Alex Hill feels like he’s going to sweat to death if he stays under the blanket. He doesn’t know how long he’s been on the floor of the Hummer, but it feels like he’s been under the blanket forever.
He almost sobs with relief when he finally hears Spike say, “We’re here.”
As the Hummer jerks to a stop, Alex sneakily lifts the blanket in front of his face a little bit. When a gust of fresh, cool air hits him in the face, he gulps to draw it into his lungs.
“Don’t do that,” Buffy snaps at him.
When she touches his back, he shies down; partially because she managed to touch one of claw marks on his back and it hurts, partially because he doesn’t want the blanket to cover his face again.
“I can’t breathe and it’s hot,” Alex complains.
“Okay. It’s okay,” Buffy says gently. “Just…can you make your head less stick-y out-y? Just in case? I don’t want something to look in and see you.”
Alex winces. He guesses he must’ve been a lot less sneaky than he thought he was, or that he moved the blanket off his head more than he thought he did. Although he still doesn’t understand how he’s supposed to be bait if he’s hiding. How can he be bait if the monsters don’t see him?
“You can get up in a li’l bit, Alex,” Spike says from the front seat. “Just ’ang on for the all-clear.”
“So far, so good,” Alex hears Faith say. “Willow’s invisi-mojo worked it hardcore.”
“Don’t jinx it,” Buffy hisses.
“I second that,” Alex hears Spike say. “All we need is to run across the wrong sort of demon an’ we might as well have no witch at all.”
“Shush. I’m concentrating on expanding the field so all of us covered within a certain area,” Willow says. Then she quietly starts to mumble something. Alex isn’t sure, but he thinks Willow is talking using those fake words again.
“Still all clear in the rear,” Alex hears a young-ish unfamiliar female voice say.
“Weird how there’s no traffic on the streets,” says a second unfamiliar young female voice. “This is so not like the L.A. traffic I know and loathe.”
“No people around, either,” a third young female voice adds.
“I’m with my girls,” Faith says. “It’s wicked creepy.”
“Yeah, well…apocalypse,” Buffy says. “People just seem to know when to clear out.”
“Not always,” Spike says. “In that mess last year, everyone stayed put. Too many got killed as a result.”
“Please don’t remind me,” Buffy says.
She says it so quietly, that Alex isn’t sure that he actually heard Buffy. He takes a chance and peeks up at her. She’s staring out the window and she looks very sad. Alex doesn’t know what to make of it.
“This is a bit peculiar if you ask me,” Spike says. “Here we are right in the bloody eye of the storm so to speak, and we’ve seen neither hide nor hair of man or beast. Seems to me there should be something waiting for us with a gift basket full of nasty surprises or somesuch. I don’t like it.”
“Please. We got so many ‘Xanders’ running around L.A. at this point, it’s a wonder the demon brigade ain’t getting dizzy chasing their own tails,” Faith says. “What d’you wanna bet they’re scattered all over hell and creation tryin’ to figure out which one’s the real deal?”
Alex frowns. He thought he was the only one pretending to be Zander. But if what Faith said was true, he’s not the only person pretending to be Zander. So why did the superheroes ask him to be bait?
Before he can ask, Buffy says, “Spike’s right. The Hyperion and the alley are right there. You’d think they’d be all ‘Ring Around the Rosie’ to make sure we don’t sneak in under their radar. I don’t like it, either.”
Alex wonders what a hyperion is.
“They could be hiding nearby and merely watching for us, probably thinking they can catch us unawares. It could be they haven’t yet revealed themselves because they’re unable to penetrate Miss Rosenberg’s spell,” says a fourth unfamiliar voice. It sounds older than the other three unfamiliar voices, so Alex thinks that it probably belongs to the woman instead of one of the girls.
“Doesn’t explain why we’ve seen neither red tooth nor red claw of anything even on the way here,” Spike says.
“Maybe none of the demons actually want to be in the area when the portal blows wide open,” says one of the younger-sounding voices. “Did anyone think of that?”
“I did,” says the second of younger-sounding voices. “I remember the rain of fire a few years ago, thanks. Never mind steering clear of the Hyperion. Steering clear of the state seems like the smart move.”
Alex begins to shiver. If even the monsters are afraid, that means he should probably be afraid, too.
“And here we are walking right into it,” says the third of the younger-sounding voices. “What does that say about us?”
“That we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be,” Faith snaps. “Don’t like it? You can get out now and walk back to Cleveland.”
While the girls mutter a bunch of apologies, Buffy sighs. She leans forward and whispers to Alex, “Between you and me, teleporting out of the state sounds like a nifty-ish idea. I’m thinking London. Harrod’s. Specifically? The shoe department. I suddenly have this serious, soul-burning craving for very expensive cute shoes.”
Alex looks up at Buffy to see if she’s kidding, except she doesn’t look like she’s kidding. She looks like she’s being dead serious.
“You and the shoes,” Faith snorts.
“At least I don’t have a Baby Docs addiction,” Buffy says.
“I’ll have you know these are straight-up, no-name shit-kickers,” Faith says. “Docs are for poseurs.”
“I hear that,” says one of the younger unfamiliar voices.
“I like my Docs,” says another young unfamiliar voice.
“Hah! I think the point’s been made,” says a third young voice.
“If we’re done being all poke-y at-y with each other, the spell’s set,” Willow suddenly says. “The whole block around the Hyperion is a no-see zone as far as the bad guys are concerned. But as soon as Isabella and I start casting the circle, it’s going to blip off, mostly because we need to put all of our energy into that.”
Alex feels like he’s going to throw up.
“So we got some breathing room, but not much,” Faith says. “Okay, girls. Time to get out and get into position. I want those peepers peeled. If something comes at us, we’ll hold ’em off. If nothing else, Alex will be nice and safe inside that spell before anything gets by us.”
Alex’s head shoots up just as he hears a bunch of doors open in the Hummer, although he can’t really see Faith. All he can see is Buffy. He’s not sure he really understands, but it sounds like Willow is going to cast a spell on him.
The spell is probably to attract the monsters.
But Faith said the spell was to keep him nice and safe. So maybe Willow is going to cast a spell to protect him.
Or maybe Willow’s spell is supposed to do both.
Alex is so confused and frustrated about everything that he just wants to hit the floor of the Hummer with his fists, even though he knows he shouldn’t. Only little kids hit the floor with their fists when they’re frustrated, and he’s not a little kid.
He really doesn’t want Willow to cast a spell on him until he knows what the spell’s supposed to do. He won’t do it if it’s going to attract the monsters. He won’t.
“Careful getting out the back,” Faith calls. “I don’t want none of you so much as messing up your hair before we get to dance.”
“We’re all out,” says one of the young voices.
“Right. Shut the door. I’ll be out in a sec,” Faith says. As the doors in back slam shut, Alex hears Faith ask, “Spike?”
“I’ll be stickin’ with Alex,” Spike says.
Alex can’t stop himself from letting out a relieved breath. He’s glad that Spike will stay with him instead of going with Faith.
“Thought you might, but I could use you on the frontlines, sport,” Faith says. “Alex is gonna have B and the world’s most powerful witch looking out for him. Oh, and Izzy here as back-up witch. No offense, Izzy.”
“Call me Isabella instead of Izzy and none taken,” the older voice — which Alex guesses belongs to Isabella or Izzy or whatever her name is — says.
“You’ll get a piece of me after the circle is cast and Alex is tucked in nice and tight. Not a moment before,” Spike says.
“Fair ’nuff.” Alex can feel Faith’s feet moving against his legs. He guesses that she must be getting out of her seat. “Yo, Alex, good luck. As for you, Dusty, see you on the downside.”
“Don’t call me ‘Dusty,’” Spike says as Faith slams her door shut.
Buffy giggles, but it sounds more nervous instead of happy.
“Cheeky bint,” Spike complains.
Alex takes a deep breath. “Can I sit up?”
“Willow?” Buffy asks.
“He’s an invis-Alex like the rest of us, so it’s good,” Willow says.
Alex pulls the blanket off of him and crawls up so he can sit in the seat. His skin feels hot and scratchy, like the goosepimples are turning into a rash. He feels stiff all over, probably because he spent such a long time lying on the floor of the Hummer. He also feels very, very sweaty. He’s pretty sure that he doesn’t smell like green herbs and peppermint any more.
The only people in the Hummer are him, Spike, Willow, Buffy, and Isabella. Isabella is still in the back area, where the three young girls were. Alex is kind of surprised that she’s still there. He thought that she had left with Faith.
“Okay, Alex. What we’re going to do is that all of us are going to go in that alley over there.” Buffy points out her window to an opening. It looks like it’s between two brick buildings.
“That alley?” Alex asks. It doesn’t make any sense. It seems to him that if the monsters attack they’ll be trapped if they go in there, and that’s even if it’s open at both ends.
“Yup,” Buffy nods.
Alex looks at Spike and sees that Spike is watching him in the rearview mirror. He knows because Spike is straining his neck a little bit. “Spike? Why do we have to into the alley?”
“’S for your protection,” Spike says. “All the better for the monsters not to see you.”
Alex is getting more and more confused. How is he supposed to be bait if no one will let the monsters see him? Even though he really doesn’t want the monsters to see him, he wants things to make sense and right now nothing is making sense. It’s probably because he missed something or was wrong about something, but he’s not sure what he missed or was wrong about. Giles said he was going to bait. Giles even asked him to be bait. So why is everyone acting like he’s not going to be bait?
Alex finally gives up. Spike will tell him what to do. If he does something wrong, Spike will make sure he stays safe, too. Besides, he’s still worried about the spell Willow is going to cast on him, so he should probably ask about that before they leave the Hummer.
“Faith said Willow is going to cast a spell on me. What’s the spell for?” Alex asks.
“It’s a strictly protect-you spell,” Willow says. “It’s kind of like a forcefield, only it’ll be in a circle around you. You won’t be able to get out, but nothing will be able to get in, either. It’ll be like you’re a turtle, only with an invisible shell that no one can see. Until they run into it. Well, they won’t see it then, either. They’ll just bounce off it like they’re little rubber balls.”
Alex frowns. “So it’s not to attract monsters to me?”
Buffy’s eyes get very big, like she’s really surprised that Alex asked that question. “Why would we do that?”
“Because I’m supposed to be bait?” Alex hates that it sounds like a question.
Buffy blinks. “Right. The bait thing. Ummm, you are. Really. You’re bait. Big bait. Huge bait. But, ummm, you wouldn’t really be good bait if we, like, advertised where you were, right? The monsters would pretty much know that you were a totally fake Xander if we did that and they’d stay away. So, it’s more like we surround you with this forcefield that nothing can penetrate and wait for the monsters to show. If the monsters just happen to come across us, all they’ll see is you surrounded by an army of superheroes plus witches. And even if they get by us, which they totally won’t, they’ll run smack into an unbreakable forcefield. It’s much more believable if they just kind of trip over us.”
Alex frowns at Buffy. He still doesn’t trust her, but he’s not really sure if she’s lying or not. She sounds like she’s lying, except he’s pretty sure that she wouldn’t lie in front of people who could say she was lying.
“’S true,” Spike says as he turns around in the driver’s seat so he can look at Alex. “That whole thing Buffy just told you.”
“Really?” Alex asks.
Buffy just sighs. Willow shakes her head. Alex can’t see what Isabella is doing, mostly because he’s watching Spike.
“What she just told you has been our plan from the start,” Spike says. “We have to act like you’re really Xander, now don’t we? And if you were really Xander, we wouldn’t be shouting where you were, now would we? We’d have to be daft if we did that for all the reasons that Buffy just told you.”
“So, the spell is just to protect me?” Alex asks.
“Its one and only purpose. All of us promise,” Buffy says.
Willow turns around in her seat and says, “Well, it’s also to focus the Keyeloche Spell which will close the...”
Willow’s voice trails off when Spike and Buffy stare at her with big eyes.
And that’s when Alex knows: they’re all lying to him about something. Worse, Spike is lying to him.
It’s the spell, Alex thinks. It has to be. It’s really about attracting the monsters so Alex will be turned into really good bait. It’s not supposed to protect him at all.
All he can do is stare at Spike. Spike lied to him. Why would Spike do that? Spike never lied before. Or did he? Maybe everything Spike ever told him was a lie.
“What I mean is, if you were Xander, which you’re totally not, the spell would also focus all the energy from the Keyeloche Spell up into the dimensional tear,” Willow quickly adds. “The circle’s being cast like that because, ummm, because…well, it’s in case the monsters find us. It’s so they’ll think you’re Xander who’s about the cast the spell, even though you’re totally not Xander. And you’re not going to cast a spell.”
Alex doesn’t really hear her because he’s starting panic. Spike’s lying to him. Why is Spike lying to him? He wants to ask. He needs to ask. Except he’s so scared, he can’t even open his mouth.
“The only purpose of the spell is to protect you from monsters,” Spike says with a glare at Willow. “Right?”
“Yup. Totally right.” Willow nods really hard.
Liar, Alex wants to say. I know you’re a liar.
Except he can’t. His jaws are clamped tightly shut.
“I see Faith is signaling us,” Isabella says.
“I see it,” Buffy nods. “Ready everyone?”
Alex isn’t ready. He isn’t ready because he knows they’re going to let the monsters get him. They’re just going to let him die. He’s going to tell them that he’s not going to leave the Hummer because he knows their real plan is to cast a spell on him and then leave him to the monsters.
He knows he agreed to be bait, but that’s not the point.
He doesn’t want to die.
He turns his head so he can look at Buffy so he can tell her just that.
Except he still can’t open his mouth. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t get his jaw to move. He can’t make any sounds at all. He can’t even hum.
Buffy glances at him as she reaches for the door handle. Then she does a double take. “A-a-a-alex?” she asks. She sounds worried.
Alex tries opening his mouth again. It doesn’t work. All he can do is stare at her.
“What is it?” Spike asks.
Buffy leans toward him. Her chin is trembling and her eyes scrunch a little bit. “Xander?” she quietly asks.
“I’m not Zander! My name is Alex Hill!” he wants to shout at her. Except he can’t do it. Instead he turns his head (he didn’t mean to but his head is turning anyway), and looks straight ahead. Spike and Willow are staring at him, too.
“Bloody hell,” Spike says quietly.
“What’s happening?” Buffy asks.
Alex reaches for the door handle, even though he’s screaming inside his own head for his hand to stop moving.
“It’s like he’s in a trance,” Alex hears Isabella say.
It’s Willow, Alex hysterically thinks as his hand grasps the door handle. She cast a spell on me while talking to me. It has to be a spell. It has to be, because I’m not doing any of this at all. I don’t want to do any of this.
As Alex’s door opens, Alex hears Willow say, “The escape hatch must be kicking in.”
“Wait, the one so Xander can protect himself when he’s in danger?” Buffy says.
As Alex steps out of the Hummer, he hears Spike say, “He’s got the same look about him as when those vampires attacked us.”
Willow says, “Oh, God. He probably senses that the portal must be about to—”
Alex doesn’t hear the rest, because he’s slammed the Hummer door shut behind him. He starts screaming and screaming (but not out loud, because his mouth still won’t open) that he needs to turn around and go back into the Hummer. He’s not going to stay out here. He’s not. He’s not.
Except his legs start walking even though he’s telling them not to. He’s walking like he’s really stiff, or like he’s a zombie, but the fact is he’s walking right to that alley no matter how hard he tries to turn around and go back to the Hummer.
Stop! Alex thinks. Please, stop! They’re going to feed me to the monsters! I just know it!
He can hear the doors of the Hummer open behind him. Even though he knows that all the superheroes are planning to let him die, he desperately wants to ask them for help. He’s not doing any of this. He’s not…he’s won’t…he can’t…
Just when he reaches the entrance of the alley, he feels a sudden pain in his left cheek and his head jerks like someone has hit him very hard across the face. For a moment, his vision blurs and he gets very confused about everything. Did one of the superheroes hit him? He doesn’t see anyone around. Maybe they snuck up on his left side and hit him.
Even though he feels dizzy and like he wants to pass out, his body starts walking again. He wants to stop. He wants to touch the left side of his face. Someone hit him really, really hard. He thinks it was hard enough to break his face, it hurts so much.
Not that his stupid body is doing anything he tells it too. It just keeps walking into the alley.
“Did you see that?” It’s Buffy. She’s behind him so Alex can’t see her at all. “What just happened? Why did he move his head like that?”
“That looked like something landed a right cross on ’im if you ask me,” Spike says.
“Something’s wrong,” Willow says.
Spike runs by him on his right side and ahead of Alex. Spike stops a few feet in front of him and starts looking around. Spike’s head is moving so fast that Alex dimly wonders why Spike isn’t getting dizzy.
“If there’s something in here trying to stop our boy, I can’t see it. Can’t smell it neither,” Spike yells. “Could use a bit of that witch-vision of yours to see what I’m missing.”
“I’m maintaining the invisibility spell,” Willow says.
“I’ll take care of it,” says Isabella.
Isabella runs past Alex on his left side, followed by Buffy.
Alex keeps walking, even though he really wants to stop.
Isabella starts mumbling fake words as she looks all over the place.
“Anything?” Buffy asks. She’s holding a stake in her hand and she looks really angry, like she’s ready to kill everyone around her. Alex doesn’t know where she got the stake and he fuzzily wonders where she hid it.
By the time Isabella stops mumbling the fake words, Alex has caught up with Spike and Buffy. That’s when his body stops walking. He wants to look around. He wants to talk. He wants to do something. Anything.
All he can do is stare straight ahead.
“I can’t see anything,” Isabella says as she looks around.
Suddenly, Alex feels someone grab the hair on the back of his head and yank so he’s forced to look up. He wants to yelp with pain. Whoever grabbed him yanked hard enough to pull some hair out of his head.
That’s when he sees that the sky has gotten even worse since he last saw it. It’s a deeper shade of red, almost like rust. But just above him, right in front of his eye, he can see a shadow. It’s long and ragged and it really does look like someone tore open a hole in the sky.
He’s not sure, but he thinks he can see things moving inside the shadow.
Alex desperately wants to close his eye. He doesn’t want to see this. Better, he wants to forget he ever saw it.
As hard as he tries he can’t close his eye, though. In fact, he’s pretty sure that his eye just got bigger.
“Stop him!” Willow screams. “It’s too soon! I need to cast the circle, otherwise the energy will go everywhere instead straight up like it should!”
Next thing Alex knows someone is pushing him to the ground.
“I got him!” Spike yells.
“Willow, cast that circle now!” Buffy hollers.
Alex wants to sob with relief when his left cheek is pressed into the cold ground, even though all he can see is a brick wall. The sky is out of sight. He isn’t being forced to look at it any more.
“I will, but first we need to know if something attacked Xander,” Willow says. “I don’t want to shut a demon none of us can see in the circle with him.”
That’s when something clicks in Alex’s brain. The superheroes still think he’s Zander. But he’s not! He’s not Zander at all.
He needs to tell them. He needs to tell them right now that they’ve made an awful, terrible, horrible mistake. He can’t cast the spell that’ll stop the monsters. He doesn’t know any spells!
Alex panics so much that he doesn’t realize that his body is moving until he starts lifting himself up like he’s doing a pushup.
“Bastard’s fighting me,” Spike complains. “Stay down. Stay down, you obstinate arse!”
That’s when Alex feels another very hard hit, this time across his exposed right cheek. As he collapses back down on the ground, he sees stars in front of his eyes and the world goes grey around the edges.
Spike hit him! Why did Spike hit him?
“What the bloody hell?” Spike exclaims.
“Whatever it is, it’s right there,” Buffy says. Her feet move into Alex’s field of vision. Everything’s so wave-y that for a moment Alex thinks he’s looking at Buffy’s feet while he’s underwater.
“Oh my God,” Isabella says. She sounds far away.
“What is it?” Buffy says. “Better yet, where is it? Because I’m gonna Slay the demon so hard that—”
“Then you best be ready to Slay Mr. Harris,” Isabella says. “I believe that he’s attacking himself.”
“What?” Buffy and Spike shout in unison.
“Why would Xander attack himself?” Willow asks.
“Question of the bloody hour,” Spike says.
“I’m not sure how…Ms. Rosenberg, if I understand the masking spell correctly, you essentially changed Mr. Harris’s aura so that he’d become Alex Hill?” Isabella asks.
Alex Hill feels like he’s starting to cry, even though his eyes aren’t watering and his nose isn’t running or anything. He was right. All the superheroes really do think he’s Zander. Worse, he can’t tell them that he’s not Zander, because he can’t get his body to work right.
He should be ashamed that he wants to cry like a little kid, but he doesn’t care. Besides, it’s not as if he can cry anyway. His body won’t do anything else he tells it to do, so he really doubts that it’s going to let him cry.
“Well, the surface aura was changed because of the new personality, which, unh, was important so none of the bad guys would be able to perform any kind of tracking spell to find him,” Willow says. “But there’s still a Xander-core that can’t be changed because, well, that’s people for you. He’s still Xander deep down inside and you can’t really un-Xander Xander, or anyone really. I mean, you can’t un-Xander Xander any more than you can really un-Buffy Buffy or un-me me. But you’d have to go pretty deep to see Xander, or Buffy, or me and even in that case you’d have to be looking really hard for it and you’d have to know what to look for, unless the deep-down-inside person is going all, ‘Hey, look at me!’ Why do you ask?”
“In looking at Mr. Harris’s aura, I can still see the changes you wrought as well as Mr. Harris’s native aura,” Isabella says.
Alex doesn’t understand a thing anyone’s saying. He wants them to talk slower. He wants them to use different words.
But most of all, he wants them to stop thinking that he’s Zander.
“Well, you know what to look for,” Willow says. “Besides, when Xander takes over for self-defense purposes, Alex Hill doesn’t go away, just fades into the background. It’s so he doesn’t completely break character and Alex Hill can just pop right back in when everything’s hunky-dory.”
“You’ve got a queer notion of what counts as hunky-dory, Red,” Spike says. “You didn’t see ’im after that vampire attack.”
“Fine. I mean not in physical danger anymore,” Willow says.
Yet another lie Spike told him, Alex realizes. Spike said he knew Alex wasn’t Zander, but Spike still secretly believed it all along. Alex kind of figured out already that Spike thought he was Zander, mostly because Spike didn’t correct anyone when they said he was Zander. Now he’s got proof that he can’t ignore.
Alex starts to cry harder (even though he really isn’t because there aren’t any tears). He can’t warn them. He can’t tell them that they’ve got it all wrong. And because he can’t say anything, that means the monsters are going to win and they’re all going to die.
This is his fault. All his fault. All because he can’t get his stupid mouth to work.
“Except that’s not what I see,” Isabella says. “What I see is that the core aura and the overlay aura are fighting each other.”
There’s a beat of dead silence.
“Ummmm, I’m pretty sure that’s not supposed to happen,” Willow finally says.
“Guys, the clock’s ticking here,” Buffy says.
“The overlay aura is weak, as it should be in this situation,” Isabella says. “But…to be honest I’m not sure what I’m seeing. Either Mr. Harris is hanging on for dear life to prevent the overlay from slipping away in the manner Ms. Rosenberg described, or he’s trying to dispel the overlay aura and can’t quite manage it. All I can see is that the core aura wrapped around the surface aura to the point that they’re beginning to intermingle.”
“Oh, God,” Willow says.
“English, please,” Buffy says.
There’s another beat of silence.
“The short answer?” Willow asks. “When I shored up the Alex Hill persona, I…I…apologized. To Xander, I mean, even though I wasn’t really sure he could hear me. I told him about how every time he even tried to peak out, the demons could hone in on him and how we had to keep Alex going a little while longer so we wouldn’t be attacked while delivering him to the Hyperion. Xander must’ve heard and understood. That has to be it. So he’s probably still hiding behind Alex until the last possible second, which means that Alex isn’t so much with going all background-y. If that’s the case, then Alex is trapped. He’s completely aware of what’s going on, but he can’t do anything about it because Xander’s the one in control. If I had to guess, Xander’s trying to hold on until it’s time to cast the spell so that by the time the demons find us he’ll already be inside the circle and it’ll be too late for them to stop him.”
“Yeeeesssss.” Isabella sounds like she’s thinking very hard. “Yes, that satisfactorily explains the battle I’m seeing.”
I’m not Zander, Alex wants to scream. It’s just me! Please, you’ve got to believe me! I’m not Zander!
That’s when he feels a hand around his throat. It’s not squeezing tight, but Alex can feel the threat. It will squeeze until it hurts if Alex doesn’t behave.
He knows it’s not Spike, because he can feel Spike’s hands pushing him facedown into the ground. He doesn’t know whose hand it is. Worse, he doesn’t even know what the hand wants him to do. He doesn’t know how he’s supposed to behave to make the hand go away, and that’s what scares him most of all.
“This is bad?” Buffy asks. “I mean, Xander should be in-charge guy because, duh, it’s his body. And Alex is throwing all the bad guys off the scent, so unless Xander won’t be able to cast the spell because of it, I don’t see— Wait. Xander will be able to cast the spell, right?”
“Oh, yeah. He will. Xander and me made sure that it was an overriding thing of the no-matter-what-happens variety back when I first implanted the Keyeloche Spell,” Willow says. “I double-checked after I cast the blocking spell to stop the interaction between the dimensional tear and the Keyeloche Spell and shored up the Alex Hill personality. The compulsion is still there. Like a rock. Or maybe I mean it’s there a heck of a lot stronger than I thought it would be because Spike had to tackle Xander to stop him from casting it. Trust me. As soon as you let Xander up, nothing’ll stop that spell from happening.”
“What about after that?” Spike asks. “Will we have Harris? Alex? Someone in between?”
They’re wrong, Alex thinks. They’re very wrong, because there’ll be no after. I can’t cast a spell I don’t know.
The invisible hand gives his neck a squeeze, just enough to make Alex want to choke.
That’s when Alex realizes that there really is an invisible monster nearby that’s trying to hurt him. He even bets that same invisible monster is controlling his body, too. The monster’s probably doing it so Alex won’t be able to warn the superheroes that they’re confused. Maybe the invisible monster confused all the superheroes, too, and made them think he’s Zander when he really isn’t. That way, Zander is somewhere else where he can’t cast the spell while Alex is here where Zander is supposed to be.
The invisible monster probably wants the sky to open up so all of its monster friends can invade. It’s the only thing that makes sense.
“Once we save the day, we should get Xander back,” Willow says.
“Should get Xander back,” Buffy repeats.
“That’s the way the spell’s set up. Alex will just go ‘poof’ as soon as the portal’s closed,” Willow says.
That’s when Alex knows that Willow doesn’t care if he lives or dies. The realization hits him so hard that he feels like someone punched him in the stomach.
“Willow, are you sure?” Buffy asks.
“Yes, I’m sure,” Willow sounds a little mad. “Buffy, believe me, I was very careful about this. He’ll remember his time as Alex, sure, but he’ll remember them through a Xander-shaped prism. One thing he won’t remember are the fake Alex memories that Xander came up with, because, God, those memories are really awful. I fixed it so all of Xander’s totally fake memories will go bye-bye and we’ll have a 100% fake-memory-free Xander when this is over. Trust me, his memory will be perfect and perfectly Xander all the way.”
“What the fuck is taking you guys so long?” It sounds like Faith. Alex can tell she isn’t close, because her shout kind of echoes. “We’re gonna get grey hair if we keep standing around.”
“We just needed to work something out,” Buffy yells back. “Willow’s getting started on the circle-casting now.”
No, please no, Alex desperately thinks. It’s not going to work. You’re making a mistake. I’m not Zander.
“Right, I better get moving because that sky is getting pretty iffy,” Willow says.
“Understatement if I ever heard one,” Spike remarks. “You’re beginning to sound a bit too much like the Watcher for my tastes.”
“Willow,” Buffy’s voice sounds really flat, “you better be right about the whole poof-goodbye-Alex-hello-my-Xander-shaped friend thing.”
Alex can feel himself wilting. He already knew Buffy didn’t care if he lived or died, but she’s not even pretending any more.
As for Spike, he doesn’t say anything at all. All he’s doing is holding Alex down, even though Alex (or his body) has stopped trying to get up.
“God, do you honestly believe I would’ve even agreed to keeping Alex in place if I thought for one second that we wouldn’t get Xander back?” Willow sounds really mad now. “I told you: All fake memories gone and replaced by his perfectly Xander-y memories. Cue happy ending.”
They’re all going to be happy when I’m dead, Alex thinks as he again starts crying (but only on the inside). A mean little part of him is kind of glad that they’ll be dead too, right after they realize that they were completely wrong about him being Zander.
“Ms. Rosenberg—” Isabella begins.
“I see it,” Willow says. “Buffy, we have to do this now, or it’ll be monster time instead of shopping time.”
Buffy doesn’t even pause. “Do it.”
Alex hears the sound of footsteps.
“I don’t like this business one sodding bit,” Spike says.
“Me neither,” Buffy agrees.
Alex stops crying. He’s surprised that Buffy isn’t happy he’s going to die.
“You don’t?” Spike sounds like he’s as surprised as Alex. “Thought the only thing that mattered to you was that you’d get your precious Xander the Great back. Thought sure there was some talk of a bash to welcome your prodigal Scooby home, which I plan to not grace with my presence if it’s all the same to you.”
“Hello? We’re the original amateur act at the Good Intentions Paving Crew to Hell Hour. My gut tells me that something’s going to go wrong because something always does,” Buffy says. “You of all people pretty much know how that works.”
“You think Red’s a lot less sure about the hugs-and-puppies endin’ than she’s letting on, aren’t you?” Spike sounds even more surprised.
Alex knows there’ll be no happy ending, because he’s not Zander. He can’t cast the spell to stop the monsters from invading. That’s Zander’s job and Zander’s not here.
Buffy snorts. “No. I’m very sure that Willow’s convinced we’ll be getting our accept-no-substitutes Xander back. I’m also very sure that she did everything in her witch-y power to the point of overboard to make sure it’ll happen.”
“Then I’m not following you, luv,” Spike says.
“My problem is that Willow is so sure,” Buffy says. “If it makes any sense, I’d feel a heck of a lot better about this if she had at least bought a ticket to board the doubt train, because a totally confident Willow? Is a Willow who doesn’t have contingency plan A through Z as a back-up when things go wrong. I love Willow to death, but not so much that I can’t see a middle-of-the-forehead zit of a flaw like that.”
Alex desperately wants to warn them that something’s already gone very wrong, because he’s here and Zander isn’t.
Alex suddenly hears a very loud roar, like thousands and thousands of monsters are yelling all at the same time.
Alex hears someone yell, “Incoming!”
“Holy shit! That’s a lot of demons!” someone else yells.
“Lock and load, kiddies! No shortage of dead meat!” That’s definitely Faith.
Alex sees Buffy’s feet shift. “C’mon, Willow. Move faster,” Buffy quietly says.
“She’s near half-round the circle now,” Spike says. “Not sure how much faster she can go and still manage to cast the blasted thing the way it should.”
Alex hears the roars get louder. Then he hears the sounds of fighting.
We’re going to die. We’re all really going to die, Alex desperately thinks.
The invisible hand around his throat tightens a little bit more.
“Okay, she’s three-quarters around now,” Buffy says. “Spike, we really have to go.”
“I’m staying,” Spike says.
Alex suddenly feels hope. He knew it. He knew Spike wouldn’t just leave him to die. Spike’s probably figured out that something’s wrong. Spike probably doesn’t know what’s wrong, but Spike’s figured out that something has gone wronger than wrong.
“Spike—” Buffy begins.
“Someone needs to make sure he stays down until Red closes the circle,” Spike says.
“Good point. But you got it backwards. I’ll do it,” Buffy says. “You go help Faith.”
No! Alex screams. No, I don’t want Buffy to stay with me! You can’t trust her! She’s probably secretly helping the monsters!
“Should be me,” Spike says.
“Xander’s my friend,” Buffy says.
“Alex is still awake in there and he doesn’t trust you one little bit,” Spike argues back.
Alex wants to feel relieved, but he can’t. Even though Spike is fighting to stay with him, Spike still thinks he’s really Zander.
Or maybe Spike’s just pretending to think he’s really Zander and that’s why he’s fighting so hard to stay with Alex.
“Alex can’t actually do anything, remember?” Buffy says. “Xander’s the one in control.”
“And Alex gets to stand by and watch like an innocent bystander. His last moments are gonna be terrifying enough,” Spike says. “No need to make it worse than it already is.”
Alex hears the words “last moments” echo in his head. Spike knows. He knows that everyone’s going to be killed. He just doesn’t understand why Spike isn’t telling Buffy that.
“Besides, Alex likes me just fine, a lot more than he likes you,” Spike continues. “He trusts me to see him right, and I’m gonna do just that. Made a promise, didn’t I? Wouldn’t be right if I didn’t see it through.”
At least Spike plans to protect him. It’s not much; especially since Alex doesn’t think that even Spike can stop an army of monsters that wants to kill all of them, but at least it’s something. At least he won’t die alone.
Buffy’s feet move out of Alex’s line of sight. He hears movement.
“Spike, the way you’re talking…Spike, Alex isn’t even real,” Buffy says. Her voice sounds a lot closer, like she’s sitting down on the ground.
I am real! I am! Alex wants to scream. Tell her Spike!
“I think you might be wrong there,” Spike says.
“Spike…damn. Willow’s almost closed the circle. You have to go now,” Buffy says.
“You willing to fight me for it?” Spike asks. “’Cause if you do you’ll be stuck in here with us and they’ll be short one fighter out there. Seems to me that one more set of fists can make all the difference.”
Buffy says a very bad word. Then Alex feels a third hand touch his shoulder. “I have to go, Xander, but Spike’ll make sure you’re okay.”
“Thought you’d see it my way.” Spike sounds smug.
“You can be a real bastard sometimes, Spike,” Buffy says.
Then Alex hears the sound of running. It only lasts for a few steps before it disappears. The roaring and the sounds of fighting kind of swallow the running sound up.
“Red’s almost there,” Spike says. “Be just a moment now.”
Alex’s heart is thudding very fast. His hands twitch against the ground. The invisible hand finally lets go of his throat.
Alex figures that means the monster who was controlling him has stopped, so maybe that means he can warn Spike that everyone’s all confused.
Except he still can’t open his mouth. He can’t make any sound at all.
“Up you go,” Spike says.
The weight on his back is suddenly gone. Alex is relieved when his body actually listens to him and gets to its feet.
He must be back in control now. He has to be! He’s even turning around so he can find Spike.
Alex wants to start laughing, he’s so relieved.
Except he doesn’t laugh. He can’t do that either.
He does find Spike, though.
Spike looks really unhappy.
Spike fought 150 monsters just so he could be here with me, Alex thinks.
Yeah, I don’t get it either, says a voice in Alex’s ear. God, he looks almost as bad as when Glory got her claws into him.
Alex wants to look around to see who’s talking to him, but his head won’t move. All he can do is stare at Spike.
Spike gives him a curt nod. “It was a good run, mate,” he says.
Alex tries to warn Spike that he’s making a mistake; that they’re all making a mistake. He really does. Except his mouth won’t open, no matter how hard he tries to open it.
Instead, he looks up, right into the sky, right into the shadow that looks like a tear. He’s not sure, but he thinks he sees something that looks kind of like a dragon.
Get behind me, the voice says.
Alex feels a shove in the middle of his chest, except he doesn’t move. Everything suddenly seems so distant, like he’s looking at everything through a dirty glass.
Oh, God, the voice says. I get it now.
Get what? Alex wants to ask, except he can’t because all he can do is look up into that dull red sky.
Right. Got it. The voice sounds sad, maybe even a little angry. It’s your game now.
Alex doesn’t understand.
You will. Just…take care of them. Promise me.
Next thing Alex knows, he hears someone speaking. The words sound fake. The voice is low and hoarse, like whoever is talking hasn’t talked in a long, long time.
His jaw hurts. Why does his jaw hurt?
The sky gets even dimmer, then. The red is still there, but it seems somehow less red than it was before.
The voice is still talking.
It’s shouting now.
His throat hurts.
Then everything hurts. He feels like he’s on fire everything hurts so much.
The monsters broke through, Alex dully thinks. We’re all dying.
He thinks he should be scared about that, or at least sad, but he can’t seem to feel anything beyond the pain.
Someone is still screaming those fake words.
Then everything goes black.
Then the voice and the words fade. It’s still screaming, but it sounds like a screaming whisper instead of just screaming.
Alex starts to fall.
The pain doesn’t stop. It just becomes duller.
The words have stopped and now all he can hear is someone just screaming without words, but the screaming sounds like it’s coming from very, very far away.
He keeps falling.
The screaming stops. Everything is so quiet. He can’t hear anything. It’s like the whole wide world has gone away.
But here (wherever here is) sparks of light appear and start to rain down all around him, like shooting stars or confetti. He wants to reach out and touch the sparks as they fall past, but he’s too tired to even try.
The sparks keep falling.
He keeps falling.
Alex thinks he should hit the ground very soon.
He hopes it doesn’t hurt too much when he lan—
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