Act Four


Xander spent the afternoon scouting around town, asking various townsfolk if they'd heard of a door-to-door security salesman in the area. Most were too preoccupied with holiday preparations to give him the time of day but he kept on searching. It wasn't too difficult since due to the holiday most places were closed. After covering most of the northern side of town, he finally got a tip that a gentleman fitting Athy's description often frequented a popular local hangout: The Slamdunk.

As he pulled into the Slamdunk parking lot, he was shocked by how busy the sports bar seemed. He went in to take a closer look around, and noticed all of the patrons were men of varying ages; most likely single with no other place to go, or simply just escaping the traditional family gatherings most people would be attending at that moment.

The thought of such a lonely existence nibbled away at Xander. Though the ability of actually having a normal holiday meal seemed beyond his adopted family, he was immensely grateful to have a family. Even if they did spend most of the time facing impending doom.

Much to Xander's surprise, he spotted Athy at the bar, being sociable with the bartender. The two men joked and laughed, cheering on the locally favored football team as they watched the big screen TV. His initial instinct was to call Buffy but then he decided to take a different approach.

Giles could feel Willow's excitement before she'd even said a word but he waited for her to call him over, not wanting to reveal his intrusion on her emotions.

"Hey… look at this!" She waved enthusiastically to get Giles' attention, pointing eagerly at her laptop screen.

"Found something?" He came up behind her and glanced over her shoulder.

"Techno Will strikes again… !" Buffy walked in from the kitchen and joined them. "Sorry… sixth sense set off my mingle-worthy alarm."

"Those two so-called unconnected families that were murdered… not so unconnected; guess what common denominator fits this equation?"

"Athy…" Giles gave her a pleased pat on the back. "Good work, Willow. So, he's our suspect in the mysterious slayings… unfortunate clients of his security system. If we can contact the company he's employed by…"

"No security system involved and no security company," Willow interrupted and Giles could sense her enthusiasm for what she'd discovered. "I did a little checking on the history of the company listed on Athy's business card: Better Business Bureau, yellow pages, Consumer Reports, Oregon State Department of Licensing, Federal Trade Commission… nothing."

Buffy looked over at Giles, her forehead crinkling with confusion. "Nothing?"

"Fraud?" Giles asked with a raised brow.

"No reports of fraud documented. Local and federal authorities don't have any fraud cases for this area except for the occasion tax evasion. It's like the company never existed."

"Maybe he just sucks at sales?" Buffy suggested.

"The police reports concluded the cases were unrelated due to the lack of any clear connection between the victims. If the security company isn't the missing link, how did you discover the connection?" Giles asked.

"Our friendly door-to-door salesman is actually Doctor McAthy, acclaimed local family counselor and psychiatrist. He's lived here for over twenty years. Both families were his patients."

"So why pose as a salesperson?" Buffy asked, already sensing they didn't have any more answers.

"And what purpose does this empathy effect serve?" Giles added. "I've found only a few documented accounts of empathetic demons, of which all used their abilities to hunt their prey. The link confuses and weakens the victim, ultimately leaving the person open to suggestion; a sort of mind control."

"The police reports treat these cases as murders but the deaths could have been suicides, murder/suicides, caused from emotional imbalances," Willow suggested. "But what I don't get is why now? In all his years of practice, he suddenly decides to start killing?"

"What's the motive, then?" Buffy asked.

"Why don't we ask him?" Xander caught everyone by surprise and they looked up to see him standing at the double doors of the dining room.

"You know where he is?" Buffy asked anxiously.

"Yep," Xander said confidently, stepping aside and motioning behind him. After a moment, McAthy cautiously peeked in from behind the wall and offered a nervous little wave.

"Hello again…" he said delicately.

"Let me get this straight…" Dawn interrupted with a raised hand. "You're a family counselor… sort of a demony Dr. Phil?"

"Well… yes; though I rather question that man's credentials." McAthy nodded slightly, watching from his seated position at the dining room table, as everyone took turns interrogating him. "I've helped many families in crisis, many of whom never came to me for help."

"So, in your spare time, you make like Willy Lowman to gain entry into peoples homes and trigger this empathy effect. They go all after school special and you get what? What's in it for you?" Buffy pushed him to continue. "You eat them?"

"Certainly not!" he shot her an affronted look. "I haven't eaten meat for over 32 years. I must admit it is a bit of a temptation. Every other Tuesday; one of my longtime patient's insists on giving me rich, meaty soup bones. Lovely man; you see, he's the local butcher…" His voice trailed off at their looks.

"So if it's not for food… then for fun?" Buffy continued. "You get off on the kill?"

"Kill?" he squeaked. "I don't kill!"

"Then what about the murders?" Willow asked, dramatically slapping down the Whispering Pines Gazette before the anxious demon. "Or do you manipulate them into committing suicide with your mind control? Can't stomach doing your own dirty work…?"

"Murders? Mind control? What on earth are you talking about?" He glanced down at the article and sighed, distraught. "Oh… oh my… the Millers? That's a crying shame… and they were making a real breakthrough."

"So the fact that two of the families that you've claimed to help wind up dead is just a coincidence?" Buffy asked skeptically, hesitant to believe the seemingly innocuous man.

"Two?" His forehead creased with concern.

"The Ming family, found slaughtered in their home," Willow explained.

"My lord. See, this is exactly the kind of thing I was referring to. What has this world come to…?"

"Just the facts, Doc," Xander warned.

"I really am very sorry. But it really is just an unfortunate coincidence." McAthy sighed deeply.

"For a guy who uses the local newspaper as part of his sales pitch, you don't seem to keep up on the news," Xander said, suspiciously.

"I used to, but it's so sensationalized now. Twisting facts and warping perceptions." McAthy could sense their disbelief and mistrust. "Why would I offer to come here if I was guilty of such atrocious crimes? I want to help you. I never intended any harm."

"So why do you do this?" Buffy asked, wanting to believe him but finding it difficult given her previous experience. "If it's not for food or fun…?"

"I never said it wasn't for food…" he said guardedly.

Giles stopped his pacing around the room let out a frustrated sigh. "Emotional sustenance... of course…" His voice rose in excitement. "Had I the proper texts… the falsification of identity, the human-like appearance, the emotional manipulation… all documented characteristics of the Sheitanal class of empathy demon."

"Curianic, actually," McAthy corrected politely.

"Oooh… minus one point for the bookman," Xander teased. "You're slipping, Giles. Maybe we need to test him. Do Watchers require some kind of certification…?"

"Only a psychological aptitude test, which would rate quite suspect at the moment." Giles gave Xander his familiar warning glare, the famous hairy eyeball.

"It's a common mistake. You are correct, though," McAthy said encouragingly. "I feed off emotions."

"I thought you said you were a vegetarian," Dawn reminded him.

"Not in the strictest sense. A man can't live on roughage alone. Emotions are a supplement, more like a dessert actually." McAthy looked to Giles, his eyes pleading for him to believe him. "Don't bite the hand that feeds you. Why would I murder the very people providing me with what I need?"

"Then explain why we can sense each others emotions?" Giles asked and felt everyone's nervous anticipation of the explanation and possible solution.

"This is why I came." McAthy motioned toward Xander. "When this young man explained to me what was occurring here, I knew something had gone terribly wrong. You see, the effect is usually undetectable in humans; I simply enhance what's already there." McAthy shook his head. "I never intended any harm."

"So this isn't how it's supposed to work?" Buffy asked.

"Not at all," McAthy insisted. "The effect should cause the recipients to be more open to others emotions, just enough to make a real connection and reach a new understanding. It's why I've been so successful. It works."

"How do we turn it off?" Buffy asked.

"Normally, it fades with time. But what you're describing here… I can't be sure. I don't understand what's happened."

"Review time…" Willow started. "Your normal patients come to you and you use your empathy effect to help them sympathize with each other while feeding on the emotions they bring to you, right?" McAthy nodded. "Then what about those who don't come to you? How do you actually eat the emotions? You weren't here, so how are you receiving them?" Willow asked.

"My business cards… they're a kind of an emotional magnet that sends the signal back to me. I never really have to be there to collect the emotions; the cards do all the work."

"You get them via some demony cyberspace?" Dawn asked with interest. "Cool."

"Transvortextual conveyance… the card acts as the link," Giles explained.

"Um… sure, what he said. It's all perfectly harmless. Benefits the families by letting the members empathize with each other and benefits me."

Buffy hurried over to the family room and returned a moment later with a garbage can. She quickly rummaged through it as everyone watched. After a few initial disappointments, she stood up and displayed the discarded business card.

"If this is what sends you the emotions… what happens if I do this?" With a brisk motion, Buffy tore up the card and surveyed the shocked expressions of the others. "Any feelings or lack thereof?" They remained silent for a moment, concentrating. She waited, confident but curious as to any side effects. After a few seconds, she realized her emotions were clearer, quieter and more focused; she was unaccompanied.

"A bit risky…" Giles smirked, "… but I think the connection is broken."

"Way to go, Buff!" Xander smiled. "Now I can get back to my magazines."

"And I can actually get my homework done…" Dawn checked her watch and disappeared into the kitchen.

"Good job, Buffy," Willow added.

"Well done, Buffy," Giles said tenderly, though feeling a bit saddened that his close connection with her was now gone.

"I'm sorry to have caused such a fuss," McAthy said, as he moved to the front door, with Buffy following closely behind him. "I don't understand what could have happened."

"That's alright; I'm kinda used to dealing with messes like this. But I'd hold off on using your little talent until we can figure out what happened. Plus, making with the feelings when people are unawares… not the best of plans; stick with helping those who come to you, ok?" She opened the door and flashed him a kindly smile.

"Of course… I'm just glad no one was hurt. Let me know if I can be of any service in the future." McAthy said agreeably, as he put on his hat and stepped outside. He stopped and turned back to face her. "Would you mind a spot of advice from a worldly old man…?"

"Demon…" she amended. Though she really didn't feel like a pep talk, Buffy didn't want to be rude so she joined him outside and closed the front door behind her. "Go ahead, advise away."

"I can tell you've seen a lot; probably more than a young woman your age should. But sometimes your heart sees what your eyes cannot." He offered a sly grin. "I'd say it's time for an eye exam."

"Look, I'm sorry about the whole jumping to conclusions thing… it's just…"

"Thank you, but that's not was I was referring to," he said knowingly. "You've quite the family, here; take care of them, Miss Summers." With that, he gave a gentle salute, turned and went on his way, walking cheerfully down the path and out to the street, leaving Buffy utterly puzzled.

"I will…" She mumbled sheepishly and returned inside to join the others.

"So I guess the family holiday dinner's a big dud…" Xander sighed disappointedly.

"I wouldn't say that." Dawn opened the kitchen door and held it for Jo and Lessa, who entered with their hands full of steaming hot dishes, overflowing with food.

"Wow… the take-out here is world class." Xander quickly got up to help set the dining room table.

"And the view…" Jo mumbled quietly, taking a stealthy peek around the corner into the family room where Giles was industriously cross-referencing his notes of the day's events with Willow's database. "Exceptional."

"Giles… we got company. Quick, get your power tie!" Xander teased and took a warm roll from the breadbasket Jo was carrying. Buffy took back the stolen booty and returned it to the basket as Jo gave Xander a playful slap on the back of his hand.

"Xander, some friends of mine in town own a small furniture business. They're in need of someone with woodworking skills but they can't afford to pay very much. Would you be interested?" She smiled.

"Xander's your man." Buffy accepted for him. "He's an artiste…"

"Well, um, yeah…" Xander smiled, a bit surprised by the offer. "I mean… thanks."

"Pleasure… I'll let them know." She nodded and went about her business, bringing in even more plates of food.

"You guys must have been cooking all day." Buffy was stunned by the sheer plethora of dishes laid out on the table and they just kept on coming.

"It was Dawn's idea. With the whole empathetic ordeal, we figured you'd all be too busy to… well, I just wanted to make sure you all had a hearty, home cooked meal." Jo smiled warmly as she doled out the plates.

Everyone took seats around the table as Giles finally came through the double doors with a look of utter astonishment. "My word… this is quite the pleasant surprise…"

"Yeah… looks like Jo and Lessa saved the day," Dawn praised as she dug into the mashed potatoes. "Yay, team coven!"

"And thanks to Dawn for the idea…" Lessa added.

Giles took a seat near the opposite end of the table from Buffy and examined the feast before him, not knowing where to begin.

"Buffy, would you do the honors?" Lessa handed over the knife and Buffy nodded bashfully, examining all the faces surrounding the banquet.

"Thanks guys… this is… well... it's really great to have so many friends to count on." She feigned a smile. Buffy was grateful, but couldn't help feeling somehow robbed of her intended family meal as she carved out the first piece of turkey.

"Man, I could eat this whole spread." Xander drooled as he served up some peas and paused. "Hey… what's up with the mushy peas?"

Giles perked up, his eyes peeking over the rim of his glasses to scan the tabletop for the referenced side dish.

Willow shot a sly glance to Jo, who offered the slightest of smiles at the question. The redheaded witch snickered as she promptly slid the sought after bowl toward Giles. "Jo's specialty... or so I'm told."

"Is that so?" Giles' playful green eyes met hers from across the table. Buffy was too busy carving away at the turkey to take notice of the conversation at the other end of the table.

Lessa noticed the exchange and decided to add fuel to the fireworks. "But it's her apple pie that's to die for!"

Jo muffled a chuckle as a faint blush washed over her.

'Take a big, juicy bite outta life.' Buffy's words of advice echoed through Giles' mind. Maybe it was time to move on, to get what he could out of life.

"Indeed…" Giles purred, his eyes staying determinedly with Jo's. Though she said nothing, she held promises in her gaze and Giles couldn't help but wonder.


Act 3   End Credits

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