
Willow avoided his prying eyes as she grumbled, “It’s not that…”
“What do you mean?” asked Oz, concerned.
She decided she’d better tell him why she was acting like this. “A couple of night’s ago, on the day of the Homecoming dance, Xander came over to help me choose an outfit to wear—you know—just like we always do. When I finally came out in the dress I was going to wear, some, uh, wires in our heads criss-crossed and loop-de-looped, and we got confused by it all—the magic of the night and all—and well, we, um, sorta…” A long pause. “Kissed.” Her voice rose and fell during her extemporaneous confession, as if she were on a roller coaster with zillions of pitfalls and hills.
Oz remained still, barely able to refrain from collapsing in a messy heap of hair dye and nail polish on the floor. Xander and his Willow had… kissed? The startling realization rocked his small world: a world that usually consisted of just Willow and himself. And now there was this alien person in it, abruptly turning Oz into a xenophobic for life. “Do, do you love him?” he managed to ask in a severely tremulous voice laced with pain and wrath.
The air was incredibly heavy and so dry that when the wind whistled the air sounded like crumpling paper. For minutes there was no noise as Willow thought out her answer. The wait was an eternity for both of them. Seconds drawled out into minutes and minutes into what seemed like hours. Oz wondered where was the answer? How hard was it to say no? Unless…
“Yes,” she replied simply.
What was the question? Oh, wait… Oh God! Oz’s heart plummeted. Willow’s voice was so soft and barely audible, even for him to hear, yet each syllable shredded his hopes with thousands of tiny blades. Here he’d thought that they were happy together, with each other, and now he found out that she didn’t even love him. Oz wondered what real value he held in Willow’s heart, seeing as she apparently loved another. Had it always been that way? Had she used him simply to make Xander jealous? Of course not! Willow would never use anyone like that to get what she wanted; she was a better person than that, a better person than he was, even if she had cheated on him. Maybe at one point she really had cared for him, but that was obviously a truth lost in the past now.
All of these thoughts raced through Oz’s mind in the few seconds of Willow’s pause for breath. The struggle for air, it seemed, was a constant battle in this place, for it was unimaginably hot and the atmosphere itself appeared to be encrusted with mold.
“But as a friend.”
“What?” Oz asked completely lost now.
“I love Xander, but only in a best-friendy sorta way. Oz, I love you and only you,” Willow assured, taking a step toward him. “You’re my guitar-playing, sometimes werewolfy, really funny in a reserved way, always cute, cool hair-colored boyfriend. And my boyfriend you will always be, unless, of course, we decide to get married. Then you’ll be all those things, plus my husband. I’m just so sorry that it took a kiss from Xander to find all that out.”
Oz ran to her and swept her into his arms, kissing her deeply, silently forgiving her of her secret crime. “I love you too, Willow.”
They held each other close for a while longer, then reluctantly released from their embrace. “Come on,” Oz said, “let’s go find your just friend.” She nodded and took her boyfriend’s hand in her own as they headed for the door.
Outside, neither person could hardly see through the downpour, but that didn’t stop Oz or Willow for even one millisecond. They were drenched instantaneously from head to toe; however, the pair didn’t have the time enough to care. The two crossed the street together—as they knew they would always be—in order to search the next factory that they knew they would also find as barren as the last. Nevertheless, Oz and Willow trudged on through the curtain of rain with only two thoughts between them: how much they loved each other and how much they wanted Xander back.