orchidluv (orchidluv) wrote in bloodclaim,
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orchidluv
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NTS Book 2, Chapter 25/?

Nothing the Same, Book 2
Chapter: 25/?
Pairing: Spike/Xander
Rating: PG13 - NC-17 Individual chapters will carry specific warnings.
Feedback & concrit: yes, please
Disclaimer: don't own them, never will, just playing with them
Spoilers: Anything from Season 1 on. 
Summary: sequel to Nothing the Same. 
Previous parts here

From Chapter 24:

“So, how do we get your books back?” Xander asked, focusing on the next step.

Get the books back, break the spell, confront Willow. It was a good enough plan to start with.

“Much as I hate to say it, the indirect approach may be best. If Snyder is answering to ‘MOO’,” Buffy’s distaste in saying the acronym was palpable, “we should probably go talk to my mom.”

~~~~~~~~~~~

Chapter 25

“I agree, the books need to be our first priority,” Giles said, obviously putting a tight rein on his own anger. “Principal Snyder is taking advantage of this tragedy and the town’s mood to extend his authority, but we can do nothing about that until the situation calms down and people become more reasonable. Finding the person or persons responsible for these murders may help considerably with that, but we cannot wait for that to happen. Those books are irreplaceable and, without them, we can’t immediately undo the spell on Xander, nor can we continue our research into the symbol on the children’s bodies.”

Xander could see Giles visibly steadying as he stopped reacting and began thinking again, settling back into his familiar Watcher/teacher/mentor role. It helped Xander get a grip on his own emotions as well. Giles’ teacher-voice had become a familiar presence in his life over the past year; a calm, adult figure who usually knew what he was talking about had been almost completely absent from Xander’s life before he met Giles. Joyce Summers was a similar presence and Xander hadn’t realized until now how much her emotional upset had rattled him. Mrs. Summers usually handled things without losing her cool and seeing her so devastated and bewildered by the murders had been hard.

“So, let’s get to my house already,” Buffy repeated impatiently.

“Buffy, I would suggest that you talk to your mother by yourself. A delegation - especially one that includes me - may not be the right approach.” Giles cleared his throat, a faint tinge of red coloring his cheeks. “It was apparent last night that your mother was uncomfortable around me. Which is understandable, after Ethan’s spell. However, I may not be the best person to persuade her that she is over-reacting.”

Buffy eyed him suspiciously but clearly didn’t really want answers about what had gone on between Giles and her mother on Band Candy night, as Xander privately thought of it. Xander himself preferred to avoid all mention of embarrassing behavior on that night and now put in hastily: “What are you suggesting, Giles?”

“You and I should return to the library, Xander and see if there’s anything we can do to stop these marauders, or at least find out what they intend to do with the books. If they follow normal police procedure, I believe the books will be taken to the police station, but we don’t know that for sure since nothing is normal about this situation.”

“Ok,” Xander agreed. He didn’t really care what they did as long as they did something. He was calmer now, his anger under control for the moment but he needed to do something that would at least be a start to fixing what Willow had done to him or he was going to lose it.

He wanted to see Spike so badly it was almost a physical ache. He was tempted to just head home to the factory, abandoning Giles and Buffy to deal with the books and Snyder and MOO. But he couldn’t. It had nothing to do with wanting to help Giles and Buffy, it was fear, plain and simple. He was so angry at Willow that he didn’t trust himself. He needed to be the calm voice of reason when he talked to Spike about what had happened and he wouldn’t be either calm or reasonable right now.

The worst part of what he was feeling was that he found himself thinking viciously that Spike would kill Willow for doing this and that she deserved it. It had shocked him to learn he was capable of that kind of anger and he hated that he was seriously wondering if he would care if Spike killed Willow. It was only the thought of tarnishing the perfect memory that Spike had given up killing for him and the knowledge that it wouldn’t be right to use Spike as his personal attack dog - turning him loose on people who had angered Xander - had brought him to his senses before he jumped into that particular abyss. No matter how temporarily satisfying it might feel while his current anger lasted, deep down, Xander knew he wouldn’t be able to live with himself later if he did that.

How could Willow have done this to him?

They left the empty classroom, Buffy heading for the nearest exit and Xander and Giles turning towards the library. The hall was empty and a quick glance at a clock told Xander that it was final period and everyone was probably in classes. The library was quiet as they entered, the police gone. Xander wondered how long they’d been talking in the empty classroom. Obviously for longer than he’d thought, if the police had done their work and were gone already.

Giles looked shell-shocked, staring at the stripped shelves like someone had stolen his children. He moved slowly towards his office and stood frozen in the doorway, shoulders slumped and looking suddenly old. Peering around him, Xander saw that the office shelves had been stripped as well, including Giles’ collection of weird statues and art objects which usually perched on every free surface.

“We’ll get them back, Giles,” he offered, putting a comforting hand on Giles’ shoulder. Giles stirred after a long moment and turned to face him.

“It has been rather a tough day, all around,” he said, forcing a smile. “Hopefully, we’ve seen the worst of it.”

“What do we do now?” Xander asked.

“How are you at computer research?” Giles asked hopefully, glancing at the machine he usually liked to pretend didn’t exist. “We appear to be reduced to what we can find on the internet.” He said it with a faint distaste, like surfing the net was beneath him.

“I’ll give it a shot,” Xander said dubiously. He wasn’t very good at internet research but he knew he was better than Giles who tended to yell at computers in the manner of ugly Americans in foreign countries, as if by raising his voice he could make the machine understand him and do what he wanted. He shied away from the thought that Willow was the computer whiz and they really needed her for this. He couldn’t bear to think about Willow right now.

The two of them shifted the computer from the least accessible corner of Giles’ office to the main table in the center of the libray. Giles busied himself on the telephone while Xander set up the computer, calling the police station and demanding to know where his books were.

The computer was up and running and Xander was connected to the internet and trying to think of what search terms to plug in when he heard the phone slam down.

“What did you find out?” he asked.

“The search at the school was specially authorized by the Mayor’s office. None of the ‘contraband’ seized has been brought to the police station. They suggest we try the Mayor’s office,” Giles said bitterly, obviously outraged that his books had been labeled contraband.

Xander had a sinking feeling that wasn’t good news. “Giles, Spike told me something yesterday that I’ve been meaning to tell you. He says the Mayor isn’t completely human.”

“What do you mean?” Giles looked interested and Xander was glad he’d been able to provide a distraction for the harassed Watcher.

“He sent a summons for Spike to meet with him, said he wanted Spike to work with him but he wouldn’t say why or what he’d be doing. Spike said the Mayor smelled off, like he wasn’t fully human. He couldn’t pin it down and Angel says he doesn’t know anything about the Mayor. We were wondering if you’d heard anything.”

Giles looked thoughtful. “Not very much. I do know that he’s been the Mayor for quite awhile, several years before my arrival at least. If he had only recently become Mayor, I would be worried that this search was somehow related, but that seems unlikely. I’ve been in town for nearly three years and if the Mayor was trying to seize my library, I assume he would have acted before now. We’ll need to do some research on him,” Giles looked instinctively towards the shelves and his harried expression returned, “at least when the books have been returned, but it probably isn’t important. There are actually many harmless species of demons, as you know. Still, a demonic Mayor on a Hellmouth should be looked into.”

Xander froze for one second, then realized that Giles was just referring to their demon research. They had studied harmless demons, Giles just didn’t emphasize them. He still needed to talk to Mr. Olsen and some others before he decided whether to tell Giles about his connection to the peaceful demons in town. Turning back to the computer, he said hopefully: “maybe a search for ‘magical symbols’.”

He typed the phrase into the search engine and came up with 26,000 hits. “Great.”

Trying various combinations of searches for symbols, sacrifices, and ritual killings didn’t help much. There remained depressingly large numbers of hits. Sighing, he started checking the most promising looking ones.

Over an hour later, Xander was convinced the computer was in league with Snyder. Or maybe the devil. He’d found dozens of articles about murders all over the country, glanced at far too many pictures of animal mutilations, and skimmed countless sites about paganism, Satanism and black magic, all without finding anything useful. He pushed back his chair and rubbed at tired eyes. “And I thought research in books was hard,” he complained.

Giles had been hover over his shoulder, suggesting different searches and telling him particular sites were useless at regular intervals. Xander knew he was trying to be helpful but Giles was even worse at internet research than Xander, so he wasn’t exactly making it easier.

“They really cleaned this place out, didn’t they,” a quiet voice spoke from the door.

“Hey, Oz.” Xander twisted away from the machine, grateful for the interruption. “Where have you been?”

“I waited outside Snyder’s office for Willow.” Oz hesitated at Xander’s slight flinch, but continued when Xander didn’t say anything. “She and the others were suspended indefinitely and sent home. I walked her home but her mother made it clear I wasn’t welcome.” Oz’s eyes were flickering nervously between Giles and Oz in a way they just didn’t, unless Oz was nervous or upset. Something was bothering Oz, something well beyond being thrown out of the house by Sheila Rosenberg.

“Did you know?” Xander fought to keep his voice steady. He couldn’t stand the thought that Oz had known what Willow had been doing and hadn’t told him.

“Know what?”

Giles put a steadying hand on Xander’s shoulder and answered for him. “Willow appears to have done a memory spell on Xander to remove his memory of the truth spell.”

Xander felt his stomach unclench slightly at the naked shock on Oz’s face. It was obvious Oz hadn’t known. After a long pause, Oz said hesitantly, “Is that why…?” his voice trailed off but Xander was already nodding.

“Yeah.” He didn’t want to say the words. That Willow had done this so they could be friends again. And it had worked, apparently. It freaked him out that he couldn’t trust his own memories, that what he remembered wasn’t accurate, that the night the three of them went bowling wasn’t the culmination of a long struggle back towards friendship but a lie. Affection and friendship taken from him when he hadn’t been willing to give them freely. It was like taking advantage of someone brain-damaged or an amnesia sufferer - only Willow had caused the damage, then taken advantage of it. How could she have done this to him? he thought again, closing his eyes and struggling to breathe evenly.

During their fruitless internet research, he’d asked Giles to tell him everything he knew about the memory spell and about Willow’s magic. Some of what Giles had been telling him was familiar, but Giles told Xander that he’d stopped teaching Willow magic last summer because of her unwillingness to abide by the limits he set her and they had never resumed their studies, unlike Xander’s memories of on-going study sessions. Giles had told Xander about walking in on Willow doing the truth spell and how devastated Xander had been by Willow’s actions. He’d repeated Xander’s own description of Willow’s black eyes and how Oz had been so troubled after seeing Willow perform the re-souling spell.

Discussing the differences in Giles’ and his own memories had helped Xander try and view the situation in a clinical fashion, like a surgeon examining x-rays of shattered bones just before operating. He needed to know the extent of the damage before they could fix it. As far as Giles could tell, Willow had only removed one memory but she had changed other memories, altering them slightly while leaving their essence intact. Giles had been deeply disturbed by their conversation and the growing evidence that Willow had done something far more extensive than just removing one memory. Apparently, altering memories meant both removing the old one and replacing it with a different one. Giles had grown quieter as they turned up more examples, his eyes worried and angry, even as he kept up a brave face, reassuring Xander that it would be relatively easily to reverse what she had done, as soon as he knew exactly how she had done it. “Which, unfortunately, means we are going to have to know exactly what Willow has done in order to reverse the effects,” he’d told Xander and Xander hadn’t been able to repress his fear that Willow might not tell them what she’d done, leaving them trying to reverse the spell blindly. He couldn’t put it past the Willow he was just learning about, the one ruthless enough to tamper with someone’s mind for her own purposes.

Xander had had to fight for control as Giles talked, focusing desperately on the useless web sites he kept mechanically opening and skimming, forcing himself to concentrate on the computer and not on the sickness building inside him as Giles came up with more examples of things that he remembered differently than Xander did.

Willow had apparently sought out and removed all the recent memories of Xander’s anger and distrust over her use of magic. He remembered the re-souling and portal-opening spells Willow had done, but he remembered them without the negative associations Giles told him he’d had at the time. Instead of proud, apparently Giles had been furious with Willow because the portal spell could have destroyed the universe, which was a shock to hear about for what was essentially the first time. Willow had kept her interference to a narrow focus, she hadn’t attempted to mess with his memories of their long estrangement because of Jesse’s death, but he had no memory of his own anger and disgust at her using a memory spell on him. It wasn’t difficult to reconstruct how he must have felt because it was what he was feeling now.

“Is there anything I can do?” Oz was looking at him with worried eyes, and Xander realized that he’d zoned out for a minute. He shook his head and managed a tight smile.

“How are you on the internet? I apparently suck,” he said, as lightly as he could manage, given the turmoil in his head. He couldn’t deal with sympathy now, he needed to concentrate or he would fall apart, which wouldn’t be of any use to anyone.

“I’m ok but Wil…” Oz bit off what he had started to say. “Sorry.”

“It’s ok.” Xander got up and let Oz take his seat in front of the computer.

Oz looked at him and seemed to recognize that Xander couldn’t deal right now. In his accepting way, he just asked: “What are you looking for?”

“We are trying to find any reference to the symbol Buffy saw on the children’s bodies. With luck, that might lead us to the people responsible,” Giles filled him in, giving Oz a grateful look as Xander stepped back, leaning against the bookshelf and wrapping his arms around himself, feeling like he was going to fly apart without that support.

“I’ll see what I can do.” Oz began checking Xander’s search history to see what they’d already tried while Xander stared into space and tried not to think about a shy, red-haired girl he’d met in kindergarten and loved like she was his sister.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Evenin’, Joyce.”

Joyce looked startled to see him at the door and, for a moment, Spike thought she wasn’t going to let him in. After a long hesitation, she opened the door further and stepped back to let him inside. “Spike, I’m pretty busy right now,” she began, a little stiffly.

“Just want to talk to you for a bit,” Spike answered easily, stepping inside. “Worried about you, Joyce.”

She relaxed a little and gave him a half-smile, much smaller than her usual smile, but didn’t lead him into the living room or kitchen like she usually did. She stayed firmly in the foyer, not even closing the door behind him. “I’m fine, Spike. Just very busy.”

Looking over her shoulder into the dining room, Spike frowned. The usually neat room was filled with posters of the dead kids, the table cluttered with open phone books and pads of paper. “Can see that, just wonderin’ if you know what you’re doing?”

“I’m getting the town stirred up to fight back, Spike. You of all people should know that this town needs to defend itself against, well, against things like you.”

Spike was rocked, although he kept his face impassive and didn’t let the flash of hurt show. Joyce had never called him a thing before. He was sure she’d never thought about him that way, either. He cocked his head, studying her, trying to read what she was thinking. “Didn’t use to lump me with other demons, Joyce. What’s changed?”

“I’ve had my eyes opened, Spike,” Joyce told him levelly, meeting his gaze squarely but without her usual warmth. “I can’t believe I’ve let myself be one of the silent majority in this town for so long. No more. I’m sorry, Spike, but you’re no longer welcome in this house. I think you should leave.”

“Bit racist, innit? Saying all demons are the same?” His voice was light and indifferent, hiding the fact that her words had struck home. After Xander, Joyce was the person he was closest to in town and she was throwing him out for no good reason. Joyce knew he didn’t kill people and she knew why. There weren’t many people he’d trusted with that knowledge but he’d given it to her freely, as a gift. And he’d never been one for the kiddies for the most part, that had been Angelus’ and Dru’s thing. He’d always preferred a victim who could fight back.

“It’s been brought to my attention that it really is us against them in this town,” she replied without a flicker of regret that she was so clearly classifying him as a ‘them’.

Spike almost said something spiteful about her daughter. Slayers were barely human, more than a bit of demon taint to them. But it wouldn’t do any good. Although part of him wanted to verbally flay Joyce for what she’d said to him, to make her hurt as much as she’d just hurt him, he couldn’t do it. He was sure that she would come to her senses soon and be truly sorry for what she’d said. No sense in burning bridges he might want to let her rebuild someday.

But he wasn’t going to grovel for her friendship either.

He turned without another word and walked out of the one house in town that had truly welcomed him inside, hearing the door close firmly behind him. Not a slam, but with a strong note of finality.

“Spike? Don’t take it personally, she’s just upset.” It said something for his agitated state that he hadn’t seen or heard the Slayer, who emerged from the shadows near the door where she had clearly heard at least part of what her mother had said.

Spike was astonished that the Slayer wasn’t crowing that Joyce had just practically thrown Spike out of the house. “What’s it to you? You’ve never liked me having an invite anyway,” he snapped, hating the fact that the Slayer was looking at him with sympathy. He made a move to stalk past her but she stepped into his path, crossing her arms and doing her immovable object impression.

“You’re right. I hate it that you have an open invitation to my house. I don’t like you and I don’t trust you. If my mother was in her right mind, I’d be throwing a party right now. But I heard what she said and that’s not my mom. Crazy as I think it is, she likes you and when she’s herself again, she’s going to regret talking to you like that.” She smiled, almost self-mockingly. “Don’t get me wrong, I hope she does come to her senses about you and we can un-invite you, and then I will throw that party. But I want her to make that decision when she’s not so upset she’s not thinking clearly. And I don’t want you to make things worse for her because you’re hurt.”

“’m not hurt,” Spike denied instantly, glaring at her. “What do I care what a middle-aged housewife thinks of me?”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Fine, deny it all you want. Just… give her a couple of days, ok? I know she wouldn’t want you and Xander to disappear from her life. She’s just… not herself right now.”

She sighed and looked worriedly back at the house. Spike was still astounded that the Slayer had taken the time to reassure him and it eased some of the hurt of Joyce’s rejection to know that even her daughter thought it was out of character and something she’d regret. He lit a cigarette and took a deep drag, wondering why the Slayer was still shifting from foot to foot like she had something to say that she couldn’t quite bring herself to talk about.

“Somethin’ on your mind?”

“A lot’s been going on recently,” she hedged. “The whole town seems to be going crazy over those kids. I mean, it’s tragic but why it’s got everyone so worked up…”

Spike shrugged. “Seems to me their parents are to blame, when all’s said and done. Almost more than the murderers. Someone should talk to them.” Maybe he should volunteer. He could really use a good spot of violence about now.

Buffy glanced at him sharply. “What do you mean?”

“What kind of parents let kids that age wander around the Hellmouth late at night unsupervised?” he asked and suddenly remembered his original grievance that had led him to seek out Joyce tonight. “Speaking of which…”

She cut him off sharply with an upraised hand, her brows coming together sharply in thought. “Their parents…” she said slowly and looked at him with a spark of excitement and comprehension in her eyes. “Come on, we have to talk to Giles.”

“We?” The Slayer was inviting him to go see her Watcher with her?

“You should come, Spike. Xander…” She seemed about to say more, then shook her head. “Xander’s there with Giles.”

That was enough, he didn’t care about what the Slayer was hiding from him. He wanted to see Xander and that was reason enough to go. “Time’s wasting, Slayer.” Without waiting for her, he set off towards the school with rapid strides, hearing her lighter steps behind him hurrying to catch up.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Xander looked up when the library doors burst open and was overwhelmingly glad to see Spike entering. He crossed the room in a rush, far too quickly for subtlety, and flung his arms around Spike, clinging hard to the familiar strong body and sighing in relief as Spike’s arms closed around him. Everything felt better with Spike there, even though nothing had actually changed, and some of his tight-wound nerves relaxed slightly.

“Bad day, luv?” Spike asked quietly.

“The worst.” He could feel the tension practically thrumming through Spike’s own body and looked at him worriedly. “Are you ok?” Usually, Spike didn’t hold things in, he got his anger and frustration out and then it was done, put behind him in that demonic way of his. The only time he bottled things up usually had to do with Xander and he realized that Buffy must have told Spike what Willow had done.

It wasn’t that he was going to lie to Spike and not tell him, he’d promised… Xander gasped as he realized he’d found a memory that didn’t make sense. Spike had been angry with him about something. Angry because Xander hadn’t told him something and Xander had promised not to hide things from Spike any longer. Try as hard as he could, Xander couldn’t remember what Spike had been mad about or what Xander hadn’t told him.

It was his first tangible proof that his memories really had been altered, that Willow really had done this to him. He hadn’t really doubted it, but a small part of him had hoped it was all a big misunderstanding, some unforeseen side effect from Ethan’s spell, or something unknown that had made everyone else think his memories had been altered. Somehow, finding a gap in his memories himself made it all too real. He was vaguely aware of Buffy questioning Giles and Oz about the murdered kids, but he could only cling to Spike, a rock in a world gone insane as he fought the knowledge that Willow had really done this to him, played with his mind in a way no one had a right to. Taking his memories like a thief in the night and replacing them with cheap substitutes.

The voices behind him quieted down and he could hear Spike murmuring comfortingly to him, his arms enfolding Xander in a safe haven, his lips pressing gentle kisses against Xander’s cheek and neck.

“Sorry,” he said, lifting his head and making himself loosen his too tight grip on Spike. “I’m ok now.”

Spike studied him intently. “Want to talk about it, luv?”

Xander shook his head quickly. “Later, Spike. I promise. I just can’t right now.” He was still way too close to losing it entirely and Spike seemed to recognize that, settling for a kiss and pulling Xander firmly into his side, one arm around him possessively as they faced the room together.

“Slayer filled you in?” Spike asked them.

“Yes, we’re running a search for the children’s identities now.”

Xander looked at Spike, who shrugged and told him: “Slayer realized that no one knows who the kids are, or who their parents are.”

Xander’s brow furrowed. “That can’t be right. I’m sure…” but he was coming up blank and for a moment he panicked, thinking Willow was responsible for that too, then he realized that everyone else was shaking their heads.

“It never came up. Ever.” Oz said flatly, looking up from the monitor with a reassuring smile, like he knew what Xander had been thinking.

“Ah, we’re getting something now,” Giles exclaimed in satisfaction, peering at the monitor over Oz’s shoulder.

Curious, Xander moved closer, as Giles began to read the text.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ten minutes later, they had found five separate accounts of the same two dead kids, the oldest dating back to Germany in the 1600’s, the copy of the wood engraving blurry but recognizable as their two victims. About halfway through, Xander noticed that the suddenly cooperative internet was being fed to the computer from a remote source. His jaw tightened as he realized that Buffy, Giles and Oz must have quietly decided to bring Willow in on this from home while he’d been talking to Spike and not paying attention.

He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have the right to tell them they couldn’t associate with Willow and there was no arguing that it was at least a minor crisis and she was better than all of them put together at internet research. Witness how fast she’d come up with the right answers when he and Oz hadn’t found the information in nearly two hours of looking. Still, he couldn’t help feeling hurt that they were going to continue working with Willow even after this latest stunt she’d pulled. Business as usual for the Slayerettes, he thought, more than a little bitterly, leaning into Spike’s embrace and drawing comfort from his solid presence. He watched silently, not contributing anything, as Giles expounded on his theory that a demon was responsible for everything that was happening, something about demons stirring up darker emotions and causing humans to destroy each other.

As much as he’d like it to grab at the proffered straw, he didn’t think the demon explained Willow’s actions. And he probably couldn’t blame it for his own urge to have Spike kill Willow. Some of the darker emotions and actions they chose couldn’t be blamed on others, people had to accept responsibility for the darkness within themselves and what they did with it.

Suddenly exhausted and wanting nothing more than to go home, Xander forced himself to listen to Giles, who was wrapping up his explanation about needing to make the demon show itself in its true form to negate its effect on the town.

“There’s a book that has the spell I need. It has to do with lifting a veil and letting people see reality. Revealing the demon’s true nature negates its effect on people.” Giles looked around in frustration at the empty shelves. “I’ll just have to see if I can remember the spell.”

Xander hesitated for a long moment, then volunteered reluctantly: “I may be able to find you a copy of the book, Giles. Which one do you need?”

Giles looked at him in surprise. “Freidhan’s Compendium. You know someone who has a copy?”

“Maybe, let me make a call.” He retreated into Giles’ office, closing the door firmly behind him. He’d undoubtedly have to deal with Giles’ questions later but he wasn’t going to out his demon friends more than he had to, especially to people he wasn’t sure were going to remain his friends after tonight.

Five minutes later, he stepped out of the office tucking his cell phone away. “I found a copy of the book, Giles. It’ll take me maybe half an hour to get there and back.” Several of his demon friends had private libraries of books similar to Giles’. His third call had hit pay dirt and Henry Jamison, a half-Lrtokk demon he’d done some work for, had agreed to lend him the book.

Giles looked at him sharply, obviously curious, but let it go for now when he saw Xander’s carefully blank expression. “Excellent. I should have the supplies needed for the spell at my house. I suggest we meet back here with the book and the spell ingredients as soon as possible.”

“I’ll go with you, pet,” Spike began just as the library doors burst open and Michael staggered through them, clutching one arm like it was broken, tears and make-up and blood running down his battered face. Spike stepped in front of Xander protectively as Michael gasped out: “Please, help me. I was attacked!”

Everyone shot to their feet, chairs scraping loudly across the floor. “Who attacked you?” Buffy demanded. Xander had an awful feeling that the minor crisis had just become a serious one.

“My dad and his friends,” Michael answered, bewildered shock in his voice. “They’re taking people out of their homes. They're talking about a trial down at City Hall.” He looked stricken as he added: “They’ve got Amy.”

“Right, that tears it,” Spike said. “We’ve got a mob now.” His eyes narrowed as he thought rapidly and he began snapping out orders. “Slayer, call Angelus and tell him to get his enormous arse down to City Hall. He’s always been good with mobs. You meet him there and keep an eye on things until the rest of us get there. Watcher, you and Wolf-boy get the stuff you need for your spell, then bring it to City Hall. The demon will be right in the middle of things, egging it on. Xander and I will meet you there with the book.” He glanced briefly, indifferently, at Michael. “You do whatever you want.”

“Michael, stay in my office and hide until we get back,” Giles told him hastily.

Michael nodded jerkily and started for the office. He stopped after two steps and looked back at them. “Tell Willow to get out of her house!” he said desperately.

“Oz…”

“I’ll get Willow,” Oz said flatly. Giles nodded.

“Quite right. Get her out of her house and somewhere safe until this is over. Things have obviously gotten completely out of hand.”

Xander couldn’t argue with that but, no matter how logical their actions were, it still hurt that Giles and Oz were so concerned with Willow’s safety. He signaled Spike and left without another word. Anger and hurt fought inside him and he wondered if he’d ever be able to go back to the library again.

Which was being melodramatic, he acknowledged bitterly. Giles would help him undo the spell regardless and he wasn’t too proud to take that help, even if Giles continued to support Willow. Sure, they’d said that she’d gone too far, but it hadn’t taken long for them to contact her and ask for her help. Ok, he could see enemies teaming up to stop a catastrophe, but this seemed more like a convenience - just getting information a little faster. Although, Michael would undoubtedly say it hadn’t been fast enough, he thought with a sigh.

He told himself firmly to get over it already. This was a crisis. Of course, Oz didn’t want his girlfriend beaten up like Michael had been, no one deserved that.

Belatedly realizing that he and Spike were outside the school and Spike was looking to him for directions, Xander set his emotional turmoil aside for now. “This way,” he told Spike, turning left towards Mr. Jamison’s small suburban house.

Spike tightened strong fingers around his forearm, holding him in place for a moment. “Xander, what’s wrong?”

Sudden tears sprung to his eyes at the worry and sympathy in Spike’s voice and Xander looked away, struggling for control. After a long moment, he looked back and met Spike’s concerned blue eyes. “Tomorrow, Spike, ok? I just can’t…” against his will, his voice broke and he cleared his throat. “I can’t talk about it yet. I’m fine.”

“You’re not fine,” Spike corrected gently. “Let me take you home, pet. The Slayer and the Watcher can handle this.”

“Giles needs the book, Spike. Sunnydale’s got enough problems, we can’t let a demon make things worse like this.” When Spike opened his mouth to argue, Xander just looked at him. “Mrs. Summers is in the middle of this. She’ll hate herself if she gets involved with a vigilante mob that’s hurting people.”

There was a flicker of something Xander couldn’t read in Spike’s eyes, before the vampire nodded reluctantly. “Don’t know when it became my business to clean up after humans,” he grumbled, but Xander knew it was for show.

“Come on, let’s get the book and get this over with. Who knows, maybe you can beat the demon up or something,” he suggested.

There was going to have to be a lot of talking tomorrow, he thought. Something was bothering Spike and it was obvious his vampire wasn’t ready to talk either.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Xander was beginning to think he’d stumbled into the wrong movie. Half familiar faces of parents and teachers were twisted with anger and unfocused hatred, holding signs and yelling outside City Hall. Adding a grotesque note that might have been humorous under other circumstances, they were all adorned with large red buttons reading “MOO”. For one half-hysterical second, Xander almost burst out in completely inappropriate laughter at the sight.

There had been a surreal quality to the night, ever since Giles told them they needed to go into battle against Hansel and Gretel. Ok, he hadn’t put it like that, but Xander had found himself at one point wondering rather wildly if they were going to find themselves chopping down a beanstalk before the night was through. Seeing Michael’s battered face had ended any idea that this whole thing was someone’s twisted idea of a joke, but hadn’t done anything to make the day seem less bizarre.

Michael’s dad was an ordinary guy, he worked as the manager of a grocery store and told lame jokes when they were short-staffed and he came out of his office to help bag groceries and re-stock shelves. He wasn’t someone who beat people up, much less his own son. Michael’s makeup and goth style embarrassed his dad and his father’s loud criticisms about how real men should behave were a source of frustration and humiliation for Michael, but that was it. How could a demon make normal people behave like this?

And why wasn’t he affected? As far as Xander could tell, neither he, Buffy, nor Giles was acting any differently than normal. Granted, he couldn’t really trust his own assessment of what was normal for him right now - Xander felt a fresh wave of anger at Willow battering at his control at the thought - but none of them felt like joining the crowd of people and waving torches around.

Maybe it had something to do with the fact that they were familiar with demons, or maybe it was just that the demon was concentrating its efforts on the adult population and not the students. Aside from a few jerks who had taken advantage of the situation and the temporary adult blindness, the students at school hadn’t seemed to be affected beyond showing slightly stepped up versions of the typical harassment of anyone seen as different and vulnerable.

Clutching the book he’d fetched for Giles tightly, Xander stayed close by Spike’s side as they looked for the others. Stupid not to have set up a specific meeting spot, but then who could have anticipated this kind of crowd here. He and Spike were circling the building and doing their best to stay inconspicuous. Xander had never seen Spike so cautious.

“Do you think the Mayor has something to do with this?” he asked quietly. The Mayor wasn’t anywhere in sight, but then neither was anything else that was obviously a demon.

Spike shook his head, his eyes never leaving the crowd. He been scanning them warily since he and Xander had arrived, keeping both of them to the shadows and hadn’t once let go of Xander’s wrist, strong fingers holding almost tightly enough to hurt, keeping Xander at his side. “Mayor’s been around a while. This is somethin’ new. Happened too fast, blowing up out of nowhere, for it to be the Mayor’s doing.”

His head jerked around as he caught a glimpse of something in the crowd and he pulled Xander over towards the shadows surrounding a small island of bushes. Xander jumped when Angel stepped out of the pool of darkness outside the reach of the streetlights and only stubborn pride kept him from retreating behind Spike. He knew that Angel was back to his annoying, but mostly helpful, self but it would be a long time, if ever, before he fully trusted the older vampire.

“Spike.”

“Angelus.”

Like Spike, Angel’s eyes were constantly moving, scanning the crowd with the nervous intentness of a gazelle watching a hungry pride of lions. “Buffy’s checking the building, trying to see what’s happening inside. She’ll be back in a minute.”

“She’s back,” Buffy’s voice announced quietly. “There’s people inside, in addition to the ones out here but I can’t see want they’re doing. Everyone’s talking about some kind of a trial and I don’t like the sound of what they’re saying.” Spike and Xander nodded, they’d heard the talk. Her eyes were worried. “I haven’t seen Amy, so I’m guessing she’s inside, if Michael was right. Giles better get here fast or we’ll have to start without him.”

“Why don’t we just pretend to be one of them and walk straight in? We can pick up a couple of buttons and blend in,” Xander suggested.

Spike tightened his grip on Xander’s wrist, keeping him firmly at his side. “No, luv. It’s not safe.”

“They may not like you and Angel because you’re strangers, but I can go in alone. I know a lot of these people.”

“No!” The fiercely whispered order came from both Spike and Angel.

“Spike, I know these people,” Xander repeated. “They’re upset and acting kind of crazy but they wouldn’t hurt me.” Even as he said it, he remembered Michael’s battered face uneasily. But they thought Michael was a witch, he reminded himself. He was just plain, ordinary Xander, who did handyman jobs on the weekend. They had no reason to attack him.

“They’re not your friends and neighbors, Xander. They’re a mob. They aren’t thinking for themselves anymore. Rules don’t apply right now.” Spike’s voice held a century’s experience with darker human emotions.

“He’s right,” Angel said quietly. “Mobs aren’t predictable, Xander. No one is safe from them - not friends, spouses, not even children.”

Xander looked around again and reluctantly conceded the point. He might recognize most of the people in the crowd, but that didn’t mean any of them would be safe from the crowd. The mood was growing uglier by the minute.

“We can’t wait for Giles much longer,” Buffy said impatiently. “I don’t like the sound of this trial they’re talking about. We need to get Amy out of there before someone gets hurt.”

“Spike and I could draw them off,” Angel suggested. “Show ourselves in game face and run. Chances are, everyone out here will chase us. That’ll leave you two and Giles to do the spell.”

“Or we could take the half-wits on, ya great poof,” Spike snapped. “Not playin’ hide ’n seek with a mob. Not more than 30 of them, we can handle them.”

“No!” Buffy interjected. “They’re just normal people. What’s going on isn’t their fault.” She glared at Spike, emphasizing her point.

“They’ve got Willow.” Oz’s voice was grim as he and Giles appeared from around the edge of the clump of bushes together. “Her room was trashed and she’s missing.”

Giles was holding a large carryall. “Were you able to get the book? I believe I remember the incantation but…”

Xander held it up and Giles snatched it from him, trading the book for the bag which Xander took quietly.

“There’s a delivery entrance around the back,” Buffy told them. “Let’s get inside and find out what’s going on.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

They’d spent a few frantic moments in an empty office, mixing the ingredients Giles had brought while Giles reviewed the spell he would have to incant. The whole time, they had been uneasily aware of the rising volume of sound coming from down the hall, muffled sounds of protest and rage spurring them on. Giles had just closed the book and Oz was rapidly shaking the flask to mix the ingredients when a scream split the air.

“Willow!”

Oz was out the door before the rest could move, the rest of them following closely behind. It had taken only seconds to disable the four guards at the door, Buffy, Angel and Spike dropping them to the floor, either unconscious or moaning in pain before Buffy kicked the door in.

Bursting into the room behind Buffy, Spike and Angel, Xander couldn’t believe his eyes. It was a scene out of nightmares: torch-lit faces twisted with fear and hatred, enjoying the suffering they were inflicting. Seeing Willow and Amy tied to stakes with huge ropes wrapped around them might have been almost comical except it was so horribly real.

Books were piled around the wooden stakes and the books were already catching fire, flames licking greedily towards the two girls who were screaming in terror. Willow was pleading with her mother and Mrs. Summers, begging them to come to their senses. The two women simply watched with hard, uncaring faces as the flames moved closer and Willow’s voice broke off in a fit of hard, dry coughs as the smoke rose around her.

Amy’s face was as hard and remote as those of the watching crowds, yelling something about showing them a witch. She threw her head back and began chanting something about the goddess Hecate and Xander was horrified to see her eyes glowing red before she was engulfed in a storm of power, energy crackling around her in a visible display. It was only seconds, in which everyone in the room - mob and rescuers alike - stood frozen, before the ropes went slack around the empty stake and dropped straight down to the pile of books. Disbelieving, Xander saw a rat crawl out of the coils of rope and begin scuttling away from the flames.

There was the sound of smashing glass, snapping Xander out of his paralysis. Buffy had had the presence of mind to go for the fire hose and was playing it over the crowd and the fire, soaking Willow and dousing the flames closest to her and using it to keep the crowd away from all of them. Xander moved on instinct, shoving through the crowd, hearing Giles begin the German chant he’d been practicing as Spike and Angel took up position in front of Giles, defending him from the crowd.

“Xander!”

Ignoring Spike’s furious yell, Xander had made it through the crowd and was scrambling up the still smoldering pile of books. Ignoring the heat and the clouds of smoke, he threw himself across the pile, aiming for the scrap of fur and tail running across the floor towards the far wall. It was with a feeling of astonishment that he felt his hand close around the rat, and he rolled, struggling to get clear of the books, feeling embers burning holes in his shirt as he tumbled down the pile, his entire concentration on the squirming rat in his hands, desperate not to squash it by accident.

He clambered to his feet at the far side of the pile and turned quickly to face the rest of the room. Spike was glaring at him, even as he decked a large man who was trying to bash Spike’s head in with a torch. Spike easily avoided the wild swings of the torch, the flames coming heart-stoppingly close to him as he ducked away from the lethal flames. Xander slapped at the few embers burning through his shirt and watched the crowd warily, wondering what the hell he was going to do with the rat if he had to fight the mob who were still milling restlessly, looking furious that their plans had been interrupted. Buffy put the last of the bonfire out and turned the hose off, letting it drop and moving up to stand with Spike and Angel, ready for trouble. He could hear Willow sobbing in relief but Xander couldn’t bring himself even to look at her, much less make move to help her.

Xander jumped and almost squeezed the life out of the rat formerly known as Amy as two children stepped out of the scattering crowd. Two familiar children, their faces echoed in the posters scattered liberally around the room. Two supposed to be dead kids, whose deaths had started all this horror.

The room went quiet and the girl said plaintively to Mrs. Summers: “You have to protect us.”

Giles began his chant again and threw the bottle of ingredients down at their feet, the bottle shattering and releasing a cloud of acrid smoke into the already smoky air. The two children turned and hugged each other and suddenly their bodies seemed to blur, melding together and moving, growing. Xander watched, stunned, as the form morphed, growing taller and stretching towards the ceiling, until it solidified into a 9-foot tall demon with enormous tusks. Staring like an idiot, frozen in place, he was vaguely aware of the crowd beginning to scream and run for the doors, Giles having to jump out of the way before he was trampled in the rush.

“Now that’s more like it!”

Spike’s voice was gleeful and he launched himself at the demon, crossing the space in a heartbeat, Buffy and Angel a bare step behind.

It was only later, thinking back on it, that Xander realized he’d stood there against the far wall, watching the fight without moving, clinging to the rat, completely useless.

He was peripherally aware of Oz and Giles untying Willow, of Joyce Summers and Sheila Rosenberg apologizing to her over and over again, dazed and bewildered by their own actions. He watched Spike, Angel, and Buffy pulverize the demon, not even flinching when Spike decapitated it.

Seeing everyone not actively engaged in the fight surrounding and comforting Willow confirmed his fears that Willow was going to get away with it again. They were going to forgive her. Swept up by the horror of seeing her nearly burned alive, they were going to forget what she’d done. They were choosing Willow over him and the pain clawed at him, tearing into his heart. He dropped his eyes and looked down at the rat clutched in both hands, letting himself see nothing but grey fur and a twitching nose. The cold black eyes looking up at him were too much like other black eyes and Xander closed his own eyes, shutting off his emotions, feeling the tiny claws scrabbling at his palms and ignoring everything else.

Gentle hands closed around his own, and Spike’s voice said quietly: “I’ve got it, Xander.”

He looked up numbly after a long moment, seeing the worry in Spike’s blue eyes but couldn’t make himself move. Everything seemed distant, like it wasn’t connected to him at all. “Xander, let me have it. Promise, I’ll keep it safe.”

The rat, he realized dully. Spike was trying to get him to release his grip on the Amy-rat. Hoarsely, surprised his voice worked at all, he said: “we need something to put it in.”

“Got the Watcher’s bag, luv. I’ll be careful.” Spike’s voice was gentle, soothing, and Xander opened his hands and let Spike take the rat from him. Behind Spike, he could see Buffy with her arms around Willow and Giles beginning to salvage books from the pile of the floor. He closed his eyes against the room, leaning into Spike’s chest, feeling tired and empty.

“Let’s get you home, luv.”

He nodded and Spike steered him towards the door, one arm wrapped tightly around Xander as Xander let himself be lead out of the room that stank of smoke and betrayal. He didn’t lift his head or look at any of them as they left.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

*A/N - Bits of dialogue borrowed from the episode ‘Gingerbread’

TBC

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