Title: "I love you," means...
Author: Becka
Pairing: Jesse + Xander. Faith x Xander. Eventually Spike x Xander.

Warnings: AU? Brutality. Child abuse. Death. Language. OOC? Yaoi. Xander-torture.

Disclaimer: Buffy, the Vampire Slayer does not belong to Becka; characters are used without permission for a non-profit purpose. No infringement is intended.

o

Alexander Harris couldn't remember the first time his father had ever hit him. He supposed it didn't really matter. After all, he knew he could spell his full name, and he could recite his address and phone number from memory, and he'd been the first kid in his class to say his "A B C's" in the right order. He knew his right from his left and he could count from one to one hundred (backwards, if he wanted) and he could say the Pledge of Allegiance and not stumble on any of the big words and he knew more prayers to God than his teacher did. So what did it matter if he couldn't remember the first time his father ever hit him -

"- get back here, you little piece of shit -"

- it hadn't been the last.

Xander's father was a big man: tall enough that he towered over most of Sunnydale's population, and wide enough that anyone who saw him thought he'd make an excellent football player. He wasn't a bad looking man, though. With short, brown hair, and small, brown eyes, and a well-built figure, despite the fact he was an unemployed fifty-year-old, he could have given any man competition -

"- you worthless fuck, if I have to come and get you, I swear -"

- "could have" being the key words there, because the brown hair was matted and unkempt, and the brown eyes were sore and red, and the otherwise-fit figure had a massive gut which hung over the waistband of his pants from too many drinks. That is, the alcoholic kind.

In his youth, he _had_ been a football player, actually, a quarterback for one of the best high school football teams in the state. But then some nameless player from some nameless team had tackled Xander's father one fateful game and the entire stadium had heard the resounding CRACK which resulted in a knee injury so gruesome that doctors didn't even think the older Harris would ever be able to _walk_ again, much less play football -

"- I'm giving you five seconds, boy. You hear me? I'm counting -"

- but never let it be said that a Harris deferred to the laws of nature. While Xander's father hadn't ever been able to play football again, he _had_ learned to walk, to an extent, making progress the doctors all deemed "miraculous." Then he'd found a woman who'd fallen madly in love with him ("madly" being the key word there), married her, fucked her, and proceeded to beat her senseless every night of her miserable life. Despite Xander's premature birth due to one such beating, he'd turned out to be a surprisingly healthy child.

Now, seeing as Xander's mother made most of the money, Xander's father found it was much more prudent to take his rage out on Xander. Money equaled alcohol, and so long as Xander wasn't injured so badly that he _had_ to go to the hospital, Mrs. Harris simply looked the other way -

"- there you are, you little shit -"

- like now.

Xander watched his father through wary eyes, wondering if he'd be able to make it to the door and down the street before the older Harris grabbed him.

Probably not.

With a groan, Xander's father sank down onto the chair in front of the TV, fixing his son with cold, red-rimmed eyes. "Get me a beer, boy," he slurred, and Xander ran into the kitchen, grabbed one of the countless bottles from the fridge, and presented it, already opened, to his father in less time than it had taken to ask.

His father had been in a bad mood all morning; Xander had no urge to anger him any more. The last time he'd opened his mouth, he hadn't been able to speak for almost a week. The rope burns around his neck had lasted nearly a month, and by the time he'd gotten his voice back, he'd managed to come up with the alibi, "I was trying to build a tree house and I slipped and fell off. I got tangled up in some rope and if my daddy hadn't heard me, I would have died."

All of which was true. A year ago, he had tried to build a tree house and he had slipped and fallen, resulting in a broken arm. And he had gotten tangled in some rope (with his father's enthusiastic assistance), and if his father hadn't heard him beg, he _would_ have died.

Ah, the joy of creative truth-telling.

The older Harris accepted the beer, chugged it, and threw the bottle in his son's general direction. Xander had to jump backwards to avoid being hit, but when he landed, his footing was all wrong and he fell ungracefully onto his butt. Staring up at his father's face, at the small trickle of beer that dribbled down the ruddy chin to stain a tee shirt, already yellow with age, the young Harris swallowed the lump in his throat. Xander's father stared at him with squinty, beady eyes and Xander knew that he was in trouble.

Trouble probably wasn't the best word to describe it. For a man of his girth, even with the ailment of his half-paralyzed leg, Xander's father could move nimbly. He was up and standing over the young boy, belt in hand, before Xander even had the time to blink.

"Tell me what I want to hear, boy."

Xander flung his arms around his head in an attempt to protect himself. It was pitiful, but it was all he could do. He knew that, just as his father knew it.

The beating was painful. Not as bad as some, but certainly not as lenient as others. When the older Harris was in this sort of mood, the easiest thing to do was to just accept whatever he gave out, tell him what he wanted to hear, and crawl away from him as soon as he wasn't looking.

Xander may not have been the smartest boy in his class, the most clever, or the most spry, but he thought - almost proudly - that no one else could have stayed with his father all these years and survived. No one else could take the beatings, have the shirt torn from their body with the rip of it echoing in their ears -

"Say it, boy."

- feel the sting of salted leather on bare skin, raising red welts over scores of similar scars, scabs from cigarette burns down the spine, incisions from broken bottles, mirrors, windows and the like, bruises from every wall he'd gotten up close and personal with, bruises from unforgiving fists and booted shoes, bruises in the shape of hands, ten fingers wrapped around his neck or his arms, until they faded away when he would be given new ones, ten times as painful as the last.

No one else could have survived. He'd seen the children in the playground who cried because they scraped their knees, whose parents kissed the "boo-boo" and put a Band-Aid on it as though it would take the pain away. He'd seen the girls cry because the boys put sand in their hair or stomped on their play castles; he'd seen the boys cry because they fell off the swings or out of a tree and bruised themselves.

Xander never cried anymore. Not when he'd fallen and scraped his knees and his father had poured vodka on the open sores, not when his uncle had sprinkled tacks into his hair because he was so drunk he thought Xander would look better with his hair "spiked," not when his mother had stepped on his toes because he didn't get out of her way fast enough, and especially not when his father got belt-happy, or rope-happy, or cigarette-happy, or aluminum-baseball-bat-happy. Crying only made the adults laugh louder. If you were silent, they lost interest in you quicker.

Staying sane, though. That was another issue. Even Xander couldn't claim he'd succeeded in that.

It didn't matter, he supposed. His insides were supposed to match his outsides, weren't they? If he wasn't as worthless and useless as his father said he was, maybe he wouldn't need to be punished so often. It was only because his father loved him, wasn't it?

"Boy?"

The belt dangled limply from his father's hand, and Xander dared to look up at the old man, dared to meet the bloodshot eyes, dared to trust his throat as he said in a broken, subdued voice, "I love you, Daddy."

That was what the older Harris wanted to hear. Sated, he turned and settled back down onto his reclining chair. Almost fondly, he said, "Get me another beer, boy." And even though he had to crawl to the fridge and back, Xander did.

o

Xander had two best friends. They kept him happy, and when they could, they kept him safe. They meant so much to him, because no one else wanted anything to do with him; the strange dark-haired boy who was so clumsy that he always sported a bruise or two, a cut or a burn. He was the class clown, the boy who told stupid jokes and smiled all the time. He was too strange for most children, save two. Two best friends who knew everything about him and whom he knew everything about. Well -

"Xander, what happened?"

- almost everything.

He'd known Willow Rosenburg for his entire life. As far back as his memory stretched, she was there. Willow was a sweet girl, but she had always been, and would probably continue to be oblivious to anything that didn't fit into her small, perfect world. Her parents didn't love her the way Xander's parents loved him. She was lucky like that. She got As in all of her classes in school and the teachers always wanted her around. Once Willow had told Xander that a teacher said he was a bad influence and that she shouldn't play with him or "that Jesse kid," but she didn't care. She smiled at him and hugged him, not even noticing when he flinched, and told him that she "loved him too much to care."

That was the day he'd stolen her Barbie and savagely ripped its head off. How _dare_ she say she loved him. How _dare_ she. You weren't supposed to love the people you cared about. You weren't supposed to hurt them like that. He'd apologized the next day, because he remembered that she'd lived a sheltered life, and maybe she didn't know what "I love you," really meant.

Willow wasn't a bad person at all, though. She was kind, open, and naïve in a gentle, trusting sort of way. She was perfect and he was grateful to have her as a friend -

"Leave off, Wills. You fall out of your tree house again, Xan?"

- but there was no way he ever could have survived without Jesse.

Jesse knew about Xander's father, knew about his mother, knew about the lie that was his life. Jesse's father was almost as violent as his own, but Jesse's mother was a kind woman. More than once, she had taken care of both boys, checking them for broken bones and cleaning their cuts and scrapes.

Most importantly though, Jesse understood. He knew just as well as Xander that life was a cruel and terrible place to be, and both of them had made a blood pact to do everything they could to protect Willow from finding out about the darker side of life. Even if it meant lying about either boy's injuries, which both of them hated to do -

"Yeah, Jesse, that's what happened."

- but sometimes there was no choice.

Willow fussed over the bruises on Xander's arms, the ones that she could see. He kept the rest carefully guarded and concealed beneath a baggy shirt and a loose pair of pants. They were what he could afford on the money he made mowing lawns and delivering mail, and it didn't matter that they were far too big on him because it kept them from chafing his sores.

"You're the clumsiest person I know, Xander," Willow told him fondly as she held his hand and reached for Jesse's. "That's the third time you fell out of the tree house this week!" It was almost comical how trusting the petite redhead was, how she believed them no matter how many times they used the same excuses.

"Yeah, I know," he replied. He knew that he was more than just clumsy. He was a stupid, worthless, piece of shit. He was a dumb little fuck who didn't know enough to stay out of trouble. He was a loser, a sinner, and a liar. He was pathetic.

Willow held Xander's left hand and Jesse's right hand in her own and they walked towards the Rosenburg's house. She gave his hand a little squeeze and smiled, "My mom made chocolate chip cookies and bought ice cream for us. Your parents won't mind if you guys come over and have some, right?"

Both boys nodded their heads and exchanged glances with each other over the oblivious girl's head. There was a small smile on both their mouths as they nodded to each other in perfect accord.

Their parents wouldn't mind if they went to Willow's house for junk food.

Their parents wouldn't even notice they were gone.

o

Later that night, Xander and Jesse camped out in the tree house. They huddled next to each other, blankets wrapped securely around both of their frail forms. Neither of them had wanted to go home, and the tree house was the safest place for sleeping and talking and -

"Can I kiss you, Xan?"

- doing other things the adults weren't supposed to know about it.

The first time Jesse had asked that same exact question, Xander confessed he didn't know what a kiss was. The other boy had tried to explain, asking him if his mother or father had ever given him a kiss, pressed their lips to his forehead or his cheek.

Neither of them had.

Ever.

"What does a kiss mean?" Xander had innocently asked. And Jesse had fumbled with an explanation about how kisses were special and how they meant that you really cared about the person you were kissing. It didn't surprise Xander to know that his parents didn't care about him; he'd always known it in his heart. What _did_ surprise him was that Jesse cared about him, and that he wanted to prove it with a kiss.

"Who do you give kisses to?" he'd prodded. Embarrassed, Jesse told him that parents gave kisses to their children, and children gave kisses to their parents. Boyfriends and girlfriends kissed each other and husbands and wives did the same. "Boys aren't supposed to kiss each other, but I don't care," Jesse told him. "You're important to me, and I want to kiss you." Then he added, almost shyly, "But I won't if you don't want me to."

"What does it feel like?" he said quietly. And Jesse's expression wilted because he thought Xander had rejected him, and because didn't know how to explain it in a way the other boy could understand. Then Xander said, " If you can't explain it, then show me," and he'd smiled as Jesse did.

Jesse never took Xander for granted, and Xander showed Jesse the same consideration. They always asked if it was okay to kiss each other, because sometimes after their father's had been particularly rough with them, they didn't want to be kissed. They just wanted to be held. And sometimes, like now -

"Yes."

- they wanted both.

Xander snuggled into Jesse's arms and they kissed like they'd done the first time Jesse had asked him that question: soft, sweet, and slow. Listening to each other's pounding heartbeats; they would fall asleep like this. Xander never had nightmares when Jesse held him.

He whispered softly into the older boy's neck, "Friends forever, right?"

"Right." Jesse pressed another kiss to his forehead. "Friends forever."

Xander fell asleep then, feeling warm and safe. He knew that Jesse never broke his promises, but he never realized forever would be so short.

o

Jesse smiled at him, his sharp canines gleaming in the dull, smoky setting of the Bronze. The muted and occasional flickering strobe lights served to accentuate the bumps and ridges over his eyebrows and down his nose, reflecting off the slitted, yellow eyes and proclaiming him a vampire, an evil being who stole lives to further his own life. None of that mattered to Xander, though. All he saw was the rumpled, dark hair and the confident smirk that marked Jesse as his best friend, as his only friend. But the words that came from the same mouth that had kissed him so many times -

"C'mon, Xan, it'll be great! You and me, forever, right? All these bitches that made fun of us can't touch us now. You know I love you, Xan. I'd never do anything to hurt you."

- they stabbed at his heart in a way the gruesome image of his friend's face never could.

That's what convinced Xander that his childhood friend was dead. Jesse wouldn't love him because Jesse knew what "I love you," meant. The demon wearing his face might have access to those memories, but it didn't understand them. And so he did the only thing he could do -

"I'm sorry, Jes. I'm so sorry..."

- brutally suppressing the tears that wanted to flood his eyes, he slipped a wooden stake between his friend's third and fourth ribs, right through the heart. Jesse stared at him, eyes wide with betrayal, and that horrified expression was his last memory of his best friend before it faded to dust.

The rest of the Bronze was alive with commotion, vampires and humans fighting their age-old battle. The Slayer battled their leader, and he didn't even know where Willow was. Where was Willow? He was supposed to take care of her. He'd promised Jesse he would take care of her -

"Wake up, boy, you're gonna' be late for school."

- a bottle thumped him soundly in the chest and he bolted up in his bed, cold sweat soaking his shirt. Nightmares. Always nightmares. He'd never had nightmares when Jesse was with him; it seemed like retribution because all he could dream about now was how it felt to shove a stake through his best friend's heart. It felt as though it was slicing through his own.

His father, satisfied that he was awake, wandered off to the fridge for another beer, leaving Xander to get ready for school.

After he slowed his breathing and shook off the chill the nightmares always left him with, he closed his eyes and took a deep, haggard breath. The words whispered in his head -

/ "You and me, forever right? You know I love you, Xan..." /

- and Jesse _had_ promised him forever.

But not like that.

o

School.

He didn't want to go, but there wasn't really any choice. He'd already missed nearly three weeks worth of classes due to various injuries, broken bones and the like. Then there were the days where he simply needed a little more time before he could rejoin the human civilization because of the bruises and cuts that couldn't be hidden beneath baggy clothing.

He'd catch the bus, sit completely still through class, drawing as little attention to himself as possible. Inevitably, he'd end up in the library at the end of the day. Buffy would be there, covered in a light sheen of sweat, practicing her kicks and flips, living the life of a Slayer. Oz and Willow would be holding hands, strawberry-blonde heads bowed together in conversation. Giles would sit at his desk, nose buried in some obscure text as he read and translated. And Cordelia... she'd be by herself, filing her nails or checking her makeup. When he went in, no one would notice except her. Well, maybe they'd ask him to run to the vending machines or the cafeteria, but none of them would greet him with a simple, "Hey, Xander, how are you?"

Cordelia would make some excuse and grab his hand and drag him off, probably to the nearest broom closet. She'd wrap her arms around him, kiss his mouth and neck, and whisper "I love you," in his ear, her eyes so tender and beautiful. Then when he'd done what she wanted him to, she'd leave him there to find her "real" friends, and if he ever dared to ruin the image she'd made for herself, if he ever dared to so much as touch her gently on the arm or shoulder in public, she'd make him pay.

His fingers touched the set of parallel scratches on his chest, five claw marks that were deep red, like welts. Claw marks made by her perfectly manicured nails, painstakingly painted, neatly filed.

He supposed it was a good thing Cordelia always wanted to screw in closets and other darkened areas - it meant she never saw his body, never knew that all of the marks on it weren't from her. Just as it was a good thing his father never looked too closely at him, assuming that every cut and bruise had been made by him, or Uncle Rory, or Xander's mother. And if Buffy or Willow or Giles ever caught a peek at one the scars on his forearms or neck, he'd just smile and say, "Vampires. Gotta' love 'em."

And that would be that.

He grabbed his bag and a pack of cigarettes from the counter where his mother had left them, and walked out of his house. Pausing, he pulled one out, fumbled with the lighter, and took a deep, calming drag.

It was a nasty habit he'd picked up after Jesse died. Sometimes he'd go through three, even four packs a day. Since his parents smoked more than he did, they never noticed when he took a pack or two from one of the numerous cartons that littered the floor. Even if they did, they blamed each other.

And of course there was another habit he'd formed after that fateful night at the Bronze.

Just before he reached the bus stop, he paused, pulling back his sleeve to reveal his forearm. It was a motley patchwork of scars and burns, some new, some old. He snuffed the cigarette on his arm, not even wincing as he ground it into the tender flesh. He could deal with this pain. He needed it.

Tossing the cigarette butt to the ground, he tugged his sleeve back into place. Reaching up to his chest, his fingers massaged the area lightly, right between the third and fourth ribs.

That was what really hurt; the cigarette burn was a pale shadow in comparison.

o

Xander entered the library quietly, his eyes scanning the room. Buffy was in the back, breathing hard. He caught a glimpse of a high kick through the shelves. Willow and Oz sat side by side, hand in hand, smiling, laughing. Giles didn't even glance up, but his clipped, British tones cut through the comfortable white static -

"Xander, could you do me a favor? Run to the vending machines for me? I'm parched."

- predictable, as always.

He'd didn't even have time to nod as Buffy called over, "Me too. Diet coke, please," and Willow piped up, "Oz and I could share a Sprite..."

"I'll go with you." Cordelia grabbed his arm, swept through the library doors, and dragged him to the nearest closet.

o

Buffy loved Angel. Angel loved Buffy. Both of them had spoken the damning words aloud.

It was a doomed relationship from the start.

Xander wondered why no one else could see that.

Buffy and Angel. Angel and Buffy. Angel had killed Miss Calender, tortured Giles, and planned to kill every one of Buffy's friends in the most painful and brutal way possible. He took joy in it. And Buffy... well, she sent him to hell.

Xander shook his head, then hissed as he poured iodine over the newest additions to his body, courtesy of his father in a drunken rage and one lone beer bottle.

Angel and Buffy. Buffy and Angel. He supposed he understood though.

After all, they were in love.

o

Xander didn't know how he'd ended up in bed with Faith. It seemed like a dream, really. One minute they'd been talking. Had Willow or Buffy been there? He thought they might have been, but it was hard to concentrate. When he reached for the memory, it danced away, gliding just outside of his reach. Maybe they'd left or maybe he'd been about to leave. Either way, Faith had grabbed him and tossed him onto her shoddy hotel bed as if he weighed no more than a pillow. She'd followed, right on top of him, straddling him as she literally tore his clothes off, more than a hint of madness in her eyes. And what she'd done to him, dear God, what she'd -

"Was it good for you?"

- done. She'd hurt him in ways he didn't even think his father could manage, with her deadly mix of pain and lust. There was blood on the whitewashed walls; he could see it out of the corners of his eyes. Most of it was his.

He could barely move. His vision was hazy, but he managed to turn his face towards where she lay next to him, taking a lazy drag on her cigarette. His treacherous body throbbed where her nails had raked his skin, where her teeth had left perfect, circular imprints. His back felt as though it had been flayed off, and idly he wondered where she'd put the riding crop.

It was with great trepidation that he decided to test out his voice, dared to put a little more stress on a throat already hoarse from screaming. He coughed, tasted blood, swallowed it back down and whispered in a scratchy voice, "... may I?"

"May you what?" She blinked as he nodded his head towards the cigarette. Smiling benevolently, she placed it to his lips. It burned like molten fire on the way down, nearly made him puke on the way up.

Grateful, he took a second drag.

"Y'know, Xan, it's been a while since I had a workout like that one." Faith raised the cigarette to her own lips, puffed, and exhaled thoughtfully. "I mean, you sort of surprised me there. The scars... bet B and the rest don't have a clue about 'em. I can appreciate that. So..." she graced him with a glance, "Got anything to say?"

He looked at her through hateful eyes, the anger inside of him bubbling up and drowning out the pain. He wanted to hurt her, hurt her like she hurt him. And he wanted to thank her for hurting him as well, because after eighteen years of living with his father, after Jesse's death, he'd learned to enjoy the pain. So he said the only thing he could, the only thing that came close to explaining his jumbled thoughts, the only thing -

"I love you, Faith."

- that could make her understand.

It surprised her; he could see that in her eyes. It actually shocked her, and she propped herself up on one elbow to stare at him for awhile. She said nothing, only looked into his eyes, into his face, and he didn't know what she saw there. Finally, she threw back her head and laughed.

"You're one fucked up kid, Xan, you know that?"

He managed to nod.

Before he knew what was happening, Faith was on him again. She hauled him up, kissed his mouth, bit into his lip until it bled. She hurt him with her fists, her mouth, her words, until he couldn't see through the red film that covered his eyes. She raped him and he begged her to do it again.

Xander didn't know how long he'd been in her room, but when she was through with him, the sun was just beginning to rise. Before she threw him out the door, she pressed her mouth to his, her tongue laving his lips and the blood there in a mocking parody of a kiss. She whispered in his ear, quietly, viciously -

"Sure, Xan, I love you, too."

- and then she shoved him out of the room, threw his clothes after him, and slammed the door in his smiling face.

o