Ahhhh, it's been awhile, hasn't it? The scary part is, I'll be posting the part after this later this week.
Also, don't forget, the DarkXander FanFiction List has been updated as of last night. Hooray! It's a very long list, so dive right on it.
Now, to catch everyone up. When last we saw our heroes:
Xander's Alternative Reality: Zihuataneo, California, December 2015
- Anya had convinced a reluctant Xander to follow her husband, other Xander, on one of other Xander's nighttime strolls. She promised to help him find his way back to his home reality in exchange for his services.
- Xander, who's pretty much convinced he's hallucinating, well, everything, followed other him to a cemetery and staked a handful of vamps sneaking up on other Xander.
- Other Xander, blissfully unaware that Xander had followed him, used a bunch of vampires for target practice with his trusty bow and arrow and (thanks to Xander) was leaving the cemetery feeling mighty good about himself.
- Other Faith followed Xander who was following other Xander to the cemetery and watched both Xanders do their thing. She decided to do more spying to figure out what's going on before springing into action.
Confused? It's okay. You can check out the previoius part here.
Meanwhile, Back in Cleveland:
- Faith figures waaaaay too many people are relyng on her to keep them steady. She's not pleased when Giles assigns her to Xander-saving because she doesn't have an emotional stake in the problem.
- The kidnappers responsible for sending Xander to an alternative reality are under lock and key while the denizens of the Mother House try to figure out a way to reverse the spell that sent him away. But first, they have to actually find him.
- Buffy thinks she she knows what kind of alternate universe the kidnappers may have stashed Xander in.
- Willow's plagued by nightmares that cause her to lash out. She has to figure out if she's under attack before she can help bring Xander home.
Which is the nutshell summary of where things stood when last we saw Our Heroes.
But really, you should read the previous part here.
Just for the record: When you're writing a story part to Johnny Cash's version of Hurt you know it's not going to be a happy part.
All through the battle in the cemetery, Xander engaged in the sort of mental rants he usually reserved for Andrew and over-eager newbie Slayers who kept forgetting that vampire stake-age wasn’t a game. Granted, he never voiced those rants out loud—he was pretty sure he’d manage to alienate everyone within a 100-mile radius if he did—but he had the mental soundtrack down pat in a way that frightened him more than a little.
The thing that really made his jaw drop was when the other him dropped the rope over the side of the crypt and shimmied down without even looking to see if there was a welcoming committee.
Jesus, that’s stupid on a potentially catastrophic scale, Xander thought as he watched other him gather his things and saunter out of the cemetery like he’d just conquered the world. He’s way too overconfident. If I weren’t here he’d be nothing more than a Xander-shaped snack.
He had no idea what he should think about the vampires’ behavior. Either he was dealing with a bunch of newbies or vamps that weren’t used to their snacks fighting back. There was no way in hell he should’ve been able to get so close to the four vamps lurking to the rear of the crypt without getting into some sort of hand-to-hand fight. The fact he managed to pull off what he did without getting so much as a scratch pretty much pointed to this not being real.
Xander felt increasingly jumpy as he followed other him out the cemetery. At one point near the cemetery gates he thought that he heard a sound behind him. He attempted to surreptitiously look over his shoulder, but he was pretty limited on that score since he only had one eye working for him. Even though he didn’t see anything, his ears strained to catch any hint of a suspicious sound for the rest of the trip to Chez Harris.
When he finally made it to the picnic table in the backyard, Xander began a long-winded silent rant against his other self that would have put a combined Tony and Spike to shame. As he felt himself get angrier and angrier about the night’s events, he could feel the equal and opposite feeling of helplessness push back against his chest.
There was only one of two ways this could end: other Xander would get killed, which would pretty much leave Haley and Anya at loose ends since the family livelihood depended on other Xander doing the woodwork; or, if other Xander got really unlucky, other him would get turned, which translated into dead Haleys and Anyas. Of course, there was always that outside-the-box third option: Anya getting it into her head that other him really was having an affair and calling up one of her vengeance demon buddies for a little quality payback.
Xander knew in his heart that he was witnessing a slow-motion train-wreck. He was stuck watching all the players maneuver into place for the big crack-up and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do to stop it. Sure, he could tell Anya, but he wasn’t sure if it would be enough. Whatever was happening had been happening for far too long.
It’s like wood rot, Xander thought dispiritedly as he shivered with misery. About the only thing you can do is rip out everything and rebuild from scratch and…oh god, someone stop me. I’m making with the bad carpentry analogies and that way lies the path of madness.
He had to admit one thing: if someone were to ever construct a special hell dimension just for him, they couldn’t do any better than this hallucination. Give him a glimpse of the could-have-been, tell him that it was built on top of the graves of his friends, and then show him that he’d blow it all anyway because he was just stupid like that.
The worst thing about the situation was that he had mentally put other Xander in a no-win, can’t-do-anything-right spot. If other Xander was completely clueless about vampires living in town, Xander knew he would’ve crushingly disappointed. If other Xander was only doing just enough to keep his home and family safe and letting the neighbors get eaten, Xander knew he would’ve been angry.
Yet, here other Xander was, taking responsibility for keeping his town safe and going out there to fight the good fight, and Xander was positively furious about it. Other him had a kid, he had a wife—a life for Christ’s sake!—and he was playing Russian roulette by going out alone and not telling anyone what he was doing, including the 1,200-year-old ex-demon he married.
Jesus, he was worse than Tony, if only because he was pulling this crap while sober. He really was a Harris, like he ever had any doubts no matter how much he wished it wasn’t true.
A soft rustling reached his ears. It sounded like something was cautiously moving in the shrubbery on the other side of the fence. He froze on pure instinct.
Oh, look. Just when I don’t think my night could get any worse…
Could be an animal, but given the way this little hellish scenario was going, there was a very good bet a vampire had followed him back from the cemetery. Although, if it was a vampire, it was a cautious vampire; one that wasn’t overly eager to attack and risk its intended meal scooting into the house to warn the inhabitants. Of course, sooner or later the fangface in the bushes was going to take the chance, which meant explaining to other him why he was taking a long moonlight walk with two stakes.
Let’s be careful about this. No tipping it off that I heard it. As nonchalantly as he could, he fished out the keys and stole up to the backdoor. Memories of sneaking back into his parents’ house after typical Sunnydale nights of vampires and Bronzing guided his quiet entrance into the house. He even palmed the keys without so much as a muffled click of metal-on-metal.
Xander got as far as the center of the kitchen when noises finally registered and he froze. Muffled voices. Tell-tale moans and hitching breath. It sounded a lot more intense than the other night. Two words: “danger sex.” Or more like three words: “survived danger sex.” Been there, done that, even had the videotapes to prove it before I set fire to them during one of my post-not-wedding drinking binges.
Shit. Anya and other him were somewhere on the first floor. He didn’t know the house well enough to guess where and determine if he could sneak past an occupied Xander-shaped person. Anya, he knew, would pretend not see him if she spotted him, but he wasn’t willing to take the risk. Anya wouldn’t be able to distract other him enough if he made too much noise sneaking through the house.
This is insane. No. Wait. I’m insane. This is my own personal hell and I’m worried about pissing off a bunch of hallucinations? What the hell are they going to do? Kill me? Not if they want to keep hallucinating around my head they won’t. Screw ’em both.
With a sudden burst of anger—at what he wasn’t sure—Xander dropped the keys on the kitchen table, almost hoping that the metallic thunk would be heard over the sound of Anya building up to what promised to be a wild finish.
Despite not caring what the hallucinations thought of him, he still couldn’t stand the idea of trying to sneak past the two of them, wherever the hell they were located. Just the idea of even accidentally getting a peak at whatever his brain would cook up for that scenario was making him feel the bad kind of dirty, like somehow he was the pervert when anyone with eyes could tell you it was him—
No—not him, other him—
Not a chance that idiot was another him. It had to be a trick. Someone or something was trying to make him believe…
The idea, whose vague tendrils started taking root during his time in the cemetery and pushed through the soil of his unconscious in the back yard, finally blossomed. The sudden pain of realization elicited a gasp and he fled for the backstairs to sneak up to the second floor without the risk of being seen.
Quiet, quiet, quiet, he ordered himself. It wouldn’t do to get their attention. If they knew, if they realized that he’d finally figured it out…
He shut the door as quietly as he could behind him and stole up the narrow stairs. He only made it halfway to the top before his knees gave out and he collapsed. He shoved his hands in his mouth to stop the keening sound in his throat from being verbalized.
No one’s coming for me.
Stupid. He was so fucking stupid.
They’re not even looking for me.
In the smothering dark, it finally made sense. He should’ve known when he was treated to the sound and light show that sent him here. The dead giveaway was the pain. And if that wasn’t clue-y enough, there was the fact that his earth-shattering cold had vanished without a trace.
It’s not their fault. They don’t know. All they have is…is… All they know is…
He knew they would look for him if they thought he needed finding. He knew they’d try to rescue him if they thought a rescue was even remotely possible. That was the way it worked. That was the way it always worked. But he’d been waiting for them for days and there was no sign of them or a rescue attempt.
The urge to whimper faded. His hands fell and connected with the steps in a hollow sound.
“Hope Willow remembered that I wanted to be cremated,” he said in a quiet and flat voice.
Saying it out loud made him feel worse, but at least he could finally admit it.
He was dead.
And this really was hell.
Kennedy’s hand gently closed around Willow’s upper arm. “Are you sure you’re ready?”
Willow glanced around the room. “That’s a big nope, but if I don’t do this…” she let her voice trail off. She didn’t want to follow the thought to its logical conclusion.
Kennedy let her hand drop and fidgeted. “Maybe we should bring Giles into—”
“No.” Willow was adamant. “We can’t risk Giles. Ever.”
“Don’t let him hear you say that,” Kennedy said lightly, although her strained smile indicated that she felt anything but comfortable about not having Giles in the room with them.
“Ken? Do you want to back out? Because if you do I totally understand after…”
“No! No, I can…” Kennedy closed her eyes and her shoulders slumped. “I’m just not sure I’m the right person to serve as your grounding, that’s all.”
“You served as my kite string back in Sunnydale, so I don’t understand. What’s changed?” Willow winced the second she was finished asking and clenched her fists behind her back. She suspected that the answer was going to break her heart.
“I’m afraid of losing you.”
Willow startled at the unexpected answer. She was struck by how Kennedy stood there looking so helpless, hands hanging limply by her sides, worried expression stamped on her features. She reminded Willow so powerfully of Buffy back when Angelus was running loose through Sunnydale that it took her breath away.
Kennedy looked down and said in a soft voice. “I don’t want to lose you. I don’t know what it is that’s hurting you. I…I want to protect you and I don’t know how. But this…there has to be a better way.”
Willow reached out and brushed a lock of hair out of Kennedy’s face. “I swear this isn’t dangerous. I’m just going into dream-timey mode to see if I’ve been tagged by a spell and then it’s right back into the body. Crossing the street’s more dangerous.”
Kennedy stepped back. “So what’s with all the precautions?”
Willow glanced around the room. The protective circle of salt only needed to be closed after she got inside it; the candles were at the cardinal points; cleansing herbs smoldered in the brazier; the protective glyphs were drawn on the floor in chalk. The whole set up was for protection in case something incorporeal was hanging around waiting for a chance to move into an unoccupied body.
“I’m going for the overkill because…ummmm…in case there’s a bus waiting to run me over?” Willow weakly said. From the look on Kennedy’s face, Willow knew her joke fell pretty flat. She quickly added, “I’m just being overcautious girl because, you know, better to worry now instead of trying to solve a big ol’ problem later, right?”
“I guess,” Kennedy said. “Just…be careful, ’kay? I don’t want to have to face Buffy, Giles, or Xander when he gets back and explain how I let my girlfriend become a drooling vegetable.”
“And on that cheerful picture, I better start this spell.” Willow gave Kennedy a quick peck on the cheek. “Wish me luck.”
Willow grabbed the salt, stepped into her incomplete circle, and closed it after her. She lit the candles one by one with a wave of her hand, starting with the one placed in the east to represent new beginnings and revelations.
When the last flame flowered on the last of the four candles, Kennedy said quietly, “I love you.”
“Be careful. And come back. Please. Promise me?”
Willow swallowed hard. She knew she liked Kennedy a lot, but she wasn’t sure if what she felt was exactly love. What they had was getting deeper and growing into something more than she expected, but love? She wasn’t sure if she was there quite yet. After a hesitant beat, she kept her response to a simple, “I promise.”
Willow moved to the center of the circle and sat cross-legged on the floor. She began to chant the spell and let the sound of the words and the gentle flickering of the flame on the eastern candle pull her under. She wasn’t entirely sure how long it took before the ties to her body loosened.
Well, here goes, she thought. She stood and was nearly overcome as reality slipped and slid around her. Her vision of the room changed. Colors muted; solid objects telescoped away from her. She glanced down and giggled at the illusion that her spirit-self was growing out of her physical head.
“Sorry,” Willow apologized out of reflex as she stepped clear of her own body. She chanced a look at Kennedy, who sat against a wall and threw worried glances at the bedside clock, a sure sign that it had taken Willow longer than she thought to free her astral self.
“To infinity and beyond,” she said with a nervous giggle. She willed herself closer to the closed door. Thankfully she remembered from her Devon training sessions that astral movement was completely different than physical movement, more float-y and hover-y than anything else, so she wasn’t thrown completely off balance. Still, she was concentrating so much on just remembering how to get from Point A to Point B that she couldn’t concentrate on finding any unfamiliar magic.
When Willow reached the door, she paused to turn and look back. Kennedy had moved from her position on the floor and was now sitting ramrod straight in a chair, her worried eyes not wavering from Willow's silent, stiff, cross-legged form. Willow steeled herself, closed her eyes, and muttered a phrase in Latin that would let her see any residual magic that was not her own.
She opened her eyes and gasped. The room was filled with shadowy tendrils that curled in and around everything in the room. Thankfully, the tendrils gave Kennedy a wide berth, as if whoever was responsible was afraid the Slayer might feel their presence. However, whoever was controlling those tendrils seemed not to care whether Willow would feel them. The shadows coalesced around her physical body, as if trying to trap her in a cocoon.
“Calm. Calm. Calm. Calm,” Willow reminded herself. “Okay, one question answered. Someone is attacking me. Big question is who. So, let’s see where you ugly little fellas come from, not that I really want to know.” Willow looked up at the closed door and grumbled, “And can I just add that I don’t love walking through solid objects. Bad flashback time to ghost-me at Halloween. Oh, no. I don’t have issues. Not at all. My mother would have a field day with this.”
With a deep breath that Willow knew was nothing more than an illusion since astral forms didn’t actually need to breathe, she stepped through the door and landed in the hallway outside. Lo and behold, the tendrils led her right to the bedroom next door, the one Xander shared with Andrew.
“Ask me if I'm shocked that the source of the problem is right here,” Willow said. “So not shocked. You might say I'm shockedless. Great. Betchya this is the price for sending Xander into another dimension. Oh, wait. Not a price. Gift with purchase. Sorry, Anya.”
She automatically reached out a hand to grasp the doorknob to Xander’s bedroom and giggled at herself when her hand passed through. She gave her head a hard shake and reminded herself to stay focused on the here and now before stepping though the door.
"This is getting a little less freaksome-ish which is good, or it would be if, you know, I wasn't following evil tendrils into trouble, which you know is right where I'm headed," Willow said quietly.
The mess of tendrils in Xander’s and Andrew’s bedroom was nowhere near as tangled as they were in Willow’s room. Almost all of the tendrils were rooted in a corner on Andrew's side of the bedroom.
“If you’re the reason I’m getting nightmares, Andrew, you better learn to like the taste of flies, and that’s despite frog-fear,” Willow growled. She concentrated harder on the suspect area, but the constant shifting of shadows was disorienting in the extreme. It took awhile for her to realize that all of the tendrils were springing out of a darker shadow that seemed more solid than the smoky tendrils themselves.
“Ummm, I don’t suppose it's too much to hope that’s like the aura of dirty clothes? Bad housekeeping? Andrew’s comic book collection that Xander swears he doesn't read even though I know he can’t resist Nightwing? No? Guess not.”
She took a hesitant step closer to the shadow and it pulsed in response. She wasn’t sure, but she thought the shadow expanded just a little bit.
“Oh, yeah, major league magic-y mojo right there. No way Andrew did this,” Willow muttered. “Good thing Xander isn’t around, otherwise he’d be freaking so hard we’d have to peel him off the ceiling. Ummm, maybe not that freaked, but definitely quietly freaking in the corner and trying not to look freaked because lack of freakage is what he tries to do but he doesn’t do really well. Not that I’m a picture of non-freak right now because this? This is really bad.”
The shadow expanded a little more and, heavens help her, began creeping in her general direction.
“M-m-m-maybe this wasn't such a terrific idea,” Willow whispered as she began backing away.
The shadow halted, almost as if it sensed her fear. It pulsed a bit, which gave her the impression that whoever was responsible was actively trying not to scare her half-to-death.
If this is someone’s idea of not trying to scare me, I’d hate to see what would happen if they were trying to scare me.
The tendrils retreated back into the darker shadow, like whomever was responsible reeled them back in. Willow kept herself very still as she felt their movement slither around her, and watched intently to make sure the tendrils weren’t dragging anything or anyone with them. She let out an illusory when breath with the last disappeared, leaving only the darker shadow in the corner.
That looks like an invitation. Or a trap. Willow bit her lip and looked over her shoulder at the closed door. She could just run back to her body, pop inside, and tell Giles that she really was under attack. Maybe they could throw up a warding spell and do a little research to handle the problem.
In fact, that’s exactly what she should do.
What if it’s Xander-related? What if Xander found a way to try to tell me that he was in trouble and he didn’t realize what it was doing to me? What if I could reach him if I walk into that shadow?
Too many what ifs right there. If she and Giles warded it, they might cut off their last chance to bring Xander home. She had to admit that she didn’t really trust the kidnappers to tell them the whole truth and she wasn’t really confident that they’d be able to find the alternative reality Xander was in. This was probably the best lead she was ever going to get.
“Okay. Xander? Don’t panic. I’m on my way. But you owe me one movie night with two movies of my choosing and Chinese take-out, mister.”
She lowered her head and took a running start for the shadow. As she passed through it, the temperature plummeted and she was plunged into near darkness. She was so taken by surprise by the sudden environmental change that she stumbled and fell face first on what felt like a smooth surface. As she lay stunned, a quivery voice echoed out of the darkness.
“So pretty. So pretty. Here, pretty, pretty, pretty.”
Willow felt her heart leap into her throat. She raised her head to look around, but it was too dark to see more than a few inches in front of her face.
“Pretty, yes. But I’m beautiful.”
A skeletal face thrust itself forward until its nose almost touched hers. Willow screeched with surprise and scrambled back, losing it again in the darkness.
“Shhhhhhhhh. Shhhhhhhhh.” It skittered forward like a four-limbed spider until Willow could get a good look at it. It stopped and hunkered down until it was sitting on its haunches. As its nostrils flared, it said, “Mmmmmmm, I smell power.”
Willow forced herself to take a good look at it. It had long, scraggly black hair that hung in a face that was dominated by black eyes that seemed too large for its scarred face. Its body was so painfully thin that Willow was hard-pressed to decide whether it was a male or female even though it was completely nude. Heck with that, she wasn’t entirely sure that what she was looking at was even human.
“Black magic,” Willow whispered.
“Power!” the thing roared as it suddenly stood up.
Willow scrambled further away, hoping she was heading back for the portal that brought her here. She totally messed up walking through that shadow. She had to go get Giles right now and…
She didn’t get very far before she felt herself lifted up and…pinned? Left hanging? She wasn’t entirely sure. She was suspended in an upright spread-eagled position. Her ankles and wrists felt like they were tied to something, but she didn’t feel anything solid against her back.
The thing blinked and sunk back down onto its haunches again. It gave the impression that it was waiting for Willow to do something.
Willow tugged at whatever was holding her in place, but she did so gingerly since she didn’t know what, if anything, she was tied to. “I, unh, don’t suppose you’d tell me why…”
“No sense, no sense, no sense,” the thing muttered as it began tapping its forehead with its fingertips. “It has power. It can break the bonds. It hangs there. No sense.”
“Oh. Okay. So, you obviously want me to escape. I don’t suppose you could give me a hint on how?”
The thing blinked and sniffed as if it was considering her request. Suddenly it leaped up and began dancing a wobbly jig. “Yes. Yes. I see now. I see.”
“Unh-hunh. Good. Glad you see. What do you see?”
The thing capered closer until it was eyeball-to-eyeball with Willow, who did everything in her power not to shrink backwards. She doubted showing fear was the smartest thing she could do right now.
The thing breathed a happy giggle as it tapped its nose. “You’re a box! Yes. Yes. That’s it. Must be a box. Should be a box.”
“Boxes. I think I kinda missed something there.”
“But how do I be a box?” It looked confused. “Used to be a box. Never did anything naughty. Oh no.” Its face went still corpse-still. “But you’ve been naughty, haven’t you?” A sly smile spread across its face. “You have. Dirty little hands. Dirty little mind. Knows secrets like me. Knows all kinds of nasty, dirty secrets.”
“Naughty? This is a little beyond naughty. This is more like crazy. Not that I’m calling you crazy. No. Not at all. We’re all sane people here, although I’m not sure you’re people so much as…what I mean is that you’re not crazy, I’m not crazy, but this place is what’s crazy. So, let’s not be crazy or, like, do anything crazy. Okay?”
Frigid bony fingers reached up and began stroking Willow’s face. “Chains. It chains itself.”
“What?” Willow barely got the question out when—Oh god oh god oh god—she felt pressure on her left temple and…
Willow screamed as she felt fingers rummaging around in her head. The thing doing this to her was muttering to itself, like it was looking for something.
And just like that the pain stopped. It took a few moments—minutes, hours, months—for Willow to recover enough to get past her raging headache and see again. Her tormentor was back to sitting on its haunches, staring at its fingers like they had been burned.
“Please,” Willow croaked.
“Knew it,” it breathed.
“Please let me go. Please stop attacking me. Please…”
It rocketed from its position and was again in front of Willow, stroking her face. This time Willow tried to shrink backwards, afraid there’d be more Glory-like fingers in her brain.
“Shhhhhhhh,” it said to her. “It’s about chains. Yes. All about the chains. It wears them because it wants to.” Its voice dropped in anger. “I wear them because they make me.”
Chains? Willow was now really confused. It wasn’t all strung up like she was and she definitely wanted to get out of being trapped, so she was completely lost.
It suddenly giggled and clapped its hands. “Yes. I see it! Must wear chains! Make my own chains, yes? Then I get to leave.” It nodded. “Make them see that I can be a box. But I need him to do it. Thought I might need him to do it. Now I know I need him to do it.”
Willow felt a chill crawl up her spine. “Him? Xander?”
It gave Willow a sly look as it tilted its head and studied its suspended captive. “I’ve been looking for him. She thought she could hide him from me. Almost did. Almost worked. Such a simple spell. Such a stupid spell. A candle and a chant once a new moon. She hides him. She hides all of them, but especially him.”
“She who? She me?” Willow asked. Willow started to giggle out nervousness. “Oh, that explains everything! You want Xander but another me is…”
“Stupid girl!” it screamed, as once more it began tapping its forehead with its fingertips. “Stupid girl sees only what she wants. Gets it from him. Yes, yes, of course. He helps her be a box, so she uses his bad, nasty habits.”
During its rant, a few things slid into place for Willow. Those were not scars on its face, but ink stains in the shape of tattoos. While she’d never seen herself with black hair, she has seen herself with those same black eyes. “No…it can’t be…”
It…another version of her…flicked a hand like she was shooing away a fly and Willow’s jaw clamped shut. Willow began to struggle in earnest, both against the bonds and against the gibbering panic. Unable to speak, she couldn’t do any spells, and that meant she was well and truly at the mercy of whatever this other version of her had become.
The other version just stood there watching her. It was hard to read the meaning behind the smile on the other version’s face. It could be reassuring—not reassured, thanks—it could have been amused—betchya like pulling the legs off frogs for fun—or it could have been cruel. While the most likely option was number three, Willow hoped for number one.
The other version glided closer as its smile grew. “I think I’ll keep him.”
Oh, no. Xander’s in even bigger trouble than anyone realized. If she gets her claws in him... She felt a spike of fury at the kidnappers since they were responsible for this mess. Had any of them been in her line of sight, they would’ve been crispy-fried on the spot.
The other version laughed. “What will it give me to let him go, hmmmm?”
Willow stopped struggling and waited. This sounded like the beginning of a blackmail attempt. She might as well hear what the other version wanted, not that she had a choice since she was all strung-up-no-voice Willow. Just the same, she was kicking some serious kidnapper butt when she got out of this mess, or rather, if she got out of this mess.
“Maybe I’ll take…your body.”
Willow shrank back and tried to say, “Bad idea. Really bad idea. You show up in my body, Giles will know pretty quick that something’s wrong and it’s big trouble. Plus, lots and lots of Slayers. Sooner or later one of them will get you.” Since her jaw was clamped shut, all those words came out as a series of “mmmphs” and “ummmphs.”
The other version nodded sagely. “Yes. I see. It’s always Giles.” Her face darkened in a terrifying manner and she hissed, “It always comes down to the old man.”
Okay, so not wanting to know how she translated hyperventilating, but she got the point, which is good, right? Very good. Now maybe if I hyperventilate, “please let me go,” followed by, “please give back Xander” we might be able to negotiate or something.
“You’ll help me fool the old man,” the other version said.
Willow mmmphed a “The hell I will.”
“No passing out,” the other version ordered as she crossed her arms over her chest, and then swung them out into a crucifix position. Willow made a howling sound in her throat as she felt her body being torn apart.
The order turned out to be spell and Willow was forced to endure the excruciating, pain all over her body. She could dimly hear the other version tunelessly humming, but she couldn’t get her eyes to focus. Her head drooped forward, although her wrists and ankles remained firmly pinned. Willow had no idea how long it took for her to register that she was drenched in blood.
“It doesn’t fit yet, but it will, it will. I can make it fit. Yes. It’ll fit just in time,” the other version said.
Willow tried to lift her head in an effort to find out where the other version was, but her head wouldn’t stay upright. She may not be able to find relief in passing out, but that didn’t mean her body wasn’t giving it a shot.
Something grabbed her under the chin to hold her head steady. The point of contact sent her spiraling up to new levels of pain and she whimpered.
“Look at me,” the other version hissed. “Look, look, look…”
Willow’s vision cleared. What she saw would have resulted in a blood-curdling scream of terror, had her jaw not been locked shut. As it was, a scream-like feeling vibrated through her body.
The other version looked like she was wearing a full-body Willow rubber suit. It hung loosely off the other version, like it was two sizes too large. The face flopped and jiggled, forcing the other version to hold the face in place with her free hand so she could see through the eyeholes.
With growing horror, Willow realized what had happened. She’d been skinned and that other version was wearing a part of her like a costume.
The other version giggled in a loopy manner. “He’ll see me and forgive me and he’ll help me fit. Yes. Then they’ll have to let me go. He’ll make them let me go. He will. And he’ll be mine because he’ll want to be mine. He’ll help me. He will.”
Willow wished she had eyelids, if only so she could shut out the sight of this…this…thing pretending to be her.
The rubbery face drooped slightly. “Awwww. I’m supposed to fix you. You’d fix me. So I should fix you.” The other version spread its arms again—Willow tried to mentally block out the image of how the fingertips dangled like sleeves that were too long—and brought her hands together in a clap.
The pain snapped off and Willow realized she could blink. She looked down and realized her body, complete with clothes, was intact again. Out of sheer relief, she started laughing. Her laughter gained a hysterical edge when she realized her mouth was free again. Yep. Crazy. I’ve gone crazy. Wheee. Nothing here. It’s not real. Nope. No siree. No, no, no…
“I’m going to go now,” the other version shouted so she could be heard, still wearing her ill-fitting Willow suit. “Things are happening. The tide is coming to me now. I have to practice. Have to be ready.”
The other version’s words killed Willow’s laughter and she panicked. “Wait! You can’t! I’m still stuck here! And Xander…”
The rubber face grinned a ghastly grin, one that showed all of the other version’s teeth. “Can. Have to go get him for me.”
“Xander doesn’t belong to you. He doesn’t belong there. He belongs to—”
“You?” the other version mildly interrupted.
“Yes! Wait! No! Xander doesn’t belong to anyone. I mean…look, please, we need him. We want him to come home. You can’t keep him like he’s a lost puppy because he’s not! A puppy I mean. And he’s not lost. Well, he is, but he’s not a stray. And…what I mean is…he’s a person and…”
The other version glided closer. “You could get out of the trap. You could. But you hang there. Why?”
“You think to much.” The other version waggled a finger. The tip flopped this way and that. “Won’t take what’s yours. Have to be a good girl. Have to follow the rules. Have to be aware of the end zones and breakdown lanes. Won’t break out your box.”
Willow stared at the other version. “And you don’t follow the rules. That’s why…” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “The dreams are real. They’ve got you locked up because you don’t care about rules.” Willow opened her eyes, looked again at the other version of herself, and realized, No, this is the real part of me that would like to not care.
And in a flash of insight, Willow realized what exactly Giles did when he managed to get Xander running off to Kingman’s Bluff to stop her. Giles laid down a Xander-shaped line in front of her and hoped like hell she wouldn’t cross it. If she could kill someone who couldn’t or wouldn’t fight back, then there would’ve been nothing anyone could do to help her. If she couldn’t cross that last line, that meant she could start helping herself. It also meant she’d have play by the rules, even if the rules meant she’d now let a crazed version of herself tear her apart.
She didn’t cross the line. This other version did, which meant the other version would do exactly what she wanted, regardless of the consequences.
Including killing another Xander.
“You think if you can fool our Xander into helping you, you can get out of whatever cell they put you in,” Willow dully said. “That’s why you want our Xander. Because you killed your Xander, didn’t you?”
“Did not!” the other version screamed. The arms flailed and the skin flapped. “Did not did not did not did not did not! She hides him from me. Won’t let him come to me. He would have come to me. He would have!”
Willow blinked against the ferocity of the other her’s denial. “So your Xander’s alive and my Xander’s in your reality?” Willow asked.
The other her nodded.
An idea began to form in Willow’s mind. For whatever reason, this other her was fixated on getting her hands on a Xander. All Willow had to do was convince this other version to go after the other Xander and leave her Xander alone. While her mind feverishly worked, Willow said, “How about we make a deal?”
The other her turned around and put her back to Willow. “Don’t wanna deal.”
“No. This is a good deal,” Willow said quickly. “You’ll like this deal. I’ll like this deal. We’ll all get what we want and—poof!—one instant happily ever after.”
The other her said nothing.
“How about…how about…got it! I think you’re trying to tell me that someone is hiding your Xander from you because they’re using a spell, right?”
“Maybe,” the other her said in an even voice.
“But my Xander, he’s not hidden by that spell, so you think you’ll take the Xander you can get if you can’t have the Xander you want, right?”
“Maybe,” the other her repeated in the same tone.
“Well, I know something you don’t,” Willow said quickly. “I’ll tell you. For a price.”
“A deal.” The other her sounded amused.
“Yeah. A really good deal. You’ll be loving this deal. I love this deal. It’s a great deal, it’s like…like…a million dollar deal,” Willow said. “It’s a deal where we’ll all be winning. I’ll win. You’ll win. Xander will win.” At least my Xander will, Willow mentally added. Not so sure about yours.
The other her still didn’t turn around as she sing-songed, “Oooooo, no more box.”
“What is it with you and boxes? Wait. Don’t answer that. Because I bet ‘thinking outside of’ will wind up in this conversation and we don’t want to go there. Rather talk about my deal. But first I need a promise from you. I can trust your promise, right? Because you’re…you’re kind of me…ummmm… are me, I mean. So, I know if you promise me in the name of Hecate to do as I ask, you’ll do it.”
“Won’t promise if you don’t tell. Have to tell me the deal,” the other her’s voice floated back to her.
“I’ll tell you how to find your Xander if you promise to do everything in your power to make sure my Xander stays safe and alive and that he gets home to us…I mean me.”
The other her spun around and said, “You stay neutral.”
“You can’t interfere. Can’t tell my Xander anything. You let me keep my Xander. You stay out of it.”
“Yeah, no-interference-Willow, that’s me,” Willow nodded vigorously. “But you have to promise to give my Xander back.”
The other her began to dance. “Deal. Deal. Deal. Deal. You tell me. I help you. You let me keep him.”
“Your Xander. You keep your Xander and you give me back my Xander completely and totally unharmed,” Willow stressed. “Just so we’re clear.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” the other her waved a rubbery hand.
“Swear,” Willow stated.
The other her stood up straight and said in a voice resembling something sane, “By Hecate and the Erinyes. I swear to help you, as much as I am able, get back your Xander safe and unharmed.”
Willow fought down a happy squeal. The other her took it a step too far and brought the Furies into the mix, which meant the deal was iron-clad. No witch, no matter how crazy or powerful, would dare cross the Furies. She had this other version just where she wanted her. Not so smart and all-powerful now. I maybe strung up, but you’re the one that’s all chained up.
“By Hecate and the Erinyes,” Willow said, doing her best to keep her relief out of her voice, “I promise to tell you how to find your Xander and not interfere with your plans for your Xander.”
“Whatever they may be,” the other her said in a stern voice.
“Whatever those plans may be, I’m totally non-interference girl,” Willow agreed.
The other her rubbed her hands with glee, which caused the loose skin to crinkle in a sickening manner. “Tell me,” the other her said.
“Simple. The spell that sent my Xander into your reality would have him right near your Xander. It’s part of the spell and—duh! I forgot that your Xander had to be still alive since that’s part of the spell, too—anyway, part of the spell is this: my Xander could only be sent to a reality where another version of him is alive. Which means that wherever my Xander is, he’s at least in the same town as your Xander. He could be standing right next to him right now. So if you focus on my Xander, and you’ll find yours.”
The other her waved her hand. The bonds holding Willow let go and she fell to the ground.
Heavens know where the other her came from, but the other her was crouched on the ground next to her. “You made a deal,” the other her sing-songed.
A creeping doubt introduced itself into Willow’s mind. “I did,” she said cautiously.
“Now I tell you something,” the other her nodded happily. “Didn’t want yours. He’s dirty. He’s dirty and nasty like you. All stained now. Can’t help me anyway.”
“Stained,” Willow said in quiet voice. “Because of what I did to him?”
“When it went boom, he got all dirty. No more clean Xander,” the other whispered cheerfully.
“His ability to pick up magic because he was born on the Hellmouth and was there when it closed,” Willow said dully. “It’s not that he can’t help you; it’s that he won’t. He’d see you for what you are and leave you locked up.”
“Can’t, won’t, can’t, won’t, can’t, won’t—same thing,” the other her said harshly.
“But your version would help you because he doesn’t know that…he doesn’t understand…” Willow stopped and bit her lip.
A pair of rubbery hands grabbed her face and pulled her forward until she was nose-to-nose with the other version of her. Willow was so devastated upon realizing that she sold one Xander down the river to get back another that she didn’t even try to fight back.
“Already knew what you told me,” the other her giggled. “Already saw. One spell cancels another and I see him. I see you. Found you and brought you to me. His tide is coming to me now. The tide will bring him to me and she’ll lose and lose and lose.”
“Our deal...” Willow helplessly began.
“Will keep. Made a deal. You can have him. Don’t want him. Dirty Xander. Don’t want the dirty Xander. I want the clean Xander. No nasty, dirty Hellmouth staining him and making him yours. Made a deal. Just not your deal.”
“You wanted me to stay out of it,” Willow realized. She closed her eyes. “You thought I could stop you and you wanted me out of the way.”
“By Hecate and the Erinyes,” the other her reminded Willow.
Willow felt tears run down her cheeks. If the other her thought she could interfere, that meant she probably could have and saved both Xanders. She wasn’t locked up and she didn’t have whatever chains they put on other Willow. What she lacked was all the information the other her did.
She could have saved both Xanders and she didn’t. She walked right into the other her’s trap because she got too tripped up in the rules. No. Not the rules. She just was being selfish and it was going cost the other Xander very dearly and there wasn’t a single thing she could do to fix it.
“I won’t make you dream any more, since you’re being a good box,” the other her said. “Plus, I’ll tell you a secret, a nice, happy secret.”
“Something tells me your secrets aren’t exactly sunshine and kittens,” Willow said as she tried to pull away.
The other her held her fast. “You’ll like this one,” the other her promised as she leaned forward.
Next thing Willow knew, the other her was giving her a deep kiss. Willow tried to push the other her off, but a flood of images in her mind short-circuited every attempt to move or think. She had no idea how long the other her kept her locked down, but as suddenly as the kiss started, it broke off.
“You go now,” the other whispered. “I have lots and lots of work to do. Must get busy. Must get ready.”
The other her shoved Willow away and she felt herself thrown backwards. Scenes flew by her peripheral vision. First there was darkness, then the blur or Xander’s and Andrew’s room, then the straight lines of the hallway. It ended with her flying backwards into her own room and landing into her own body with a hard whump.
Someone was screaming.
Someone was screaming really loud.
“Willow! My god, are you all right! Willow! Honey, are you…”
Willow felt someone pull her upright and into a bone-crushing hug.
Careful, I’m made of glass, Willow wanted to say.
Willow blinked to bring her eyes into focus. Dark hair. Strong arms. “Kennedy?” she whispered.
“I’m here. Oh god…”
“I’m…” Willow coughed. “Sleep now.”
Then she passed out.
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