Title: The Haunting of Lowell House
Genre: Mystery; Early S5 AU
Relationship(s): Xander Harris/Graham Miller
Content Rating: PG
Word Count: 8489
Summary: Xander’s new job of rebuilding Lowell House coincides with Graham Miller’s return and a series of incidents that point to something even more sinister than Adam.
Xander Harris leaned back against the stone wall and closed his eyes. Nearby he heard the clatter of tools, and the gruff voices of the men he worked with. It wasn’t unusual, not for his job, or this time of day.
He made a habit of taking his lunch a little later than most. That was just happenstance. Due to the fact that if he was working, he sometimes forgot to stop and eat unless there was a break in whatever he was doing. And partly by choice. He wasn’t much for company these days.
The past couple of years had caused an odd estrangement between him and the other Scoobies. At first, it had made him depressed, and lonely. Even having Anya there wasn’t much help. She was nice, sort of. But she didn’t seem to care about much, aside from the security money gave her and having lots and lots of orgasms. Not that that was a bad thing; for a while at least. But it just wasn’t enough.
He wanted friendship, companionship, someone who actually understood his jokes and found them funny, or at the very least knew why they weren’t.
Anya had never really understood that not everything revolved around sex and money. And she never understood the relationships he had with his friends. She’d thought he should have forgotten about them, moved on, or whatever normal people did.
But he didn’t move on from his high school friendships, not completely. He couldn’t just walk away, and to be honest, he wasn’t exactly normal. He hadn’t been for several years. Not since Buffy had come to Sunnydale, and Jesse had died.
Things were strained with his friends. Buffy and Willow were doing their college thing, but that was okay. They deserved whatever normality they could find. Then Buffy met Riley, and Willow met Tara and there was the Initiative, and they just didn’t have time for him.
That too was okay, mostly. What hurt most was that Willow couldn’t tell him about Tara. He wasn’t surprised about Willow’s new relationship. Well, at least not really. He saw the signs, he saw the sparks between them, and he knew how Willow was when she met someone new. So despite his initial reaction, when he heard Tara was Willow’s girlfriend, during that fight at Giles, he wasn’t really shocked. He was hurt though. Hurt that his best friend since the age of five couldn’t tell him about her.
Him, of all people. Willow knew he wasn’t the straightest arrow in the pack, but yet she felt she couldn’t tell him. That hurt. Then add to that Anya’s announcement that she was leaving Sunnydale. It was just too dangerous for a mortal to hang around on the Hellmouth, she’d said.
It didn’t really upset him too much. Truth be told, he enjoyed the quiet. He really did. Even though he’d patched things up with Buffy and Willow, and was now spending more time with them, he was still mostly alone. Not because he had been abandoned, but because he wanted it that way.
Xander opened his eyes and looked up. His boss was waving at him from the main trailer just a few yards away. So much for lunch. That’s okay, he wasn’t really hungry anyway.
Xander put his uneaten food away and stood up, walking towards his boss.
He followed his boss, Ray Milton, into the trailer, wondering what was going on. Ray had an odd look on his face. He was normally a pretty relaxed guy, but he was looking a little tense at that particular moment.
Xander shut the trailer door behind him and leaned against the table. Seating himself just to the left side of it. “Something wrong?”
Ray walked around to the desk and sat down. “Wrong? No, but we have a new contract. I thought you might be interested. It’s at the university, so I thought since you were familiar with that area…” Ray trailed off and looked at Xander.
Xander raised an eyebrow. “Is that why?” He asked carefully.
He’d worked for Ray for over a year, and although there were lots of guys who had worked there longer, he was still considered one of the best workers on the site. It wasn’t unusual for Ray to recommend him for a new job, that had happened frequently enough since he was hired on permanently nine months ago, but there was something off about this particular request.
Ray looked up from the paperwork on his desk and eyed Xander carefully. After a couple of seconds, he sighed and leaned back in his chair. “This job is slightly unusual.”
“Unusual?” Xander asked, mimicking his boss’s words.
“The work is on one of the fraternity houses at the university.”
Xander leaned forward, his interest piqued.
“There was some sort of something underneath the building. Last year it was cemented down. Why I don’t have a clue, and honestly I’m not sure I want to know.” Ray paused a second and then handed over a piece of paper. “They’re tearing the building down tomorrow. They want it rebuilt.”
Xander looked over the paper. “Lowell House.” He whispered more to himself than to the other man. He knew what it was the cementing was trying to hide. What he didn’t know was why they were tearing down the whole building, and more importantly why now? Adam had been defeated over a year ago.
“The university isn’t very busy now that the semester has ended. The students who live there were relocated. The work will begin next week. You have fifteen weeks to finish it before classes start up again. Though arrangements can be made for the students, if necessary, the client would prefer it not be necessary. You interested?”
“Yeah, I am,” Xander answered without hesitation.
“Great, Harris. You’re off until the job starts.”
Xander nodded and turned towards the door. He left without another word.
His smart comments and jokes had died away shortly after high school.
Things had changed. He had changed. Or more precisely, he had ceased trying to hide himself behind his humor. The humor itself was still there, but he didn’t use it as a mask anymore. There didn’t seem much point to it now.
He only saw Buffy and Giles during Scooby meetings, and they were more interested in the current nasty than in any insignificant thing in Xander Harris’s small, unimportant life. And though he didn’t see Willow as often anymore either, she had always seen beneath the mask and accepted him for who he was.
They had been friends a long time, and though they weren’t as close as they once were, he knew she still cared about him. He hadn’t dated much since Anya had left. It had been over a year, but with the exception of a few one night stands with people he’d never met before and not seen again, there had been no one.
That was the way he liked it, mostly.
Sure it would be nice to find someone. Someone who was interested in *him* who would listen to him for a reason other than a humor fix, and wouldn’t go screaming into the night at finding out what Xander did in his off-hours. But he wasn’t likely to find such a person.
Such was his life.
Xander walked into the Magic Box and slumped down into a chair, beside the main table.
Looking around, he noticed that he was alone in the shop, which was sort of strange.
He had barely gotten in the door to his apartment when he’d noticed the blinking light on his answering machine and listened to the message from Willow asking him to come by for a research session. There was some new evil brewing.
Xander was dead tired, but considering he wasn’t due back to work for over a week, he figured he could skip the nap he’d been planning on having. Willow had sounded distracted on the phone and he wondered what was going on.
He was curious, but not enough to get up and look around for his missing friends, so instead, he slumped his head on the table and closed his eyes. He wasn’t sure how long he sat there like that.
Eventually, the front door to the magic shop opened, causing the bell to ring. Xander heard the sound of feet moving towards him and another body slumping into a chair across from him.
Xander lifted his head and then smiled slightly at the girl staring at him curiously.
“Rough morning?” She asked with a grin.
“Hey, half-pint. Where is everyone?” Xander asked, sitting up straighter.
Dawn shrugged. “Buffy and Riley are at the house moving his stuff in, Willow and Tara stopped by Giles place to grab some books he forgot. Not sure about anyone else.”
Xander didn’t hear much after the first comment. “Riley’s moving in?” He was certain he would have heard about that before. Of course for that to happen he probably would have to actually be around to talk to.
Dawn shrugged again. “Yeah, everyone at his place had to move.”
She didn’t offer any more information, but since Xander was already privy to the future of Lowell House it wasn’t really necessary. Riley had stayed on at UC Sunnydale even after he left the Military because he was at loose ends, and at least part of his cover hadn’t been fake.
Before Xander could comment further, Giles came walking out of the back, his nose in a dusty old book. It reminded Xander of the old days, when they all met up at the library of Sunnydale High School, doing research and whatever else the Hellmouth required of them. And then later, after the school had blown up, they met at Giles’s house for much the same reason.
Now, it was the Magic Box where they had their meetings. Different places, but the activity was the same. So much stayed the same, and yet, so much had changed.
Their numbers had grown. In the beginning, there had only been four of them. Buffy, Giles, Willow and himself. Then, Cordelia and Oz had joined the group, and of course the intermittent appearances of Angel.
Jenny Calendar had been a part of their group for a short while.
But now, Cordelia and Angel were off in Los Angeles doing their own evil-fighting thing, and Oz was off doing whatever it was he was doing. Riley and Tara had joined their little group, and Dawnie was now old enough to do her part to help fight the evil nasties that surrounded them.
Things had changed, but the basic things were still the same.
“Oh, Xander, Dawn, you’re here, good.” Giles’ distracted voice brought Xander out of his musings.
“Hey, G-man, what’s the what?” Xander asked with a grin.
Giles glared slightly although it was more for show than from actual irritation. Riley and Buffy chose that moment to come through the door followed shortly by Willow and Tara.
As the group all took seats surrounding the circular table, Giles began explaining the most recent demon attacks and what he knew about stopping them.
Xander listened to everything Giles was saying, and as he took it all in, he let his mind wander.
He knew what the watcher was saying was important, but something was bugging him, something he couldn’t quite place. It kept nagging at him, like some extremely important thing he had forgotten.
After a few hours of research, the group split up to go on patrol. Riley and Buffy went in one direction; Xander, Tara, and Willow went in another, while Dawn stayed behind to help Giles research.
They found themselves near the campus, without a demon or vampire in sight. It was getting tiresome, and Willow finally used her cell phone to call Buffy and inform them of their lack of success. Buffy reported the same and suggested they all call it a night and meet up the following day.
Xander was glad to be done with the evening, and walked the girls to Willow’s parent’s house, where they were currently living since Willow’s parents were out of the country indefinitely.
He found himself walking back to the campus, curiosity getting the better of him. He walked directly to the building that was scheduled to be torn down the following day. Lowell House stood silent in the night, empty of all its previous residents.
It seemed a little on the ominous side, looming in the darkness. Xander felt a chill go down his spine. This building was just an ordinary building, nothing evil, or Hellmouthy about it, really.
Except for the fact that it was here that the Frankenstein reject was created. Here that Spike was chipped, which despite the fact that it kept him from killing people, still wasn’t a cool thing to do. Not to mention this is where Riley and Buffy were trapped, having a seriously draining sex-marathon.
Xander closed his eyes and turned away from the house, only to find himself face to face with someone he *knew* he should recognize, but he couldn’t quite place.
They stared at each other silently for a moment before. “Do I know you?” Xander asked cautiously, realizing that it was entirely possible, considering the lateness of the hour that he had run into one of Sunnydale’s unliving residents. One that he may have known at one time.
He stepped closer to the man and realized that whoever he was, he wasn’t a vampire. He was, however, really familiar, and now knowing he wasn’t undead, he realized his previous question seemed extremely cliched.
“I don’t think so. I would have remembered.” The man said.
Was it just him, or was there humor reflected in those eyes? It was too dark to really get a good look, but he had short hair, and there was definite amusement in those eyes.
A flash of insight hit him and he smiled. “You’re a friend of Riley’s, right? One of the Initiative?” He tried to remember a name, but nothing came to mind.
“Yeah.” The man seemed slightly embarrassed about the mention of the initiative. “Graham.” The man put out a hand to shake, which Xander took. “Graham Miller.”
“Xander Harris.” Xander offered. “I’m a friend of Buffy’s.”
Graham nodded in understanding and recognition.
“What are you doing out here?” Xander asked, resuming his earlier curiosity.
“Just walking . . . and thinking.” Graham answered quietly. His eyes moving to the house that still loomed in the darkness.
Xander turned back to the house himself. He was curious as to what would bring out somehow who knew the dangers of Sunnydale’s nightlife, alone. He sensed there was a story there but wasn’t sure it was his place to ask.
Xander nodded more to himself than to the other man. “I better get going.” He started to walk away. “Nice seeing you again.”
“Yeah, you too.” Graham agreed. When Xander was almost out of sight, he called after him. “Hey, Harris.”
Xander stopped and turned around, expectantly. “Yeah?”
“Maybe I’ll see you around.”
Xander grinned. “Definitely.”
Xander found himself back at Lowell House a few days after the dust had settled. It was still dark out, the sun not having risen yet.
He stood there, looking out at the empty space, his mind visualizing what he would be doing soon.
“You come here often?”
Xander spun around at the voice and was surprised to see Graham Miller standing three feet away. He was wearing a pair of jogging shorts, and a thin T-shirt draped over his shoulders. Even in the dark Xander could see the sweat across his chest.
“I… uh, I didn’t mean it the way it sounded.” Graham stuttered when he realized Xander wasn’t saying anything.
Xander thought back to the greeting and grinned. “Really? That’s too bad.” He turned back towards the empty lot. “Actually, I seem to be coming here a lot recently.” He turned back to face the soldier. “You done?” At Graham’s blank look he elaborated. “Running? Are you done? We could go get something to eat.”
“Yeah, that sounds good…great actually. I know this place around the corner.”
Xander thought about the nearby places and realized that Graham must be talking about Simon’s. The only other food place opened at this time was a pastry shop and Graham struck him as more of a sandwich kind of guy. That was okay.
He nodded. “Let’s go.”
Xander sat in the small booth at Simon’s, watching Graham add some extra peppers to his sandwich.
“Riley said you left town, went back to work, when the Initiative cleared out,” Xander commented.
Graham looked up, surprised that Xander may have known anything about him and wondering when exactly Riley had said this. Things had been awkward between him and his closest friend during the few times they had spoken.
“I did. I came back…on assignment.” Graham answered, returning his attention to his sandwich.
Xander nodded, having expected as much. “This assignment, it doesn’t have anything to do with why they tore down Lowell House, does it?”
Graham looked up from his food and stared at Xander for a second, weighing how much he could say. He didn’t really know Xander very well, although, in the short time he’d spent with him, he felt he could trust him. Riley had implied that Xander was loyal and trustworthy and other positive adjectives. Of course, that was before he had returned to Sunnydale and the weirdness that seemed to surround them anytime he and Riley were alone together.
There was also a part of Graham, separate from the soldier, that wanted to trust him, maybe even wanted to find a way to see him again.
“Graham?” Xander asked. “You in there?”
“Yeah. ” Graham answered finally.
Xander wasn’t sure which he was acknowledging so he waited.
Graham took a swallow of his coffee and looked across the booth at Xander.
“They think Lowell House is…haunted.”
Xander raised his eyebrows. “Again?” He thought he detected a slight smile on the other man’s lips.
“They don’t know for sure, but we’ve run out of other possibilities. I’ve heard some strange things since I left.”
“Like?” Xander asked leaning forward slightly, remembering his own thoughts when he heard about the building being torn down.
Graham looked away, staring deeply at his sandwich as if it held the secrets of the universe.
“Things moving around, strange sounds, the occasional hallucination. You know, weird stuff like that.” He paused and looked up again. “Three weeks ago, Mark Williams, a student living there, jumped off of the roof. That’s when I came back.”
Xander’s eyes widened. He hadn’t heard anything about a recent suicide.
“He made the sixth death under unusual circumstances since Adam was defeated and we pulled out.”
Xander turned his head and stared over Graham’s shoulder, his mind swirling.
“You didn’t know about this?” Graham asked, surprised. Why else would Xander have been at Lowell House both times he’d run into him? “Any of it?” His eyebrows furrowed in confusion.
“No,” Xander answered.
“Riley didn’t tell you?” Graham asked, still trying to figure out why Xander didn’t know anything about it.
“No.” Xander looked back down to the table. “But…we don’t exactly see each other much.”
“I thought you were friends.”
Xander smiled ruefully. “No, Buffy and I are friends, I think. Riley and I, we get along okay, but our lives don’t exactly intersect, not anymore.”
Graham raised an eyebrow but didn’t say anything.
“Look…” Xander started. “We’re supposed to start construction on the new building in a few days. If there’s something going on there, I want to know about it.” He paused. “Do you really think it’s haunted?”
“That’s what I’m here to find out,” Graham stated. “My superiors don’t like the idea of us leaving anything behind, but a haunting seems unlikely.”
“What do *you* think?” Xander asked, emphasizing the fact that he was asking for Graham’s opinion, not the military’s.
Graham sighed. “A few years ago and I wouldn’t have believed in vampires or Slayers, much less ghosts.” He shrugged. “But now…”
Xander chuckled. “I know what you mean.”
They were quiet for a few minutes while they each finished their food. Xander stood up first and left the building, waving briefly to Simon’s son, who worked the morning shift. He wasn’t surprised when Graham fell into step beside him on the way back towards Lowell house.
“Can I ask you something?” Graham asked after a few more minutes of silence.
“Sure. I can’t guarantee I’ll answer it.” Xander smiled slightly.
“Fair enough.” Graham hesitated and Xander glanced at him sideways, curious.
“You seem…different than the others.” He started.
“Different?” Xander asked quietly, not sure where this was going.
“Yeah. Giles reminds me of my old English teacher in high school or some overly dedicated librarian.” Xander chuckled at that and Graham smiled and continued. “Willow and Tara seem nice enough, not that I’ve spent much time with them. But Buffy…she seems kind of…cold.” He answered hoping he didn’t offend his new friend.
Xander was quiet for a moment before responding. “It’s nothing personal. Buffy just…she doesn’t get over things very easily, and she has serious issues with The Initiative, even now.”
Graham thought it was something like that. “So, how did you get into all this?” He asked, changing the subject.
“All this?” Xander quirked his lips.
“Willow and I have been best friends since kindergarten.” Xander began, not entirely sure why he was telling this man anything so personal. “We met Buffy in high school, right after she’d moved here from LA and Will and another friend of ours was kidnapped by a couple of vampires. We saved Willow. Our other friend wasn’t so lucky.”
“I’m sorry,” Graham said quietly, sorry he’d asked. He hadn’t known Xander for very long but found that he wanted to get to know him better and he wasn’t so sure bringing up painful memories was the way to do it.
Xander shrugged. “It happened a long time ago. I’m over it.”
“Are you?” Graham asked as he stopped walking. He couldn’t help thinking of Forrest.
It was on the tip of Xander’s tongue to affirm that yes, he was over Jesse’s death and that it didn’t bother him anymore, but he stopped and considered before answering.
“Yeah, mostly. Sometimes I think about him, about killing him, but mostly I’m okay.” He smiled slightly realizing for the first time that it was true.
“You really think it’s haunted?” Xander asked again as they stood on the level ground that had once been Lowell House.
“What does Riley think?” Xander questioned, his gaze never leaving the ground.
“I haven’t asked him.”
Xander’s head shot up. He thought he had detected something in the other man’s voice, but didn’t know him well enough to know for certain. They stood looking at each other for a few seconds before Graham broke the moment and looked at his watch.
“I have to go.” He said, somewhat reluctantly.
Xander nodded. “Yeah, me too.” He started to turn away and then stopped. “It was nice running into you again.” He grinned at the slight pun, his eyes going over Graham’s jogging wear.
Graham smiled back. “Yeah.” When Xander started walking away, he spoke again. “Maybe we could go out some time.”
Xander stopped and turned around again. He looked at the soldier, trying to decide what he wanted. After a minute he smirked. “Call me. Riley has my number.”
Graham felt ridiculously nervous about going to see Riley. He couldn’t help but think about how weird and awkward things had been between them lately, and what Xander had said about Buffy and why she didn’t seem to like him.
Graham had been in Sunnydale for almost three weeks, since just after the Williams’ suicide. In that entire time, he hadn’t gone to see Riley more than twice, and never since he had moved in with Buffy. Things had been strange enough between the two of them and he hadn’t wanted any additional weirdness with all of Riley’s new friends around.
He had met Buffy and her friend’s a few times but wasn’t altogether comfortable with them. He wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for his desire to get Xander’s phone number and find out if Riley had any opinion on what might be going on at their old stomping grounds.
He was just about to knock when the door opened and Riley stepped out, hurriedly shutting the door behind him with one hand while zipping up his jacket with the other.
“You’re here, great. Let’s go.”
Graham stared at his friend for a second before following him back into the street. Riley seemed a bit nervous.
“Where are we going?”
“I thought we’d grab some breakfast,” Riley suggested opening the passenger side door to Graham’s rental car.
“I’ve already eaten,” Graham answered after a minute as he started the car and pulled away from the curb.
Riley didn’t say anything and the two sat in silence. Graham continued driving and found himself at the University, not far from where Lowell House used to stand.
“What’s going on, Ri?” He asked after parking the car.
“Nothing,” Riley answered a bit too quickly.
Graham didn’t believe him but chose not to call him on it.
After a few moments, Riley spoke again. “How long are you staying in town?”
“Until my assignments finished,” Graham told him, surprised that Riley would even have to ask. It wasn’t too long ago that they were both following orders.
Riley didn’t respond but seemed tenser than before. Graham continued, “She still hates me for what happened? Even now?”
Riley sighed. “Not you personally, but the Initiative and everyone in it.”
“You were in the Initiative,” Graham observed.
Riley didn’t say anything else but it was obvious that Riley alone had been forgiven for what Professor Walsh and the Initiative had done. Not that it mattered. It was over now and there wasn’t anything any of them could do to change it.
Graham glanced at Riley, who was looking out of his window towards the leveled frat house.
“Did you tell her why I came back?”
“I don’t even know why you came back,” Riley stated. “Not really. Only that you’re on assignment.”
Graham realized that his friend was avoiding the real question so he just waited. After another few minutes of silence, Riley spoke again. “No. She thinks you’re here for personal reasons, to visit family…or something.”
Graham digested this information. “I don’t have any family here. You lied.”
Riley didn’t say anything to that, so Graham dropped the subject and moved on to why he had really gone to see Riley. “I need Xander’s number.”
Riley turned around to face his friend, surprised by his change of subject.
“I ran into him this morning.” Graham didn’t offer any more information, knowing that Riley didn’t really want any more. Riley was well aware of Graham’s sexuality and would no doubt fill in the blanks accordingly.
Riley nodded once and pulled his wallet out. He still had the piece of paper Buffy had given him several months ago with Xander’s phone number and address. He gave it to Graham as he climbed out of the car, figuring if he needed it again, he could ask Willow.
“Where are you going?” Graham asked, feeling as though things had truly changed. Riley had felt more like a stranger than a friend the few times they’d spoken in the past few weeks.
Riley didn’t answer right away, and when he did speak, it was about something else. “Maybe we can get together before you leave.”
Graham stared out of the car window at him as he restarted the car. “Yeah, maybe.”
However, both knew that it was highly unlikely. They’d both made their choices and apparently their friendship was a casualty.
Xander was just bringing his last load of laundry in from the apartment’s community laundry room when the phone rang.
“Hello?” He asked into the line.
“We’ve got a problem, Harris.”
Xander sighed as he dropped the basket. “What kind?”
The voice on the other end was thick, gravely and decidedly not human.
“You know that thing you asked me to check on?”
“Yeah?” Xander tensed.
“I found out some things.”
Xander looked across the room at the clock. “Meet me at the usual place in an hour.” He hung up the phone without waiting for a response.
Xander changed his clothes quickly and ate a cold slice of pizza, before putting on his shoes. He was just about to open the door to leave when there was a knock.
“Graham.” He stated, slightly startled when he saw who was on the other side of the door.
“You going out?” Graham asked, disappointed.
“Yeah.” Xander sighed as he stepped into the hall and locked the door behind him. “You might as well come with me.”
Graham fell into step beside him. “Don’t sound so excited.”
Xander chuckled. “I’d rather being going out, for *actual* fun.”
Graham quirked an eyebrow. “This isn’t fun?”
Xander smiled. “Not yet it isn’t.” He continued walking for several minutes, without saying anything more.
They were quiet. Xander was busy thinking about his phone call while Graham thought about his conversation with Riley.
“What’s wrong?” Xander asked finally, uncertain how it was he knew that something *was* wrong.
“I talked to Riley today,” Graham answered as if that explained everything. Perhaps it did because Xander just nodded.
They continued to walk through town, towards one of the small cemeteries when Xander spoke again. “Don’t worry about it.” He said quietly. “It’ll pass, or maybe it won’t, but either way, there’s nothing you can do about it. Buffy has that effect.” He smiled ruefully.
“You sound like someone who knows what he’s talking about.”
“I am. Been there, done that, burned the T-shirt.” He shrugged.
Graham nodded and for the first time since leaving Riley, he didn’t feel so bad. “So, where are we going?”
“A crypt.” Xander motioned ahead of them. “I got a call just before you showed up. It may have something to do with your haunted house.”
Graham looked around the cemetery, trying to see through the darkness assess any risks. “You never said why were coming here.” He asked quietly when he turned back to Xander.
“I have a friend who may have some information.”
“Friend?” Graham asked, noticing the odd inflection in Xander’s voice.
“Well, not an enemy anyway.” Xander amended just before there was a sound off to their right.
Graham turned towards the sound.
“You didn’t come alone.” The voice was deep and gravely, but didn’t sound threatening.
“What did you hear?” Xander asked, getting right to the point.
“A pair of Grislycke demons.” The voice answered stepping closer.
Graham could see that it was a demon. Tall and skinny, with strange bones jutting out from his arms and chest. He tensed, ready for a fight, but relaxed minutely when Xander didn’t seem worried.
“Yeah? Go on…”
“They came through town a few weeks ago. I had thought they’d moved on, but Rivan says that they had business here. Were supposed to have a meeting. The Grislycke never showed up.”
Xander nodded, expecting as much. “Was this business important?”
“To them it was.”
“Anything else?” Xander asked quietly, his face serious.
“I asked around. There have been six more disappearances since then, and a couple of Koloth turned up dead…well what was left of them was dead.”
The demon disappeared back into the shadows without saying anything else.
“Well,” Xander said after a second.
“Well, what?” Graham asked, slightly confused.
“It looks like humans aren’t the only things in danger.” Xander shook his head. “Come on, I want to check out the campus again.”
Graham could do nothing but follow.
They walked back to the campus in silence. Partly because walking around Sunnydale in the dark wasn’t exactly safe and both of them knew it, but partly because Xander sensed that his companion wasn’t big on words.
Even so, Xander also sensed that this silence was bordering on contemplative. He was sure that meetings with demons in the dead of night weren’t something Graham was used to.
“Not everything is as black and white as we sometimes wish it were,” Xander said quietly, still a few blocks away from their destination. Graham didn’t say anything, but something about the way his body turned slightly as they walked told Xander he was listening.
“Buffy gets that, sort of,” Xander added and turned when Graham’s steps slowed slightly.
“Does she?” He sounded surprised.
“Yeah, more or less. She knows that not all demons are evil and that Werewolves are real people twenty-eight days out of the month. She knows that people who are possessed can be un-possessed, most of the time, and she believes that what she does here is so other people don’t have to know all that.” He paused a second and looked across the few feet separating them and continued. “The thing is, here, on the Hellmouth, most of the things you run into *are* evil, bent on destroying her, or the world, or both, so though she may *know* that it’s true, it’s easy to forget in the reality of life. Well, her life anyway.”
They continued walking as Graham digested everything Xander had said, trying to read between the lines to what he *hadn’t* said. Just as they were approaching the south side of Sunnydale University, the marine stopped. “I don’t buy it.” He said at last.
Xander raised an eyebrow. “Buy what, exactly? That not everything demonic is evil, or that most of what you find here is?”
Graham shook his head slightly. “I believe that not everything is as simple as they tried to teach us. Your werewolf friend is an example of that. So is that Vampire with a soul Riley gets all worked up over.” Xander grinned slightly at that but didn’t interrupt. “But your demon buddy back there also shows that some of those *not evil* demons do live here. You know them, you talk to them. Why don’t I think that’s something Buffy and Riley do on a regular basis?”
Xander laughed. “Okay. Buffy gets the theory, but well…I think it’s easier for her to believe that things are simple, good and evil, to slay or not to slay, that is her question. Mostly, the answer is Slay. Because of that, even if she *wanted* to have a cup of coffee with Nylo back there, he wouldn’t come.”
“Nylo?” Graham arched a brow.
Xander shrugged. “His actual name isn’t something I could pronounce without embarrassing myself and insulting him.” He shrugged again and noticed how even in the dark, with the angle of the moon coming through the trees, he could see Graham’s pale eyes and thought to himself how he *really* needed to get out more when Military guys were looking appetizing.
Xander started walking again, going through the trees taking a shortcut to the part of the campus that housed Lowell House, keeping his eyes and ears open for sounds that didn’t belong.
Graham followed Xander and tried to figure him out. He was right in his earlier guess. Xander wasn’t like Buffy or her other friends. He’d read the reports on Buffy and her friends during the debriefings, and knew that as far as anyone knew, Xander was something of the odd man out. He didn’t have the Slayer’s strengths or any magical abilities, and yet, he stayed and fought.
Even now, when it seemed his life was more or less normal, he was wandering around at night, talking to demons, and visiting places that might be haunted, and if Graham hadn’t shown up unexpectedly, he’d be doing it alone.
No, there was definitely something unique about Xander Harris.
About three yards away from what would have been the back of Lowell House, Xander stopped and crouched in the dirt. There were several clumps of mud that was different from the surrounding dirt.
“What is it?” Graham asked as he crouched down too.
“I don’t know. A trail maybe.” Xander looked up and followed where the clumps seemed to be leading into a dense group of trees off to the left.
“You want to check it out?” Graham asked.
Xander stood up and was about to answer when he was pushed off his feet. He heard a thump next to him, which indicated he wasn’t the only one. Before he could ask what happened he heard a sound. Like a low humming, then felt his body lifted and thrown in the air. He couldn’t actually *see* anything, but he could feel the strength of whatever had picked him up. This was no apparition.
The humming grew louder, and somehow more agitated as Xander regained his feet. He put up a hand, hoping whatever it was could see him better than he could see it. “Hey, wait, we…”
He was cut off as the whatever-it-was picked up Graham in the same rough manner and began to toss him as well.
“Wait, stop.” Xander stepped closer cautiously.
The movement stopped, and if it weren’t such a dire situation, Xander would have laughed. Graham wasn’t moving, but Xander could tell his body was tensed, ready for a fight with whatever held him, but he looked like he was just *hovering* in the air. Even in the dim light of the moon, Xander could see that it wasn’t just the dark obscuring their attacker. It was invisible, literally.
Xander took another step closer and was about to try and convince the thing they didn’t mean it any harm when it shrieked, and Xander guessed, started running. One minute the floating vision of Graham was ahead of him, the next it had disappeared through the dense trees.
Graham wasn’t aware of what exactly had a hold of him, only that something did. He had the sensation that they were moving, but which direction and how far he couldn’t say for certain.
Eventually, the movement stopped and Graham opened his eyes and took a look around, not that he could see much. He was at the mouth of some cave in the middle of the forest. The cave itself was covered in moss and other plant life. The demon, or whatever it was set his body down, a lot more gently than Graham expected, and nudged him into the center of the cave.
“Welcome.” A Deep voice stated from inside the cave, startling the soldier.
Graham moved cautiously further into the cave, keeping in mind what Xander had said about not all demons being evil.
Xander continued to stare past the dense trees, trying to see any sign of the marine in the dark.
“This can’t be good.” He whispered, stepping forward cautiously.
He had a couple of options. He could go and get help, or he could try and find Graham himself. While going to get help might be the smarter option, Xander was reluctant to leave. Besides, these days he tried not to slide back into that mold of needing Buffy to save him. He liked to think those days were long past.
While on the surface, they were still friends, Xander knew that if you looked too deep you would find nothing but shared history sustaining the friendship. History that wasn’t always pleasant and now tainted with the knowledge that they had both changed too much to go back, and the wisdom not to want to, even if they could. Add to that the fact that Graham and Buffy weren’t exactly friends, and it wasn’t a hard choice.
Having made his decision, Xander moved closer to the trees, crouching near the ground, looking for any trail he might be able to find. He didn’t have the enhanced senses of some demons, but he had learned a thing or two over the years.
Luckily, though whatever had carried the marine off was apparently invisible, it was solid, three-dimensional, and as such, left a trail. There was a track leading through the dirt. Xander followed it several yards before it stopped. Xander looked up at the trees, trying to guess where the…whatever it was might have taken the marine.
He figured playing eenie-meenie-minie-moe was a little childish at this point, but he couldn’t think of a better idea. Xander tried to see through the darkness, unfortunately, being normal guy, his eyesight was somewhat limited.
Graham Miller felt all the blood rush to his head and tried to focus in the darkness. The creature that had grabbed him had stopped moving. He had hung him upside down, and from the sounds and smells, he would guess he was hanging from a tree.
He couldn’t exactly *see* what had grabbed him but he knew that it was a demon of some sort. His time with the Initiative had shown him the opposite of what Dr. Walsh was trying to teach them.
The professor maintained that all demons were evil, hellish creatures who would kill everyone if given a chance. While that might be true for some things, Graham had seen some of the demons caged in the labs below Lowell House. Some of them were violent, and no doubt dangerous, but mostly frightened. Who could blame them? Kidnapped, brutalized, caged and experimented on. Who wouldn’t be a bit testy after all of that?
After the Initiative cleared out of Sunnydale, the government decided to keep the program open, not for its original purposes, but for a fallback plan in case things got out of control on any of the numerous Hellmouths. People like Graham, who opted to stay in, were sent out, to monitor supernatural situations as they arose. Graham had never expected to be back here, where, for him at least, it all began. Buffy and her friends seemed to have everything under control, and despite the current situation, he wasn’t sure that had changed.
He wasn’t sure if the demon who currently held him was really evil, or just scared. Maybe he and Xander had gotten too close to its nest, or maybe it was just hungry. He didn’t think it was the latter, despite the evidence of recent attacks. Hell, they weren’t even sure this was the same demon.
All he knew at this point was that the demon had stopped moving. He could hear the heavy breathing as the creature moved around somewhere behind him.
Well, this is a fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into. Graham thought. He wondered briefly if Xander was looking for him, or if the man had gone for help.
Suddenly from behind him, Graham could feel the creature move. There was a garbled sound that the marine thought might have been a language, and then nothing.
Everything was silent. Graham didn’t hear the demon run away. It was as if it had just vanished.
Graham’s eyes started to adjust to the darkness. He looked up slightly. Yep, he was definitely hanging from a tree. He tried to move a little bit, but he was tied pretty tightly by a thick vine. He only seemed to sway a little, an action that wasn’t helping to free him but was making him rather nauseous.
Before he could give too much thought as to what he would do now, a new sound drew his attention. For a minute, Graham though it was the demon coming back, but then a familiar voice called out, only slightly louder than a whisper.
Xander moved through the trees as quietly as possible, hoping he was going in the right direction, and homing the demon, or whatever it was, had left.
“Xander?” Graham called out.
Xander released a breath of relief and followed the sound of the voice. His eyes had adjusted somewhat to the darkness. Enough that he could see more than a foot in front of him. Xander stopped in front of what he realized was Graham. An upside-down Graham, but still…Graham…and still alive.
“You’re upside down.” Xander pointed out.
“Yeah.” Graham tried to nod his head, but the action just made him dizzy. “You think you can let me down?”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Xander said as he stepped closer and tried to work out how exactly the marine was attached.
“So…” Graham said as he stepped out of Xander’s bathroom.
Xander was in the kitchen. Graham could hear the younger man moving around.
“Coffee?” Xander called out.
“Sure,” Graham answered, moving towards the living room, running a hand through his damp hair.
He had taken Xander up on his offer of a quick shower. His midnight adventure had left him feeling grainy, with leaves in places they shouldn’t be.
Xander came out of the kitchen a minute later carrying two steaming mugs of coffee.
“You think that was the thing attacking everyone?” Xander asked after he sat down.
“Maybe, but it didn’t really attack me, just carried me off.”
“Yeah.” Xander nodded. “I was thinking that maybe it isn’t really *trying* to terrorize the locals. Maybe it’s…I don’t know, after something. All the victims, that I know of, were attacked near the campus.”
“Maybe it’s protecting a nest or something.”
“Maybe.” Xander agreed. “Still, I’d like to know more about what was kept down there before Adam escaped. It seems kind of weird that it’s been so long since they cemented the place, and only now strange things start happening.”
“You don’t think it’s something that could have just come to Sunnydale?” Graham asked, curious.
“No. That place was sealed up, tight. It had to be something that was there already, or…I don’t know.”
“Something in hibernation.” Graham guessed.
“Possibly. There are lots of demons that hibernate. Either way, we need to know what we’re dealing with.”
“You want to talk to Buffy and Riley? Tell them what’s going on?” Graham asked with a sigh.
“No. If it’s not really dangerous, we don’t need Buffy on one of her typical slay-now-ask-questions-later missions. Riley though, he might know something.” Xander thought for a minute. “Why don’t you get some sleep and I’ll go see if I can get some answers.”
“You don’t want me to go with you?” Graham asked.
Xander shook his head. “No. You said he was being weird, and if you go, Buffy will just get all defensive. It’ll be better if I go alone.”
Graham nodded and relaxed into the couch.
“Whoa, Xan…what’s wrong?” Riley stepped back, hoping to get a little space.
He wasn’t used to seeing Xander unless there was some kind of meeting. And when he did see him, Xander seemed only half interested in whatever was going on. The former soldier wasn’t expecting to find him walking into the shop during a late-night research session irritated and demanding answers. Answers for what wasn’t entirely clear…yet
Xander stepped back and took a look at the Magic Box. He needed some answers, but he wasn’t really in the mood to explain everything to Buffy. He knew she should probably know about it, but he didn’t really have the time at the moment.
To be honest, if it wasn’t for what had happened back on campus tonight, he probably wouldn’t have come. But it did happen, and here was where he could get the answers he needed. He hoped.
His eyes were dark, serious, not like the fun-loving goofball they knew, and yet they were still Xander’s eyes. He looked around slowly, noticing the others had given them some space but were still watching them warily. Finally, he turned his gaze back to Riley.
“What is down there?” When no answer was forthcoming, Xander took another step closer and asked again. “What *thing* did you and your military leave down there…alive?”
It took a moment for Riley to realize what Xander was referring to. When he did he shook his head “Nothing. We didn’t leave anything. What makes you…why do you think there’s something there?”
Xander took a deep breath. He was tired. “We were attacked, by what I couldn’t tell you, but whatever it was came from what’s left of Lowell House.” He backed further away from Riley, towards the door. “Look, I’m sorry to come barging in here so late but well, your buddy Miller is sleeping off quite the adventure, and he didn’t know.”
“Graham?” Riley asked, even more confused. “He was with you?” It occurred to him that whatever had happened probably had something to do with Graham’s assignment. Maybe he should have been more curious.
“I have a better question,” Willow said as she came in from the basement. “What attacked you guys and why?”
“If Graham didn’t know anything why would you think I would?” Riley asked, confused.
“Don’t forget ‘How can we kill it.” Buffy piped up, following Willow then turning around and heading to the back for weapons.
Xander shook head wearily and left the shop, not wanting to be involved with their seek and destroy mission. He didn’t want to get involved in that Drama, and if Riley didn’t have information, he was useless. Xander had a bad feeling that whatever this thing was, it wasn’t going to go easily.
“Hey, Xander, wait.” Buffy ran out of the shop after him. “Where are you going?”
Xander sighed. “I’m going to go figure out what took Graham, and see if I can figure out what it wants.”
Buffy looked adorably confused. “What it wants?”
Xander sighed again. “Look Buf, I know you typically just go after something, and I get that, but the past few years I’ve realized that’s not always necessary. I realize that while you’re the slayer and you have to see things in black and white in order to fight, the rest of us have to live in the world the way it is, demons and all, and sometimes, just sometimes, there’s another way, a better way.”
Buffy blinked, her eyes shining slightly. “I know that. Don’t think I know that? Xander, I can’t think about that too much, otherwise, I…I can’t do my job.”
Xander nodded. “I know, and that’s why you’re the slayer, and I’m…just the guy with the contacts.” He started to walk away.
“I knew you know,” Buffy said before he’d gotten too far away.
“That you hung around in the demon bars, that you’re friends with demons…that sometimes you do things for them, and they do things for you. I’m glad…that you can do that, that all these years helping me, fighting evil didn’t make living here too difficult.”
Xander smiled sadly. “It didn’t, but the Initiative did something down there, something no one is talking about, and now people are paying the price. Demons and humans.”