Chapter 3: Xander Gets an Update
The rental agent locked the door with economical ease and then turned to Xander. Reaching out for a business-like handshake, she said, “It was a pleasure, Mr. Harris.” In the same brisk, non-committal voice she added, “We’ll start the background check when I get back to the office, and will call you when it’s complete.”
“Okie dokes,” Xander said with his best “gee golly everything’s fine” smile, which he’d practiced his entire life. Bunched near him in the hallway, Willow, Buffy, and Riley all smiled as well. They were the perkiest, happiest Whos in Whoville.
After the elevator door closed on the rental agent in her pencil skirt and helmet hairdo, Xander deflated against the wall. “Okay, could that have gone any worse?” He straightened quickly. “Wait no, don’t answer that.” He patted his loose overshirt and pants asking, “Darn it. Why do I never have a spraycan of Jinx-B-Gone when I need it?”
“Oh Xander, don’t worry,” Willow twittered. “It was fine. I mean, you filled out the form. You signed your name.” His red-haired witchy friend nibbled her lip, then added, “We all complimented the ceiling fan.”
“We didn’t get thrown out,” Buffy volunteered.
“We weren’t attacked by vampires or zombies,” Riley added before sharing one of his doting, goofy grins with his girlfriend.
“And... I live a life where that’s something people actually say,” Xander shook his head as they all headed toward the elevator. Even that enclosed space was nicer than his current digs.
Xander sighed. And apparently it was loud enough that Willow reached out for his hand. She swung their clasped palms briefly, reminding him of when they walked home together after grade school. Then she let go and said, “It’ll be okay, Xander. You might get this apartment or you might not. But we’ll find a nice place for you.”
“Yeah, buddy, don’t lose hope,” Riley enthused from the back of the elevator as it bounced gently to a stop. “It takes a lot of steps to cross a bridge.”
“Wow, yeah, okay,” Xander enthused in reply as the elevator doors whooshed open. He’d tried for an agreeable, accommodating tone, but suspected he sounded baffled instead. Or maybe he’d just sounded sarcastic; Anya had told him that he sounded that way a lot, although she wasn’t always a good judge of these things.
Seconds later, he felt a little better about having potentially sounded like a sarcastic dick when he heard Buffy whisper, “Riley, what bridge are you talking about?”
Riley chuckled in his indulgent way. “It’s just a saying, like ‘take one step at a time’ or ‘eat the elephant one bite at a time’.”
“Eww, gross,” Buffy replied, voicing Xander’s silent reaction. When compared with the strange idea of Dumbo for dinner, the mysterious, non-existent bridge was sounding desirable. Though why either elephant-for-dinner or walking across a bridge had anything to do with renting an apartment truly escaped Xander.
He decided to let their peculiar little lovebird discussion play out behind him while he stepped outside to the sidewalk. Where— he looked carefully— there was no bridge. And no elephant. Thank God.
Hands in his pockets as he thoughtfully ignored Buffy and Riley while they shared genial miscommunication, Xander looked around the neighborhood. He figured it would be the last time he saw it since his application and references were sure to bounce him back to his basement pit of despair.
It was nice. Modern without being too boxy. He began trooping down the stairs toward the street, admiring the no-frills landscaping that gave a nice framing to a few well-established trees. There were tended beds of flowers and grass that lacked both dandelions and die-out circles from doggie piss. He tried to imagine being a person who kissed his girlfriend goodbye for the day and then walked down these stairs every morning with his lunchbox on the way to his job.
And, darn it, he wanted to be that Xander. He could be. He would be. Somehow.
Buffy, Riley, and Willow caught up to him as they started down the sidewalk, back toward their usual part of Sunnydale. They chatted idly while passing a couple more apartment buildings and a small park. And then….
“Eek,” Willow yelped, grabbing his hand again as she bounced a half step backward. Following her gaze, Xander saw a set of men’s business shoes pointing toe-upward from within a stand of dark green shrubs.
“What the what?” Xander took an involuntary half step back himself. Looking at Willow, he wondered if he was as wide eyed as her.
Meanwhile Riley stepped forward. Flanked by Buffy, he pushed aside the shrubs enveloping the shoes, revealing a man who was clearly of the recently deceased variety. Middle aged, dressed for some type of office work, and emphatically stabbed through the neck. With the implement of stabitude’s handle still sticking up from the body.
“No way,” Xander said, catching Riley’s confused gaze.
“Seriously?” Buffy added at almost the same time. With just those four syllables she expressed astonishment, dismay, confusion, and perhaps that rising octave in her voice was exasperation.
So much for the nice neighborhood, Xander thought. While still processing the sight in front of him, Xander found himself channeling Humphrey Bogart as he intoned, “And isn’t that the way it always goes: an afternoon in Sunnydale Heights; a couple of guys strolling with the Slayer and her witchy friend in red; and a man stabbed with a barbeque fork in an ornamental verge garden.”
Willow’s murmur of, “Xander that’s kind of insensitive” was ignored in favor of Riley’s louder exclamation. “An ornamental what, now?”
Riley peered at him, loosening his hold on one of the shrubs. Buffy quickly caught the largest branch before it whapped her.
“An ornamental verge garden. We had one of these slated for planting at the construction job I was just on.”
“Huh,” Buffy murmured while crouching down into the shrubbery to better inspect the puncture victim. “Guys, I think he was actually stabbed to death by this fork.” Her voice conveyed the type of disbelief usually reserved for something like discussion of Soviet Olympic scoring or the discovery that Giles knew something about a current TV show.
“Wow.” Riley returned his attention to his girlfriend and the perplexing scene in front of her. Broad hands on his thighs, he leaned toward the shrubby dead-guy area, casting a notable shadow over the scene. “I always thought that ‘barbeque fork through the neck’ was a fake expression the Sunnydale brass used to cover up all the vampire bites.”
“Yeah, it is,” Willow confirmed. “You see it all the time in obituaries and post-mortem reports, but it’s never the real cause of death. Until now.” She locked eyes with Buffy, who had now stood from the apparent crime scene.
“This is weird. And random.” Buffy wiped her hands against her trousers, though as far as Xander had seen she hadn’t touched anything that was crime-scene-ish.
Then Willow’s eyes widened so far that her lashes were at risk of becoming tangled in her side bangs. “Wait. Random weirdness,” she exclaimed. “Maybe that’s what’s happening. Maybe it’s Random Week.”
Seeing that everyone’s gaze had turned to her, Willow resumed speaking through a mild bout of excited hyperventilation “I saw on the news this morning that a sinkhole opened up last night under the kitchen of Burger Bob’s Beef Barn outside of town. You know, the restaurant everyone says is a real pit. And… oh. I guess now it kinda is?”
Her fingers poked out from one of her sweater’s extra-long sleeves and began toying with the hem of the other sleeve. “Okay, maybe it’s a stretch. But they filmed the scene and it was like looking down into Pompeii. Except without the ash. And, you know, with a metal freezer.”
“Okie dokes, Will,” Xander said. His Willow shaped friend was brilliant, but was sometimes incomprehensible. He wasn’t entirely sure which one it was, at this moment. “Do we think Burger Bob stabbed Mr. Victim here?”
“No.” Willow made that one short word into a long almost-question. Her expression reminded him of the time when she found out he’d drawn pictures of Peanuts characters chasing Marmaduke the dog instead of penciling-in answers on his long division homework.
“Wrong guess then?” He elbowed her with a crooked grin that evoked a quiet, reminiscent smile from the redhead.
“Maybe Hell needed a new freezer,” Buffy deadpanned. With a back-to-business frown, she looked back toward the body, “You know, there isn’t nearly enough blood here.”
“If only I still had a lab available, we could bag him up and take him there. And then see what we could find out.”
Buffy looked at Riley. Xander and Willow looked at Riley. They were all at risk of having insects fly into their open mouths. Xander pondered that maybe Willow was right about her random weirdness hypothesis, even if he didn’t understand it.
The weirdness impasse was broken when a slim, nondescript woman in a blue uniform slipped up next to them.
“Ma’am, Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to step away from the body. This is a crime scene.”
“Oh. Hello officer. We were just walking by and found this man, here.” Riley had somehow managed to become more upright and official looking. Xander supposed it was something they taught in the Army. Or maybe people from the Bible Belt naturally did that sort of thing when in the presence of authority. Or simply stood erect in front of slim blondes.
Danger Will Robinson, stop, stop, Xander thought. Brain, pull the brakes, don’t go around that bend. He was suddenly very busy keeping his subconscious from thoughts involving blonde women and erect things.
“Uh, yeah, we got a call a little while ago,” the uniformed woman said. Frowning, she added, “Although this isn’t what I expected to see.”
“I have to admit, this isn’t something I expected either,” Buffy said, frowning at the officer.
Somewhere in the midst of the awkward, extended not-saying-anything that followed, Xander finally got control of himself. While he had the chance, he rushed to ask, “Um, is this sort of ‘dead guy in the shrubs’ thing normal in this neighborhood?” Because, seriously, Mr. Victim and the whole stabby tableau didn’t fit into his happy fantasy of strolling on this very sidewalk on his way to lunch. It was out there with the vampires and zombies that Riley had jinxed them all by referencing earlier. Darn his earnest Midwestern-y-ness.
“I think it’s safe to say this is unusual,” the woman in blue briskly replied. “Um, I’ll take down your names in case we have any questions, and then you should move along. This is official police business now.”
“Sounds good, Officer…,” Riley leaned to look at her badge. He squinted as though he really needed an eyeglasses exam, though Xander realized at the same time that her badge was oddly unreadable. Like the letters were in Klingon, or something.
“Rrrr... Reece,” she said with a peculiar Tony the Tiger “R” roll in front of her name. Quickly pulling out a small, spiral writing pad, she took each of their names, wrote them down one-by-one, and then pocketed the pad.
While Xander was still deep in contemplating the probability that Earth had been infiltrated by Klingon police officers with Tony the Tiger accents, the officer rather emphatically shooed them away.
In wrinkly eyebrowed confusion, the Scoobies looked at each other. Buffy shrugged, Willow opened her hands as though releasing one of life’s great mysteries into the air, and Riley used his arms to gently steer them all toward the direction of home. As they began walking, Xander was sure he heard Officer Klingon muttering, “An actual fork. Somebody apparently misunderstood something. This place is so weird.”
They kept walking up to the intersection that separated Sunnydale Heights from the rest of Sunnydale. Xander mused that maybe that made where he lived with his parents into Sunnydale Lows, which sounded about right.
“Well that was totally wiggy,” Willow said, having squeezed past Riley to walk next to Buffy.
“No kidding,” the Slayer replied, peering back over her shoulder for a moment. “There weren’t any cop cars around and I wasn’t even questioned. Usually I have to wait around until they trot out Detective Clark, who I swear is running his own Slayer investigation squad.”
“I meant, like, the body,” Willow corrected quietly as though the forky dead guy was a secret.
“Oh yeah, that too,” Buffy admitted with a frown. “Pretty much everything about that was nuts-o-rama.”
“Hey,” Xander spoke up. “Have any of you ever seen that cop before? There was something oddly familiar about her but I couldn’t place it.”
“Now that you mention it…,” Willow murmured. “Maybe she attended our grade school?”
They all turned back to look at the yard where Officer Reece had questioned them. At just that moment, a police car passed them on the way to the scene of the stabby.
“And, there’s the universe’s subtle signal for us to keep moving along,” Xander said. Pointing to the walking-man signal for the crosswalk, he added, “The Xander-mobile is parked the next street over. Let’s do this whole crazy ‘going home’ thing.”
“I second that,” Buffy said as they all set forth, leaving Sunnydale Heights behind.
About 24 hours later, Xander was fondly recalling the whole laugh riot that could be subtitled, “The day I lost the apartment and maybe my girlfriend at the same time but, yay, found a dead body.”
Because, first off, he’d spent the whole night in the city dump, apparently abandoned by his friends after he’d jumped in front of the scary, big guy with the glowing stick. Normally that would’ve been where the badness ended. But this time, the cherry on top of the badness sundae was that an imposter was now in the process of stealing his life. He’d taken his job, gotten his new apartment, and was hypnotizing everyone he knew into believing that he was the real Xander.
He was sure that as soon as he explained the problem to Giles, the older man would see right through the ruse. But the fake imposter-guy had even beaten him to Giles’ apartment. Xander pushed his soaked hair back from his forehead while huddling outside the Watcher’s window. It never rains in California. Ha, I say. Ha!
This was it. The imposter had just told Buffy that they had to kill the other, real Xander. Dripping onto the outside sill, Xander was sure Buffy would come through for him. “She sees it's not me. Please, Buffy... resist his spell. Do this for me,” he half whispered his plea.
But then Buffy— the one girl in all the world yada yada who might actually be able to fix this— actually smiled at the Xander imposter. The guy with Xander’s face and the shiny mind-bendy thing had fooled even her.
Xander’s breath, having finally evened out from his dash here, sped up again. This was not good. This was so not good.
Feeling the eldritch tap of a finger on his shoulder, he managed to resist the urge to scream. “Gah!” he gargled instead, while his abortive jump morphed into a stagger into one of Giles’ shrubs. He untangled himself from the mass of branches, turned, and then sputtered, “Spike, what are you doing here?”
“Oi. What am I doing here? I might ask the same question of you, Harris.” the vampire crossed his arms while stepping back under an architectural overhang. “Are you trying some new life skills? Because, if you plan to take up lurking outside of windows more regular-like, take it from one with experience in the field: a darker and less flappy wardrobe might better fit the bill. Also, I recommend learning where there’s awnings and such.”
“My wardrobe is fine. A little rain won’t hurt me.” He paused to look back into Giles’ apartment to see if his imposter had been stuck dead yet. No such luck.
Sensing Spike shuffling only a few feet away, he frowned. “And, I’m not lurking,” he hissed, squishing his shoes into the dirt as he turned to face the fanged annoyance. “That’s a whole different thing.”
“See, now that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to tell you lot,” the annoyingly un-wet vampire had the nerve to crow. Although he did it quietly, thanks to whatever deity controlled the impulses of the vampiric persuasion.
Smirking like an annoying vampire guy, Spike tilted his head. “So why are you doing this ‘whole different thing’ of yours outside the Watcher’s window? Slayer’s in there with a couple others. You could go inside and order a dozen pizzas or sommat while you drip on the man’s tiles.”
Though he hadn’t meant to speak, Xander found himself explaining with only a minor amount of arm waving. “There’s an imposter in there,” he hissed. “Someone, or some thing, is pretending to be me. It’s taking over my entire life. And they’re all fooled.”
He realized he was actually spending time trying to explain something to Spike, of all undead people-y types. He started to turn away, but then realized something even more important. “Wait. You can tell I’m Xander! The real Xan-man.” Without thinking about it, he took a couple steps and reached for the British vampire’s sleeve.
Pulling away with a frown, Spike swatted his arms as though ridding himself of cooties. “You barmier than usual, whelp? Of course you’re you. Who else smells like the 7-Eleven and sawdust, with an overtone of cat pee, and wears a modified Indian tablecloth as an overshirt?” He flared his nostrils once while unconsciously smoothing his duster over his own overshirt “Though you may have been vacationing in the city dump a lot more frequently than you let on to your mates.”
While turning his hands to search for his cigarettes, he continued. “The real question is why would someone want to impersonate you out of your whole gang of superchums?” He placed an unfiltered Camel Straight between his lips, flicked his lighter, and then inhaled with obvious pleasure.
Ignoring the implied insult, Xander stepped closer to where the peroxide pest was standing. Huffing, he said, “Why pretend to be me? To get an “in” with the Slayer. Just like you, bloodbreath.”
Spike’s jaw worked behind his pursed lips. After an extended moment of silence broken only by the sound of car tires shushing by on the distant, wet road, he pointed at Xander with the cherry end of his smoke. “If you think I’ll ever have an ‘in’ with you lot, you need to learn a lot more about human nature, boy.”
“I say ‘huh’?”
The vampire took a deep draw from his cigarette while his assessing gaze slanted unnervingly from under his dark brows.
“It’s always about who’s the top monkey, innit? Human social groups, I mean. Your little Scooby gang is unusual ‘cause of being led by the Slayer. It’s obvious that she’s at the apex even if most human groups don’t organize themselves around a young chit what’s in charge.” He shrugged. “You can see how hard it is for Soldier Boy to deal with. He keeps taking his balls out of his pocket while he tries to figure out what to do with them.”
Xander sputtered at the slight to his only guy friend, but Spike kept talking.
“But the point is, if the Slayer accepts someone, they’re ‘in’. Don’t matter if you were the weak link, if you screw up royally, or are just there to be the butt of a joke. You’ll get an ‘atta boy’ soon enough, people lay off you, and you’re in.”
“Um, if you say so,” Xander shifted from foot to foot. Even though he’d stepped away from Giles’ window, he swore he’d heard “kill him” again. He frowned; he needed to find someone who’d help him. Willow! He needed to find his witchy friend. He started walking out of Giles’ complex, not even noticing that the blond vampire was now walking with him after herding him under a series of overhanging porches.
Spike shrugged with another deep inhale of this cigarette. “See, boy, you can even cave to Dracula. But after your Scooby chums finish taking the mickey out of you, you’re back in the herd. The Great Forehead can go all Angelus and get sent to hell, but Slayer forgives him and it’s no longer cricket to call out his failings. As for old Spike, the only one defending my intentions and stopping you wankers from kicking me in the teeth is me. Not the Slayer.”
He tapped the fingers off his free hand against his temple. “And thanks to those human ghouls you call the Initiative, I can’t defend myself as a vampire. You can hurl insults at me all night long, push me around, even manhandle me.”
He tossed his cigarette end into a small puddle, where it sizzled briefly before going out. “All I can do is react the way a human who doesn’t give a shit would respond to bullying, which ain’t enough for any of you lot to treat me like a person. Like you’d treat a man.”
The word “bullying” stopped Xander briefly in his tracks, surfacing memories of being the only child of drunken parents, a too-small boy in gym class until his high-school growth spurt, a misfit teenaged boy who hung out with girls. There were so many memories; none of them good.
He blinked, looking at the puzzled vampire who’d stopped just a step ahead of him. For the first time he saw a slight, almost pretty man, bristling with defenses and wrapped in an oversized bat’s wing of hair-trigger retorts. A man who returned again and again to the Scoobies like an abandoned dog controlling his growls just enough to get scraps.
He blinked again and saw the vampire. The fierce villain who’d tried to kill them all several times and was, at best, an uncertain ally. Which of the two was real? Could the man and the vampire both be the same guy?
The thought of two guys being the same person flashed his thoughts back to the imposter inside Giles’ apartment. Inadvertently, Spike’s long-winded exposition had given him the answer to the vampire’s original question.
He resumed walking. “That’s why whatever that demon or pretender-guy with my face is pretending to be me. Because I’m inside the group without anyone doubting who I am or what my motives are. I’m like the Trojan Horse, or whatever.”
Xander took a moment to be proud that he’d remembered that reference from studying with Willow. Then… Willow! What was he doing? He blurted, “I have to go talk to Willow. She’ll know what to do.” Xander turned away from the vampire and dashed back into the rain to get to the fastest footpath.
“Nice chat, whelp” Spike snarked from behind him. “I’m going inside to stay dry and see if that imposter of yours stole your brains while he was at it.” The boy might’ve flashed him a middle finger over his shoulder in a rare moment of self-possession as he slogged away, his dripping wet overshirt clinging to his body like a drenched hyena’s spotted coat.
Moments later, the occupants of Giles’ condo were startled when Spike burst through the front door like a sinuous, potentially evil Jack in the Box.
“This time I’m sure that door was locked,” Giles said in his most put-upon tone.
“Spike, what are you doing here? We already have enough to deal with,” Riley stood.
“Watcher, you really should get your landlord to install a better lock,” the vampire commented helpfully while seeming to aimlessly move into the room. In reality, he’d managed to sidle close to the unusually well dressed, coiffed version of Xander.
“How are you not soaking wet?” the doppelganger muttered with a side-eyed slant, after first peering out the window.
“One of my many gifts,” Spike smirked.
At the same time, Buffy turned from them to look at Giles. “It’s gotta be Toth! He hit Xander with that blast, and somehow it allowed him to take Xander’s form. Couldn’t that be what the creepy rod thingie did?”
“Yes… it makes sense. A shape shifting device,” Giles muttered as he headed toward his bookshelves.
“Some toff hit Xander with a ‘rod thingie’?” Spike asked, barely able to contain his amusement under his rising eyebrows as he said “rod thingie.” He looked back and forth between Buffy and the unusually tidy version of Xander.
“Not toff. It’s ‘Toth’,” Giles corrected absently. “The last of the Tothric clan of demons. I don’t know why nobody can get that straight.” He paused. “That was the demon from the city dump, yesterday.”
“Ah, that big lava skinned bloke. Broke that lamp I’d found for my crypt. And cracked a perfectly nice mannequin, too.”
“And why you planned to decorate the tomb you live in with a mannequin from the dump… just please don’t tell us.” Riley’s distaste was barely concealed beneath his genial, midwestern mien.
“Spike, that’s right!” Buffy seemingly ignored her boyfriend while taking steps toward the vampire. “You saw him. Do you know anything about his type of demon? Do you think he could have shape-shifted to look like Xander?”
“Never seen a bloke like that before. As for shape shifting….” Spike’s voice trailed off as he turned to Xander with an assessing eye and sniffed deeply.
“And that wasn’t the least bit creepy,” Xander noted while leaning his upper body away from his peroxide-haired inspector.
“What I can tell you,” Spike continued over Xander’s comment. “Is that you’re not dealing with a shapeshifter demon. They can change how they look and sound, but they can’t fool vampire senses.” Seeing Buffy’s engaged expression, he added, “See, this fellow here is Xander. Smells like Xander with an unusual overlay of Old Spice. Has his heartbeat, his breathing pattern, and his usual pattern of borborygmus,
“Barber bigmass?” the Slayer tilted her head.
“Means the way your stomach gurgles,” Spike replied in a tone that, instead of sounding annoyed, would’ve sounded a bit like he was embarrassed if he were anyone else.
“Oooky much?” Xander shook his head. “So why didn’t you just say that? And why do we care how my stomach burbles? Quietly to itself, I might add.”
“’Cause that’s one of the ways I know that you’re Xander Harris, innit? Despite the fact that you’ve cleverly disguised yourself with hair gel and permanent-press salaryman togs.” Spike switched his gaze from the man in question back to the Slayer. “And that other bloke with Xander’s face who’s slogging about town with floppy hair and a shirt that looks like a Namroc demon vomited a bunch of leaves and berries on it? Well, that’s how I know that fellow is Xander Harris also.”
“Yeah. That’s why they said he’s a shapeshifter,” Riley pedantically explained in a slow voice. “He looks just like Xander and is obviously up to no good.” The former soldier crossed his arms as though the entire matter had now been settled.
“No, you big ninny,” Spike said with his first hint of impatience. “He is Xander Harris. I talked to the other one not ten minutes ago. They’re both Xander Harris. If one were a shapeshifter, it wouldn’t have all the Xander tell-tales.”
“Huh.” Buffy blinked. “Giles, is that possible? Could the Toth rod thingie have Xeroxed Xander?” She bit her lip before adding, “And boy, don’t try to say ‘Xeroxed Xander’ fast, three times in a row.”
As Spike snorted, both Riley and Xander tried to stop their lips from giving away that they were, indeed, trying to repeat that phrase over and over.
“It is within the realm of possibility,” Giles replied to Buffy. “Perhaps Toth could have accomplished such a thing by using a spell directed by his staff, or perhaps via a special attribute of the demon in question.”
“We should find that out, since Toth was actually aiming at Buffy,” Riley announced to the room.
Spike and Xander turned their heads like a pair of prairie dogs, alert to the implication that Toth’s menace had only now risen to importance because Buffy had been the target.
Filing away the useful tidbit that the man had a lower-tier of value for the Slayer’s friends, Spike addressed Buffy. “Why on earth would a supposedly evil demon want to create a second copy of you? As someone whose detailed, evil plans you’ve foiled on more than one occasion, I can say that just one of you is quite enough.”
“Does ‘I’ll kill you on Saturday’ ring a bell?” Buffy fired back almost immediately.
Both she and Xander snickered while Spike’s lips skewed into accustomed annoyance. But then, Buffy paused to peer at the vampire with a thoughtful expression. Which, oddly, gave rise to a rosy flush on her cheeks.
“Okay, even I admit that wasn’t fair. Spike raised a good point,” she said. This time Xander’s and Riley’s startled heads swiveled in tandem toward her, while Spike’s more lingering glance was accompanied by an oddly Mona Lisa smile.
Buffy continued, “A bad guy who comes to town out of nowhere with the goal of making an extra Slayer also makes the kind of sense that doesn't. But then, finding a guy killed earlier yesterday with an actual barbeque fork also makes that kind of sense that doesn’t. Maybe it really is Weird Chaos Week, like Willow said.”
“Barbeque fork?” Spike’s brows pulled together in evident confusion.
“Oh, dear Lord,” Giles said, standing up with a book in hand.
“I know, huh? Who in Sunnydale actually gets killed with a physical barbeque fork through the throat?” Turning to Riley, Buffy added, “You know I think it was that cool, old-fashioned model like they sell on Home Shopping Network.”
“We need to wean you off of late-night infomercials, Babe,” Riley told her with an indulgent side hug.
“No, no,” Giles interrupted while pushing his glasses firmly up the bridge of his nose. “I’m not talking about the grilling fork, though that is an odd occurrence that I would’ve hoped you might have mentioned earlier today. As you may recall, I am still working with the Devon Coven to interpret the uses and predictions of chaos in Shapur’s Manichean Horologion, which you retrieved last week. So ‘chaos’ is a bit of a theme, if you will.”
“Oops?” Buffy shrugged. “Sorry. In that case you should also ask Willow about the sinkhole that swallowed Burger Bob’s kitchen into a Pompeii hell dimension yesterday.” She ignored Giles’ glare while asking, “But Giles, why the ‘dear Lord’ this time?”
The man shared a heavy exhale of patience before speaking. “Once again I’m loathe to admit that Spike seems to have been onto something. The rod device that Toth used is called a ‘ferula-gemina’. It splits one person in half, distilling personality traits into two separate bodies. As near as I can tell, Toth was attempting to split the Slayer into two different entities.”
“Two Buffy’s?” The Slayer frowned. “But Giles, isn’t that what we’ve been talking about?” She glanced at Spike as she said that, A private, almost shy smile briefly dusted her lips.
“You’ve been talking about duplication,” Giles replied. “The ferula-gemina divides. It would have created one of you with all the qualities inherent in Buffy Summers, and the other with everything that belongs to the Slayer alone, such as the erm, strength, speed, and Slayer heritage.”
He put down the weighty, dusty book. “As such, when it hit Xander instead, I think it separated him into his strongest points and his, erm, weakest.” He grimaced with apology as he finished his sentence.
“But which one of us is the real one?” Xander swallowed, feeling his recent, sunny confidence dissipate into a familiar, wavering doubt.
“You’re both real. You’re both Xander. There's nothing in either of you that the whole Xander Harris doesn't already possess, so neither of you is evil.”
At that moment, the front door burst open and a slightly damp Willow rushed in. “Buffy, Toth looks like Xander.” Then her eyes narrowed and she pointed at the Xander in the room, with sparks seeming to emanate from her hand. “He’s here. It’s Toth. He’s a demon in a Xander suit.”
“Willow, wait. That really is Xander.” Buffy moved forward. Then, closer to Willow’s target, Spike surprised everyone by stepping in front of Xander like a slim, duster clad shield.
“Maybe he’s hypnotized all of you.” She turned toward Xander, who was still visible behind the vampire. “Prove you’re Xander,” Willow demanded.
“Let's see.” Xander began to pace. “Stuff only you and me know. Okay! On my seventh birthday ... I wanted a toy fire truck, and I didn't get it, and you were real nice about it, and then the house next door burnt down, and then real fire trucks came, and for years I thought you set the fire for me. And if you did, you can tell me.” His nervous grin didn’t interrupt Willow’s skeptical inspection.
“What else… what else?” He half-way bounced on his feet as he pondered other examples.
“This is barmy,” Spike said. Ever the vampire-of-action, he turned. Wincing, he grabbed Xander’s arm to stop his pacing. Then he loosely slugged the slightly larger man on the shoulder.
“Ow,” Xander objected reflexively, even though the impact had barely moved him and he was sure his unexpected assailant had much more strength if he’d wanted to use it. Without thinking about it, he lifted his fists in a defensive stance that managed to be both practiced and completely amateur at the same time.
There was nobody to defend against, though, since the vampire had immediately crumpled to his knees. “Bollocks,” he mumbled while clutching his head between his hands. He looked up, squinting in obvious pain, toward the witch who was still near the door. “That good enough for you, Red?”
“Yes, well that was a bit ostentatious and yet needlessly impulsive,” Giles said as he walked past the crouching figure. “Willow, here, look at this description of Toth’s staff,” He held out the book from which he’d quoted the ferula-gemina details.
“Oh,” Willow exhaled as she read. Then she looked up. “Xander, that’s you!” She rushed over to her neater-than-usual friend. Framing him with her hands on his shoulders, she smiled at his goofy grin.
“Normally I’d say ‘the one and only,’ but, well, you know.”
While they spoke, Buffy had drifted over to Spike. Briefly resting her fingers on his hunched shoulder, she murmured, “Thanks Spike, you didn’t have to do that.”
“Yeah, Watcher made that perfectly clear, didn’t he?” Spike pulled his lips in irritation as he stood up and backed away a couple of steps. Eyes down within his own perimeter, he made a show of straightening his duster.
Buffy watched him for a moment with an almost troubled look on her face. “No, I meant that you knew it was going to hurt, but you proved Xander was human anyway. You didn’t have to do that, and I appreciate it.”
The vampire’s gaze darted up to meet her eyes. “Yeah?” His normally sharp features softened into something like awe, something almost human.
Buffy’s small, private smile reappeared. “Yeah,” she confirmed.
Riley came over and put his arm around Buffy’s shoulders, turning them both toward the Watcher. “I still don't get the original plan. I mean, why do it? The Slayer half would be like Slayer concentrate, pretty unkillable.”
Giles nodded. “Yes, But ultimately the two halves cannot exist without each other. Kill the weaker Buffy half, and the Slayer half dies. Perhaps simply keeping them separate for too long might accomplish the same goal.”
Buffy’s head lifted and her posture shifted into action mode. “That means the same goes for the Xanders. We have to reunite you, somehow. We lose one, we lose you both.”
“Yes, well a simple spell-ending incantation should work, but we need them both together. I have the supplies here,” Giles volunteered.
“We can bring the other Xander back,” Buffy asserted, slipping from under Riley’s arm as she addressed the room. “But where would he be?
“When Xander left my place, he was going to Anya’s apartment,” Willow said.
“Where my other half would’ve heard my phone message telling Anya to meet me at the new apartment. That’s where they are.”
“Well, let’s roll.” Riley stepped forward as Action Man. “Since other-Xander probably doesn’t have the key, they might not stay there for long,”
“Well,” Xander grimaced. It’s actually a simple Schlage lock, like the kind my parents have. I, um, may know how to pick those fairly quickly.”
“Good on you, whelp,” Spike said. “You’re a fellow of unexpected depth.”
“Yeah, right. That’s me,” he answered with a very manly eye-roll that wasn’t the least bit influenced by having predominantly female friends.
Buffy stepped forward. “Okay, Riley and I will go find Xander and bring him back here. Willow, you can stay here with Giles and get the un-spell-ify ritual set up, okay? Xander you should probably stay here, too. Other-Xander probably still thinks you’re a demon, like Willow did, so might not listen to us if you’re there. He might try to kill you.”
“Yeah,” Xander nodded, chagrined. “Good call. That’s what I would do. By the way, Anya has a gun in her purse.” Seeing everyone’s astonished looks, he added, “She’s still kinda over-reacting to being human and vulnerable. The dislocated shoulder has really thrown her for a loop.”
“Makes sense, I guess,” Buffy said.
“We mustn’t forget that Toth is still out there, as well,” Giles cautioned. “I haven’t yet discovered what kills him or disrupts the ferula-gemina.”
“I find that a good spot of beheading almost always does the trick,” Spike said.
“Good point. Spike, come with us,” Buffy said, though she inflected the sentence upward as an implied question. Spike nodded while Riley turned to his girlfriend.
“Buffy,” he began, obviously ready to object.
“Riley, since he’s gunning for me, it’s likely we’ll encounter Toth while we’re out,” she explained with her palm laid gently on his chest. “We don’t know what his strengths are, other than his Gemini rod thingie, though he did throw Giles around when he was in the magic store. Anyhow, the more fighters we have, the better we can take him down.”
“Fine,” Riley agreed through frowning lips. With narrowed eyes, he turned to the vampire. “And I’ll be there to keep an eye on Spike so he doesn’t double-cross us.”
“Riley!” both Buffy and Willow exclaimed at the same time that Spike half coughed out a “Wanker.”
“You know,” Xander spoke up. “I’m not about to become a vampire fan-boy, here. But Spike just tried to keep me from becoming Xander flambee. So, I’d say, cut the guy a little slack for now.”
Riley glanced from face to face. Obviously he ignored Spike, who was busy assessing Xander in any case. But seeing that even Giles seemed a bit disapproving of him. He tossed up his hands. “Fine, I can tell I’m outnumbered here. Let’s go.”
As he stomped toward Giles’ front door, Buffy shrugged at Spike and then picked up a bag of weapons. “Come on,” she said, waving the vampire to follow her.
While she did that, Giles walked to his kitchen. “Willow, while we set up, you might fill me in on your, erm, Random Chaos Week theory. Buffy mentioned a grilling fork incident and perhaps a sinkhole.”
“Sure Giles,” Willow answered. “Xander can fill in details, too, because he saw the dead-fork-guy, too.”
“Was it a grilling fork like this?” Giles held up an amazingly nondescript, wood handled barbeque fork. “I’ve been assuming this is what you were talking about.”
“Yeah, you got it, G-Man.” Xander came over and plucked it out of the older man’s hand. While Giles harrumphed through his obligatory objection to the nickname, Xander held up the fork. “Look, it even has ‘BBQ Fork’ embossed on it. That’s a time-saver. I wish all the kitchen utensils that Anya buys had their names on them.” While talking, he’d turned it over and thrust it pointy-end-down into a loaf of bread. “The dead guy was on the ground and it stuck up like this.”
“That’s wonderful, Xander. I really couldn’t have figured that out from Buffy’s comment about someone with a ‘barbeque fork through the throat’.”
“Happy to help,” Xander said with a delighted grin. Heading back out into the main room, he said, “Hey Willow, did you see the news this morning about monkeys escaping from the Sunnydale Zoo?”
“Dear Lord,” Giles muttered as Riley closed the door behind them and the Xander-finding trio set out into the evening, where the rain had finally let up.
Less than an hour later, the three of them trooped back into Giles’ condo, trailed by Anya and the floppy haired Xander.
“Giles, we’re home.” Locating him on the floor, where he was finishing the setup for the “make Xander whole” spell, she said, “We have a complete set of Xanders now. Oh, and Toth is toast— the toastiest— and we need to send a demon body disposal service and a rug repair company to Xander’s new apartment.”
“Great Googly Moogly,” the tidier Xander exclaimed while looking at his double, in tandem with the still damp and floppier Xander’s “Great Caesar’s Ghost.”
“That’s wild.” Riley looked between the identical men. “Psychologically, this is fascinating. Doesn't it make everyone wanna lock them in separate rooms and do experiments on them?”
At everyone’s odd look, he shrugged with a resigned look. “Okay, just me, then.”
“Tell me again why we have two Xanders,” Anya walked fearlessly between the Xanders, looking back and forth.
The still damp, tousle headed Xander looked between his double and Buffy. “You say that we’re each Xander, but then why does he have that thingie in his pocket?” He jabbed his finger in the direction of the other Xander. Excitedly he added, “It’s a shiny disk that stuns and disorients! That’s why you’re all fooled.”
“Xander, we went over this already,” Buffy put her hands on her waist, no doubt wishing she could go back and beat up Toth again rather than do logic-a-rama with two Xanders.
Meanwhile, the more suave Xander reached in his pocket and pulled out something. “Do you mean this?”
“Cover your eyes!” Floppy haired Xander suited action to words. “It'll melt your brain!”
Buffy took the flat, shiny disk from the other Xander’s hand. Anya and Riley leaned in to see it.
“Look at it,” Buffy said gently to the cowering Xander.
Equally kindly, his better dressed double said, “It's just a nickel someone flattened on the railroad track. I found it on the construction site and I thought it was cool. It's not magic.”
Like a child testing whether the monster had gone away, the scruffier Xander uncovered his eyes and— oh so gingerly— took the disk from her. “No, I... Well, huh. You know, it is kinda cool,” he admitted. Looking up, he saw his better-dressed version nodding tolerantly. “Washington's still there, but he's all smooshy. Oh, and he may be Jefferson.”
He handed the shiny disk back to Buffy. “But I still don’t see how that proves anything. He can't be me. He's all ... fancy.”
“We can prove that you're both Xander,” Riley asserted.
“Yeah!” Buffy confirmed and then turned to Riley. “But how?”
They both hemmed and hawed and then Buffy said, “Ooh! What number am I thinking of?
“I don't think that's gonna do it,” Riley murmured at the same time that both Xanders called out, “Eleven and a half,” in unison.
“Wrong. Oh! But see?” Buffy smiled with the pleasure of a good deed fully completed.
Unfortunately, the skeptical, rumpled Xander demurred. “No. We're not the same. We're all different.”
“Oh bollocks,” Spike piped up from where he was leaning, arms crossed, against the wall. “I’m not giving myself another headache to prove it to you, whelp.”
“And there’s some cheery good news for our top of the hour headline,” well-dressed Xander muttered.
“It worked, didn’t it?” the vampire shot a glare at that version of Xander, who nodded sheepishly. “And you’re welcome.”
Then, straightening from the wall, he stalked closer to the two Xanders. To the doubting one with unkempt hair, he said, “Remember how I knew, outside, that you’re really Xander Harris?” He waited until the Xander in question nodded before continuing. “I can tell that he’s also Xander Harris, in the same way. For example, you both had that Chef Boyardee canned spaghetti shite for some meal yesterday before you were split. You both need to do something about that toenail fungus problem you have on one of your feet.”
“Personal, much?” both men said at the same time, each one shuffling their right foot behind their left.
“I rest my case,” the vampire smirked with satisfaction. “But if that’s not enough, Rupert over there has a whole book about Toth and his great big knob.”
“Could you be more uncouth?” Giles murmured. Then, with a pointed glare at Spike he added, “Don’t answer that; it’s rhetorical.” More kindly, he said, “Yes. The spelled staff that the demon Toth used had the property of splitting a person such that different properties of the person go into each half. You seem different to each other, but you're both Xander. You’re actually incomplete without the other.”
“Different properties?” Xander asked, brushing back damp hair from his forehead. “What different properties?”
Before Giles could be tactlessly honest, Buffy jumped in. “Um, uh, you know, uh, sense of direction. Good night vision, stuff like that.”
“It’s true, Xander. You’re both different aspects of the same person.” Willow said from where she was finishing the spell setup that Giles had left undone. “And you need each other; you can’t exist apart for too long.”
“Okay,” he acquiesced, looking at his tidier half. “I guess the good news is that I got a promotion as regular old me. Anya, we can afford the apartment after all.”
“You already said so. Or, I guess, the other you did.” Glancing between the two images of her boyfriend with a cagy look, she said, “You know, maybe we shouldn't do this reintegration thing right away. See, I can take the boys home, and ... we can all have sex together, and ... you know, just slap 'em back together in the morning.”
Giles attempted to not look appalled while Buffy and Riley grinned at each other. Spike smirked in amusement, with undisguised calculation lifting his eyebrow.
“She's joking.” the well-dressed Xander said.
“No she's not! She entirely wants to have sex with us together. Which is... wrong and... and would be very confusing.”
Giles, turned to Willow, “Erm, we just need to light the candles and get the two Xanders inside the circle. Also, we should continue to pretend we heard none of the disturbing sex talk.”
Willow nodded. “Check. Candles and pretense.”
“It's not like it'd be cheating. They're both Xander,” Anya pouted as everyone moved around and took their places. Buffy stood near Giles and Willow. Riley and Spike, the odd men out, found themselves on the other side of the circle, near the sofa.
Riley kept his expression genial while hissing, “I know you’re only pretending to help. Hostile, so you can mess this up for your own evil purposes. Just remember that I’m right here to stop you.”
With his own quiet tone chilled with arctic ice, Spike murmured, “You know. If I had this chip outta my head, everyone in this room would get a pass. Except you. I'd have killed you a long time ago.”
“It’s totally mutual,” Riley said with a placid smile and his eyes trained on Xander.
“Good we have an understanding then,” Spike half whispered, drifting away from the former soldier.
While they were speaking, Willow had poofed a clothing change so now both Xanders were dressed in the floppier outfit from yesterday. She’d positioned them in the right location and spoken her simple spell. With barely a spark, she’d removed Toth’s spell and reunited the two men into a complete, individual Xan-man.
Willow smiled proudly. “Ta da. I introduce you all to the one and only Xander Harris.
“I liked it the other way. Put him back,” Anya announced to the room.
“Ahn,” Xander began speaking in a long-suffering tone. Giles peeked toward his drinks trolley while Willow rolled her eyes and Riley tried to hide looking aghast. Meanwhile, Buffy smiled and found Spike’s eyes, sharing quiet laughter with the only other person in the room who seemed to see the amusing absurdity of it all. Moments later they were joined by Xander, who furtively glanced their way with his own crooked grin of shared amusement.
Giles moved several steps closer to that drinks trolley and its lovely bottle of Laphroaig. “You know, it is quite odd that the last of the Tothric clan just showed up here, out of the blue, targeting the Slayer rather than the last of the Slagloc clan that decimated his kind. Between the other oddities that Willow described earlier, I think it’s rather a good thing my old friend Ethan is locked away, or I’d be casting a net in his direction.”
Meanwhile, somewhere not currently findable by garden variety locator spells….
“Well, it’s stupid,” Marcie’s voice complained from the other side of Ethan’s tiny rip in the dimensional continuum. He couldn’t hold the gap open for very long, but while it was open it was a lovely peephole plus a free telephone.
Marcie continued, “You’re this big chaos mage. So, you toss the chaos dice, or whatever. And what happens? It’s a big nada. I mean, there’s little crap like the guy who really was stabbed by a fork, of all things. And a sinkhole. And the chimpanzees that escaped the zoo on a school trip bus. Or my current favorite: the child molester who looked like Grandpa Munster who won the lottery and got hit seconds later by a bus. But otherwise, it’s a letdown.”
“It’s a hellmouth, dear.” Ethan reminded her. “Even predictable things aren’t predictable there.”
“Yeah, I grew up here, remember? But anyway, to answer your earlier question about that librarian you have a hard-on for, Rupert Giles. He’s like a big Ethan Rayne bookend. The dude never leaves his house and sends the kids out to do the work. Sound familiar?”
Ethan pursed his lips. The next time Marcie visited he’d have a reminder of his powers all prepared for her. But, for now, he simply said, “In all fairness, you may recall that I didn’t ask you to actually do anything in the lovely, demon-infested Valle del Sol. You traveled there on your own volition.”
His lips quirked up as his voice drizzled a dark octave lower. “Of course, I do approve of your delicious passion for voyeurism and mayhem.”
“Yeah, it’s fun to watch these losers chase their tails trying to figure things out. That Toth guy had them going for a while. But he didn’t even split the right person.” She paused, and then suddenly sounded about ten years younger. “It’s just that the way you go on and on about chaos, I thought it would somehow be more grandiose.”
“Darling, you don’t need to force the issue. That’s what chaos does for you all by itself. It’s such a beautiful thing.”
That said, Marcie was right that not as much true chaos had seemed to transpire yet based on his request to Janus. So it never hurt to toss in an additional surprise or two. Toth of the now quite extinct Tothric clan had been quite easy to mobilize and had been quite a bit of vicarious fun, although ultimately his demonic boneheaded-ness had betrayed him. That was fine. The game wasn’t over yet.
To be continued...