There is a guy at the bar with an eye patch, and this is maybe the most interesting thing that Dom has ever seen in LA. At first he thinks maybe the guy's wearing it ironically - but who wears eye patches ironically? Wouldn't that be like using crutches ironically? Bad taste, even for America.
Then he thinks maybe it's a temporary thing, you know, like the guy just had an eye tuck or something and has the patch to protect it. But he notices that there's a tan-line where the strap goes, so that's not it. Also, this guy is really tan, for winter. Even for LA.
Good looking guy, Dom notices idly, as he tries to figure him out. Not dressed for the clubbing scene, though, not dressed to be noticed. T-shirt and cargo pants both a size too big. Shoulders a little slumped, sitting over in the corner like he doesn't want anyone to see him. But he's paying attention to the room, scanning it like he's looking for something specific.
He really couldn't stand out more if he tried.
In a plastic city of faux perfection, this guy is brown from real sun, not a bottle; he has a heavy bruise on one arm; he may or may not be missing an eye. The sandals on his feet are held together with duct tape.
Dom discovers that he has a pressing need to go up to the bar and get another drink.
The guy glances at him when Dom comes over and signals to the bartender, and out of the corner of his eye, Dom sees Eye Patch Guy do the classic minor-celebrity double take. Dom smiles to himself, and casually glances over, catches the guy staring.
Eye Patch Guy looks sheepish and glances away.
"Hey," Dom says, grinning. The guy looks back quickly and smiles, just a little. But even his smile is sad, somehow.
"Hey, you're, uh, that guy from Lord of the Rings," the guy says, apologetically. "Dominic Monaghan, right?"
"That's me," Dom says.
"You were, uh, you were really good in that," he says. "Great movies."
"Thanks," Dom says. He takes a sip of his drink, tries to think of something else to say.
The guy beats him to it, though. "Uh... this is stupid. But could I get your autograph? I have this fri... well, not friend, but I know this guy who'd kill me if I saw you and didn't get it."
"Oh, yeah," Dom says. He grabs a napkin off the bar. "You got a pen?" The guy fishes one out of his cargo pants. "What's your name?" Dom asks.
"Oh. Xander. But make it out to Andrew, that's the guy who'd kill me."
"Okay," Dom says. And writes, 'Andrew, Be Merry. Dom Monaghan.'
Xander takes the napkin, reads it. "Clever," he says. He folds it and puts it in his shirt pocket. "Thanks."
Dom notices a leather cuff on Xander's wrist, a nice one, with some kind of strange decoration running around it as well - unusual. Dom nods to it. "Nice cuff. Where'd you get it?"
Xander looks at him for a second, then takes a sip of beer. "Africa, actually."
Dom is surprised. "Cool, man. What were you doing there?"
Xander looks down, fiddling with a coaster, turning it around and around. After a second he looks up, smiles wryly. "Fighting evil."
Dom laughs. "And now you've come to LA? You'll be a busy man."
"Tell me about it," Xander says. His teeth are very white in his tanned face, but his eye is bleak and shadowed. "Evil loves Southern California. I grew up around here."
"Yeah?" Dom asks. "You don't seem like an LA kind of guy."
"With the pirate look and everything?" Xander says. "Yeah. I know." His face darkens a little more, turns inward. He looks up again after a second. "Nah, I'm not from here. I grew up in this little town a couple hours away."
"Oh yeah?" Dom asks. He feels like the conversation is starting to get a little weird, even though the topic is mundane. Somehow it's veering into dangerous territory and he feels off-balance. "Whereabouts?"
Xander almost winces. "It doesn't matter," he says. "Hey, great meeting you, Dom. Good luck with everything." And just like that, he puts some cash down on the bar and walks away.
Strangely, this is the most intriguing conversation Dom has had in weeks. It echoes around in his head, and he dreams of pirates, darkly tanned men with shadowed pasts.
He goes back to the same bar three nights in a row, but there is no Xander. Just empty-headed pretty people, all trying to make it in Hollywood. This has never particularly bothered Dom before, but now he is bored out of his mind, and tired of it all.
On the fourth night, there is again no sign of Xander, and Dom gets wasted out of ennui and frustration. When the bar closes he staggers out into the street, begins to walk to his car.
He's not really looking where he's going, and then suddenly in front of him there's some kind of fist-fight going on, a couple of guys in an alley. He can't quite see clearly, because he thought there were three of them, but then there's just two, and then only one, and he blinks, trying to clear his eyes. And out of the darkness comes Xander, brushing off the arm of his coat, which seems to have some heavy gray dust all over it, and adjusting his eye patch.
Dom stands and stares at him. "Hey," he says, inadequately.
Xander looks at him and smiles, surprised. "Hey," he says. "You should look out, walking around here alone at night. LA's a rough town."
"I... yeah," Dom says. "Were you, uh... were there some guys there, a second ago?"
Xander looks behind him, at the empty alley, then rubs the back of his neck awkwardly. "Yeah, they're, uh... gone now."
Dom looks at the alley. There's no way out except past Dom himself, and no one at all had come by him. He blinks. "Okay." Xander just stands and looks at him. "I'm, uh... just gonna go, then," Dom finishes, lamely. He walks to his car, parked near the alley, and fumbles with his key.
"Hey," Xander says, following him. "I don't think driving's a good idea for you, at the moment. I'll call you a cab, okay?"
Dom is having trouble getting the key in the lock, and finally he gives up, glaring at the car. "Okay," he says. He turns at looks at Xander expectantly.
Xander looks sheepish, again. "I don't actually have a phone." Dom sighs and fishes his cell out of his pocket, holding it out mutely to Xander. Who calls him a cab without comment.
When Xander hands the phone back to him, Dom says, "Seriously, who are you?"
Xander shrugs. "I'm Xander. Harris."
"And you fight evil," Dom says. "Calling cabs for the drunk and disorderly."
"Well, it's just a small part of my fighting-evil repertoire," Xander says. "But sure, I guess."
Dom rubs at his forehead. His head is beginning to ache a little bit, and he feels all fuzzy. When he looks up, Xander is still standing there, all tan and eye patch and dirty flip-flops. "You're quite possibly the strangest person I have ever met in LA," Dom says, as the cab pulls up. He opens the door of the vehicle and looks over at Xander, who seems strangely flattered. "You wanna share?"
Xander hesitates for a second, then shrugs. "Sure."
"So where're you staying?" Dom asks Xander after giving the cab driver his address.
Xander turns his head slightly, so Dom sees a three-quarter view of his features, streetlights flickering over them. The eye patch is a dark shadow in the far reaches of his face, almost unnoticeable. Somehow he is not less intriguing for this. "Around," Xander says.
Dom nods, slowly. "Oh, right, around," he says. "I hear good things about that place. Does it get cable?"
Xander smiles sharply, his mouth twisting. "Yeah, and they put a chocolate on your pillow."
"Cool," Dom says. The alcohol has dulled his brain and he leans his head back against the seat, closes his eyes just for a minute. The noise of the engine and slight jostling of the road are soothing, nice.
Next thing he knows Xander's shaking his shoulder. "Hey, this is you."
Dom manages to lift his head, rub at his eye. "Right. Yeah."
He opens the door, slides out and stands, but then nearly topples over sideways.
"Whoa," Xander says, sliding out after him. He grabs Dom's arm and steadies him. "You all right?"
"Yeah," Dom says. "It's cool. Just, you know, sleepy. Thanks, man."
Xander looks him in the face and smiles, reassuringly. He opens his mouth and is about to speak when he's interrupted by the squealing of tires, a car pulling up behind them. Dom turns to look and next thing he knows there are four or five guys all around them, grabbing at him. One hits him in the gut and he doubles over, pained. But it only takes a split second for him to remember his stunt training and he quickly head butts a guy in front of him and manages to extract himself from the melee, staggering towards his house.
Their cab has already taken off, driver in a panic, and Xander is competently fighting off a couple of the guys. There seem to be fewer of them than there were moments before. And there's something wrong with their faces. Dom can't get a good look in the mess of fists and elbows, but they're fucked up. And they're not coming after him - they're focused on Xander.
"Run for the house!" Xander says, when he sees Dom staring. "Get inside, quick!"
Without questioning, Dom runs, managing to get the door unlocked and open more quickly than he ever has, adrenaline pumping through his veins.
Xander hits one in the face, hard; kicks another in the balls, and soon he too is racing for the door, skidding past the threshold like a kid running to first base. He makes no effort to shut the door.
Dom is standing frozen in the front hallway. He feels like he should move, do something, shut the door, but his legs don't seem to want to. They seem to want to sit down right here in the middle of the floor, and who is he to stop them?
Xander stands at the doorway, looking out at the guys who are still on the front lawn, but who are not attempting to storm the open door. Their faces are definitely wrong, distorted. Monstrous and yellow-eyed, something wrong with their bone structure. Their teeth glint white in the moonlight.
"Okay, guys?" Xander says to them derisively, as if he's talking to a bunch of naughty children rather than the freakishly strong men with crazy yellow eyes who just assaulted them. "That was just about the lamest ambush ever. My half-witted grandmother would be a better vampire than you freaks. 'Oh, we'll sneak up on them under the cover of Chevrolet and they'll never know what hit them! It's a brilliant plan!' Chuckleheads."
"Hey, it's a Volvo," one of the guys says back, offended.
"And it's probably more intelligent than you are," Xander says, and he swings the door shut casually, with a flick of his wrist.
He turns to look at Dom. "Sorry about that."
"Uh... that's okay?" Dom says, from where he sits on the floor, leaning against the wall. He feels sort of dizzy, like he's not quite sure which way is up. And his brain seems to be telling him that Xander just said something about vampires, but that can't be right.
After a second, Dom looks at the door. "Don't you want to lock that?"
"Huh?" Xander says. "Oh. Right. Sure." He turns the deadbolt like it's a formality. "Hey, do you mind if I use your phone? It's local." He offers Dom a hand up, and Dom takes it shakily.
"No, um... that's cool. Yeah. The phone is...." Dom can't seem to remember where the phone is, for a moment. "In the kitchen. Through here."
He's almost surprised that his legs hold him, but they do, and he walks shakily into the other room, points at the phone.
"Are you okay?" Xander asks, concerned. "Maybe you should sit down. Get some water or something." He picks up the phone but looks at Dom solicitously. After a second Dom collapses into one of the kitchen chairs and puts his head in his hands, elbows on the table. He'd be fine if things would just sit still for a minute and let him *think*. Xander grabs a glass that's sitting on the counter, sniffs it (single guy, yeah?), shrugs and fills it with tap water, puts it down beside Dom's elbow.
Dom looks at it. Unless that's a glass of sanity, he doesn't think it's going to help.
Xander's fishing a piece of paper out of his pocket and dialing, leaning against the counter casually. "Hello, Angel?"
Dom half-listens to Xander's side of the conversation as he rubs his forehead and stares at the wood-grain of the table.
"No, I'm here in a, uh, unofficial capacity. Look, big guy, I don't know if you still do this kind of stuff, but I ran into a big nest of vamps tonight - took a few of them out, but the rest followed me and are annoying the hell out of us. I know you're working for the Man, now, but... yeah. You will? Great."
Suddenly there's a banging on the window and when Dom looks up a fanged, horrible face thumps itself up against the glass, like something out of a nightmare. It's all teeth and eyes and malice and staring at him, and he yelps, loudly. And falls out of his chair.
Xander looks over, grimaces, and walks over to the window. Flicks at the glass like a kid does at a fish tank and, covering the phone, says, loudly, to the... thing, "Newsflash - you're not scary! Now get lost! Shoo!"
Then, looking at Dom, he says, gently, "They can't come in unless you invite them."
Dom's voice, once he gets it out, is weak. "Because they're vampires," he says. Xander nods, looking sympathetic, and goes back to his phone call, details of location and hunting and staking and Dom really can't handle any of this right now. Or maybe ever. He stays on the floor and leans his head against the chair, wanting very badly to just go to sleep. For awhile.
Xander walks over after he hangs up the phone, looks down at him. He's a tall guy, especially towering from Dom's perspective on the floor. He looks like he doesn't quite know what to say.
"They're, uh... going to take care of it for us. So no worries, right?"
Dom almost laughs out loud. "No worries. Right."
Xander runs his hand through his hair nervously, and then sits down on the floor across from Dom.
"I... guess you probably have some questions or whatever."
"You think?" Dom says, trying to be joking and sarcastic, but his voice comes out weird-sounding and shaky.
"I know it's strange. But I'll answer whatever you want to ask me."
Dom looks at Xander, who is serious in the dim light, completely unsmiling. This is not, apparently, a big practical joke or a hallucination. Dom is really sitting on his kitchen floor in the middle of the night, a guy with an eye patch asking him if he has any questions about the vampires that are besieging them. Suddenly he feels very, very tired. And he doesn't want to know.
He looks at Xander, sitting there waiting expectantly. He can see a few gray hairs near Xander's temple, though he thinks that Xander's probably younger than he is. There is a faint scar above Xander's lip, a line of lighter skin, of scar tissue, standing out against his sun-darkened skin. The eye patch looks like it might rub, a bit - Dom thinks it must sometimes be irritating, having that fabric always there.
This is what people who fight evil look like. Dom hadn't known.
"Anything," Xander says, trying to prompt him.
Dom doesn't want to hear about those guys outside, those things in his backyard. He looks at Xander directly, sees his one dark brown eye looking back.
"Are you really missing an eye?" he hears himself asking.
Xander blinks at him. "Yeah." He self-consciously rubs at the band of the eye patch, adjusting it.
"Can I see?" Dom asks. Because it is the middle of the night and there are vampires outside and he wants to know, see what they can do.
Xander stares at him. Dom can see his breathing speed up, get shallower. "I don't... No one's ever asked me that," he says after a second, almost to himself. Dom looks at him. "Yeah, I guess," he says finally. "What the hell."
He reaches up and pulls the patch aside, bares the empty socket. It's bad.
Dom looks, without flinching. After a second he raises his hand to Xander's temple, rests his fingers lightly on the skin there, near the cavernous hollow in Xander's face. He can see that it is taking a lot of effort for Xander to stay there, stay still - he obviously badly wants to flinch back. His skin is warm under Dom's fingertips.
"Wow," Dom says quietly after a second, looking at the deep, empty hole where Xander's eye should be. He looks like a mutilated doll, broken, unbalanced. "That's fucked up." He can barely hear himself, he says it so faintly.
After a pause Xander says, "I know." His voice is jagged, rough edges and ache.
Dom moves his finger along Xander's temple just slightly, almost but not quite a caress, and then pulls his hand back, moves himself back into his own space. Xander clears his throat, looking down and moving the eye patch back into position. Neither of them speaks.
"Vampires?" Dom asks, after a minute.
"No," Xander says. "It was... it was something else."
"Evil?" Dom says.
"Yeah." Xander isn't looking at him - he's staring into space, somewhere above Dom's right shoulder. He looks bad, lines pronounced on his face.
"Okay," Dom says, and he gets up from where he sits. That's enough.
Xander is still sitting, staring off into space. He doesn't move even when Dom leaves, goes down the hallway and pulls out a spare blanket and pillow from the linen closet. He walks back into the kitchen and tosses them in Xander's lap.
"Couch is in the living room. That cool?"
Xander glances up. "Oh. Yeah."
"Good. Because otherwise you'd be in with me, and I kick."
Xander looks startled, then laughs a little, seems to mostly come out of his mood. "Couch is good."
Dom smiles slightly at him and heads to his room, pulling off his shirt as he goes. Halfway down the hall he calls back to Xander, "If I have nightmares, I'm holding you responsible."
"Fair enough," he hears Xander say, before he falls onto his bed and into a deep sleep.
Dom slip-slides out of unpleasant dreams and troubled sleep, an oily residue of vague anxiety and unease clinging to him even as he opens his eyes, blinks to the morning sun coming through his blinds. The sheets are tangled around his legs and he struggles briefly to free himself before getting to his feet and letting his head accustom itself to standing upright. Something is wrong, deeply wrong, with the world, but he can't remember what it is, just has a sense of disquiet and danger lodged in his gut and between his shoulder blades.
On his way to the bathroom to brush his teeth, he notices the spare blanket folded neatly at the bottom of the couch and blinks. Suddenly his vague sense of discomfiture has a very definite source, and he remembers an evil face pressed against the window, the blackness of an empty eye socket, the fangs on men in his backyard.
Vampires. It's a lot harder to believe when the sun is shining and everything is quiet, he thinks as he brushes the nasty taste out of his mouth.
When he pads into the kitchen, wearing only pajama bottoms, Xander is standing at his stove, cooking. His clothes look a lot more ragged in daylight and his hair is still sleep-mussed, flat in the back. He is barefoot.
Dom clears his throat. "Hey."
Xander turns, smiles. "Hey. Morning. You want eggs?"
Dom thinks for a second, feels out his stomach. Not the worst hangover ever. And he does kind of want eggs. "Yeah, okay." His voice is sleepy-rough, and he runs a hand through his hair, pulling up one of the stools at the island as Xander starts putting the contents of the frying pan onto two plates. Dom finds himself thinking about that crude hole in Xander's face, the withered edges of the eye socket, and he inadvertently winces when Xander turns, though there is only the ordinariness of the eye patch, black fabric and elastic. He wonders when the eye patch became ordinary.
Xander looks at him, expressionless. "You're thinking about my eye, aren't you?"
"No," Dom says, too quickly.
"I know it's fucked," Xander says, his voice still carefully neutral. "You don't have to pretend."
Dom looks down as Xander puts the plate of scrambled eggs in front of him, feeling awkward. "Well, we're all a little fucked," he says, finally. "I mean, look at my ears! That's just wrong, man." He looks up at Xander, grins apologetically.
Xander laughs, surprised. "Okay," he says, shaking his head a little. "Um... forks. Where?"
Dom points at a drawer and Xander pulls two out, slides one across to him.
"So..." Dom says. "Vampires. Still real?"
"'Fraid so," Xander says, sitting down across from him.
"Werewolves?" Dom asks, joking.
"Yup," Xander says absently, taking a bite. "My best friend dated one in high school."
Dom blinks at him. "Really?"
"Uh huh," Xander says. "Kind of annoying, actually, he had to lock himself up at the full moon and one of us would have to watch to make sure he didn't get out."
Dom swallows, then finally laughs, disbelievingly. "Was he really good at basketball?"
Xander looks up and grins. "Yeah, we called him teen wolf. Looked a lot like Michael J. Fox."
Dom shakes his head. "Bizarre." He takes another bite of eggs, considering. "Okay, um... zombies?"
"Yeah, if something raises the dead. We had a zombie cat for a couple of days."
"What'd you call him?"
"Ugly," Xander says, straight-faced.
Dom laughs. "Um... Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?"
"Those are characters," Xander says. "So no dice. Oh! Except once?" Xander is suddenly animated. "I met Dracula. Seriously."
"You met Dracula," Dom says skeptically.
"Yeah, it was crazy. Except then he made me his bug-eating minion," Xander says, his face clouding over again. He digs his fork into his eggs irritably.
Dom looks at him in his old shirt, stubble dark on his cheeks, scars and eye patch and grim determination. "That's hard to imagine," he says after a second.
Xander looks up, surprised and pleased. "Thanks. But it's really not."
The phone rings, interrupting, and Dom gets up to answer it, punching the talk button on the cordless. "Hello?"
"Hello, is Xander Harris there?" an American voice asks politely. Dom blinks, then holds the phone out to Xander. "It's for you," he says slowly.
Xander looks as confused as he feels, but takes the phone from him.
"Hello?" he says uneasily into the receiver. Then he seems to relax, his whole body breathing out in an annoyed sigh. "Andrew! How did you get this number? ... Geez, never trust a vampire, soul or not."
Dom stares at him. What?
"No, yeah, I'm fine," Xander says into the phone after a second. "I just... lost my cell phone a couple of days ago. You guys need to stop obsessing. ... No, I'm just... no, Andrew, I haven't met any celebrities."
Hey, what the hell? Dom looks at him and clears his throat, loudly. Xander grimaces and shakes his head, but Dom keeps glaring at him until he caves.
Xander sighs. "Well, okay," he says into the phone. "I did meet, uh, Dom Monaghan." He immediately winces and holds the phone out from his ear, making a face at Dom. Dom can hear what sounds like squealing coming from the receiver, and he tries to suppress a smirk. Xander listens for awhile. "Andrew.... Andrew. Get a grip on yourself...." Another long pause. "Andrew, you're not making any sense. Conspiracy? I don't...." Xander looks at Dom, brow furrowed in confusion. He covers the mouthpiece of the phone with his hand and says, "You aren't dating Elijah Wood, are you?"
Dom starts laughing, laughing so hard he can't get words out. He shakes his head 'no' at Xander, who shrugs apologetically and rolls his eyes, pointing at the phone.
"Okay, Andrew? I've gotta go. Tell Giles and everybody I'm fine, all right? All right.... Yeah.... Okay.... Andrew? That's cool, but I've gotta go. Okay. Bye, Andrew. Okay... *bye*, Andrew. Bye." He hangs up the phone quickly, punching at the "end" button and chucking the cordless down on the counter like it was burning his hands.
"Sorry," he says to Dom. "That was the reason I lost my phone, right there."
Dom smiles. "What'd you do with it?"
Xander's face darkens, gets closed off. He stares into space for a second. "I threw it into a crater," he says, finally, and then picks up their empty plates and turns, taking them to the sink.
The water from the tap seems louder than usual, and Dom doesn't know what to say.
Dom stares at Xander's back, the planes of it shifting as he washes the dishes, his body tense and movements angry. And as he stares, suddenly something in his brain clicks, two and two standing next to each other to abruptly make four. Crater, town a couple of hours away, abnormally high death rate, the only news story anyone could talk about for like a week. Last May.
"You're from Sunnydale," he blurts out. "That earthquake/sink-hole thing."
Xander's shoulders go very still. "Yeah," he says finally, on an exhale. He puts the last plate in the dish rack and leans with both hands on the edge of the sink, shoulders hunched.
Dom fidgets. "So I'm guessing it wasn't actually a freak geological occurrence?" he says to fill the long silence. "More evil?"
"Yeah," Xander says again. He turns abruptly. "Look, I should go." He looks strained, dark ring around his eye, lips pressed tightly together.
"No, c'mon..." Dom cuts himself off. After a second, he sighs. "You always get this touchy when your hometown comes up?"
Xander's fingers start tapping rapidly against the counter behind him. "I'm not... I just..." he looks away, tries to collect himself. "Look, man, you don't want to get into this. Trust me. I'll leave and you can go back to your life, and... yeah. Just forget about it."
"What if I don't want to forget about it?" Dom asks, his voice low.
"Then you'll probably end up dead," Xander says, looking Dom in the eye, face drawn. He holds the eye contact until Dom finally looks away, unnerved. "I should go," Xander says again, softly.
"Where?" Dom asks, looking back at him.
Xander shrugs. "Does it matter?"
"I could give you a ride," Dom says. "Where are you staying?"
Xander shrugs again, looking awkward. "I'm, uh, not sure yet."
"Well, where's your stuff?"
Xander looks down at himself wryly, then glances at Dom with a half-smile. "I'm currently wearing all my worldly possessions. Oh, except my flip-flops, which are in your living room." Dom's eyebrows go up. "Hey, the things you own, they end up owning you," Xander says ruefully. "I'm a free man."
Dom clears his throat. "That's very Tyler Durden of you, but... don't you want to do laundry?" he asks. "I could throw your clothes in the washer, you could take a shower. And then I could drive you wherever."
Xander rubs his forehead slowly, face troubled.
"You should take advantage of this," Dom says. "I don't offer to do just anyone's laundry, you know."
Xander plucks at the sleeve of his grimy shirt, makes a face. "Well... okay, yeah. Thanks."
"Not a problem," Dom says, and he steers Xander towards the bathroom.
"Just leave your stuff outside the door and I'll put it in the wash," Dom says, after explaining the funny tic of the shower head to Xander, and he goes to get dressed, throwing on a thrift store t-shirt and his favorite jeans.
When he scoops up Xander's clothes from outside the bathroom door - cargo pants, t-shirt, flannel shirt, boxers - he notices an extra heft to the trousers. Xander forgot to empty his pockets. In the laundry room Dom pulls out a shoebox and dumps the contents of the pockets into it, examines them. Snooping is wrong, he tells himself as he pokes through, looking at what's there.
One Leatherman, scuffed and battered, the knife edge obviously re-sharpened several times. There is a dark stain at the bottom of the knife that might be blood.
Two sharp sticks - stakes, Dom mentally corrects himself.
One toothbrush, blue.
One pair of extra boxers, plaid, rolled up. After a moment's hesitation, Dom throws them in the washer with the rest of Xander's things.
One ballpoint pen, black, with tooth-marks on the end.
One keychain with three keys on it. The keychain is one of those plastic ones that holds a photograph on each side, and contains two pictures obviously taken at one of those automated photo booths, maybe at a fair or something. On the first side, Xander and a brown-haired woman are squeezed into the booth together, making faces at the camera, laughing; on the other side, they're kissing. They look happy. Xander has both his eyes and is wearing a truly hideous, bright Hawaiian shirt. He is almost unrecognizable, cheerful and bright, a goofy grin on his face. Dom looks at the pictures for a long time before setting the keychain aside.
One United States passport, issued in June of 2003. Dom flips it open idly, notes that it belongs to one Harris, Alexander LaVelle, with an unfortunate photograph inside. Xander's birth date is in November of 1980, to Dom's surprise, making him just 23. That seems much too young. The emergency contact, penciled in on page seven, is a Rupert Giles, in London, and the "bearer's address in the United States" has been left blank. The stamps inside are from the UK, Germany, Italy, South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe - a long line of stamps, of visas, going on and on. The last is from Cairo, with Arabic Dom can't read. So the Africa thing wasn't a joke.
The final item is a wallet, brown leather, partially held together with duct tape where it has begun to tear. Dom flips it open gingerly, this final invasion of privacy. There is a California driver's license, issued to Alexander L. Harris, with an address in Sunnydale, California. There are various cards - credit, debit, library, Blockbuster, frequent flyer, voter registration (also with the address in Sunnydale). Health insurance through an organization called the "Council of Watchers." Some cash, and a list of names and phone numbers, scattered throughout the world. A note, in loopy girl's handwriting - "Xander, we love you! Be safe! Love, Dawn" - and, in another handwriting underneath, "Ditto for me. And don't do anything stupid. Love, Buffy." And pictures, which Dom saves for last. There is one of a much younger Xander, sitting on a picnic table with two girls, a blonde and a red-head. Xander is grinning, looking at the blonde, who is looking up at the camera and trying not to smile. The redhead is laughing, looking over at the two of them. The next picture is another one of the brown-haired girl from the keychain, except now her hair is blonde. She is sitting with her body facing away from the camera, and has just turned her head to look behind her, unaware the camera is there, face serious and open, unguarded. She is very pretty. The third picture is a posed school photograph of a lanky teenager with long brown hair, nose a little too big for her face, maybe fourteen or fifteen years old. And the fourth and final picture is of Xander and the key chain woman, younger, all dressed up, posed in front of a big "Class of '99" backdrop. School dance of some sort, it looks like. Neither of them is smiling, and they look awkward with each other, like their touching hands are posed, not natural. Not like the pictures in the keychain, where they are all easy casualness, all happiness.
Dom flips the pictures over to see if anything is written on the back, see who these girls are, but there isn't anything there. He fingers the glossy blankness, wondering which, if any of them, is Dawn or Buffy or any of the other names on the phone list, and then carefully replaces the pictures into the wallet, fastens it back up.
He hits the button to start the washing machine and goes to see if Xander's finished his shower yet.
Dom figures the only reason he wins the argument is that he has the advantage of being fully clothed while Xander is only wearing a towel.
Xander keeps folding his arms across his chest, folding and refolding them.
"So where were you going to go today if you hadn't been trapped in my house by vampires?" Dom asks.
"Oh, hey, you can just drop me off at the bus station," Xander says. He moves his hands as if to put them in his pockets, then remembers that the towel has no pockets and awkwardly re-crosses his arms across his chest.
"That's not," Dom points out, "actually what I asked." A bead of water is right in the hollow of Xander's collarbone, catching the light from the window. Dom tries not to watch as it moves downward across Xander's chest. Which is broad and muscular. As are his bare arms. "Where were you planning on going?"
Xander sighs and rubs the back of his neck, where his hair is still damp from the shower. The drop of water has moved lower, nearly to his navel and the towel below, slung low around his hips. His skin looks very tan against the clean white of the cotton, brown and strong. "Sunnydale," he says finally, his shoulders slumping. "The crater. I was going to go back."
"I'll take you," Dom says without hesitation.
"You really don't have to do that," Xander says, looking very tired.
"I know. But I'm doing it," Dom says. He hears the buzzer for the washing machine go off and moves toward the laundry room. "We'll go as soon as your clothes are dry."
Xander starts to say something, but Dom cuts him off. "Hey, I'm between projects." He does air-quotes on the "between projects" bit. "I'm bored. Please. Let me have something to do today."
Xander's hands don't know what to do with themselves again - he rubs his forehead, then eventually just sits heavily on the couch, letting his arms rest on the cushions beside him. "Okay," he says finally, defeated. "Okay."
They take the old VW bus Dom bought on eBay.
"eBay?" Xander says dubiously.
Dom shrugs. "Thought it was funny. And the thing runs."
And so they are driving across the California desert, sun hot on Dom's left arm where it is resting on the windowsill. Sunglasses on and windows down, an old mix tape Elijah had made playing loudly on the stereo. Not talking much - Xander seems tired and morose and Dom is leaving him alone, for once.
The distances of driving in America are still strange to Dom - how you can drive for hours and hit nothing at all except the vast expanse of highway, the long flat emptiness. How you can drive what would be the entire length of England and Scotland and not make it out of California.
Dom hears a tinny melody begin and turns down the music. "That's my mobile," he says. "Could you see who's calling?"
Xander reaches for the dashboard where Dom had tossed the phone. "Why does your cell play 'Hit Me, Baby, One More Time'?" he asks as he picks it up. Dom shrugs, staring with great interest at the road in front of him. "It's 'Kelly'," Xander says, looking at the display.
"Eh. Ignore it, then," Dom says. "I'm not in the mood."
"Yeah? Who's Kelly?" Xander asks.
"Osbourne," Dom answers.
Xander stares at him and snorts. "Seriously?"
Dom shrugs. "Yeah."
"You lead a surreal life," Xander says, looking back down at the phone and shaking his head.
It's Dom's turn to snort. "Yeah," he says. "It's my life that's surreal."
Xander starts pushing buttons on the phone, looking through the numbers Dom has stored.
"Orlando Bloom," Xander says. "My friend's little sister wants to marry that guy."
"Everyone's little sister wants to marry Orli," Dom says. "It's like a disease."
Xander's smiling. "And how is 'Orli' these days?"
"He's shooting... something or other," Dom says, answering despite the heavy irony of the question. He tries to keep his tone neutral. "I dunno. I haven't talked to him lately. I guess he's okay."
"Yeah," Xander says, quieter.
There's a pause. Finally Dom takes a breath and speaks quickly. "You ever feel like everyone's moving on with their lives but you? Like they all know what they're doing and have things together and you're just stuck?" His chest feels tight, empty, vulnerable, and he stares at the road with hot eyes.
"All the time," Xander says, quietly but with surprising fervor.
Dom glances at him quickly, but Xander is looking straight ahead and all Dom can see is profile and eye patch. And Xander's hands, twisting on the mobile, clutching hard. "Yeah," Dom says after a minute. They drive in silence for a minute before Dom turns the music back up, uncomfortable with the silence. Xander tosses the mobile back on the dashboard and slumps in his seat, resting his head against the window.
The VW hums along the empty highway.
They have to stop to fuel up about three-quarters of the way there. Dom stands in the sunshine pumping the gas while Xander goes inside to use the toilet. It is a dusty old service station in the middle of nowhere and Dom looks out over the scrubby desert, bleached out in the afternoon sun. He is beginning to feel a strange sense of unease and revulsion, coupled to a growing desire to go forward, keep driving. It feels like the dark parts of him, the parts he dislikes, are rising up - the shame and power he felt sneaking his dad's porn, the black hatred he had for Mike Harris as a teenager, the feeling of wanting to beat him till he bled. He shudders involuntarily just as Xander comes out, holding two Cokes and a bag of crisps.
"You okay?" Xander asks, his one good eye squinting in the sun. He hands Dom one of the Cokes.
"I feel... weird," Dom says, shaking his head. "It's probably nothing." He finishes dispensing the gas and swings the nozzle back to its holder.
"Half like you want to go forward and half like you want to run away screaming?" Xander asks matter-of-factly.
Dom stares at him. "Yeah."
"Feels like home," Xander says. Dom keeps staring until Xander elaborates. "That's the Hellmouth. We closed it last year, but there's still a little bit of the mystical energy or whatever left. It attracts evil, that's why our town was the way it was." He fixes Dom with a steady gaze. "Not everybody notices the feeling, but yeah, it's there."
"Weird," Dom says, beginning to feel uncomfortable. He goes around the vehicle to climb back into the driver's seat.
Xander slams shut his own door as Dom starts the engine.
"It's not far now," Xander says quietly. "We're almost there."
It is a big-ass crater. Landscape looks like it belongs on the moon, or a Shel Silverstein book - Where the Highway Ends. Road just runs straight into the enormous hole, cracking and buckling a bit before it gets there. The authorities have put up big caution signs, but otherwise, it's just a giant crater, out in the middle of nowhere. Where a town used to be.
"Scheisse," Dom mutters when he sees it. Xander stares straight ahead.
Dom pulls the VW bus onto the shoulder to park, more out of habit than necessity. It's not like parking in the middle of the road would block traffic or anything, but it feels better to be on the shoulder. Safer. He turns off the engine and they sit staring out the windshield at the desolate landscape. Xander looks pale, like he might be sick.
After awhile Xander gets out and walks off, looking like he needs to be by himself. Dom doesn't follow. Instead he pulls out his journal and sits on the edge of the crater, after making sure the ground is sturdy. He lets his legs dangle over the edge and leans back against his hands, his fingers in the sun-warmed dirt. It is a gorgeous day.
He starts to write, but suddenly doesn't know what to say. How best to sum up the events of the last 24 hours? "Met one-eyed man at bar. Spent night trapped by vampires. Eggs for breakfast."
Instead he writes, "More things in heaven and earth, Horatio. Weirdest night ever. Met Xander Harris." And then chews on his pen and doodles in the margins for awhile. After a bit he realizes he's doodling faces with fangs and a werewolf playing basketball.
Xander is walking around over to his right, throwing rocks harshly into the crater, his motions quick and angry. Dom watches the trajectory of the stones, listens for them to hit the bottom. It's a long time before he hears them faintly clatter against stone and earth and whatever else is down there. Bodies, probably, Dom thinks. Then he wishes he hadn't thought it.
He looks down at the drop below him and wonders if you could climb it, down into the bottom. Wonders if anyone has. It seems like you should be able to see rubble, the remains of houses and things, but it's just a bunch of debris, impossible to make anything out. Rocks and dirt and dust all muddled together.
Xander comes over after awhile, stands on the left so his good eye is facing Dom. He doesn't say anything, just looks into the crater as Dom squints up at him.
Finally, he says, "I think I know more dead people than live ones." He sits down beside Dom, resting his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. Dom can see his index finger rubbing hard at his temple, as if trying to massage out a headache. Xander continues, quietly, almost to himself. "I always think that coming back here will help, but it never does."
Dom fiddles with a pebble, looking down.
"I worry that I'm forgetting," Xander says, still so soft that Dom has to strain to hear. "They don't have gravestones, even, anymore. And no one else remembers. Sometimes I want to get their names tattooed all over me, so I can't forget."
Dom flicks the pebble into the crater thoughtfully, watches it tumble down the side. "Tell me," he says.
Xander's head comes up. "What?"
"Tell me about them. Start at the beginning," Dom says, flipping another pebble and watching its descent.
Xander doesn't say anything for a long time, looking straight ahead, his face haggard. "Jesse," he says, finally, letting out a long breath. "My best friend. Tenth grade. He got vamped and then I staked him." He is very controlled, but his voice is heavy and he speaks like someone ripping off a scab, morbid fascination and pain and the grim satisfaction of getting it off.
Dom takes hold of Xander's right hand and pulls it towards him. Xander stares, confused, as Dom uncaps a Sharpie with his teeth and writes "JESSE" in big letters across the back of Xander's hand. Xander looks at it for a long moment. The skin of his palm is warm under Dom's fingers, where he's holding it steady, and he can faintly feel Xander's pulse beating quickly under his thumb. Xander's hand is full of calluses, thick and rough.
Dom spits the marker's cap onto the ground beside him. "Who else?" he asks quietly, when Xander stares him in the face.
Xander blinks and looks down, thinking. After a second he looks up again. "Dr. Gregory. Our biology teacher. A praying mantis lady decapitated him."
Dom makes a face, sympathetic acknowledgement of icky-ness, and writes "Dr. Gregory" up Xander's right arm. "Who else?" he says.
The list goes on, the Sharpie ghosting across Xander's skin, marking him. When Dom has written names up and down the front and backs of both arms, he pauses, out of space.
"Take off your shirt," he says after a second. "Unless that's everyone."
Xander laughs humorlessly. "I'm not even finished with high school." He pulls his shirt off quickly, body twisting, and Dom keeps writing on his sun-warmed skin as the roll call continues.
By the time Xander's whole upper body is covered, Xander is shaking beneath Dom's hands. "Tony Harris," he says in a low voice. "My father. Jessica Harris. My mother." Dom writes Tony on Xander's left shoulder and Jessica on his right, carefully printing in the small space left. Xander takes a deep breath, shudders as Dom finishes the last 's' and stands poised for the next name.
"Who else?" Dom murmurs, again. He is kneeling behind Xander, a hand on each of his shoulders, fingers smeared with black ink. Dom's hands are steady, trying to be reassuring, putting slight, comforting pressure on Xander's shaking muscles.
"Anya," Xander says, his voice frayed and rough. "I was going to marry her. I..." he stops, abruptly, choking on the words.
Dom writes "Anya" in the last space remaining, just between Xander's shoulder blades, dead center in his back. The sun is setting on the other side of the crater, its light rosy and warm and in Dom's eyes.
"She's the last one," Xander says. "That's it." He looks down at himself, covered in black names, upper body full of them. He laughs unsteadily. "I look like the Vietnam Memorial."
"Nah, you're much sexier," Dom says, hands still on Xander's shoulders.
"Well, the Vietnam Memorial is not the sexiest of memorials," Xander says absently, picking up his shirt and sorting out the sleeves. "It's no Washington Monument."
Dom laughs and stands as the sun finally sinks completely below the horizon. Xander's head goes up sharply.
"Shit shit shit shit shit," Xander says, scrambling to his feet and pulling his shirt over his head haphazardly. He gets one arm stuck in his hurry, and struggles briefly before finding the right sleeve and shoving his hand through.
Dom looks around warily. "What?" Then it sinks in. Sunset. Vampires. Whatever the hell else is out here. "Shit," he says slowly. The desert around them is empty, but it's growing darker and colder by the second and that feeling of unease, the one that comes from somewhere outside himself, is rising.
"Get in the car!" Xander says fiercely, already moving, and Dom abruptly jerks alert and jogs to the driver's side, swinging himself up and in. Xander slams his own door shut as Dom shoves the key in the ignition, turning it quickly, his right hand poised to put the van in drive as soon as the engine starts. But nothing happens. He turns the key again. Nothing.
Dom closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and tries again.
Xander turns his head to look at him slowly, an expression of horror dawning on his face. "You're kidding me."
Dom groans and puts his head on the steering wheel. "Fuck."
"Mother of *God*," Xander says and throws his door open, going around to the front of the vehicle. Dom jumps out to follow him.
"Engine's in the back. You know anything about fixing cars?"
Xander groans and leans against the front of the van. "No. Do you?"
Dom shakes his head.
"eBay?!" Xander asks fiercely.
"Sorry," Dom says. "Look, I'll call Triple-A, no problem." He pulls out his mobile to start dialing.
Xander is looking around sharply, trying to keep watch in every direction at once. He pulls the stakes out of his pockets without looking, tossing one to Dom. Dom, caught off-guard, bobbles it, nearly dropping both the stake and the phone. "Hey!" he says. "Watch it!" Xander doesn't even look at him. "What'm I supposed to do with this, then?" Dom asks sharply.
"Pointy-end to heart," Xander says vaguely, his attention on the land around them. "Should've been paying attention," Dom hears him mutter to himself angrily. "Damnit, damnit, damnit."
Dom punches in the number, but when he tries to send, nothing happens. His phone says "No service." He tries pulling the antenna out, moving the phone around, but there's no change. He hits a few more buttons before giving up.
"Can't get a signal," Dom says, letting out an exasperated sigh.
"Fan-frickin'-tastic," Xander says. "We're stuck here." Dom leans against the front of the van next to him, holding the stake awkwardly in his right hand. Xander looks over and raises an eyebrow. With a small half-smile, he takes it from Dom and readjusts his grip. "Like this," he says, his hand hot on Dom's wrist.
"Yeah," Dom says. "Okay." Xander takes his hand away and leans back, his head against the front windshield of the vehicle. Dom feels very short, standing next to him like this.
"Fucking eBay," Xander says after a moment, expressionless. Dom can't tell if he's teasing or annoyed.
Dom shrugs, looking out into the growing darkness. "So what now?"
"Hell if I know," Xander says. "We don't even have any other weapons."
Dom glances over at him. "We could see what else is in the van. Tire iron, that sort of thing."
The back of the van holds an old blanket Dom had thrown in for a picnic one day, a lighter, some loose change, fast-food wrappers, an old newspaper, the spare tire and, finally, the promised tire iron. Xander weighs it in his hand as Dom absently flicks the lighter. Flame. No flame. Flame. No flame. Xander looks over at the sparking flint, quick and alert.
"Fire," he says. "That's it. Grab your stuff, I know where we're going."
Xander shoves the blanket into Dom's arms, picks up the tire iron and newspaper, and starts walking quickly away from the van, around the edge of the crater. "Where?" Dom asks, surprised. He quickly locks the van, which is probably pointless, but whatever, and starts walking after Xander.
"Hurry up," Xander tosses back over his shoulder, long legs striding ahead. Dom rolls his eyes and breaks into a jog until he catches up.
"So, what's this about fire?" Dom asks.
"Four ways to kill vampires," Xander says, without looking over. He is still scanning the area around them, moving his head from side to side to compensate for his missing eye. "Stake to heart. Beheading. Sunlight. And fire. Light them up and they'll burn right into dust."
"Oh," Dom says. It is getting very, very dark out here in the middle of nowhere, and stars are beginning to come out one by one. You can see a lot of them, away from Los Angeles like this, all bright and clear and somehow reassuring. In the dim starlight, the black writing on Xander's arms looks like trails of insects, like army ants marching across Africa on the Discovery channel, alien and somehow mesmerizing.
Dom almost trips over a scrubby bush he doesn't see in the gathering darkness.
Xander grabs his arm and steadies him. "Watch it."
Once Dom's found his feet again, he jerks his arm away from Xander's hand. "Where the hell are we going?" he asks. His voice sounds sharp and worried, even to himself, and very young. He hates that.
Xander puts his hands up in an apologetic, well-sorry-for-touching-you-I-was-just-trying-to-help kind of way that annoys Dom further. "Down to the beach," Xander says, voice still staccato and clipped. "There are grills and stuff there where we can get a fire going. And there's a sea-wall we can put our backs against. It's the best place I can think of to wait out the night."
"Fine," Dom says, as if he's been consulted.
They walk on in silence, feet tramping across the uneven earth.
The beach is empty and cold. Southern California or not, it is March, and the white of the breakers and the light color of the sand combine to look pale and remote, chill and bare. Dom shivers as the sand shifts under his feet and the waves roll in with a constant, rhythmic roar.
Xander looks up and down the beach with a strange look on his face, sad and tired underneath the watchfulness. After a minute he turns to the right and starts striding forward, Dom trailing behind.
They walk down the beach for about ten minutes before Xander seems to think it's a good place to stop, a fire pit in front of them and a wall of tumbled rocks behind them. Dom looks around nervously, but there is nothing to be seen but ocean and sky and sand and boulders, no monsters or vampires around. Still. He begins to wonder if Xander's obvious anxiety is really warranted.
Xander sets down the newspaper and uses some of the driftwood he's been picking up along the way to poke at the remains of the charcoal still in the pit. "Good enough," he says. "Okay. I'll get it started, can you find some more wood?"
Dom nods and, turning, starts poking along the beach, looking for anything flammable. "Keep alert," Xander calls after him and Dom waves dismissively back. Yeah, yeah, yeah. He sticks the stake in his pocket, where it pokes at him uncomfortably.
Without Xander in his sightline, the beach feels even lonelier and more unworldly, all ghostly starlight and dark shadows. When his arms are only half full of driftwood, he turns back, unwilling to walk farther down the beach alone, though at the same time he feels a bit of a wanker for this reluctance.
In the distance Xander is a dark figure silhouetted against the small blaze he's just started, bright and yellow and warm, licking up the newspaper. His back is to the rocks and his attention is focused on the fire, feeding larger sticks into it.
Suddenly Dom notices a black shadow on the rocks behind Xander, creeping slowly towards him. As it detaches itself from one rock to climb down lower, Dom can make out that it seems to be human shaped, and that it is most definitely going after Xander. It is nearly to the sand, and he catches the glint of fang and misshapen face briefly.
His mind incongruously flashes to Gollum skulking towards Frodo and Sam, stealthy in the night, before the threat overwhelms him and he starts forward. Not conscious of making any kind of decision as to what to do, but with adrenaline pumping, Dom finds himself dropping the firewood and sprinting toward the menace, vaguely aware that he is yelling and pulling the stake from his pocket.
The next few seconds are a blur. He sees Xander and the vampire both whip around to face him, both equally startled. Then he is on the vamp, tackling it to the ground and stabbing with the stake, his heart pumping so hard he doesn't quite know what he thinks he's doing. The stake makes contact, goes into the vamp's chest with a grisly wet impact, but nothing at all happens except that the vamp grunts and then starts laughing. The stake protrudes ridiculously from its chest, and he thinks about how odd that is as the vamp flips him over onto the ground easily, with no more effort than if Dom were a beetle. Its teeth flash down at him, heading for his neck, when suddenly the vamp is jerked backwards, one fang slicing off-kilter into Dom's shoulder and then tearing down his arm as the vampire is dragged away. He feels a hot, sticky warmth coasting along his skin before he is aware of any pain, and looks down to see dark blood, thick and viscous and alarming, before it is suddenly coated with feathery ash.
Xander is standing over him, breathing hard, face white. "Shit," he says, staring at Dom's arm. "Are you all... well, no, you're not. Um. Okay. Stay there."
He moves out of Dom's sightline and Dom is left staring up at the stars, sand gritty against the back of his neck. There's Orion, he thinks dreamily, and shivers. He feels cold. And suddenly his arm is beginning to hurt, badly, a sharp, bright pain radiating down from his shoulder.
Xander is back, kneeling beside him with the blanket in his hands, using his knife to rip strips off. The fabric tears unevenly, trailing thread ragged along the edges. Xander's face is still ashen and drawn.
"Can you sit up?" he asks Dom.
Dom thinks about it for a moment. Experimentally, he gets his left arm, the uninjured one, underneath him, and pushes himself to a sitting position.
"Good," Xander says. The pain is making Dom's head much clearer, the way jumping into very cold water does, and he winces as Xander uses the blanket to mop at the wound.
"Ow," Dom says, sucking air in through his teeth.
"Sorry," Xander says, his attention focused on Dom's arm. "It's not deep, that's good. I mean, it sliced all the way down to your elbow, but it's not deep. You probably need stitches, but I can stop the bleeding now."
Xander begins to wrap the gash expertly in the strips of blanket, putting pressure on it and pushing the edges together. It fucking hurts.
Dom grits his teeth and tries to breathe evenly through his nose. He watches black drops of blood drip onto the sand, soaking in and making a dark stain.
"That was a stupid thing to do," Xander says in a low voice, as he ties the makeshift bandage in place. His hands are long-fingered and white in the starlight, moving dexterously on the strips of cloth. He finishes the knot and looks up at Dom, eye dark. "Thanks."
Dom nods and looks down. "Well, I'm known for doing stupid things," he says weakly.
Xander half-smiles and inspects the bandage. "How's that feel?" he asks.
Dom shrugs, then winces as his shoulder moves. "Hurts like hell."
Xander smiles wryly. "You'll get used to it," he says, and gets up to tend the fire.
Dom stands beside Xander and watches him fiddle with the fire, adding larger sticks. He works easily, seems to know what he's doing.
"You go camping a lot?" Dom asks. Xander glances at him, forehead furrowed. "You're good at that," Dom explains, nodding to the fire.
Xander shrugs. "Got used to doing it in Africa. Though I'm a little more used to using cow dung than sticks."
Dom raises his eyebrows and smiles slightly. They fall into silence as Xander goes back to working on the fire, though Dom is continually listening for sounds of menace, of anyone coming. He hears a rustling somewhere behind them and turns quickly. There is nothing there. He feels jumpy and light-headed and tense, all his muscles poised for action, for danger.
His arm hurts horribly, throbbing along with his pulse. He thinks about how annoyed his agent will be if that scars, and again about how much the damn thing hurts. Sharp bright pain like broken glass. He thinks about what kind of germs could be in a vampire's mouth, and starts wondering how long it takes for gangrene to set in. His arm is throbbing and he is cold and tired and thirsty and miserable and trapped in the middle of nowhere, and maybe eventually going to lose an arm, or just bleed to death out here on the fucking California beach in the middle of March, if something worse doesn't get him first.
Is it a splinter, then? he suddenly hears Billy's voice say in his head - Billy's teasing voice, soft Scottish vowels and consonants sliding together in a comfortable jumble. The knot of unhappiness in his stomach tightens sharply, into homesickness and longing and loss and something else he doesn't want to think about. He feels like he might puke right there on the beach, maybe right where his blood has soaked into the sand, just go ahead and make it a Monaghan bodily fluids festival already. He tries to concentrate on breathing steadily.
Xander glances over at him absently, the firelight playing warm and red on his face, and then stares. "Are you okay? You look like death."
Dom sort of nods vaguely, and then regrets the movement. His head is fuzzy, disconnected, and there is a rushing sound in his ears, coming up to drown out everything around him.
Xander, looking alarmed, reaches out to grab his arm. "Hey, man. Hey. You better sit down." He eases Dom down onto the sand, and Dom goes without protest, blackness coming up at the edges of his vision, only vaguely conscious of strong hands holding him steady. Breathe, he tells himself. Breathe.
Somehow he is sitting on the sand, concentrating hard on just remaining conscious, on hearing and seeing and getting himself under control. Breathe in. Breathe out. Focus. After a long minute the roaring in his ears begins to recede slowly, and the center of his vision, where things are clear and he can see the fire and the sand, grows larger, expanding back into the blackness threatening to take him over.
He gradually becomes aware that Xander's hand is on his shoulder, slowly gripping and releasing, a comforting kneading as he gets his bearings back.
"You're okay," Xander is murmuring, though his face is white and worried. "You're okay."
Dom finally nods, breathing out in a long exhale. "Yeah," he says shakily. He still feels tired and light-headed, but the immediate threat of passing out is over.
"You lost a lot of blood," Xander says, troubled. "You should have something to eat, or at least some water. If we had any of those things."
Dom manages a faint smile and shrugs. His arm starts up hurting again at the movement, jagged and sharp. "How 'bout some aspirin?" he says weakly.
There is a sound of rustling from the top of the rocks, and both their heads come around quickly to look, staring into the darkness, tense and alert. Nothing happens for several minutes, while they scan where the sound had come from. After a bit, Xander finally says, "I think it was just the wind."
Dom looks at him, tense and wary. "I don't think I like vampires much," he says. The understatement of the century.
Xander smiles wearily. "Me neither."
It is getting colder and colder, and Dom begins to shiver, wishing he had put a jacket on over his t-shirt. Goose bumps are springing up all over his arms.
Xander looks at him, that sharp, noticing gaze, and raises an eyebrow. "Should've known better than to just wear a t-shirt in March," he says wryly, taking off his flannel shirt. "Southern California or not." Without asking, he casually slings the shirt around Dom's shoulders, his arms reaching around Dom's body to help him get the sleeve over his injured arm. He smells of Sharpie, sharp and chemical, and of sweat, and Dom's laundry detergent, and the slight tang of ash and blood. His hands have drying brown stains, Dom's blood, smudged on the knuckles and under the fingernails, where the blanket didn't quite wipe them clean. The shirt is way too big for Dom, and its fabric is worn and soft and warm from Xander's body.
Xander sits back and looks around again warily, looking for threats. "Look," he says, "we'll sit back to back so nothing can sneak up on us, okay? Lean on me and, for Pete's sake, say something if you start feeling like you're going to pass out."
Dom nods, and Xander moves to sit with his back to Dom's, the fire on Dom's right. Xander's back is warm and solid and large, sturdy enough so that Dom can lean back heavily without Xander moving. After a few minutes, he relaxes into it, stops holding himself up and leans back completely, resting his head on the back of Xander's neck.
The fire crackles, with the occasional loud pop, and sparks flutter upwards, bright fading spots of light. Behind the crackling is the darker, lower roll of the ocean - all outdoorsy noises, solid and comforting. Dom can't hear traffic or music or any of the ambient city sounds he's used to, and he can feel some muscle in his back finally relax, soften. The firelight is red, and he is warm with Xander's body against his back and Xander's shirt around him and the fire beside him.
"Tell me a story," he says drowsily. He feels Xander's quiet laugh before he hears it.
"What kind of story?" Xander asks.
"A happy story," Dom says. He is looking up at the sky, watching the sparks fade into the stars, watching ash fly upwards and float away in the breeze. The pain in his arm is a dull red ache he wants to be able to ignore. Wants to focus on something else.
"I don't think I know any happy stories," Xander says quietly. Dom feels him take a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"Tell me about Africa, then," Dom says, warm and sleepy. "Tell me about Cairo."
Xander doesn't say anything for a little bit. Resting against Xander's back, Dom feels him breathing, Dom's own body rising and falling with Xander's inhales and exhales. He focuses on breathing in sync with Xander, the swell and shrink of lungs in tandem. It feels comforting.
"Cairo," Xander says, finally. "Cairo was... okay, actually. I didn't run into any vamps or demons or anything in Cairo."
"Why not?" Dom asks.
"I wasn't looking for them," Xander says. "That was after... well, I was on vacation. Sort of. Taking a break."
"Oh," Dom says.
"You could see the pyramids from my hotel," Xander says quietly, almost to himself. "From the roof. You could look out across the city and see the pyramids in the distance, looming over the buildings. If it was really hazy, you almost couldn't see them at all, just the shadows of them coming out of the dust and pollution, but there they were. The frickin' pyramids. But if you looked down you'd just see garbage on the roofs of houses, and poverty, and dark alleys, and people crowded together. The TV in my hotel room was held together with duct tape, but there were two guys in every elevator to push the floor button for you, because people are cheaper than technology there. And everything's brown, dusty, sandy, except right on the river, where it's green, suddenly. This surprising green, when you're not expecting it. Like you'd forgotten what green was, what growing things looked like, and there they were again. "
Dom lets himself fall into Xander's voice, into Cairo. His eyes slip closed and his head feels disconnected from his body, like he's floating above them, looking down. Seeing his light hair mixing with Xander's dark, his smaller body nestled against Xander's larger one.
"Did you go to the pyramids?" he asks.
"Yeah," Xander says. "I went out to them one day, with all the rest of the tourists. They're huge, right, really impressive. Look just like in pictures. And you can go inside, and you figure that's going to be amazing, right? I mean, the pyramids are made of blocks of stone that are taller than I am, how could the inside not be fantastic? And so you go inside, up these long narrow slanting corridors, all the way to the very center of the pyramid. Imagining them bringing the Pharaoh's body up this way, imagining high priests and mummies and hieroglyphics and all that stuff, like in your 7th grade world history class. Thinking how unbelievable it is that you're about to get to go inside the secret room inside these pyramids."
Xander pauses. "And?" Dom asks, finally.
"It was an empty room," Xander says. "Nothing there. Just a gray, empty room."
The fire pops loudly in the silence. Xander shifts, in the process nearly knocking Dom sideways. Dom struggles to stay upright, moves so that his head rests between Xander's shoulder blades.
"So you go back down again and get your picture taken on a camel," Xander finishes, his voice dull and blank. "That's what Cairo's like."
"Oh," Dom says.
His arm is hurting again, throbbing along with his breaths. It is getting colder still. He thinks about the vampire's teeth again, how it tore through his arm, and stares into the darkness, listens for anything out there. The beach is quiet, and it unnerves him. Xander has stopped talking. "How did you start fighting evil, anyway?" Dom asks finally, his desire to break the silence overcoming his desire for Xander not to tell any more stories.
Xander sighs, his breath soft. "There was this girl," he says. He says it like it's the beginning of an inevitable story. Like that's the way everything starts, like how else would you get into fighting evil if there weren't a girl? Dom's tired enough that this seems to make sense. "Buffy," Xander continues.
"You were in love with her?" Dom asks.
"Yeah," Xander says, voice somehow sweet, longing. "Yeah, I was in love with her."
"Are you still?" Dom asks.
"No," Xander says, on an exhale. After a moment, he continues, "Yes. I don't know." He pauses again. "These days... it's almost the kind of love that feels like hate, sometimes. Or something. I don't know. Anyway, it's not the same."
"Yeah," Dom says. "Things never stay the same, though, do they?"
"No," Xander says. He suddenly tenses at a rustle in the bushes beside them, but when nothing appears he relaxes again, muscles shifting against Dom's back. "And then with vampires and everything," he continues, as if there had been no interruption, "once you've seen them, it's hard to un-see them. And so you fight them, because what else are you supposed to do? So you fight them until you lose everything, and even then, you can't stop."
"Yeah," Dom says. He takes a breath. "There are things you can't go back from." He thinks of Billy's lips, the sweet curve of them, of things that can't be undone, that you keep doing even though you know they'll end everything.
They fall into silence, the fire dying down beside them. Dom lets his eyes close again, shutting out the stars and ocean and the menacing dark outside the circle of firelight. He concentrates on the warmth of Xander's body and of the fire, the smell of salt and wood smoke, concentrating on these physical sensations to block out anything else. And he finally slips into sleep, lulled by the sound of the waves.
He dozes fitfully, his head pillowed on Xander's back. At some point in the night he wakes slightly to find Xander moving him so that he's lying on his left side, face towards the fire. Xander moves his hand lightly over the bandage on Dom's arm, checking it, making sure the jostling hadn't upset it. His touch is so delicate that Dom barely feels it, a whisper of pressure, gentle. Dom slips back into unconsciousness as Xander again lies back to back with him, warm and watchful and awake, weapon at the ready.
He dreams of pain in his arm, of Billy's eyes turning yellow and his teeth growing long and sharp. He dreams of Billy's face alien and monstrous, turned on him in anger, of Billy's fangs ripping down his arm. It is cold, cold, cold, and his blood is pooling red on the ice, frozen puddles of blood.
He wakes shivering, freezing and terribly thirsty, tears wet on his face. His arm hurts, fuck it, it hurts, it hurts, and he's cold, and he wants water, and the sand is uneven and uncomfortable under his body.
Xander's arm comes over his chest, rubbing briskly to warm him up, and his body slowly stills, stops its shaking. "Hey," Xander murmurs. "Hey. Don't go into shock on me. You're okay. Stay with me. Stay warm. You're okay." Dom makes his breathing slow again, feels the impersonal warmth of Xander's body seeping into his own as he quiets.
And he suddenly wishes the one holding him were Billy, or Viggo or Elijah or Orli or Sean or anyone, really, any of those who have left him behind. And somehow it seems that this is their fault, that if it weren't for them he wouldn't be out here with this sad stranger, injured and bleeding at a disaster site, fearing he won't last the night.
In aching lonely sadness, he falls back to sleep.
Dom wakes up to pale morning light, the cool of dawn. Xander is no longer lying behind him, and he rolls onto his back, the sand shifting beneath him. He finds himself blinking up at a perfect blue sky, a sunny day that seems strangely cheerful after the terror of the night before. Birds are chirping, for heaven's sake. This is an odd place.
The fire is long out, cold ashes black in the pit, and the remains of the blanket, still stained with blood, are draped over him. He is still wearing Xander's shirt, but Xander is nowhere to be seen.
He pushes himself into a sitting position, blinking as his head feels like it's about to float right off his body. After a moment his vision clears, but his head still throbs, his arm is killing him, and he generally feels like shit, muscles stiff and aching. He would kill for a glass of water to drink. Several glasses of water. Perhaps a small lake.
He looks up and down the empty beach, all white sand and blue water, idyllic and Southern Californian, like something out of a Beach Boys song. He automatically gauges the waves for their surfing potential, makes a mental note to tell Billy about it. Then his stomach sinks, remembering, and he pushes that out of his mind.
Dom pulls Xander's shirt half-off to look at his bandage, and can see that dark red blood has soaked through to the outside, already looking old and dried. He feels vaguely dizzy at the sight, and quickly moves his arm back into the shirt, wincing at the motion.
He starts at a rustling in the bushes, but when he looks it's just Xander coming back, in the final stages of zipping his fly.
"Hey," Xander says. "You're awake."
"Yeah," Dom says. His throat is rough and dry, and he runs a hand through his hair self-consciously. His scalp is gritty with sand.
"How do you feel?" Xander asks. "Because we're going to have to try to walk to get help. You up to it?"
"Yeah," Dom says, and gets to his feet. He sways slightly as he stands, feeling unbalanced, but once he's up he feels all right. Thirsty. In pain. Light-headed. But okay.
Xander looks at him closely and nods a bit, smiling slightly. "Good," he says. "And hey, maybe the van'll start this morning. You never know."
After Dom takes his own trip to the bushes and Xander makes sure the fire's out, they are ready to start their trek back around the crater, picking their way carefully around brush and rocks. Dom starts sweating quickly, despite the cool of the morning, and he keeps his head down, focusing on where he's placing his feet.
When they reach the highway and the van, Xander takes the keys from Dom and tries again to start it. Dom sits in the shadow of the vehicle, trying to get his head to stop spinning. After a minute or two of no results, Xander slides out the open door to sit beside Dom.
"Yeah, it's dead. You sure you can keep going?" Xander asks. Dom nods determinedly. He will make it. "Okay," Xander says, sounding unsure. "Tell me when you need to stop, though, okay? You're still... we really need to get to a hospital."
"I'm fine," Dom gets out, trying to sound solid and reassuring. Xander looks at him quietly for a minute, and uneasily adjusts his eye patch. "We can go now. I'm ready," Dom says, getting to his feet and using the van to steady himself.
They leave everything with the van except the stakes and their wallets, and begin to walk down the highway, sun reflecting off the pavement. Since it only leads to nowhere, to a crater and desolation, they walk down the center of the road, the yellow line between them. Dom feels like the survivor of an apocalypse, on an empty road, part of the remains of a dead civilization. He has the crazy feeling that the crater is a looming mouth at their backs, about to swallow everything. Evil. He has to stop himself from glancing back.
The following two hours are the longest of Dom's life. He puts one foot in front of the other for miles, feeling that he might just keel over and die at any moment. Occasionally a bit of wind picks up and blows dust into his eyes. He keeps sweating. He is thirstier than he has ever been, the inside of his mouth dry and raspy. He feels unfocused and detached, head fuzzy and unclear. Xander walks beside him, and out of the corner of his eye Dom can see Xander watching him closely. He keeps focusing just on the next step, watching his feet, getting into a rhythm of walking.
It is getting almost hot as the sun rises, and Dom ends up squinting in the bright sunshine as they walk east. His head begins to ache at the strong light reflecting off the desolate landscape, the barren desert where almost nothing grows. He thinks that now he knows how Frodo must have felt, trekking across Mordor, legs about to give out. After having this thought he manages to distract himself from the agony of walking by pretending he is Frodo, with Xander as Sam at his side, heading to Mount Doom. The distraction lasts for about five minutes before he again starts thinking about the pain that's in his arm and growing in his feet and side.
It seems like they have been walking for years when Xander says, "Hey, a gas station." Dom looks up and sees it on the horizon, the dusty Shell sign one of the most welcome sights of his life. His legs are near giving out, his head spinning in an alarming way.
Xander perks up, starts walking a little faster. Dom presses to keep up, but staggers and nearly falls. Xander stops, alarmed.
"I'm fine," Dom says, catching himself and standing still, breathing heavily.
"You're swaying," Xander says, startled.
"No," Dom says. "I'm good, I can make it."
Xander looks at him for a second, and then matter-of-factly puts his arm around Dom's shoulders, supporting him. "Lean on me, doofus," he murmurs, and starts moving forward.
It's easier with Xander half-carrying him, Xander's arm strong and steady around him, but even so Dom is in a cold sweat by the time they reach the service station, barely able to help move himself at all. Xander sets him down on a bench outside the garage and crouches down in front of him. He looks alarmed, his face drawn.
"You're completely white," Xander says. "Let me look at your arm."
Dom tries to shrug off the flannel shirt, but his arm hurts too much when he moves it, so Xander has to reach around and help him. Together they pull the sleeve away to show the bandage. There are spots of bright red soaking through alongside the darker, dried blood of the night before.
"God," Xander says. "It opened up again. Um, okay, sit here. I'll be right back." Xander disappears into the convenience store and Dom leans his head back against the wall behind him, focusing on breathing evenly, trying to get his body under control. He feels like he might throw up. And the sun is in his eyes.
Swallowing hard and trying to focus on something other than the pain, Dom looks off into the distance, back towards the crater. It's too far away to see now, but he feels an uncomfortable prickling on the back of his neck, dread in the pit of his stomach. He tries to blame it on blood loss.
After what feels like a lifetime, Xander comes back out of the building, holding a couple of bottles of Gatorade. He pulls off the cap of the blue one and sits beside Dom, putting the bottle carefully into Dom's left hand. "Drink that," he says, watching Dom with a worried expression.
Dom puts the bottle to his mouth and begins to gulp the liquid. The cool wet on his tongue is the best thing he has ever felt, no question. He had intended to drink slowly, savor it, but finds himself gulping it down so quickly he can't even taste it. He drinks so fast the Gatorade spills out around the corners of his mouth, dribbling down his chin and onto his shirt.
"Slowly," Xander says softly. Dom gasps for breath and keeps drinking. "I talked to the guy working. His grandson's going into town, so he's going to take us to the hospital. And they're going to go tow the van."
Dom drains the last few drops of the bottle, breathing hard, and nods. Xander opens a bottle of orange Gatorade and hands it over to him next.
Dom is halfway through the second bottle before he slows down, lowers the drink to let himself breathe, wiping his mouth awkwardly on the sleeve of his left arm.
The door of the convenience store opens again and an old man, maybe in his seventies, steps outside. He is a small man, bent slightly and wearing a John Deere baseball cap that shades his heavily wrinkled face. He has a laconic air about him, moving deliberately into the sunlight and putting his hands in his pockets. He regards the clear, cloudless sky.
"Gonna storm soon," he says after a moment. The hair on the back of Dom's neck prickles again, that itchy sensation coming back around his skin.
Xander makes a faint noise that is almost a laugh. "Really," he says politely. The old man turns to look at him, and Dom is startled at how dark the man's eyes are in contrast to his white hair, how sharp and alert. The man looks at Xander seriously.
"You see if it don't," he says. "Sunnydale," he says. "She's restless."
Xander looks at the old man steadily, face wary. Dom shivers.
The old man looks at the sky again and spits thoughtfully on the dusty ground. Then he turns back to Xander. "You were from there," he says. It's not a question. Xander nods slowly. "You look it," the man says coolly. Dom gets the feeling he isn't just talking about the eye patch.
All of a sudden Dom feels like the world is shaking, moving under him. He thinks it's just him, his lightheadedness making him unbalanced, until he notices the alarmed start Xander gives and the way one of the gas nozzles falls right out of its holder. The old man doesn't move or change expression.
After a few seconds the shaking ends. "Sunnydale," the old man says again. "She don't give her people up easy." He spits again. Xander's face is white and his jaw is clenched. "Here comes Ronnie with the truck," the man says. He nods at Dom and walks back inside.
"Was that an earthquake?" Dom asks, blinking.
Xander nods slowly, still staring into the distance. He doesn't shift when a beat up blue pick-up truck pulls up in front of them and a skinny boy of about 18 gets out. The boy's hair is bright red and his face is freckled, but his eyes are the same surprising dark brown as the old man's. He blinks nervously and shoves his hands into his pockets.
Dom nudges Xander. "Let's go," he says.
Xander blinks, snapping out of it, and gives Ronnie a forced smile. "Hey," he says. "Thanks for the ride."
Ronnie nods awkwardly and shrugs. "Yeah," he says.
Xander helps Dom stand up and moves toward the door of the car. He pauses for a moment when they're both upright. "Look," he says softly to Dom. When Dom follows his gaze to the horizon, towards Sunnydale, he stops short. The sky is still perfectly blue and cloudless above them, but in the distance heavy black clouds have come out of nowhere, and Dom can see rain pouring down from them. The clouds are moving towards them quickly enough that Dom can see it happening, and the wind begins to pick up, gusting in Dom's face. He stares at Xander, but Xander doesn't look back at him, just helps him up into the cab of the truck and slides in beside him.
"How're you doing?" Xander asks, closing the door.
"All right, I guess," Dom says. "Better, a bit."
Xander hands him a pack of peanut butter crackers. "You should probably eat something." Dom takes them as Ronnie gets into the driver's seat and starts the truck.
Ronnie doesn't seem to be a talker, and Xander just stares morosely out the window as they drive, his jaw clenching and unclenching. Dom leans his head back against the seat, gritting his teeth when the truck bumps and jars his arm.
After only five minutes or so of driving, the storm catches up to them, the sky darkening and fat raindrops falling heavily onto the windshield. The rain soon becomes so heavy and visibility so bad that Ronnie has to slow way down, the windshield wipers frantically thumping back and forth with a rhythm that makes Dom's head ache. There is a flash of lightning off to their left. Ronnie shifts nervously in his seat.
Dom can see Xander's clenched fist drumming unconsciously against the door, but the rain is so loud he can't hear the thump of it. The trunk bumps again, jostling Dom's injured arm against Xander's side, and Dom yelps without meaning to.
Xander glances over at him, looking worried again. "You gonna hold up? We're almost there."
Dom nods and grits his teeth again. They are coming up on buildings, a small town. Through the pouring rain he sees a sign with a big H on it as Ronnie takes the exit.
"Almost there," Xander says again. The rain hits the windshield like bullets, the wind blowing it in sheets, and it is so dark it looks like twilight, though it's not yet noon.
The rain is still pouring down when Ronnie pulls the truck into the ambulance bay of the small local hospital. He looks over at them, his strange dark eyes shadowed in the dim light.
"I'll prob'ly be done with my errands by this afternoon. You want I should come back and get you?"
Dom looks warily over at Xander, but Xander shrugs. "Yeah, that'd be great. Thanks." He opens the truck's door and slides out, reaching back to help Dom down. Dom's head starts spinning again at the movement, and he almost falls when he reaches the pavement, arm aching and legs weak. The rain pours down on them, immediately plastering Dom's hair to his forehead, drops hitting hard against his bare head. Xander props him up with one arm and reaches around to shut the door with the other, Dom sagging heavily against his shoulder.
When Ronnie has roared off in the truck and Xander is shuffling Dom towards the emergency room door, Dom says (loudly so that he can be heard over the rain), "You really want him to come back for us?"
"Why not?" says Xander, half-yelling. Rain is dripping off his chin, and his eye patch is sodden. "We have to go back for the van anyway."
"He freaks me out," Dom says, using his good arm to wipe the rain out of his eyes. There is a clap of thunder so loud that it feels like the ground is shaking. It goes on and on, the whole way to the door, rumbling so Dom feels it in his gut.
"Ronnie's okay," Xander shouts when the thunder finally stops. He hits the handicapped button that makes the door to the emergency room swing open and moves them through quickly, out of the rain and into shining white linoleum.
Xander talks to the doctor like he's done this a thousand times before. Apparently, he and Dom had gotten stranded, and then when they were horsing around on the beach Dom had gotten thrown into a sharp piece of shell that had cut his arm. The doctor looks like she doesn't much believe that, but just raises her eyebrows and stitches Dom up, putting in an IV for his dehydration.
So now he's wearing a hospital gown and propped up in bed with the TV on, enjoying some of the hospital's fine cuisine and finer painkillers and feeling not half bad. Xander is slumped in the plastic chair beside him. The rain is still coming down outside as hard as ever, thumping with an unnerving ferocity at the window, and Dom thinks there might even be some hail.
He turns from his hospital pudding to say something about it to Xander, but finds Xander dead asleep in the chair, his head pillowed at an awkward angle on his shoulder. His hair is still damp on his forehead, and he's back to wearing the flannel shirt Dom had worn all night, a bit of blood smeared down by the hem. There're dark circles under his eyes (well, under one eye and the eye patch), and Dom thinks that he probably didn't sleep all night, watching for vampires. He wonders if Xander killed any others after Dom had fallen asleep.
He briefly considers throwing the maraschino cherry that came on top of the pudding at Xander's head, but thinks better of it.
At a whirring sound from the bedside table, Dom turns his head to see his mobile phone vibrating away. He answers it without thinking.
"'Lo?" He keeps his voice low so he doesn't wake Xander.
"Dom!" comes Elijah's voice, sounding surprised that he had answered. "Where've you been? Your phone's been all, 'This customer is unavailable.'"
"Really?" Dom says. "Weird."
"Right, weird," Elijah says dryly. "Some kind of technical glitch, I bet."
"Guess so," says Dom. "Look, Lij, this isn't really a good...."
"Dom," Elijah says. "Shut it. You've been avoiding us ever since the Oscars, man, and we all know it. What the hell is going on with you?"
"I don't know what you mean," Dom says evenly.
"Fuck it, Dominic, you know exactly what I mean. I hate it when you fucking do this."
"Look, Lij, I'm fine, all right? Everything's fine. Except that I'm in the hospital with a big gash in my arm at the moment and their vanilla pudding is really fucking terrible."
Elijah sounds confused, then concerned. "You're what? What happened?"
"I got attacked by vampires," Dom says.
"Fuck you, Monaghan," Elijah says, annoyed.
"What? It's the truth," Dom says. "Look, Lij. I'm fine. Okay? I don't want to talk, I don't need to share my feelings, I'm fine."
Elijah sighs and pauses. After a second his voice gets lower, sadder. "Dom. Did something happen with Billy?"
Dom stares at the receiver for a second, then without saying anything he very deliberately flips the phone closed and rings off.
While he's still looking at the display, knuckles clenched white around the mobile, it begins to vibrate again, Elijah's name in the window. Without thinking he chucks the phone across the room at the waste paper bin.
It thuds off the rim and skitters across the floor toward Xander, skidding to a stop just by his left foot.
"Nice shot," Xander says, his eye open and watching the phone as it continues vibrating, whirring against the floor's sickly yellow tile. He must have woken up sometime in the proceedings, though he is still slumped in the chair and hasn't moved except to straighten his head out of its awkward angle.
"Rubbish bins are harder to hit than gigantic craters," Dom says sharply, still angry. He hopes that Xander was woken by the mobile going across the room and not by the conversation preceding it.
"True," Xander says mildly. He leans down and scoops up the phone, glancing at the display. "Elijah Wood wants to talk to you."
"Elijah Wood can fuck off and mind his own business," Dom mutters. He stares very hard at the TV screen, where Bob Barker is about to get a contestant to spin the giant wheel. Bob Barker is such a fucker.
Out of the corner of his eye, Dom can see that Xander is looking thoughtfully at the phone, turning it between his fingers. Rain is lashing hard against the windows, and the fluorescent lights overhead give an eerie look to the room against the darkness of the half-daylight outside.
"So what happened with you and Pippin?" Xander asks quietly, without looking up.
Dom freezes, unblinking. The young naval officer spinning the wheel on TV has just gone over a dollar. Under his sailor hat, his clean shaven face falls, and he is escorted off the stage.
"Don't be ridiculous, Xander," Dom says finally. He keeps his voice patient and even, like he's talking to a child. "Pippin is a fictional character. Nothing could happen between me and a fictional character."
Xander looks at him steadily until Dom is forced to look away from the TV.
"What?" Dom asks defensively.
Xander sighs. "So what happened with you and Billy Boyd?"
"Nothing," Dom says. He looks down at his food and starts picking at the remains of his green beans. He can feel Xander still watching him. Outside there is a flash of lightning followed almost immediately by a clap of thunder, incredibly loud. The storm is still right on top of them.
"Sure," Xander says. "Nothing's a bitch. I always hang up on my friends when nothing's happened."
Dom doesn't say anything.
Xander kind of half-shrugs and moves his attention to the TV screen. "I really hate Bob Barker."
"I don't think he's speaking to me," Dom says quickly, all in one breath. Like ripping off a band-aid, quick and fierce. It stings in the same way.
"Bob Barker?" Xander asks. Dom laughs humorlessly, surprised, and looks over to see that the corner of Xander's mouth is curling up. Funny guy.
"Well, he isn't either," Dom says. He goes back to looking at the dull, rubbery green of his beans. He rolls one over with his fork, then starts mashing it down with the tines. "Pippin. Billy. Isn't speaking to me."
"Why's that?" Xander asks, his voice neutral. He is still looking at the TV screen as if deeply fascinated by the actual price of the camper on display. This makes things easier to say.
"Because," Dom says. "Because of the Oscars."
"Those six hour broadcasts make me cranky, too," says Xander.
"Yeah," Dom says. "And the musical numbers." He has effectively turned his green bean into paste and so moves on to the remains of his chicken breast.
"I'm guessing it wasn't actually the musical numbers," Xander says. "Unless you were forcing by a demon to sing out all your deepest feelings or something."
Dom glances up at him.
Xander shrugs. "It happens."
Dom looks back down and uses the edge of his fork to shred the little bit of chicken left. He begins to arrange the pieces in a pattern in the middle of the green bean mush. A smiley face, first.
"It was afterwards," Dom says quietly, carefully moving the chicken into shape. "There was... I was pretty drunk. And happy. I was really, really happy, you know? We'd just won the Oscar - all the Oscars, clean sweep, and it was like... everything felt unreal. Like, I wouldn't have been surprised if I'd grown wings and started flying around. Like a fucking dream and you'd wake up tomorrow and none of it would have happened."
The chicken-and-green-bean smiley face smirks up at him from the tray. He scowls at it and starts rearranging the mouth into a frown.
"So I was being an idiot, because it wasn't like it was really happening." He moves some of the pieces so they make angry eyebrows on the frowning face. Xander is being quiet now, looking down at the phone he's still holding and fiddling idly with its antenna.
"And I kissed him," Dom continues, quickly and almost under his breath. "Billy. And then we, uh, exchanged words, rather heatedly, and we haven't spoken since, the end."
"Oh," Xander says.
"Yeah," Dom says. His head aches, badly, and his arm, and pretty much everywhere, actually. "I need some more fucking painkillers."
Xander looks around for the button that calls the nurse, and presses it. Dom glares down at the evil frowning face he's created, and then crushes it into the green bean goo until it is unrecognizable. From the corner of his eye, he can see Xander watching him.
"Stop staring at me," he says crossly.
Xander shrugs and looks away. "Sorry."
The rain is still pounding down outside, and the back of Dom's neck is itching in that creepy way it's been doing on and off ever since the trip to Sunnydale. "Is it ever going to stop fucking raining?"
Xander's face is drawn and worried as he looks out the window at the still raging storm. "I don't know," he says.
"Well, you're not much good, are you?" Dom says. It's mostly meant to be just kidding around, but he's still angry and upset, and it comes out sounding harsh, like he means it. Xander darkens.
"Not much," he says grimly. He slouches further in his chair.
Dom sighs and rubs his forehead with his uninjured hand. Xander is staring into space looking bleak, and tired, and old. Dom feels bad.
"Look, I didn't... do you want the rest of my pudding?" Dom asks, holding it out to him awkwardly and immediately feeling stupid.
Xander looks at him dubiously, but Dom keeps offering it, feeling like a kindergartener trying to buy love with snacks. After a second Xander smiles unexpectedly, a quick flash of a grin. "Okay," he says.
"It's really pretty lousy pudding," Dom says apologetically as Xander takes it. But Xander digs in with a relish.
"Hey, it's sugar," he says as the nurse walks in.
"Do you need something?" the nurse asks.
Xander gestures at Dom with his head. "He wants more painkillers."
"Yeah, the good stuff," Dom says, giving her his cheekiest grin. She tries not to smile back as she moves to adjust his IV.
She glances at Xander once she's given Dom the medication. "You know, it's really supposed to be only family back here. Hospital policy."
"Oh, we're brothers," Xander lies smoothly. She raises her eyebrows like she doesn't believe it for a second. Probably the accents.
"Half-brothers," Dom jumps in. "Raised a continent apart but connected by the ties of brotherly love. We're practically like the same person." He gives her the cheeky grin again.
She laughs and shakes her head. "Okay."
When she leaves, Dom grabs the TV remote. "There must be something else on. This is America, after all." Xander smiles.
They spend the next half hour watching Jerry Springer in comfortable silence.
Just after the credits begin to roll on The Jerry Springer Show, the power abruptly goes out, cutting off the TV and leaving them in near total darkness. The eerie, almost brown light of the storm outside is the only illumination, and the hospital is oddly silent without the noises of the machines. The rain seems impossibly loud.
Dom holds his breath for the fifteen or twenty seconds it takes for the emergency generators to kick in with a chorus of beeping. The ghostly green back-up lights blink on at the same time, making the room even more weird and unearthly. Lightning flashes when Dom glances over at Xander.
"Great," Xander says, somehow sounding resigned and tense at the same time.
"Has this storm thing happened to you before?" Dom asks.
Xander looks out the window, face shadowed. "No, this is new."
"Fantastic," Dom mutters.
After a second Dom realizes that the whirring he's hearing is his phone, vibrating in Xander's hand. He makes a face. "Turn that thing off..." he starts, then stares as Xander, apparently without thinking, answers it.
"Dominic Monaghan's phone," Xander says casually, like he does this all the time. "May I ask who's calling?" He listens for a moment, then holds the phone out to Dom. "It's Hannah Wood, and she says if you hang up on her she'll hunt you down and kick you in the nuts. Again."
Dom scowls. "She's never kicked me in the nuts," he tells Xander, for some reason feeling that explanation is necessary. Xander hands him the phone. "What, brat?" Dom says into it.
"Who the hell was that?" Hannah asks.
"Just... nobody," Dom says. "Nothing." Xander raises his eyebrows and Dom makes a face at him.
"Um, okay," Hannah says. "Look, Lij says..."
Dom groans. "If this is about Billy, I really don't want to fucking hear it."
Hannah pauses, taken aback. "What?"
Dom internally punches himself in the face. "Huh?"
"What about Billy?" Hannah asks, her voice guarded.
Playing dumb is usually the best strategy in these situations. "What? I didn't say anything about Billy," Dom says.
Hannah snorts. "Okay."
Dom rolls his head from side to side, trying to work some of the kinks out of his neck. "So why did you call? Because I have things to do."
Hannah lets out an annoyed breath of air. "Yeah, whatever. I don't know what's going on with you guys, but my brother said you said something about the hospital and now he thinks you might've been serious, but you won't answer his calls so I'm supposed to ask you if you're dying or something, because that'd be really inconvenient and therefore just like you."
"I just got stitches," Dom says. "I'm not dying."
"Well, that's a relief," Hannah says dryly. There is another loud clap of thunder from outside, and the emergency lights flicker briefly.
"Yeah," Dom says. "Hey, do me a favor? Turn on the Weather Channel and see if there's anything about a freak storm."
"Um, okay," she says, and he can hear her walking, then the TV clicking on.
"Well?" he asks.
"It's showing North Dakota at the moment, instant gratification boy."
"Who cares about fucking North Dakota?"
"I don't know," Hannah says dismissively. "So who's the guy, Dom?"
Dom pauses. "None of your business."
"Loser. Wait, okay, it's flipped to California. Yeah, there's a weird storm like two hours from here. Near that disaster site from last summer. They're saying... hold on... okay, yeah, the storm just came out of nowhere a couple of hours ago and now it's just hovering over this town a little ways away from that crater. It's all weird 'cause it's really small and totally localized, and they have no idea what's going on or how long it's going to last."
"Well, that's helpful," Dom says. "It's only over that town?"
"Yeah," Hannah says. "Why the hell do you want to know, anyway?"
Dom looks out the window at the pouring rain. "We're kind of stuck in the middle of it at the moment."
"Um, the fuck? Why are you all the way out there?"
"Divine intervention," Dom says.
"Uh huh," says Hannah. There is another bright flash of lightning, almost simultaneous with an insanely loud clap of thunder. As soon as the rumbling dies down and lets the phone become audible again, Hannah says, "Dude, was that the storm?"
"Yeah," Dom says. "It's pretty bad. Look, Hannah, I better go. Talk to you later, okay?" He hangs up before she can say anything else.
Xander is standing now, facing the window, looking worriedly at the rain pouring down from the black clouds outside.
"What do we do?" Dom asks Xander's back. Xander doesn't turn around.
"No idea. Get the van fixed and get the hell out of here, I guess."
"Do you think it'll let us?" Dom asks.
"I hope so," Xander says softly. He doesn't sound very sure.
Within an hour of Dom's release from the hospital that afternoon, Ronnie has returned to pick them up, his old blue truck idling innocuously in the ambulance bay. On seeing it out there in the gloom, that feeling of dread returns to Dom's stomach with a vengeance, the back of his neck again prickling. So he hesitates in the hospital doorway as Xander darts into the rain, and when Xander turns, pulling the door of the truck open, Dom is still hanging back under the overhang.
Xander stares at him, rain dripping down his face. "C'mon!" he yells over the pounding storm. Dom can see Ronnie's dark shape in the driver's side of the truck, but can't make out his features.
"I don't know about this," Dom yells back.
Xander, already almost soaked to the skin, makes a 'what the hell?' gesture and takes a few steps back towards Dom. "C'mon, seriously!"
Dom hesitates, then finally follows Xander into the rain and up into the cab of the truck, Xander's clothes squelching unpleasantly with wet as they settle in. Ronnie glances over at them, his face blank and pale. His freckles stand out strongly against the white of his skin, and in the dim light his eyes are shadowed. Dom shivers as Ronnie puts the truck in gear.
They drive back down the highway in silence, towards the service station and their van. The storm stays with them the whole way.
When they are about halfway there, Dom hears an ominous rumbling coming from behind them. "What's that?" he asks.
Xander looks over his shoulder and Ronnie hits the gas, suddenly accelerating.
"Mudslide," Xander says, with the grim surety of a native Californian. Dom follows Xander's gaze backwards to see the slope on the right side of the road behind them begin to move.
"Fuck," Dom says, as he watches it pick up speed.
Ronnie clenches his jaw and drives faster.
Dom clenches the dashboard as they speed forward. His eyes are focused on the place where the slope running parallel to the road flattens out and the ground is level, the highway no longer at risk from the collapsing hillside. He can see the exact spot they have to reach to get out of the way of the mudslide, and he leans forward, urging the truck forward mentally. Come on, comeon, c'mon, c'mon....
The truck pulls out of range, onto the safer road beyond the slope, and Dom leans back, closing his eyes and sighing in relief. But as they all start to relax (Ronnie's white knuckles loosening a little on the wheel), the truck hits a patch of water and begins to hydroplane, losing contact with the surface of the road. They skid to the left and Ronnie, his face pale and panicked, fights with the wheel, overcorrecting. The truck goes into a spin, swiveling around 180 degrees before it finally slows to a stop, facing back towards the sliding mud. Dom finds himself clutching Xander's arm like some big girl's blouse.
"Sorry," he says, embarrassed, prying his fingers from their death grip as his heart pounds with adrenaline. Xander doesn't even notice, staring out the windshield in disbelief. Dom looks up, then gapes at the enormity of the mudslide now in front of them.
"Whoa," Xander says. The road is completely buried in feet of mud, absolutely unsurpassable. It is a brown mess of thick wet dirt and debris, trees swept away and half-sticking out of the muck. It's practically impossible to even see where the road had been.
"Holy shit," Ronnie says softly.
"Fucking hell," Dom agrees.
"Sweet merciful Zeus," Xander adds.
Dom snorts involuntarily. He looks at Xander. "What, are you keeping it clean for the network?"
Xander shrugs sheepishly.
"That's done it," Ronnie mutters. "No getting out now." The rain hammers down on the windshield, not letting up for an instant. Ronnie takes a deep breath, seeming to try to settle himself, and Dom momentarily feels sympathy for him. The kid is young, after all, even if he is a little off.
After a long moment, Ronnie sighs, straightens his shoulders and carefully puts the truck into reverse, turning it around cautiously so it is again facing the direction of the service station and the Sunnydale crater.
At that moment there is a bright flash of light right next to them and a simultaneous crack of thunder so loud that Dom has the momentary sense that the world has come to an end. His vision is full of spots and his ears echo wildly, disorienting him. As he looks up, blinking, he sees that a tree directly to their right has been struck by lightning, and that its flaming trunk, split in two, is teetering and about to fall on top of them.
The truck skids as Ronnie hits the gas, and they barely get out from under the enormous fiery tree before it falls across the road behind them, splashing and sizzling in the water.
"Fuck!" Dom says. Ronnie's freckles are dark against his white face as he drives and Dom can see his hands shaking. Dom feels like he'll never catch his breath. His heart is pounding.
There is another lightning strike close by and a loud clap of thunder, and they all wince. Xander's face is tight and drawn, the dim watery light playing across his features. "This is my fault," Xander mutters, his fist clenched and tapping nervously against his thigh. "My fault. It's after me. I'm putting everyone in danger."
Dom rolls his eyes. "How is it your fault?" he asks, willing his voice to be steady. Xander doesn't answer. "What, should we throw you overboard and hope the storm stops?" Dom asks, trying desperately to lighten the mood. Xander stares at him. "Like Jonah," Dom clarifies. Xander still stares. "In the Bible?" Dom says. Xander raises a dubious eyebrow. Dom shrugs. "Okay, so it was in Master and Commander, your point?" Xander looks like that's more like it and Dom makes a face at him. "I think I'd prefer to get out of this without anyone dying, if that's okay with you," Dom says.
"It's okay with me," Xander says grimly. "I don't know if it's okay with whatever's doing this." The rain pounds down, almost obscuring the road from view, making even the yellow lines difficult to see.
"Sunnydale," Ronnie says hollowly from the driver's seat.
Dom turns to him, exasperated. "Okay, it's a place. It's not a fucking serial killer." Ronnie's jaw clenches slightly, but he doesn't say anything, just glances at Dom edgily from the corner of his dark eye. Dom gets that prickling at the back of his neck again, his skin crawling.
He looks down, sees Xander's hand continuing to tap nervously. The names Dom wrote the day before are still there in the black permanent marker, faded but clearly legible. Dom can see them on the back of Xander's hand, on his wrists, poking out from his sleeves and his collar, letters that Dom knows must still be all over Xander's upper body. The fading somehow makes it look like the ink has bonded with Xander's skin, soaked down to deeper layers, become part of him. They look like old tattoos, like birthmarks, like the markings on an animal's fur or a bird's feathers. Like they've always been there.
Xander suddenly looks almost unearthly, eye patch and dark circles and white face and these black markings on his neck and arms, all shadows and pale skin and dark hair, a ghostly look about him. Dom stares, dread suddenly seizing him.
Then Xander glances at him with a quick half-smile and he's just Xander again, a guy in a ripped flannel shirt who jokes about musicals and likes bad pudding and daytime television.
It suddenly occurs to Dom that there's no reason ghosts wouldn't like daytime television, and he scoots away from Xander a little bit on the seat, settling himself further away. Except then he realizes he's just scooted himself closer to Ronnie, and unhappily moves so he is sitting exactly equidistant from each of them.
This day really couldn't suck any more.
The storm follows them all the way back to the service station, possibly even increasing in intensity. When they run through the pouring rain into the convenience store, Ronnie's grandfather just looks at them, expressionless under his John Deere cap.
"Has it been like this here the whole time we've been gone?" Xander gasps out, wiping water from his eyes. Dom runs his hand through his sopping hair.
"Nope" the grandfather says. "Was sunny up until about ten minutes ago."
"Fan-frickin'-tastic," Xander mutters.
"Mudslide," Ronnie says to his grandfather. "Up the road a ways. Wiped the whole highway out about fifteen minutes back. No way to get through."
The old man levels his impassive gaze on Xander and Dom. Dom feels suddenly extremely bedraggled, soaking wet and muddy, his shirt torn.
"We'll have to call 911," Xander says. "They can probably get us out. Don't they do helicopter rescues and things?"
"Can't get a helicopter through this," the grandfather says slowly, looking out at the thick black clouds and the high winds whipping the trees. "Unless the storm lets up. You really think the storm will let up?" He fixes Xander with his sober dark eyes.
Xander looks like he's starting to panic. "There's got to be some way to get out of here."
The old man twists his mouth. "I don't think you'll be leaving tonight, boyo." He almost looks sorry for them for a moment. "She's seen to that."
Dom doesn't ask what he means by 'she'.
Xander slumps down into the plastic chair beside the counter of the store, putting his head in his hands. He seems to be thinking very hard.
Dom turns to the old man. "Um, my van is still broken down out by the crater."
"Oh, Ronnie can bring the tow truck 'round and we'll take a look," the old man says.
"Thanks," Dom says.
"You oughta go with him, show him where it is," the old man continues. He turns to his grandson. "Ronnie, go get the truck."
"In this storm?" Dom asks.
The old man glances over at Xander, whose head is still in his hands. "If you don't take your friend there, I don't reckon the storm'll be a problem."
Dom looks uneasily at Xander, who seems to be muttering to himself. "I guess," Dom says slowly. Ronnie has already gone for the tow truck. "Xander? You think that's a good idea?"
Xander looks up, startled. His eye is red around the edges and he looks strained. "Huh? Oh. I don't think it matters," he says. "Go ahead. I'll just... stay here."
Dom hesitates, but when Ronnie pulls the truck around, he finds himself climbing into the passenger seat, glancing worriedly back at Xander as he settles himself on the ripped vinyl. He can see Xander faintly through the glass, still slumped in the chair. As he watches, Xander's head comes up abruptly, as though the old man has just said something to him, and his mouth moves, saying something in response. But then Ronnie puts the truck in gear, so the last thing Dom sees is Xander frowning and ducking his head unhappily.
Driving toward the crater, the dimness of the raging storm only lasts for about ten minutes before they abruptly reach the end of the black clouds and emerge into sunshine and blue sky, a bizarrely perfect California day. Without the beating of the rain it suddenly seems extremely quiet, and Dom squints in the bright light, wishing he had his sunglasses. Everything looks washed out and yellow, the desert reflecting the setting sun, apparently a completely average end to a completely average day. Disbelieving, Dom glances behind them and finds himself looking back into another world, the wind and dark rain coming down in sheets beyond the edge of the clouds, a sharp dividing line between storm and not-storm.
The storm does not follow Dom and Ronnie. They reach the crater unscathed, the van exactly where Dom and Xander had left it, and slide out of the cab of the truck into sun and dry heat. Ronnie moves jerkily, in a hurry to leave, occasionally shooting frightened looks at the empty crater. He starts to hook the tow truck up to the van as Dom leans against the side of the truck, looking thoughtfully towards the crater.
It looks innocuous enough, silent and dusty and inert, just as before. But after a moment Dom notices a shimmering in the air above it, a wavering like the heat waves above a furnace, though the day is not nearly hot enough to cause them. He takes a step or two towards the crater, peering at it.
"Watch it!" Ronnie says sharply. When Dom looks at him he catches a wild, terrified look on Ronnie's face, a look of absolute alarm, before Ronnie seems to force it down, visibly calming himself. "Stay back," Ronnie says more quietly, but with an intensity that Dom finds unnerving. Dom steps back as Ronnie turns to fumble with the mechanism of the truck.
After a second of watching Ronnie, who is blushing bright red, Dom turns back to the crater. As he turns, he catches a glimpse of something out of the corner of his eye, something strange. Like the top of a castle, or a mosque, all peaks and minarets and towers. A temple or something, with naked women and snakes carved in stone on the sides, the whole structure coming up out of the ground. He swings his head around to look directly, but it's gone. Maybe he never saw it in the first place, maybe he's just imagining things.
He thought he saw Xander in front of it, a heavier Xander with two eyes, wearing a ripped blue shirt and with blood on his face.
This whole place is making him lose it. He tries to shake it off, but can't stop staring out at the crater, straining his eyes to see anything in those rippling heat waves. At the same time his skin is crawling.
"C'mon!" Ronnie calls sharply, already in the cab of the truck. Dom hadn't even noticed that Ronnie had finished hooking the van up, but quickly jogs around to swing himself in. Ronnie hits the accelerator sharply before Dom even has his door closed, throwing Dom back against the seat and making him struggle to shut the door as they drive away. Dom's stupid eBay van bumps along behind them.
On their return, Dom pushes open the door to the convenience store, hurrying to get out of the driving rain, water dripping into his eyes.
"It's been raining here the whole time?" he asks Xander as he gets the door shut behind him. Xander is still slumped in the chair beside the counter, looking tired and drained.
Xander nods. "Where are Ronnie and his grandfather?" he asks.
Dom looks out towards the garage adjoining the Shell station. "They're working on the van. They say they can get it fixed pretty easily."
"Oh," Xander says vaguely. "Good."
Dom stands awkwardly for a minute before shrugging and starting to look casually at the magazines in the rack beside the candy bars. He sees one with Viggo on the cover and picks it up, walking back towards Xander to hop up and sit on the counter beside him. "Guess we're stuck here until the rain lets up," Dom says, trying to be light. He flips to the article and starts skimming for good Viggo quotes to mock. When he glances at Xander, he sees him staring out into the storm.
Xander clears his throat. "Did the sun set yet? It's been so dark I can't tell."
"Oh," Dom says. "Um. Yeah, it did. Or it was just about to, when we were driving back." The sky outside still has an eerie green tint to it, but is growing blacker and the rain lashes hard against the windows. Dom can see the branches of the trees outside whipping around fiercely in the wind, which howls ominously around the corners of the Shell station. Lightning strikes nearby with a ferocious clap of thunder, and Dom winces.
"The phone line's dead," Xander says. "I tried it earlier. The pay phone and their phone. Is your cell getting reception?"
Dom pulls out his phone and looks at it. "No."
Xander's hand is resting on his knee, Jesse still written across the back of it in faded black ink. Xander stares down at it, tapping his fingers idly. Dom watches Xander's muscles play under the name of his dead friend, rippling and catching the harsh fluorescence of the lights above them.
As Dom stares at Xander's hand, the power goes out abruptly, leaving them in pitch blackness. "Fuck," Dom mutters into the darkness. It takes a bit for his eyes to adjust, before he can see the pale of Xander's face and the glinting half circles of his fingernails, reflecting in the faint light from outside.
"This storm isn't going to end," Xander says quietly.
Dom doesn't say anything. The wind howls deeply outside, moaning loudly against the building. The storm is building in intensity, the wind picking up, a feeling of electricity in the air. All Dom's hairs are standing on end. He shudders.
Xander stands up suddenly. His eye is shadowed, his teeth glinting white, his face resolute. "I have to give it what it wants," he says. He walks past Dom to the door, looking outside through the glass.
"Wait, what?" Dom says, jumping up to follow him. "What?"
"I've got to go out there," Xander says. He turns to face Dom, looking unearthly with the storm raging behind him. Lightning flashes, illuminating him for a brief second, his face caught like a photograph and impressed in Dom's brain.
Xander does not look as frightened as Dom had thought he was. His face is white and lined, but he looks strong and sure of what he's doing. In fact, there is almost a fierce joy in his features, anticipation and excitement. His eye is alight, his face set and intense.
"Are you crazy?" Dom chokes out. Behind Xander he sees a huge branch from a tree break off with the force of the wind and go flying into the blackness.
"No," Xander says. He reaches into his pocket, fumbles around trying to find something. After a second he pulls out a stake, which he hands to Dom, and a crumpled piece of paper. "These are phone numbers," he says. He passes the paper to Dom, their fingers brushing. Xander points to the first name and number on the list. "If I don't come back, I want you to call this number. Ask for Giles. Tell him what happened. He'll know what to do. If you can't get ahold of him, then call the next number. That's Willow. Okay?"
"Xander...," Dom starts.
"This is what I have to do," Xander interrupts. He turns back to face the storm again. With his back to Dom he says, wistfully, "I saved the world once. Did I tell you?"
"No," Dom says, his voice cracking.
"Yeah," Xander says. "That was an okay day." He looks down at his hand again, at the names coming out of his shirt sleeves. After a moment's hesitation, Xander pulls off his shirts, first the flannel one and then the t-shirt underneath. His torso is still covered with the names of the dead, every inch of him marked with that faded black ink, clinging resolutely to his skin. Larry, Dom sees on his upper arm, and Kendra. "We're going," Xander says quietly, more to himself than Dom. "All of us. We're going back."
"Xander," Dom says quickly. "You can't do this. It's insane, you can't just go out there. We'll figure something out, okay, it'll stop, it's not...."
Xander turns back to face Dom, making Dom abruptly break off in his rant. Xander is smiling slightly, as though he didn't hear any of it. "It'll be okay," Xander says, that weird look of decision and exhilaration still on his face. "Really."
Dom shakes his head. "No, it's not...." There is another loud clap of thunder, and a gust of wind throws rain hard against the plate glass window. "Xander, this is stupid. Seriously. Don't go out there. You'll die."
Xander just smiles again, his face tinged with a little sadness this time. "'Bye, Dom," he says. "Sorry I dragged you into all this."
Dom looks at him, desperately willing him to stay. And after a second he thinks, what the hell, and because he is a stupid guy who does stupid things, he grabs Xander by the back of the neck, stands on his toes, and kisses him, hard, right on the lips.
It's pretty awkward. He gets part of Xander's chin at first, and then their teeth clash, but after a second he finds the right angle and it's good, just right. Fierce and desperate and oddly sweet, and Xander tastes like salt and fear and kind of like he needs to brush his teeth.
Xander pulls back first, straightening up and giving Dom an odd look. His hand comes up to touch his face, rubbing thoughtfully just underneath his mouth. "Oh," he says softly. Then, just as Dom's stomach starts to sink, he smiles. Grins, more like, a sudden quick grin that reaches his eyes. "Oh," he says again.
Dom smiles back cautiously.
"You know?" Xander says thoughtfully, still rubbing his chin. "I think Pippin will call you." And he turns for the door, swinging it open so the rain begins to blow in.
He looks back at Dom over his shoulder one more time, his face again showing that fierce joy and determination, hunches his shoulders, and walks resolutely into the storm.
Dom stands in the doorway and helplessly watches him go, rain glinting on his shoulders, names in darkly scrawled lines across his white body, hair wet and plastered down on his head. He watches until Xander disappears around a curve of the road, illuminated one last time by a flash of lightning, his body small and dark in the distance, disappearing into the night and the storm.
Seven minutes later the rain abruptly stops.
Dom stands in the doorway to the garage, glowering. Ronnie and his grandfather are at work on the van, heads bent close together over the engine, oblivious to everything that's just happened. It is strangely quiet without the rain, and Dom's ears ring in the empty silence. He stands staring at them until the grandfather finally glances up.
"What did you tell him?" Dom asks shortly.
The grandfather ignores him. "This here's got a problem with the starter," he says, wiping his hands on a greasy rag. "We've nearly got it fixed, though."
Dom makes a dismissive motion with his hand. "What did you tell him?" he asks, his voice tight and low and controlled, as angry as he's ever been.
The old man rubs his forehead and tips his hat up, resigned. "I didn't tell him nothing but what he knew already," he says. He straightens the John Deere cap again, looking away.
"Yeah, I bet," Dom mutters. "We have to call the police," he says, more loudly. "Xander's disappeared."
"I know," the old man says. "The storm stopped, didn't it?"
"Yes," Dom says, glaring. "It did." He turns and leaves, slamming the door behind him. He checks his cell phone for service, but it isn't getting a signal. The phones back in the store are also still out, so he ends up spending an hour cooling his heels, looking out into the darkness towards the crater and pacing back and forth. The painkillers the hospital gave him are beginning to wear off, and the arm the vampire bit is aching.
Finally when he glances down at his cell, there's a signal and he nearly falls all over himself fumbling for the paper Xander gave him. With shaky hands, he dials the number at the top of the list, the one for Rupert Giles.
The phone rings for a long time before it's answered by a sleep-roughened but posh English voice. Even though it's very, very early in the morning in the UK, this man doesn't sound sleepy. He sounds alert and worried, like middle of the night calls are both routine and terrifying.
"Yes?" the man asks.
"I'm looking for Rupert Giles. I'm a friend of Xander's," Dom says.
"This is Giles," the man says. "What's happened?"
And Dom tells him the whole story, from the beginning, punctuated by a few intelligent questions from Giles to clarify details.
"And so he's disappeared?" Giles asks, at the end.
"Yeah," Dom says. "Just walked into the storm."
"All right," Giles says. There is a silence. Dom gets the impression that Giles is thinking very hard. "One of our operatives will be out there shortly. Willow. We'll see if she can locate him, and maybe learn more from the site. After that we'll take whatever other measures are necessary."
"The road's washed out," Dom says. "There's no way to get here at the moment."
"That won't be a problem," Giles says vaguely.
"Um, okay," Dom says. He pauses, then asks quietly, "Is Xander dead?"
After a long silence, Giles sighs. "I hope not."
"Me too," Dom says.
Dom is walking back and forth outside the service station, staring into the darkness, when he hears a faint popping sound behind him. He turns quickly, alarmed, and sees a red-haired woman standing where no one had been seconds before. She looks worried.
"You're Dom, right?" she says. "I'm Willow."
"How did you get here?" Dom asks, looking around for signs of some kind of transportation.
"Teleported," Willow says dismissively. "So you saw Xander disappear? Giles told me what happened."
"Uh... yeah," Dom says, still trying to get his head around 'teleported'. He points. "He walked right in that direction. Towards the crater. You, um... teleport?"
"Only in emergencies," Willow says, turning to look where Xander had gone.
Dom stares at her. "So you're... like, magic or something."
"Uh huh," Willow says. She starts taking some weird looking stuff out of her pockets. "I'm a witch."
Dom kind of laughs. "Uh... but not a wicked witch, right?"
Willow winces a little, kneeling to the ground to start arranging her supplies. "Not at the moment, no."
Dom stares at her, a little unnerved. He doesn't quite trust this strange girl, arranging bizarre items in some kind of ritual pattern on the ground outside a gas station. "What're you doing?" Dom asks. At his question she finally looks at him directly, giving him her full attention. She smiles a little, reassuringly.
"A locator spell," she says. "It'll make a light that'll lead us right to Xander." She looks away again, down at the leaves in her hand. "If he's in this dimension. And alive," she qualifies softly.
Dom clears his throat awkwardly. "What if he's not?" he asks.
Willow frowns, looking upset. "Then it'd just kind of... fizzle. But it won't. We'll find him. We always do." She begins to draw a pattern in the dirt with a stick.
Dom walks closer to watch, standing just behind her left shoulder. "You've known Xander for a long time?"
"Forever," Willow says. "We've been best friends since kindergarten, practically. And Xander doesn't... we've been through a lot of stuff together. Like, a *lot*. And Xander always makes it. He'll be fine." She draws a line with a stick a little more firmly than she ought to, and the stick breaks. "Damnit!" she says, and throws the broken stick aside. She rubs her forehead nervously. "How did Xander seem, when you saw him?" she asks Dom with forced casualness.
Dom is taken aback. "What do you mean?"
"He... he wasn't talking to anyone, much. We haven't really talked - you know, like, more-than-five-minutes talked - in months. I worry about him."
Dom pauses to think. "He seemed... I don't know. Sad. And quiet. Sure of himself, but sad. I don't know."
"Yeah," Willow says. Dom sees her wipe at her eyes quickly, though she still has her back to him. She stands up. "Okay. Let's cast this thing."
"Do you know why that storm was after Xander?" Dom asks, interrupting.
Willow sighs. "No. Giles is working on it, but it's never happened to us before, so we aren't sure."
"That old guy in there," Dom says, "says it's because Xander's a Sunnydale native. Says Sunnydale wants him back."
Willow turns and looks at Dom carefully. "Really."
"Yeah, but you're a native too, and it's not storming, so...."
Willow looks thoughtful. "Actually, I'm not. Not like Xander is. My parents moved to Sunnydale when I was a baby. But Xander's a total townie. His parents were born in Sunnydale, and I think his grandparents and... huh." She shrugs. "I'll tell Giles. We'll see if it means anything."
Dom nods. Willow turns back around to her spell materials. "Okay," she says. "Here goes nothing." She starts muttering words in another language under her breath. Dom watches as the materials on the ground begin to glow, the glow then rising up as several blue spheres of light.
And then the spheres sputter and die. Fizzle out.
"Okay," Willow says. Dom sees her taking deep breaths. "I'm going to try it again. I might have done it wrong."
She does it again. The light rises in exactly the same way, and then in exactly the same way it fizzles.
They both stare at the air where the glowing blue light had been, spots still in Dom's vision, the negative images of where they had been. Willow crumples slowly, doubling over silently like someone's punched her in the stomach.
"Oh God," Dom says, and moves forward to catch her before she falls.
She grabs onto him like she's drowning, her body shaking. "No no no no no no no," she murmurs, her eyes dry and agonized, staring out into the night.
Not knowing what to do, Dom just holds her awkwardly, his own chest thick and painful.
"Xander," she says, her voice pained. "Xander."
Dom wants to tell her about that look on Xander's face before he went out into the storm, that beatific ecstasy of purpose and... whatever the hell else it was. The way Xander looked like he was doing what he was born to do, that wild look like he was part of the storm. The way he hadn't been afraid. The way he had been happy, happier than Dom had ever really seen him.
But he doesn't know how to say it, so he just holds onto her while she cries.
The police eventually send a helicopter to airlift them out. Willow, still red-eyed, lets Dom help her aboard. She's too tired to teleport home, she says, and besides, she has some people in LA she needs to talk to about Xander. They're going to keep investigating, find out what happened.
There is a cluster of people waiting for the helicopter when it lands. Some family member, a middle-aged woman, picks up Ronnie and his grandfather, and Willow goes to a tall, dark-haired, good-looking guy with a morose expression. She looks like she wants to hug him, but the two of them just stand there awkwardly.
Dom had called his publicist to come get him, and she insists on him giving interviews to a few of the news organizations there about the disaster. By the time he extricates himself from the publicity machine, Willow and the dark-haired guy are gone without having said goodbye. Dom feels abandoned. What's he supposed to do now, just go home and pretend none of this ever happened?
His publicist puts her hand on his shoulder. "C'mon, I'll take you out to breakfast."
He sighs and gets into her car. The sun rises as they drive to the breakfast place, big and orange and ominous looking, and Dom squints in the light. He's left his sunglasses somewhere along the way. His favorite pair, too. At breakfast, Dom has an awkward time explaining exactly what he was doing at a disaster site miles away, getting himself hurt and stranded in a series of bizarre misadventures.
"How do you get yourself into these things?" his publicist sighs. Dom shrugs and pokes at his waffles.
She drops him off outside his house and he tiredly goes up the walk, clutching the antibiotics the hospital gave him and his instructions on care of his stitches and thinking about sleeping for a long time. It all already feels like a dream, Xander and vampires and monsters and craters that want to eat you alive.
He looks up as he reaches the front stoop and sees Hannah Wood sitting beside his front door, knees folded up in front of her, looking forlorn and waiflike.
"Hey," he says casually, nodding to her, and unlocks the door. As if Hannah sitting on his doorstep is an everyday occurrence. He holds the door open as she scrambles to her feet and follows him inside.
He goes into the living room and sprawls onto the couch, careless of whether she follows him there. When he looks up, she's standing in the doorway switching her weight from one foot to the other, strangely nervous. Hannah, nervous - the world really is upside down.
"What's up?" he asks her, wiggling his head into the cushions. He's really, really tired.
"You told Elijah vampires attacked you," Hannah says abruptly.
Dom blinks. "Uh... yeah, I guess."
"Did they?" Hannah asks. She's biting her lower lip and her face is completely serious.
Dom sits up and looks at her, wary and confused. "What are you talking about?" he asks, rubbing the back of his neck.
"It's a simple question, Dom," she says, still standing in the doorway. "Did vampires attack you or not?"
Not able to figure out what exactly is going on, Dom decides to go for light and teasing. "Sure," he says. "First they came to the house, but they couldn't get inside and my friend staked a bunch of them. And then one came at us on the beach and bit my arm so I had to get stitches, but we killed him too." Dom gets up and wanders into the kitchen, opening the fridge. "Do you want any juice or anything?"
Hannah follows him into the kitchen and crosses her arms across her chest awkwardly. "No, thanks. What did they look like? The vampires?"
Dom takes out a carton of orange juice and opens it. "Um... yellow eyes. Fangs. Foreheads kind of bony and messed up." He takes a drink right from the carton. "You know, like vampires."
Hannah lets out a deep breath and sits on one of the stools at the counter, putting her head in her hands. "Oh."
Dom squints at her. "Hannah, what's going on?"
Hannah looks up slowly, under her fingers. She meets his eyes for a long moment, all serious and vulnerable. "I've been having these dreams," she says finally. "About vampires. They look just like you said - the weird foreheads, the yellow eyes, everything."
Dom stares at her, his stomach sinking. He drops onto the other stool, needing to sit down. "What?"
"I thought I was going crazy," she says quietly. "The dreams are so vivid. These vampires everywhere."
Dom clears his throat. "You have nightmares about these vampires? Like, they're coming after you?"
"Sort of," Hannah says. "Sometimes. But mostly... I'm killing them, Dom. I have this pointy piece of wood and I'm stabbing them and they just, like, dissolve into nothing. And I... I don't know. I *hunt* them, I have this feeling like I'm powerful and like I want to kill them. And they're... scared of me."
"Vampires that look like what I said?" Dom asks.
"Yeah, exactly like that. I've been dreaming this every night for a long time. It... well, it's freaking me out. They've gotten more intense lately. And it makes me all antsy, all jumpy. Like I have all this energy and I need to go out and... get them. Or something. I don't know."
Dom sits back, stunned. After a minute, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out the stake Xander had given him before he walked off into the storm. He hands it to Hannah without saying anything.
She stares at him. "This is... it's right out of my dream. Dom, where did you get this?"
Dom shrugs. "I met this guy and he fights... fought vampires. He showed me."
Hannah's mouth is hanging open. "But this... vampires aren't real. They're just dreams. Right?"
"I dunno, they felt real when they attacked me," Dom says. "Or else I've been dreaming for the past three days."
Hannah fiddles with the stake, holding it her hand. Dom notices that she holds it exactly right on the first try, as if she's killed vampires before.
"I just don't know why you'd be dreaming about them," Dom continues. "That's weird."
Hannah shrugs. "Maybe I'm psychic. A psychic whose job is to kill vampires."
Dom laughs. "Yeah, good luck with that." Hannah glares at him. "They're incredibly strong, Hannah. You've never felt anything like it. They can pick you up like you're made of nothing at all. It's fucking scary."
"Oh, and I'm a little weakling?" Hannah says, looking annoyed. She casually punches Dom on his uninjured arm.
Dom is almost knocked off his stool by the punch, one of the hardest he's ever taken, and he's been hit by enormous stunt guys playing orcs. It takes a second before he even feels it, but when he does, it hurts like a motherfucker. He clutches at it. "Ow! Fuck! What're you doing?"
Hannah looks confused. "What? I barely touched you."
Dom pulls up his sleeve to show a furious red fist mark on his arm. That's going to bruise. "Son of a bitch! Have you been working out?"
"No," Hannah says. She is staring at his arm like she's even more perplexed than he is. "Sorry. I didn't.... Dom, what the hell is happening to me?"
"How the hell should I know?" Dom asks, rubbing at his arm. Ow. OW.
"I don't know. But you've fought vampires, right? You said you killed some. So... could we maybe go out looking for some sometime? You and me?"
"You want to go *looking* for vampires?" Dom asks, incredulous. "What are you, crazy?"
"Maybe," Hannah says. She looks down, fiddling with one of her rings. "It's just... I need to fight one. Or see one. Maybe it'll stop the dreams, and maybe... I'm just so fidgety. Maybe if I see one it'll fix it."
Dom rubs his forehead dubiously. "This is really stupid," he says, without conviction.
"So you'll do it?" she asks. She knows him too well. "Awesome! Thanks, Dom!" She jumps up and hugs him.
"Yeah, okay," he says. "Maybe tomorrow night, okay?" She squeezes him so hard he thinks he hears his ribs creaking. "Whoa! All right, that's enough." He manages to extricate himself from the hug. "Now get out of here. I need my sleep. I was in a natural disaster today, you know."
Hannah rolls her eyes and lets him show her out.
Dom falls into bed exhausted and sleeps the rest of the day. He wakes up at midnight thirsty, his head aching, and wanders into the kitchen to get a drink of water. The house is empty and quiet and the sounds of his own swallowing seem to echo in the vacant room.
The little red light on his answering machine is blinking and he hits play. Three messages from Elijah that he doesn't even bother listening to. "Sblomie, it's Lij" - next message - "Dominic, I'm sor-" - next message - "Where are you, you fucking dumbas-" - next message. One from Viggo talking about the metaphysics of cheese-making and how if you look at feet for long enough, they start to look like messed up, flattened and bent, monkey hands. One from Dom's agent, about a TV pilot that wants him.
Nothing from Billy, not that Dom cares.
Dom feels at loose ends and not sure what to do with himself. He wanders from room to room, feeling like he's lost something but not able to remember what it is.
He finally settles himself in front of his Playstation and blows things up for awhile.
There is no lonelier time than 4 a.m.
It's not that Dom really wants to spend his time fighting vampires and evil things, but once you know about them, it's weird to go back to eating sushi and playing Grand Theft Auto.
Hannah calls late in the afternoon to ask if they can go out vampire hunting later. Dom tells her he'll pick her up at 8.
Dom and Hannah drive aimlessly down the city streets.
"How exactly are we supposed to *find* vampires?" Dom asks.
"You're the one who knows about this stuff," Hannah says. "I thought you knew where we were going."
"Uh, no," Dom says, taking a random left turn. "In my experience, the vampires tend to find me."
"Oh, that's excellent, Dom, very helpful," Hannah says.
Dom takes a hand off the wheel to scratch his head. "Look, you're the one with the dreams and freak strength, can't you use your superpowers to detect them?"
Hannah lets out an annoyed sigh. "You are such a comic book loser," she says. "It's not like I have X-ray vision or anything."
"Well, X-ray vision would explain why you keep looking at my naughty areas," Dom leers.
"I'll punch you again," Hannah says warningly. "Wait, turn right here."
"What?" Dom says.
"Right!" Hannah says urgently, pointing at a side street. "Go right!"
"Okay, okay!" Dom says, turning right. "Why?"
"I don't know," Hannah says. "You just... needed to turn right. Oh! Turn left here."
Dom raises his eyebrows but turns without protest. "You're freaking me out a little, Wood."
Hannah keeps looking out the window intently, as if she expects to see something. After about 100 meters a cemetery appears on their right and Dom looks at her.
Hannah shrugs. "Um, here we are, I guess."
Dom pulls over and stops the car. "So what, are we looking for, a crypt? Vampires sleeping in coffins?"
"How the hell should I know?" Hannah says. "C'mon." She gets out of the car, stake in hand. Dom follows, a hastily whittled dowel rod in his own hand. Now he kind of regrets being a nice guy and letting Hannah have the good stake.
Dom trails behind Hannah as she marches into the cemetery, looking around nervously at the dark gravestones surrounding them. There's a light mist making things extra creepy, and Dom hurries to keep up with Hannah. "This is like a really bad horror movie," he mutters. "Mist and everything." Hannah doesn't even glance at him.
She finally slows to a stop in front of a fresh grave, damp brown dirt turned over on top of it.
"Um," Dom says. "I don't think vampires actually dig themselves underground to sleep in their coffins. It seems like it'd be a lot of work."
"Dom, you're really not being helpful," Hannah says. "Would you rather wait in the car?"
"No," says Dom, looking around again to see if anything's sneaking up on them from behind. Being out after dark makes him really nervous and twitchy now, after having met Xander. "I just don't see how...." He stops talking abruptly as the dirt starts moving. After a few seconds of horrified staring on Dom's part, a hand shoves itself up from the grave, fingers claw-like, gray and dead.
Dom shrieks like a little girl and, stepping backwards, trips on a low gravestone and falls on his ass.
Hannah stands, feet planted on the ground, and watches as a head and shoulders emerge from the grave and a man dressed in a suit pulls himself out of the earth and stands up. His face is distorted, Dom sees from the ground, and he grins horribly at Hannah, his teeth gleaming. "Hello, little girl," he says.
"Hey," Hannah says casually. The vampire lunges at her and, with a lightning quick motion, she punches him hard in the face. He staggers backwards clutching his nose. "Call me 'little girl' again," she says. "Really. I thought it was charming."
The vampire looks up at her, blood trickling through his fingers. "That hurt! I think you broke my nose!"
Hannah rolls her eyes and punches him again. There is a whirlwind of blows as Dom scrambles to his feet, and finally Hannah plunges her stake into the vampire's chest. The monster dissolves into dust as they watch.
When Hannah turns to Dom, she's grinning. "Did you see that? That was awesome! When I hit him with my left hand and then did the stake thing with my right? And poof! Way better than dreaming." Hannah is bouncing on her toes. "Let's find another one."
Dom looks at her. "You are scary."
"I know!" Hannah says, beaming.
There is a screech of tires behind them, and Dom and Hannah turn to see black SUVs pulling up beside the cemetery. In a few moments, the two of them are surrounded by guys dressed in black, carrying machine guns, black masks covering their faces. Dom glances at Hannah, confused, but she looks as bewildered as he is.
"Hands up!" one of the commandos says. Dom and Hannah, after sharing another glance, slowly put their hands up. Two commandos move to pat them down, taking away their stakes.
"They're unarmed except for two stakes," one says.
The first commando nods shortly. "Come with us please," he says, and before they know it, Dom and Hannah are being handcuffed and bundled into one of the SUVs. A guy pushes their heads down so they don't bump them on the doorframe, and once they're inside two guys cover them with machine guns.
"Oh, let's go kill vampires," Dom murmurs to Hannah, who is pressed close against his side. "Brilliant idea."
"Shut up," she says, and the SUV pulls away.
After a dizzying array of turns and highways, the SUV pulls into some kind of underground garage, its tires screeching as it peels inside. Dom and Hannah are firmly, but mostly courteously, moved from the car to a lift, four commandos accompanying them, guns still up. Standing in the middle of the lift, surrounded by men with guns, Dom cautiously lifts his handcuffed hands to scratch his nose. The metal is digging into his wrists uncomfortably and Hannah is standing very straight and still on his left.
To Dom's surprise, the lift brings them up to a large, richly furnished foyer, all gleaming wood finish and thick wall-to-wall carpeting. Though it's late at night, a number of people in business suits - and some who aren't exactly people, at least judging from the green skin and horns - are bustling about, carrying briefcases and talking business. As they are whisked towards one of the offices, Dom sees from a sign on the wall that they're in a law firm.
"Since when can lawyers arrest people?" Hannah whispers to him, bumping against his arm as they are hustled forward.
Dom looks at the humpbacked, blue-skinned woman with a tail walking past them at that very moment. She's talking on a cell phone about zoning ordinances. "*That's* what seems strange to you about this whole scenario?" he whispers back to Hannah. She shrugs.
The two main commandos usher Dom and Hannah into a large office. The far wall is all glass, a view of the city, and behind an imposing desk sits a large dark-haired man who seems slightly ill at ease. Dom notices that the nameplate on his desk simply says, "Angel."
Dom shrugs out of the commando's grasp and turns to Angel. He still has no idea what's going on and is kind of freaked out, but figures the best defense is a good offense.
"Look," Dom says. "I don't know what this is all about, but we weren't doing anything wrong. We were just killing a vampire, and...."
Hannah nudges Dom with her shoulder. "Dom," she whispers, "this guy's totally a vampire too."
"What?" Dom whispers back. "How do you know?"
"I can hear you," Angel says peevishly. He looks at the commandos. "Are the handcuffs really necessary?"
The one in charge stands up straighter and says, in a slightly aggressive tone, "All independent operatives are to be considered hostile, sir. It's policy."
Angel makes an annoyed face and a dismissive gesture. "Take them off."
The commando stares at him insolently for a moment, then slowly moves to free Dom and Hannah from the cuffs. They both rub their wrists in relief as the metal comes off.
"Sorry about that," Angel says, waving the commandos out of the room. They go, but reluctantly.
Dom and Hannah stare at him, off-balance and wary.
"Sit down," Angel says politely, gesturing at a couple of large leather chairs. "Please."
Dom and Hannah glance at each other.
"Um," Dom says nervously. "Sorry about the whole vamp killing thing. We didn't, you know, mean anything by it."
"Oh, no," Angel says, sounding surprised. "That was good work. Those guys just get a little overexcited."
Dom and Hannah look at each other again.
"You're okay with us killing vampires," Hannah says slowly. Angel nods vigorously. "But *you're* a vampire," Hannah continues.
"Oh, yeah, but I... well, I kind of have a soul," Angel says. "I'm a good vampire. You know, more or less."
"A soul?" Dom says. He looks at Hannah, but she seems as confused as he is. "More or *less*?" His voice is getting louder. "What does *that* mean?"
"Long story," a female voice says from the doorway. "Trust me, you don't want to get into it." Dom turns to see Willow and the man who'd met her at the helicopter entering the room. "Hey, Dom," Willow says. Her eyes are red-rimmed and she looks exhausted, but she smiles at him.
"Hey," Dom says dazedly.
"Why's Dom here?" Willow asks Angel. "Did you find something out?"
Angel looks back and forth between Dom and Willow. "You know each other?"
"This is the friend of Xander's who was out at the crater with him when he disappeared," Willow says. "You mean that's not why he's here?"
"No," Angel says, his forehead furrowed. "Some of our operatives were out tracking a gang of vampires who've been giving some clients a lot of trouble. They were going to grab a fledgling for questioning, but these two got in the way and dusted him. So our guys brought them back here."
"Oh. Um, sorry about that," Dom says.
Angel waves his hand. "Don't worry about it."
"You were out hunting vampires?" the other man says in an English accent. "Without the proper training, that can be extraordinarily dangerous."
"This is Wesley," Willow says. "He works with Angel."
Wesley shakes their hands. "This is Hannah," Dom says. "Elijah Wood's sister."
Hannah makes a face at him. "Thanks, Dom. That's my favorite way to be introduced."
Dom smirks at her. "No problem." He turns back to the others. "So this is, like, a vampire law firm?"
"We specialize in the paranormal," Wesley says, "though not vampires exclusively. The firm's been under new management this year, so things have been taking a turn. For the better." He asserts this as though he's daring someone to disagree with him.
Willow looks uneasy at the direction the conversation is going and speaks up. "So Dom, why were you out killing vampires, anyway?"
"Oh!" Dom says. "Maybe you know what this is about. Hannah's, like, a superhero or something. She can kill vamps like *that*." He snaps his fingers.
Hannah speaks up hesitantly. "And I've been having these dreams."
Wesley and Angel look at Willow, whose eyes widen. "Oh!" she says. "You're a Slayer!"
Hannah looks at Dom. "I'm a crappy metal band?"
"No, no," Willow says. "Not Slayer. A *vampire* slayer. See, there's... okay. Into each
generation a Slayer is born," she begins to intone in a sing-song kind of voice. "One girl in all the world born with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires."
Hannah's eyebrows go up. "I'm the one girl in all the world? That's what those dreams are about?"
"Sort of," Willow says. "Except that's the old speech. Now there's a lot of Slayers. See, before, there was just the one - well, okay, two, actually, because of this loophole, but loooong story - and the next Slayer wouldn't be called until the first one died. There were a bunch of potential Slayers, but only one of 'em would be the actual Slayer. But then last May I made it so all the Potentials would be Slayers. See, there was this army of uber-vamps and this ax and I did a spell that was like, way connected with everything and...."
Wesley clears his throat.
"...that's really not important now," Willow wraps up quickly. "Xander didn't tell you about the Slayers, Dom?"
Dom shakes his head. "I guess it never came up."
"That's what Xander was doing," Willow says. "Looking for new Slayers to train them. That's why he was in Africa. But then the Slayer he found there died and he kind of freaked out and said he needed to figure things out. Without us. And...," Willow's voice catches and she stops talking, her face twisting like she's desperately trying not to cry.
There is an awkward moment before Wesley steps forward.
"Hannah," he says. "Perhaps we should see what you can do against an opponent. I know you haven't any training, but if you are, in fact, a Slayer, some of this should come naturally." He turns towards Angel. "Angel, would you like to spar with her?"
Angel looks taken aback. "Um. Okay. I mean, sure. Of course."
Wesley moves Hannah and Angel into the open space in the center of the office, as Dom goes to stand beside Willow, leaning against the wall.
"How're you doing?" Dom asks her in an undertone as he watches Hannah begin to tentatively circle Angel. Hannah looks tiny next to the muscular vampire.
Willow forces out a little shaky laugh. "Great, can't you tell?"
"Yeah," Dom says quietly. Hannah throws a punch at Angel, but he steps back quickly so she misses. "Have you guys managed to find anything out about what happened?"
"No," Willow says. Hannah lands a punch in Angel's gut and to Dom's surprise the huge guy staggers backwards at the force of the blow. Huh. "Wesley thinks we should keep trying, that there's a spell we haven't found or some kind of explanation or loophole. But...." She trails off helplessly. Dom leans his head back against the wall. Willow continues after a moment, in an even quieter voice. "We're having a memorial service in London next week."
"London?" Dom asks, surprised.
"More of us are over there, or at least in Europe," Willow says. "And it's not like we have a body, anyway."
"Yeah," Dom says softly. Hannah and Angel suddenly exchange a fury of blows, one after the other. Dom and Willow watch for a moment.
"She should really have someone training her," Willow says. "But we're just so short-staffed right now. We're setting up a school in Rome, a Slayer school, but that won't be ready until the fall."
"Like in X-Men?" Dom asks.
"Sort of," Willow says. "I wish we could have individual trainers for every Slayer, but that's just not possible right now. We're all... when we made all these new Slayers, we didn't really think through the ramifications." When Dom looks at her, she seems very, very tired.
"Well, what about Angel or Wesley?" Dom says. "Could Hannah train with them?"
Willow looks uncomfortable again. "Um. Well. It gets complicated."
Angel finally gets Hannah in a headlock, trapped under his arm. It seems to take him a lot of effort to hold her still, even though Hannah is a very small woman. After fifteen seconds or so, he releases her.
"Good," he says. "That's good." He rubs gingerly at his face, where Hannah landed a punch earlier. "Nice right hook."
Hannah smiles, her eyes fierce and gleaming in a way that Dom's never seen before. He almost wants to take a step back from her, edge away like she's a dangerous animal, full of feral energy.
But after a split second she's just Hannah again, in her pink sneakers and jelly bracelets, popping her gum and grinning at him.
"We'll make sure Hannah's taken care of," Willow says as they walk out of Angel's office. "Knows what's going on, gets training, all that stuff. Oh!" She fishes in her bag. "We have a pamphlet, actually." A little sheepishly, she holds it out to Hannah. The cover is bright and glossy and says, 'So you're a Slayer...."
Hannah takes it from Willow, stares at it and snickers. Willow looks embarrassed. "Sorry," she says. "I didn't design it."
"No, no, it's... um. Colorful," Hannah says. "I like it."
"Andrew went a little overboard," Willow says apologetically.
Dom glances around the lobby as they emerge into it, getting a better look around. It's still full of people wearing suits and carrying briefcases, the whole area tastefully lit and thickly carpeted. Luxurious and expensive furnishings everywhere - paranormal law must be a lucrative field. And as Dom turns, looking at the people, he suddenly sees a very familiar looking back. He stares. That's gotta be someone else....
At that moment Viggo turns so he fully faces Dom, moving to shake the hand of the... green and horned man he's with. Even though it's clearly Viggo, it takes Dom's brain a minute to process that fact.
"Vig?" Hannah says. She looks at Dom incredulously. After a moment, when Dom, his head spinning, doesn't move, Hannah grabs Dom's arm and pulls him over.
When they're standing next to Viggo, Dom comes out of his shock abruptly. "What are *you* doing here?" he asks bluntly. At that Viggo turns and sees them, though he doesn't seem surprised. But then Viggo is never surprised.
"Hello, you two," he says. "Dom, I haven't seen you since Hidalgo premiered."
The green guy takes a good look at Dom and beams. "Well, if it isn't one of our little hobbit friends! Loved you in those films. You seem taller in person, but I guess you get that all the time."
"Um. Yeah," Dom says, taken aback. "Thanks. But Viggo, seriously, what the hell are you doing here?"
Viggo waves his hand vaguely. "Had a little... mishap."
"Nothing our boys down in Magical Reversals can't handle," the green guy says cheerfully. "After all, what's a little antennae removal between friends?"
Hannah stares. "What?"
Viggo still looks unruffled. "Orlando's agent's a little concerned about the part he has coming up, but the removal procedure's fairly simple."
"Orlando has... antennae," Hannah says slowly.
"Not usually," Viggo says. "Like I said, just a little mishap. Nothing to worry about."
"Have him good as new in no time," the green man says.
Dom turns to him. "Who're you, the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor?"
The green guy looks blank for a second, but then gets the reference and laughs. "No, I'm head of our entertainment division. Lorne. Pleased to meet you. That reminds me, though, I need to give J.K. a call to renegotiate the terms of our contract." He gets out a PDA and starts pushing buttons.
"Your firm has a contract with J.K. Rowling?" Dom asks.
"Oh, sure, she signed a standard F&F contract with us years ago," Lorne says. He glances up from his PDA. "That's fame and fortune, kids. But now that we're under new management, we're having to renegotiate a lot of our old agreements. The terms that were standard a few years ago are no good to us now. I mean, what are we supposed to do with little Jessica? Put her to work in the salt mines?"
A tall, handsome black man is walking by at that moment, and glances over at Lorne's last statement. "We closed the salt mines weeks ago," he interjects as he goes by, not breaking his stride. He seems to be heading towards Angel's office.
"Good for you, Gunn," Lorne calls after him. He turns back to Dom and Hannah. "Nasty things, salt mines."
"Yeah, I... guess they would be," Dom says slowly, flustered.
"Speaking of the Harry Potter empire," Lorne continues, turning to Viggo, "is the full moon tomorrow night? I always lose track."
"The night after," Viggo says, who apparently knows this off the top of his head.
"Oh good. Better go call David Thewlis before I forget. Toodles all." Lorne waves and walks off, pulling his cell phone out of his pocket as he goes.
Dom and Hannah stare after him. "But... David Thewlis isn't really... I mean, he *plays* a werewolf... he isn't... that's silly. Right?" Hannah stammers out.
"I make it a point," Viggo says calmly, "to stay out of other people's business." Dom shakes his head rapidly to try to clear it. "Do you two need a ride home?" Viggo asks. "I heard you came in a squad car. And handcuffs." He smiles slowly at their expressions, obviously enormously amused. "Just give me a minute." And Viggo goes to talk to someone else in the lobby.
Dom turns to Hannah. "For someone who claims to stay out of other people's business...."
Hannah rolls her eyes. "I know."
Dom sees Willow talking to Wesley in an office across the way. "Hold on, I'll be right back," he tells Hannah, and hurries over to Willow.
"We've gotta go in a minute," Dom tells her.
"Okay," Willow says. She is still red-eyed and exhausted, and she looks like there are things she wants to say to Dom, but that she's holding back. Her mouth opens, but then closes again, helplessly. She sighs. "Okay," she says again.
Dom grabs her hand and pulls his Sharpie out of his pocket. Uncapping it, he writes his phone number on the back of her hand, home and cell phone. "Call me if you hear anything," he says. "Or if you don't. Just... call me." He swallows. "Even if it's just for, um, memorial service plans."
Willow looks down at the writing. She nods slightly, still looking down. "Okay," she says. She looks up at him. "You still have my number? And Giles's?
"Yeah," Dom says.
"We'll be in touch," she says softly.
Dom smiles slightly. "Okay," he says, and turns to go.
Viggo drives the crappiest cars and Dom can never understand it. This one has a broken radio and no AC, and what the hell is the point of that? Particularly when you're a goddamn movie star, your posters in the rooms of teenage girls throughout the world, and theoretically rolling in cash. Why have money if you're not spending it?
When Dom glances over, Viggo is driving with this intense kind of concentration, this unworldly calm, and Dom wonders, not for the first time, if Viggo's attained some kind of higher Zen consciousness or something, and this is why the lack of AC doesn't bother him.
But then Dom asks him why the fuck he drives this piece of shit and Viggo responds by saying, in all seriousness, "This car is a poem." And Dom remembers that it's not Zen. It's that Viggo is completely fucking insane.
Viggo doesn't ask any questions or say anything for the first twenty minutes of the drive, and Dom doesn't feel like talking. It's quiet without the radio. There's just the whirring of the wheels and the sounds of traffic and the wind rushing past the open windows. When Dom glances into the backseat, Hannah's fallen asleep, her face quiet and her breathing deep and even.
Dom turns back around to face the front and glances at Viggo. "You go to vampire law firms often?" he asks finally, breaking the silence.
"Nah," Viggo says. "Haven't had a spell go wrong for years."
"So if the antennae were by accident, what was the spell *supposed* to do?" Dom asks. Viggo opens his mouth to explain, but Dom interrupts. "No, wait, you know what? I don't want to know."
"The antennae are quite beautiful," Viggo muses. "Golden. And sensitive. Soft like flower petals."
"Really," Dom says flatly.
"I think he should keep them," Viggo continues. "But Orlando says they tickle."
"Well, make sure you take pictures," Dom says, turning to look out the window again.
Viggo is quiet for a few more minutes. "You've had a rough couple of days," he observes finally. Dom nods slowly without looking at him. Streetlights flicker by the car and the moon, nearly full, is dull and yellow over the city. "Does Billy know you met someone?" Viggo asks conversationally.
Dom shrugs slowly, feeling tired and listless and sad. "I doubt Billy would care," he says. He doesn't wait for Viggo to respond. "Besides, the guy's dead." Dom rests his head on the window frame, letting the breeze whip at his hair.
"Is anyone ever really dead?" Viggo asks softly.
"Yes," Dom says dully. He closes his eyes against the wind. "Sometimes people are really fucking dead."
The next morning Dom is woken by the ringing of the phone. Well, technically it's the next afternoon, but morning for Dom usually lasts until about 2 pm, so whatever. He knocks the cordless phone off its perch when he tries to grab it, and it takes him a minute to fumble it out of the pile of clothes on the floor, his eyes half closed and bleary.
"What?" he mumbles into the receiver.
It's Hannah. "I want to see this crater," she says, without prelude.
Dom sighs and lets his head drop back onto his pillow. "Why?" he asks, not much caring.
"Because I want to," Hannah says. "I'm coming over."
"I'm not going back to that f...." Dom starts, but Hannah's rung off. Dom drops the phone on the floor, rolls over and goes back to sleep. He's just so tired, and it doesn't seem worth getting up. Maybe ever again.
He staggers back to consciousness when someone starts pounding on the door. Groggy and out of it, Dom goes to answer it, just in his boxers. He rubs gunk out of his eye as he pulls the door open.
"You're not dressed," Hannah says.
Dom runs a hand through his hair, making it stand on end. "Did you wake me up just to give me shit?"
"No," Hannah says. "I woke you up to go to this Hellmouth place. Where they made all the Slayers." She pushes past him and into the house.
"I don't want to go there," Dom says, staring at her. His feet are cold on the wood floor, and he absently moves to scratch his left ankle with his right foot. "That place is dangerous."
"How can I be a Slayer if I've never been to a Hellmouth?" Hannah asks, like this is an obvious question.
"I don't know," Dom says. "Just... be one. Don't be stupid. And how do you know all this Hellmouth stuff anyway?"
"It's in the pamphlet," Hannah says. "C'mon, Dom. I want to see this place."
"No," Dom says. "I'm not going."
"Fine," Hannah says. "I'll just go by myself."
"Fine," Dom shoots back. "No! Wait, you can't do that, that's way too dangerous." Hannah smirks at him. Dom sighs. "Fine. I'll go with you." Hannah smirks more. "But you're driving," Dom says, and goes to get dressed.
It's cloudy on the drive, and this makes Dom nervous. But the clouds aren't the dark black of the storm that had chased Xander, just the ordinary dull gray of an overcast day, extending far in either direction. Dom feels tired and dull and gray himself.
Hannah talks away as Dom leans his head back against the seat and closes his eyes. He lets her chatter wash over him like water, not quite paying attention.
"Your friend," she says. "The one who died. He was a Watcher, right?"
"Hmm?" Dom asks without opening his eyes.
"A Watcher," she says again.
"What's that?" he asks. Hannah gives an exasperated sigh. "I didn't get a pamphlet, okay, Hannah? God."
"Watchers train Slayers," she says. "And do research and stuff. Every Slayer gets her own Watcher to work with. Or they used to, anyway."
"Oh," Dom says. "Then yeah, I guess he probably was."
He hears Hannah shift in her seat. "Too bad he died," she says softly after a minute. "He could've been my Watcher."
"Yeah," Dom says dryly. "Too bad he died."
"You know what I mean," Hannah says. And then, after a moment, "Sorry."
"Yeah," Dom says shortly. He opens his eyes and looks out the window. They're taking a different road to the crater, a more roundabout route, since the way he and Xander had gone is still washed out. He doesn't recognize anything along this road, and that makes him sort of grateful. "What about that Slayer school they're starting?" Dom says. "You could go to that."
"Yeah," Hannah says sarcastically. "An all-girl's boarding school overseas. That's, like, my dream come true."
"I bet there'd be pillow fights in your underwear," Dom says. "At least, that's how I always imagine it." Hannah punches him. "OW! Fuck, don't *do* that." He grabs his arm, rubbing it. That fucking hurts.
"Stop giving me reasons to hit you, if you want me to stop," she says. Then points at the road ahead. "Look, there it is."
Dom looks ahead to see the crater, familiar now, gaping in front of them. He expects to feel all the hairs standing up on the back of his neck, goose bumps breaking out on his arms, but nothing happens. He stares at the giant hole in the ground, thinking about how eerie it had been, but this time he feels nothing at all. He shakes his head slightly, looks down at his arm, rubs the back of his neck, but still doesn't feel anything. Disneyland would be creepier. Strange.
Hannah opens her door and gets out of the car, dust kicking up under her feet. He follows her, walking to the edge of the crater.
"I thought you said it'd feel creepy," Hannah says, staring down into the rubble.
Dom shrugs. "I don't know. It did before."
As they stand on the edge of the crater, the sun sinks below the level of the gray clouds that still stretch overhead. They are suddenly awash in the orange-red light of late afternoon, the sun in the space between the clouds and ocean, transforming the dull of the afternoon into golden color.
Dom blinks in the light. "We should get out of here before the sun sets."
Hannah glances over at him. "We've still got, like, an hour. I want to look around." She starts to walk off, circling around the crater. Dom follows her, kicking at some of the rocks underfoot.
They've been walking for about fifteen minutes when Hannah suddenly grabs Dom's arm and stops walking abruptly, freezing in place. "What?" Dom says, looking up to follow her gaze.
There is a big rock beside the crater, a boulder about half Dom's height. It is right between them and the sun, black and silhouetted against the horizon. And someone is sitting on it, a man. The sunlight is bright around the edges of his body, catching in his dark hair, making a halo around his shoulders and head. He is black within this halo, a shadow whose features Dom cannot make out.
The figure is casually throwing pebbles into the crater, with the lazy motions of someone putting in time on a Sunday afternoon. He throws one and pauses, turning towards them, his movements still calm and sure, relaxed. Hannah's fingers clench painfully on Dom's arm, tensing up. Dom's heart is racing.
"Hey, Dom," Xander's voice says.
Dom and Hannah stare at the figure on the rock for a long moment, its features still obscured by the bright sun behind it. As they gape, frozen in place, the figure stands up, limbs languidly unfolding. It stretches its arms, then hops down from the boulder and takes a step towards them, movements still loose and casual. Dom and Hannah instinctively step back, Hannah's hand still clutching Dom's arm painfully. They warily move closer together as the figure turns, walking away from the boulder until the sun is finally no longer behind it. In this movement its features gradually become visible, resolving into color and shape as Dom and Hannah blink the sun out of their eyes.
It's Xander. More or less. Xander's torn up flip-flops are on his feet, Xander's cargo pants dirty and ragged and still too big for him. He is bare-chested, just as Dom saw him last, but the names that had covered him are gone, the black Sharpie marks wiped clean as though they'd never been there. His skin is strange, actually. Xander no longer has the deep African tan he'd had through the whole time Dom had known him. Instead, his skin is bright pink, deep sunburn covering every inch that's exposed. It is as though Xander had been given a brand new set of skin, snowy-white and untouched, and then had sat in the sun all day. Or as though he had been very close to something very bright for a long time.
But Dom takes in all these details in a split second, because his attention is immediately transfixed by Xander's face.
And his two eyes.
Dom blinks, staring. He counts them again. One, two. Left to right, then right to left as Xander stands there smiling slightly, looking heavy-lidded and sleepy. And whole. Two fucking eyes. Xander's face is oddly symmetrical now, his impossible new eye blinking as though it had never been gone.
And there is a lightness to Xander's face and stance, a clarity, a release. His smile no longer seems sad. He looks almost childlike, eyes sunny and bright and happy, forehead unlined.
Dom doesn't know how long he stands staring, his mouth hanging open. He is vaguely aware of Hannah relaxing beside him, her hand slipping off his arm, but he doesn't come to himself until Xander finally takes another step forward.
"'S the matter, Dom?" he asks. "You look like you've seen a ghost." Xander smiles beatifically.
Dom startles, then stares at Xander harder. Xander has the look of someone just waking up from a very good dream, unquestioning of what's going on, sleepy and happy and a little out of it. But he doesn't look like a ghost, or a vampire, just standing there in broad daylight like that. Dom tentatively moves closer to him, then puts out his hand and pokes him in the arm to be sure.
Xander looks down mildly at Dom's finger as it touches him, Dom brown next to Xander's dark pink skin. Dom's finger meets a very solid arm, indenting the skin slightly and leaving a round white spot that quickly goes back to pink as Dom pulls his hand away. When Dom looks back at Xander's face, Xander's expression is simple and uncomplicated, dreamy.
Dom steps back away from him, back to stand with Hannah. "Xander, you're... alive," he chokes out.
Xander nods, his movement slow and easy, unhurried and calm.
"But... Xander, it's been three days. Three... and your eye... and... what happened?" Dom's voice is high pitched and anxious. He can feel himself starting to freak out.
Xander blinks slowly, thoughtfully. His forehead furrows a bit as he stares into space, thinking. After a second he looks back at Dom. He shakes his head again, that expression of untroubled content settling over his face, his motions still slow and sleepy. "You know, I don't remember," he says. It doesn't look like this bothers him in the slightest. It doesn't look like anything could ever bother him, actually, and Dom again has the impression that Xander's not quite awake.
Hannah nudges Dom with her elbow. "Is he on something?" she whispers out of the side of her mouth.
Dom shrugs slightly, not looking away from Xander in case he might just vanish again. "The hell should I know?" he whispers back. "Does he seem evil to you?"
Hannah shrugs. "Not particularly. He is weirding me out a little bit, though."
Xander's still standing there smiling at them.
"Yeah," Dom mutters. Then, louder, "Hey Xander? You wanna, um, come back to LA with us, then?"
Xander smiles a little more, still dreamy and happy and young-looking. "Okay," he says. He starts to walk towards the car. Dom and Hannah fall into step behind him.
"Hey, wait," Hannah says abruptly to Dom in a soft voice when they've almost reached the car. "Didn't you say before that this guy only had one eye?"
Dom glances over at her and chews at his lower lip. "Yeah," he says finally. "Last time I saw him, he did."
Hannah's head swivels towards him in sharp surprise and she stops walking abruptly. Xander is waiting by the car now, looking back at them serenely, and Dom sighs, halting a few paces in front of Hannah. Not knowing what else to do, he shrugs helplessly at her, takes the keys out of her slack hand, and goes to unlock the car.
Xander falls asleep in the backseat after only ten minutes of the drive back to LA.
"So... he was dead. But now he's not," Hannah says, glancing at Xander in the rearview mirror, her knuckles white as she clutches the steering wheel.
"Presumed dead," Dom says. "Mistakenly. I guess."
"You *guess*?" Hannah says.
"Well, how the fuck should I know?"
Hannah shrugs. After a minute she says, "And he only had one eye. But now he has two."
"That's right," Dom says, staring out the window.
"Well, did you actually see that the eye was gone, or did you just assume because of the eye patch?"
Dom swallows hard, thinking about the withered edges of Xander's eye socket, the horrible imbalance of his face with the gouged out hole on one side. "I saw," he says shortly.
He can see Hannah looking at him in his peripheral vision, but he stares straight ahead.
"Freaky," she says finally.
Dom turns in his seat to look back at Xander. Xander's head is leaning against the window, his face still slightly smiling even in sleep, his hand lying open and relaxed on the seat beside him, as though waiting for something good to be put in it. Dom notices that Xander doesn't have calluses on his palms anymore - his skin is soft and new, like a baby's, his palm white and pale.
"It's like something re-grew him," Dom says suddenly.
Hannah glances at him sharply. "Re-grew? What do you mean, re-grew?"
"I don't know," Dom says, rubbing at his forehead. "He's just all... different. He doesn't have a tan anymore. His calluses are gone. He has his fucking eye back. I don't... this is ridiculous."
"Guess we're headed back to that vampire law firm?" Hannah asks ruefully. "Since we don't know what the fuck is going on?"
Dom turns around to look into the backseat again. Xander's hair is flopping darkly into his face, and his eyes are flickering under their lids. He's dreaming. Good dreams, it looks like.
Where the fuck has he been?
"Yeah," Dom says. "I guess so."
It's long after sunset by the time they get to Wolfram and Hart, parking across the street from the big lighted sign. Xander wakes with a start as soon as the engine shuts off, his eyes snapping open and his body jerking upright.
"Hey," Dom says, turning and smiling reassuringly.
Xander is staring at the sign. He looks wide awake now, awake and wary.
"What are we doing *here*?" Xander asks. His eyes are flicking back and forth, as though looking for danger.
"Hey, we're just... we just want to know what happened," Dom says, keeping his voice calm and level, soothing. Hannah twists around in her seat to look back at Xander too.
"What do you mean, what happened?" Xander says. "What happened when?" He sounds confused, and is still scanning the streets, muscles tense and body alert.
"Xander...," Dom says, feeling a little at a loss. "Don't you...? You've been gone three days, man. Remember? You disappeared. We thought you were dead."
Xander turns to look at him finally, forehead furrowed. "I'm not dead," he says.
"Well... yeah," Dom says. "Obviously. But... where were you, then? Do you remember anything?"
Xander shakes his head dismissively, like this is a stupid question. "Remember what? There wasn't... I don't even know what you're talking about."
"Xander," Dom says. "I'm talking about... well, your eye, for one thing."
"What about my eye?"
"Well... you have it," Dom says. "Them. Both of them."
"Of course I do," Xander says, sounding like he's beginning to get frustrated. "Why wouldn't I have both...." He breaks off abruptly, his face changing as he is hit by a sudden realization. He blinks rapidly as if the world is realigning around him, and his hand goes up slowly to touch the skin beside his eye, like he is just remembering that it shouldn't be there.
"Yeah," Dom says. "Exactly."
Xander breathes deeply, his head down, his hand still at his temple. Finally, he says, in a low voice, "What happened to me?"
Dom and Hannah look at each other. After a second, Dom shrugs. "That's why we're here," he says. "Your friend Willow might know what's going on. Or Angel or whoever."
Xander looks up at him, his eyes dark and confused. "Willow's here?" he asks.
"She... yeah," Dom says. "I called her."
"Does she think I'm dead?" Xander asks.
Dom nods helplessly. Xander worries at his lower lip. Hannah is watching both of them carefully.
Xander finally looks up at Hannah, still with that dark air of worry and preoccupation. "Who're you?"
Hannah looks taken aback. "I'm... Hannah. Um, Wood." She stumbles over her words a little bit.
"Oh," Xander says.
"I'm a Slayer," Hannah blurts out. "I just found out."
"Oh?" Xander says distractedly. "I'm sorry."
Hannah looks at him, perturbed.
"I mean, um, congratulations," Xander says, catching her look.
"You're a Watcher, right?" Hannah asks.
"Oh," Xander says. "Yeah. Sort of."
Dom opens his door and gets out of the car, figuring that this is not really a good time for Hannah to ask Xander to be her Watcher. "C'mon," he says to them, "let's go."
Xander is very subdued as they get out of the car and walk towards the building. He keeps reaching up to feel his eye.
As they walk into Wolfram and Hart's lobby, Dom in front with Hannah and Xander trailing behind him, Dom immediately sees Willow walking excitedly towards the door. Wesley, Angel and a few other people Dom doesn't know are behind her, and when she sees Dom she looks like she might explode from happiness. Beaming from ear to ear, she hurries toward him.
"Dom!" she says. "You'll never believe it! We just did a spell and it says Xander's alive!"
Dom gestures behind him as Xander comes into the lobby, looking around suspiciously at his surroundings.
An expression of complete shock floods Willow's face, and she stops walking so abruptly that Angel walks right into her. As he apologizes awkwardly, he too catches sight of Xander and stops talking, his face going still with surprise. There is a moment of complete silence as everyone stares at Xander and he stares back at them.
Then Willow bursts into tears and throws herself at him, Xander opening his arms to catch her at the last minute. Looking bewildered at first, he pats her back, then finally closes his eyes as she hugs him. Dom can hear her sniffling as Xander murmurs to her.
Dom looks away, feeling that he's intruding on a private moment, and leans back against the large reception desk behind him. Hannah comes to stand next to him, and Angel and Wesley talk agitatedly in lowered voices a few yards away.
Dom's thoughts are quickly interrupted by a gasp from behind him. "Ohmygod," a woman's voice says. "You are totally one of those hobbits from that geek movie!"
He turns slowly to see a blond woman, wearing a pink suit with a matching pink headband, standing behind the desk. "Um... yeah, I am," he says.
"Wow, that is *so* *cool*," she gushes. "You worked with Orlando Bloom!" She lowers her voice. "So what's he really like?"
Dom blinks at her. "Oh, he's a nice guy," he finally says vaguely. "It's a shame about all the warts."
The woman stares at him for a minute, then apparently decides he's joking and bursts into nervous giggles.
"I'm serious," Dom says, straight-faced.
She stops laughing and looks confused. "Oh," she says. Dom fights to keep from smiling. "Well, anyway, don't worry," she says. "We get *tons* of celebrities in here, so no one's going to bother you by acting all weird or anything." It is only through a massive effort of will that Dom keeps himself from glancing at Hannah, who he can see smirking out of the corner of his eye. "You know, it's funny, actually, you're the second hobbit I've seen here today," the woman continues thoughtfully.
Dom stares at her, then looks over at Hannah, who has dropped the smirk and is looking as confused as he is. "Did you bring Elijah down here earlier?" he asks her, even though it is clear from her expression that she did not.
"No, no, not Frodo," the blond woman interrupts.
"Sean Astin?" Dom asks.
"No, not him. It was the other one that's not famous," she says. "Oh, what's his name? It's um... oh! Dominic Monaghan."
Dom crosses his arms across his chest. "*I'm* Dom Monaghan," he says, annoyed. But then the implications of what she's just said hit him like a punch to the stomach. "Wait, Billy was here?" he asks, his voice strangled. "Billy Boyd?"
The blond woman nods enthusiastically. "Yes! That's the one! He was here just a little bit ago."
"What the hell was Billy doing here?" Dom asks. His voice sounds strained even to himself, cracking on the last word. Hannah is watching him.
"Oh, well, we have containment cells here that he's using," the woman explains. Dom and Hannah stare at her blankly. "It's the night before the full moon?" she prompts, like this is a relevant fact that they must've forgotten.
Hannah gets it first. "Billy's a werewolf?" she blurts out, eyes wide. Dom suddenly chokes on his own spit and starts coughing.
The blond woman's eyes widen and she claps a hand over her mouth. "Ohmygod," she says, alarmed. "You didn't know? I just outed him? Ohmygod, Angel will *kill* me." Dom and Hannah stare at her. "You didn't hear it from me, okay? Promise you won't tell anyone?"
Dom and Hannah continue to stare at her, mouths hanging open, until she throws up her hands and gives an aggravated moan. "Fine! Whatever. I'll just get fired, that's fine." She continues to mutter to herself as she picks up some files and wanders away.
"I need to sit down," Dom says faintly when she's gone.
Hannah's staring after the woman. "How many vampires do you think they have working here?" she asks finally, frowning. "I thought they were all evil. Does she have a soul too?"
Dom rubs his forehead, trying to get himself together. "Why is my life so fucking weird?" he asks the general vicinity.
Just then Angel and another guy come walking over to Dom and Hannah. "Hey, Hannah," Angel says. "We just got a report of a bunch of zombies in Beverly Hills. Gunn and I are going to go check it out, but we could use some help in case things get violent. What do you think, you want to join us?"
"It'll be a damn good fight," Gunn says. "And it's always good to get more experience in the field."
Hannah's face has lit up. "Yeah, definitely!" Angel beams at her.
Willow, wiping her eyes with one hand and with the other arm around Xander, comes over with Wesley and a thin, brown-haired woman. "Wesley and Fred and I are going to run some tests on Xander, see if we can figure out what happened to him, okay?"
"Great," Angel says. Then the two groups with missions turn and walk away in opposite directions, leaving Dom standing by himself in the middle of the lobby.
"Hey!" he calls. "What should I do?"
Angel turns around and walks backwards for a bit. "Um... just... make yourself at home!" he calls back. Hannah turns and gives Dom a little happy wave as they go out one door. Xander and company have already disappeared out another, and Dom turns, alone in the empty lobby.
"Okay, I'll just... stay here, then," he says lamely, to the empty room.
Dom's first impulse is, of course, to go find Billy. If Bill's somewhere in the building being a werewolf, this is definitely something Dom needs to see. Only problem is that Dom has no idea where in the building Billy might be, and there's no one around to tell him.
He wanders over towards the elevators, where he suddenly notices a building directory. Bingo. There, right between "Clairvoyants" and "Corporate Law" is the listing for "Containment Cells." Dom boards an elevator, hits the appropriate button, and when the doors open again, finds himself in a gray, metallic, prison-like area, facing a burly guard.
"Authorized personnel only," the guard says in a bored voice.
"Um... my friend's down here," Dom says.
"Let's see your pass," the guard says.
"I don't have one, but Angel said I should make myself at home, and...."
"No pass, no entry," the guard cuts him off.
"But I really need to see my friend!"
"Then I suggest you give him a call in the morning, when he's back to being human," the guard says.
"No entry!" the guard repeats.
Dom sighs heavily. "Fine." He takes the elevator back upstairs.
The blond secretary is back at her desk when Dom reaches the lobby, packing up her things.
She glances up at him. "They are *not* paying me enough for all this overtime," she comments, putting some files in her bag.
"Yeah, that's rough," Dom says. "Hey, you wouldn't happen to have any books on werewolves, would you?"
She looks at him sympathetically. "Doing research on your friend Merry?"
"He's Pippin, not... never mind. Yeah. I guess," Dom says.
"Well, I don't have anything, but you should check Angel's office. And if he doesn't have anything, check Wesley's." She points at a door across the lobby. "He's a total book nerd, he'd probably have something." She picks up her bag to go.
"Thanks," Dom says.
"Good luck," she says, and walks away.
Dom gingerly pushes open the door to Angel's enormous office, flipping on the lights as he enters. He doesn't see any bookshelves, but there *is* a high def TV at one end that he plans on getting to know. But for werewolf research, Angel's desk looks more promising, so he goes around behind it and sits in the imposing desk chair, surveying the whole office. He immediately feels much more important. "Could get used to this," he says to himself, and then spins in the chair a few times for good measure. It spins really well, so it does it some more. Then, slightly dizzy, he gets down to business, beginning to search Angel's desk drawers.
There's not a lot in them. "What does this guy *do* all day?" Dom wonders aloud. There's a legal pad with a few pages of doodles, some chewed on pens, breath mints, a tube of hair gel, chapstick, loose change, and a paperback by Nicholas Sparks.
"Ew," Dom says, dropping the book back in the desk.
In the very bottom drawer, under a few file folders he finds a cache of more personal stuff. A videotape marked "Doyle", a baby rattle, some framed pictures. There's one of a pretty woman with dark hair, one of the blond girl whose picture had been in Xander's wallet, and one of Angel, bare-chested, holding a baby. Underneath there's a small album full of more baby pictures.
"*Why* do you have nothing on werewolves?" Dom mutters, tossing the pictures back into the drawer and shutting it. He sighs and looks around the room, eyes finally resting on a mini-fridge in the corner. "Perfect," Dom says, and gets up to investigate.
He pulls a pitcher out of the fridge and opens it, sniffing. "Ugh!" he says immediately, recoiling. The dark, sticky-looking liquid is clearly blood and smells faintly of pork. Dom is regarding it with an expression of disgust on his face when it's suddenly taken out of his hand by someone standing behind him. Dom jumps and yells in surprise.
"Oh, calm down," an English voice says, and Dom turns to see a man with bleached blond hair taking a large drink from the pitcher.
Dom yells again.
"You're noisy," the man says, lowering the pitcher and wiping his mouth.
"You're a vampire," Dom says. The man rolls his eyes and taps his nose in a "Youíve got it" gesture.
"I'm Spike," he says. "And when exactly was the hobbit infiltration planned? Should I call an exterminator?" He puts the blood back in the fridge.
"I... uh... was looking for a beer," Dom says weakly.
Spike leans over and rummages through the fridge, coming up with two bottles of imported. He hands Dom one, then moves over to the couch with the other, flopping down and picking up the TV remote. "So where's tall, dark and brooding?" he asks. Dom just looks at him. "Angel," Spike clarifies.
"Oh," Dom says, moving warily to sit in one of the chairs. "He went to fight zombies in Beverly Hills."
"What?" Spike says, sounding peeved. "And he didn't even invite me? Wanker. I hope those zombies eat his brains." He flips channels rapidly, not paying much attention. "Not that they'll have an easy time finding them." He flips some more. "So what are you doing here, anyway?"
"I'm friends with Xander," Dom starts.
"Oh, right. And Harris finally managed to off himself."
"Actually, he didn't," Dom says slowly. "We just found him. He's alive."
Spike glances over, mildly interested. "Yeah? Bully for him." He stops flipping channels when he finds a rerun of Dawson's Creek, settling in and propping his feet on the coffee table.
"Hey, do you know anything about werewolves?" Dom asks.
Spike waves his hand at him in a shushing gesture, engrossed in the program. Dom rolls his eyes and leans his head back against the chair, waiting for the commercial. When it finally comes, Spike takes a sip of beer.
"Werewolves?" he asks. "Why do you want to know about them?"
"I just found out my friend's one," Dom says.
"And you want the crash course?"
"Something like that."
Spike watches a commercial for T-mobile thoughtfully. "Okay. Werewolves. Getting bit by one makes you one," he ticks off on his fingers. "Human except for three nights a month - the full moon and the days before and after, from sunset to sunrise. Killed by silver bullets." Spike pauses. "That's about it."
"So... werewolves can come here and lock themselves up those three nights a month?"
"Think I heard something like that, yeah," Spike says. The program comes back on and Spike immediately turns his attention away from Dom and onto Pacey.
Dom watches for a few minutes before he gets bored. "I'm, um, just gonna go, then," he says.
"Shh!" Spike says. He doesn't look up as Dom leaves.
Dom wanders into the lobby, unsure of what to do with himself. He pokes around, looking into different rooms, but everything's boring. He wonders where Xander is, but can't think how to find him, even after scanning through the directory. But as he stands there by the elevator, it opens randomly, without him pushing the button. There's no one inside, either, and he stares at it for a second before shrugging and going inside. The doors slide shut behind him and he considers the console, wondering which button to press. Finally he closes his eyes, and starts hitting buttons at random. He gets a rhythm going, pressing them, humming along, and as a finale he pulls out the emergency stop button. Always wondered what would happen if you did that.
To his surprise, what happens is that a much larger button appears out of nowhere above the rest, shimmering into view. He stares at it for a moment.
"What the hell," he mutters finally, and pushes it with the palm of his hand.
With that, the elevator disappears in a flash of light.
Dom finds himself in a large white space, extending as far as he can see. It is featureless and pearly, pure glowing white all around. In the middle of it, a young woman sits at a computer, typing. She has curly brown hair and dark eyes, is wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and on the top of one bare foot there is a tattoo in the shape of a star. MMMBop is coming out of the computer's speakers. After a moment, the woman glances up at him.
"You're not supposed to be up here, Dom," she says in a bored tone.
Dom starts. "How do you know my name?"
She rolls her eyes and hits a few more keys. "I know a lot of stuff."
Dom blinks. "Oh yeah? Like what?"
"Billy's a werewolf, Orli has antennae, Hannah's a Slayer, Xander just came back from who knows where, and you're freaking out a little bit," she rattles off. Then she grins suddenly. "Actually... okay, watch this." She hits a button on the computer and suddenly text begins to appear against the white space behind her. Dom reads, There is a guy at the bar with an eye patch, and this is maybe the most interesting thing that Dom has ever seen in LA. At first he thinks maybe the guy's wearing it ironically - but who wears eye patches ironically? Wouldn't that be like using crutches ironically? Bad taste, even for America.
"Hey!" Dom says, wonderingly. "That's the first time I saw Xander. That's... what I was *thinking*, the first time I saw Xander."
"I know," she says. "I wrote it."
"How did you..."
"Welcome to the White Room," she says. "Where you meet the people who make things happen. Or whatever."
Dom stares at her. "So... wait. You're saying that you're the reason my whole life has gone insane lately?"
She smirks. "Yup. You're welcome."
Dom rubs his forehead, trying to rub out the headache he can feel beginning. "I... this is too weird."
"My better judgment says that it really, really is. But at least you're not bored, right?" she says.
He just looks at her.
She shrugs and tosses him something, which he catches automatically. It's a cherry lollipop.
"What's this?" he asks.
"Is there something else you'd rather have?"
He thinks. "Actually, no. I was just wanting one of these."
"I know," she says. "Consider it my apology for the storm that hunted you guys down. And the cut on your arm. And the werewolf thing. Et cetera."
"You... you're the one who... with the lightning and the... and you give me candy?" Dom sputters.
"Well, it's better than nothing, right?" she says. He stares at her. Finally she sighs. "Look, I'm sorry. I could get you in to see Billy, how about that?"
"It's restricted," Dom says.
She shakes her head dismissively. "Please. I'm the puppet master and you're all my marionettes. If I want to get you in to see Billy, you get in to see Billy. If I wanted you to be a trapeze artist in the circus, you'd damn well be a trapeze artist." She grins again. "Actually, watch this." She sits at the computer and starts typing.
And all of a sudden, Dom is wearing a spandex suit and hurtling through the air high above the floor of the tent. He barely has time to begin panicking before, to his very great surprise, he grabs hold of the trapeze bar, swings, then lets go again, somersaulting through the air, his body twisting, before grabbing the wrists of his fellow trapeze artist. He hears the audience clap and cheer as he...
... finds himself standing back in the White Room, his head spinning.
The woman is laughing delightedly. "Okay, dude, that was awesome. We should totally do that again."
"You're insane," he says.
"That's what they tell me," she says, smiling. She tosses him something else, and when he catches it, it's a security pass. She turns back to her computer. "Now run along and see Billy," she says. "I've got things to do."
He turns around, nonsensically looking for the elevator.
"Oh wait, one more thing," she says, and he hears the clatter of typing begin just before...
...Dom is a big black dog, running through the Forbidden Forest after Billy-the-werewolf, muscles stretching, wind in his fur. Elijah and Sean are a stag and rat somewhere behind him, but he is focused on Billy, on the joy of running, his paws leaping over mud and sticks. They should head back to the Shrieking Shack soon, but for now, Dom just wants to run, run, run, run...
...and he's back in the White Room again.
"What the hell was *that*?" he asks, shaken.
She laughs. "I'm sorry. Now I'm just showing off. Look, there's no point in going to see Billy before sunrise. He'll just be growling in a cage. The lab is much better..."
Her voice fades out as a bright light comes up, obscuring Dom's vision. When he can see again, he is in a hallway outside a door. The door has a window in it through which he can see a group of people - Willow and Wesley and Fred, standing around some equipment. In his hands, he still holds the security pass and the lollipop. He sticks the former in his pocket and the latter in his mouth, and pushes the door open.
The group turns to look at him, and Willow smiles. "Hey," she says. "How'd you get down here?"
Dom pulls the lollipop out of his mouth with a pop. "Don't ask," he says, walking over. They are all standing in front of a large glass window that looks into another room, where Xander is lying in what looks like an MRI machine. Fred is adjusting things on a computer while Wesley watches over her shoulder. "What's going on?"
"We're testing everything," Willow says softly, pulling him aside and obviously trying not to disturb Fred. "Seeing if there's anything wrong with him. But so far, other than a pretty bad sunburn, there's not, at all. He has perfect vision out of that new eye. And he's definitely Xander - he remembers everything right up to walking out into that storm, even really random things from when we were kids."
"But he doesn't remember what happened after he disappeared?"
"I... don't know," Willow says, looking uneasy. "I can't tell if he really doesn't remember or if he just doesn't want to talk about it. He's being really... quiet. It's strange."
"Yeah," Dom says, looking through the window at Xander. He's lying motionless on the table, but he still has that look on his face, that weird contentment. Where he looks happy, even though he's not smiling.
Willow follows his gaze. "Does he look better to you?" she asks.
Dom looks at her sharply. "What do you mean?"
She keeps looking at Xander thoughtfully. "Just... happier. And younger. And... I don't know. He looks like he did when we were 16, before we knew about vampires and everything. Before...." She waves her hand vaguely, trying to indicate the distant past.
"Yeah," Dom says quietly. "He does look better."
"I don't understand," Willow says softly.
"Me neither," Dom says.
After a moment, they turn and watch Fred finish the MRI.
Dom ends up spending the rest of the night sitting on a desk in the lab, chewing gum and leaning back against the wall, waiting for them to stop doing tests and spells on Xander.
Eventually Wesley rubs his forehead tiredly. "Well, I can't think of anything else to try."
Fred shakes her head. "Me neither."
Willow looks back and forth between them. "Neither can I. Does this mean he's okay? Since we can't find anything wrong?"
They all look through the glass at Xander, who is slowly pulling on a shirt, his focus apparently internal.
"It would appear so," says Wesley. "It may be that he will remember what happened naturally, on his own. In any event, it doesn't seem to have done him any harm."
Willow grins and moves to hug Xander as soon as he comes through the door. She clings to him tightly, but over her shoulder, Xander's eyes seek out Dom. It still gives Dom an unbalanced feeling to see two eyes in Xander's face; the normalcy of it, the wholeness. Xander's steady, alert gaze unnerves him. He pops his gum and gets off the desk, moving closer to the others.
"There is one other thing," Wesley says, "unlikely to be of use. But I should consult the Byzantine Codex to be sure."
"The Hagion Portal?" Willow asks, pulling away from Xander. "But he didn't show any signs of going through a portal."
"I know, but I believe I read of a case in the fourth century where the Hagion Portal was the culprit even though detection spells didn't turn up any of the usual signs. In my office we'll find the manuscript. Now, I know it's not terribly likely, but...."
They all start walking out of the lab, talking animatedly about things Dom has never heard of. As they walk, Dom trailing behind, Xander falls into step beside him.
"So...," Dom says, before he realizes he has nothing to say. He looks at Xander out of the corner of his eye. "Your shirt's inside out," Dom says.
Xander looks down at himself and plucks at the seam of the black shirt he's wearing. "Yeah, they gave me a t-shirt with the Wolfram & Hart logo on the front. It was the only kind they had."
"And you're wearing it inside out because...." Dom trails off, the question in his voice.
"I still have morals," Xander supplies. As Dom tries to figure out what this has to do with wearing a shirt inside out, the corners of Xander's mouth turn up a little bit. "Actually," he says, "it's really more to annoy Angel than anything."
"You don't like Angel?" Dom asks.
Xander shrugs. "Eh. Not really, but at this point it's mostly habit. Though if he goes back to being evil and trying to kill my friends, I'm ready to switch right back to active hatred on a moment's notice."
"He tried to kill you?"
"Half the people I know have tried to kill me at one point or another," Xander says. "You get sort of used to it."
Dom bites the inside of his lip. "I'm not sure I want to get used to all this."
Xander looks over at him again and smiles, that happy, young smile. "Hey," he says, "it's not that bad."
Dom stares at him. "What happened to you, anyway?" he blurts out.
Xander gets quiet and looks away. There is a long stretch where he doesn't say anything at all, until finally, he says softly, "I just... I can't describe it. I walked out into that storm and then... there was, like, light and this smell and...." He trails off and gestures helplessly. "I don't know. It didn't seem like three days."
Dom runs his finger idly along the wall as they progress down the hallway. "The crater doesn't feel creepy anymore," he volunteers.
"Really?" Xander asks.
"Yeah," Dom says. "It's weird."
He and Xander pause outside the door of Wesley's office as the others go inside and start looking at one of the old books. "Hey, how's your arm?" Xander asks, nodding at Dom's bandaged up vampire bite.
"Okay," Dom says, looking down at it. "I mean, it hurts, but it's not terrible." He blinks when something suddenly occurs to him. "Hey, this doesn't mean I'm going to become a vampire too, does it?"
"Nah," Xander says. "You have to suck their blood, and they have to suck your blood and then you have to die and *then* you're a vampire too."
"Oh," Dom says. "But for werewolves, just getting bitten makes you one, right? Or is there blood sucking there too?"
"No blood sucking in werewolf-hood," Xander says. "Just getting bit turns you into one. Why? You haven't been bitten by a werewolf, have you?"
"No. But Billy has," Dom says dully. "He's locked up downstairs at the moment 'cause it's the day before the full moon."
Xander, looking very surprised, opens his mouth to say something when he's interrupted by Willow coming out of the office, leaving Wesley and Fred behind. "Wesley's going to keep researching, but I don't think he's going to find anything," she says. "That portal thing he was talking about was a complete mislead. It doesn't apply to you at all."
Xander blinks, wrenching his attention away from Dom. "Oh," he says vaguely. After a second, he adds, "So I'm probably okay, then? Not, you know, a product of mystic evil forces beyond our control?"
Willow smiles. "Yeah, I think you're okay." Her eyes widen as something occurs to her. "We have to call Giles! And Buffy. They still think you're dead, Xander. They were freaking out."
"Giles was freaking out?" Xander asks, smiling wryly.
"In a British way," Willow says. "Come on, there's a phone in Angel's office we can use."
She looks at Dom while she says this, including him politely in the conversation even though Dom is painfully aware that he is so far outside of this, this Xander and Willow thing, as to be completely irrelevant. This is Xander's real life, the people that matter, the people he has all this history with. The people who've tried to kill him and who've saved his life and who freak out when they think he's dead. Dom is just some guy Xander met in a bar last week.
Even so, Dom follows them as they go into Angel's office, Willow sitting Xander down behind the desk and leaning over to dial a number. He watches them from the doorway, their heads bent together, Willow's hand on Xander's shoulder like she can't stop touching him, making sure he's really there.
"Giles?" she says into the phone. "Xander's alive! He's okay! ... He's right here, you want to talk to him?"
And she shoves the phone at Xander. He puts it to his ear and shyly says, "Hey Giles."
Dom turns away, not wanting to intrude. He slouches onto the sofa and turns on the TV, keeping the volume down so it doesn't bother them while they talk. It's the middle of the night, and time for infomercials, so he keeps flipping channels. But even when he finds a Seinfeld rerun, he doesn't feel like stopping to watch it. He keeps the images flying past, a series of disconnected impressions spinning in front of him.
After awhile, the room is suddenly hit by an influx of voices, chattering and excited. When Dom looks up, he sees that Hannah, Angel and Gunn have gotten back, dusty and splattered in goo and carrying a big box of donuts. Wesley and Fred come in the door behind them, and Willow and Xander finish their conversation and hang up the phone, Then Spike turns up from somewhere or other, and so somehow there is a noisy, happy crowd, eating donuts and talking excitedly, as though they're at a party. The zombie-killing expedition had gone well, it looks like - Hannah is telling the story with expansive gestures, her face animated. Gunn chimes in every now and then, between big bites of a donut with sprinkles. As Hannah points at Angel, acting out how he'd clothes-lined one of the zombies, Angel puts a friendly arm over her shoulders, laughing and pulling her against him in a side-hug.
Dom hovers on the edges, feeling out of place and excluded. Not a slayer, not part of this crowd, no reason to be here. He gets another beer and leans against the back of the couch, morosely watching others have a good time. He sees Hannah talking seriously to Xander, but doesn't feel like joining them. In fact, he's on the verge of slipping out, using his security pass to go see Billy, when Spike comes up and somehow starts an argument with him about Manchester United's defense. Dom is so distracted trying to disabuse him of his perverse notion of strategy that he doesn't notice the horizon is beginning to lighten, turn gray and pearly.
Just then a woman screams, high and panicked. Dom's head swings around to see the crowd scattering, panicked, as something like a massive gray dog comes leaping through the door. Or no, more like an ape, the way it moves - or like a wolf. Dom realizes it must be a werewolf just as Spike shoves him out of its way. Dom hits the wall hard, wincing as he bangs his sore arm, Spike pushing past him to leap at the wolf. Angel and Gunn are not far behind, but Angel stops to push Gunn away. "Don't!" Angel says sharply. "You're human, you can't risk it biting you!" Grumbling, Gunn grudgingly falls back.
The wolf leaps at Spike, who goes down underneath it, his face suddenly distorted and his fangs sharp, wrestling and biting and rolling over and over with the werewolf.
"How did it get up here?" Angel barks. "Where's security? Wes!" Wesley makes his way around to the desk and the phone, carefully skirting where Spike wrestles the werewolf.
Hannah is pressed up against the wall beside Dom. "I always wondered who would win a fight between a vampire and a werewolf," she says.
"Really?" Dom asks, not taking his eyes off the pair. Angel dives into the fight as well, lashing out with his arms. Spike roars angrily as the werewolf claws his chest.
"Nah," she says. "But it's still interesting to watch. Do you think that's Billy or a different werewolf?"
"When did you get so blasÈ?" Dom asks, a little annoyed.
Hannah ignores him and points at the window. "Look," she says. "The sun's about to come up."
Angel throws the werewolf off Spike and it flies across the room, landing in a heap on the floor next to the windows. As it gets to its feet, growling, the sun moves above the horizon, and light comes through the windows, hitting its matted fur. And somehow, in that moment, so that Dom can hardly see it happening, the creature ceases to be a werewolf and becomes Billy, standing there with his hands up in the shape of claws, his face twisted into a snarl. He looks small and pale after the bulk of the wolf, and there are bloody scratches and bites all over his naked body. Still scattered and frightened and pressed against the walls, everyone else stares at him, their eyes wide. Hannah, Dom sees from the corner of his eye, is smirking. He's not sure whether it's because Billy's naked or because Billy was just a werewolf.
Billy blinks, looks at his clawing hands, and suddenly gets very embarrassed, dropping his arms to his sides. "Erm...," he says. "Hello."
Willow and Fred both kind of wave at him, all friendly.
"Is everyone all right?" Billy asks. They all nod. "Er... good," he says. "That's good. Um... I seem to be naked."
"Spike," Angel says. "Give him your coat." Spike's wearing a long black leather duster.
Spike looks up from his unhappy dabbing at the claw marks in his chest. It's a little bloody and his shirt is ripped, but it looks like he finds the wounds more annoying than painful. "What?" he says. "Are you crazy?"
"Come on, Spike," Angel says. "The man's naked."
"He just clawed me all up! I'm not giving him my coat. Give him your own coat."
"Spike," Angel says in a low, commanding voice.
Spike rolls his eyes. "Fine," he grumbles, pulling his coat off with exaggerated movements. He throws it at Billy's chest. "You owe me a new shirt," Spike says. "And if you wreck that coat, I'll pull your spleen out."
"Er," Billy says, looking down at the leather in his hands. "All right. Thanks." He puts the coat on slowly, wrapping it around himself. It's a little big on him - the sleeves are a bit long and the hem touches the floor. He looks up at the group, which has finally started to relax, once he's wrapped it around himself. He scans past Willow and Xander and Fred and Dom and suddenly does a double take, turning back to stare at Dom. Dom had wondered how long it'd take Billy to notice him and Hannah standing there.
Billy's mouth drops open. "Dom," he says blankly.
Just then Wesley hangs up the phone. "Security doesn't know what happened," he says. "No one came past the guard, and the cell is just empty. No bent bars, no sign of a struggle, nothing. They don't know what happened."
"Can we check the security video?" Angel asks.
"They're looking into that. And someone will be right up with your clothes," Wesley says to Billy. Billy nods.
Dom clears his throat. "It might've been that woman in the big white room upstairs that let him out." Everyone turns and stares at him, agape. "I think she'd think it was funny," Dom finishes self-consciously.
They all blink at him. "Hold up," Gunn says finally. "You've been in the White Room? The *White* Room?"
Dom looks around nervously. "Well, I've been in *a* white room. I don't know about *the* White Room."
"Did you see a big cat?" Gunn asks.
"Um," Dom says. "No. Just this woman at a computer. She was quite disconcerting, actually. With the knowing everything. And the mind games. And the... trapeze thing."
"Trapeze thing?" Xander asks, at the same time as Willow says, "What's the White Room?"
"How the *hell*," Gunn says, looking at Angel, "did the hobbit get in the White Room?"
"I took the elevator," Dom says. Gunn throws up his hands.
"You saw a woman?" Angel asks, moving closer. "What did she say?"
Dom shrugs. "I dunno. Nothing important. It all seemed rather self-indulgent at the time. But she did give me a lollipop."
"The cat never gives *me* candy," Gunn mutters.
"Gunn," Angel says.
"Well, I'm just saying," Gunn says. "It doesn't seem like people should just be able to walk in off the street and get to the White Room. Don't we have security around here? Why is he wandering around the building in the first place?"
"That's not really the issue," Angel starts.
"Er, if you don't mind my asking," Billy interrupts, "what exactly *are* Dom and Hannah doing here?" He's still staring at Dom as though he can't believe he's there.
"Oh," Dom says, running his hand through his hair. "Um. It turns out Hannah's a vampire slayer. And I'm friends with him," - he points at Xander - "and he's a vampire slayer trainer guy. And he just, like, came back from the dead. And he's friends with Angel. Except they don't really like each other. So we came down here to find out what happened to Xander, and then Hannah went to fight zombies and they just got back. 'Cause we all, like, fight evil now. So... yeah. Here we are."
"Oh," Billy says, sounding very confused.
Just then two security guards walk in the room, one of them carrying a bundle of clothes. Angel and Gunn immediately swarm around them, both talking at once. Wesley takes the clothes and hands them to Billy. "You can dress in my office," he says, and shows him out the door. Next to Dom, Willow's phone rings and she takes the call, walking across the room with a finger stopping up her opposite ear to keep the noise of the room out. In the meantime, some messy-haired guy in a lab coat comes and speaks to Fred, who after a brief consultation follows him out of the room.
"What do you mean, the video's blank?" Angel says to the security guard.
"Kennedy, are you sure this is an emergency?" Willow says into the phone.
Hannah nudges Dom. "What's up with you and Billy?" she asks.
"What?" Dom says.
"He was looking at you weird. Weirder than normal."
"Yeah?" Dom says, not looking at her.
Hannah rolls her eyes. "Whatever. You guys are such freaks." She pushes off the wall and walks over to talk to Xander.
Dom sighs and leans his head back against the wall. After a minute, he slips out the door without anyone seeing. He passes Wesley in the lobby, nods to him, and goes into the door Wesley just left.
Billy's standing in the middle of the room, bandaging a wound on his side as Dom comes quietly into Wesley's office.
"Hey," Dom says. Billy's head comes up with a start, gauze in one hand and medical tape in the other.
"Oh," he says. "Hi." He looks awkward and vulnerable with his shirt still off, and doesn't seem to know where to look or what to say.
"I just... They're all trying to figure out how you got out of those holding cells," Dom says.
Billy nods and goes back to fixing up his cut. "I'm just glad I didn't hurt anyone," he says quietly.
Dom nods, watching him. "What are you doing here anyway?" he asks. "I mean, yeah, the werewolf thing, but... how did you find out about this place?"
"Viggo," Billy says.
"Oh," Dom says.
"Yeah," Billy says. He rips off a strip of tape and begins to arrange the gauze over his cut, not meeting Dom's eyes at all.
"And how exactly are you a werewolf?" Dom asks, his voice higher pitched than normal. His palms are sweaty.
Billy shrugs. "It was that damned David Thewlis," he says, taping down one side of the gauze. "The man's a menace."
"Ah," Dom says.
There is an uncomfortable silence.
"I didn't even know you were in town," Dom finally says quietly.
Billy looks up at that. He bites the inside of his cheek. "I was going to call you, Dom. I just... didn't know what to say."
"Yeah," Dom says.
Billy ducks his head, and goes back to what he was doing. But he gets all muddled up, and the tape is sticking to itself, and the gauze gets twisted and he can't sort it out. He swears at it under his breath.
"Here," Dom says, coming over and taking the stuff out of his hands. "Let me do it." He focuses on Billy's cuts, taping him up carefully. He can see Billy's pale chest rise and fall faster, his breathing speeding up. Dom gets the first gash all fixed up and moves on to another.
"Sorry, Dom," Billy murmurs finally. "I've been a bit of an idiot." He sounds miserable.
Dom pauses, holding more gauze in place over another cut oozing blood. He shrugs with one shoulder. "I'm the one who ought to be sorry," he says.
Billy shakes his head. "No. I...."
"How's Ali?" Dom interrupts. He focuses on his bandaging, taping another corner of the gauze to Billy's chest.
"I wouldn't know," Billy says, his voice neutral. "She broke up with me."
"Oh," Dom says blankly. He looks up at Billy. "Oh," he says again, the first 'oh' not seeming sufficient to express his surprise. "Uh, I'm sorry." Billy's chest is warm under his fingers, and he can feel Billy's heart beating underneath, the steady living pump of it.
"Yeah," Billy says softly. "Yeah, she dumped me and I really wanted to call you, but we.... And I can't just not talk to you, Dom, it's not natural."
"I know," Dom says. He carefully rips off the last length of tape and slowly, deliberately finishes bandaging Billy's last cut. His hands seem to be shaking a little bit.
"I missed you," Billy says.
"Yeah," Dom says. "Me too." Finished, he reluctantly steps back out of Billy's personal space and puts the medical supplies on Wesley's desk. "I mean, I missed you too, not I missed me too. Because I've actually been, you know, around myself pretty much full time these last couple of weeks."
Billy laughs. It sounds really good. Really good. Dom is starting to feel a rising happiness in his chest, a disbelieving joy.
"Look," Billy says, "I have meetings all day until I have to come back here and lock myself up again. But tomorrow I don't have anything. If you wanted...."
"Yeah," Dom says. "Yeah, okay."
"Okay," Billy says, and smiles. Then he glances at his watch and grimaces. "Shite. I've got to go." He pulls his shirt on over his head and runs his hand through his hair. "See you tomorrow?"
"Yeah," Dom says.
Billy suddenly leans in and kisses Dom on the cheek, his lips warm and dry against Dom's stubble. Dom is too surprised to do anything except stand there like an idiot, his mouth hanging slightly open. When Billy pulls back, he smiles at Dom shyly.
"Okay," Billy says. "Bye, Dom." He smiles again, his eyes warm, and then turns and hurries out, leaving Dom standing in the middle of the room.
Dom has to take a moment to collect himself.
When he goes back into Angel's office, Xander and Hannah are the only ones still there, leaning against the windows. They stop their conversation when they see Dom enter.
"Where is everybody?" Dom asks.
"Angel and Gunn are chewing out security," Xander says. "Fred disappeared awhile ago, and Wesley just wandered out muttering something about a manuscript. Spike is... somewhere. And Willow got a call that there was some mix-up with the space-time continuum and so she had to teleport back down to Brazil."
Hannah starts giggling.
"Yeah, this is now your life," Xander says to her.
"Xander's going to be my Watcher," Hannah says to Dom, grinning. "Like, a full time thing."
"Really?" Dom asks.
"Looks that way," Xander says.
"And," Hannah says, "he says the Watcher's Council will pay me to kill vampires!"
"Wow, that's great," Dom says. But for some reason he feels kind of weird about it. Maybe about the way that Hannah and Xander are standing so close together, or the way that Hannah's acting like the two of them are best friends now.
"So are we going to go do some training, then?" Hannah asks Xander.
"Sure," Xander says. "I think Angel said there was a training room we could use on the second floor."
"Cool," Hannah says, pushing herself off the windows. But when she sees Dom, she gives him a funny look. "You okay, Dom?"
"What? Yeah, I'm fine," Dom says.
"You look kind of weird," Hannah says. "Do you want to train with us? 'Cause you're totally invited, if you want."
"No, that's fine. You guys should go train. I've actually got a meeting in a couple hours about that TV pilot I'm doing, so I have to get going anyway."
"Okay," Hannah says, still looking at him suspiciously.
"You guys have fun, though," Dom says.
It's good that Hannah and Xander are training, he tells himself on the drive home. It's good that Xander's going to be her Watcher - that means that Xander will be sticking around.
It's just that Hannah's a Slayer and Billy's a werewolf and Viggo's casting spells and Orlando has antennae and Dom is... nothing.
He notices that he has a voicemail on his phone, so presses the buttons to listen to it. It's from Viggo, one of his stream-of-consciousness messages. Viggo talks for awhile about painting darkness instead of light, like an anti-Monet. Then he says, "I just developed my photos of Orlando with his antennae - do you think Billy will let me take pictures of him as the wolf? I was thinking it could be a whole series. You should be in it too. You could grow horns out of the top of your head, Dominic. Or maybe just one horn, out of your forehead, like a unicorn. White bone. I think it'd suit you." That's the end of the message. Dom presses nine to save it, and for some reason feels a little better.
That night, while Dom's alone in his house, trying not to mope around, the doorbell rings. When he answers it, Xander is standing on his stoop, bright pink with sunburn, shirt still inside out, hands in his pockets.
"Hey," Dom says, surprised. "I thought you and Hannah would be out fighting vampires or something."
"Nah, I gave her the night off," Xander says. He shoves his hands deeper into his pockets.
"Oh," Dom says. They stand there awkwardly for a minute.
"You want to get a drink or something?" Xander asks abruptly.
"Yes," Dom says fervently, and they go.
Xander drives. "Where'd you get the car?" Dom asks.
"Angel loaned it to me," Xander says. "But I'm still wearing his shirt inside out."
Dom laughs. "Nice," he says. Xander's hands are broad and pink on the wheel, pink and sore-looking. He bets that if you touched them, the skin would be hot, burning. When he realizes he's staring, he looks away. "So you're going to Watch Hannah," he says. "They pay you for that?"
"Yup," Xander says.
"That's not a bad gig," Dom says. "I watch people all the time, but no one's ever offered me money to do it."
Xander glances at him appraisingly, more appraisingly than the weak joke calls for. "You know," Xander says finally, "we're short of Watchers at the moment. If you were thinking about a career change."
Xander shrugs. "Seriously. Think about it."
Dom rubs his forehead. "Um. Okay."
They pull up at the bar, and when Dom looks, he sees that it's the same bar where he first met Xander.
"Well, this is very full circle," Dom says.
Xander smiles wryly. "Well, that's what I was going for. Also, it's the only bar I really know in L.A." He puts the car in park and turns off the ignition.
"You know," Dom says, as they get out of the car, "it's interesting. When we were here last week, I thought everyone I knew was normal, and now pretty much everyone but me isn't."
Xander looks at him in a strange way, kind of affectionate and sympathetic. "Yeah, it's rough to be the only regular guy, huh?"
Dom shrugs. "Yeah, sort of." They walk past the alley where the vampires had attacked the last time, and Dom says, "If it were really full circle, there'd be more vamps down there." He glances over as he says it, and sees two guys walking menacingly towards them, their game faces on. "Oh, you've got to be kidding me."
Xander follows his line of sight and laughs. He tosses Dom a stake. "Hope you've been practicing while I was out of commission," he says, and moves towards the vampires.
Dom sighs and follows him into the alley. Xander takes the vamp on the left, and Dom the one on the right. He manages to punch his in the face before getting shoved backwards and nearly falling. But as the vampire lunges toward him, Dom somehow remembers a judo move, grabs its arm and pulls, so that the vampire overbalances and falls. Unfortunately, Dom doesn't quite let go, so gets pulled down on top of the vampire too. His right arm is still holding the stake in front of him while his left arm windmills, trying to keep his balance, but he falls hard anyway. And somehow, by a huge amount of luck, he manages to fall so the stake goes right into the vampire's chest. Its body barely cushions his fall before it explodes into dust, and Dom crashes through onto the pavement, thick dust choking him.
During his coughing fit, Xander has taken care of his own vampire, and comes over to Dom, holding out a hand to help him up. Dom takes it and is pulled to his feet, still coughing. "Thanks," he says.
"Not bad," Xander says, "for two guys with no super powers." Dom's still coughing heavily. "You okay?"
"I think I might be allergic to vampire dust," Dom chokes out. Xander slaps him on the back and after another minute Dom finally gets his lungs under control. He wipes at his watery eyes. "I'm okay."
As they walk inside the bar, Xander throws a friendly arm over Dom's shoulders. "Seriously," Xander says. "You should think about the Watcher thing. You're getting pretty decent with a stake."
"Are you kidding?" Dom says. "That sucked. Besides, do you want a Watcher who's allergic to vampires?
"Suck it up, Monaghan, you're not allergic," Xander says, grinning.
"Alexander LaVelle Harris," Dom says. "Be nice."
Xander stares at him, his mouth hanging open. "How did... what... I don't... what?"
Dom smirks. "I snooped through your wallet while you were in the shower that one time."
Xander shoves him. "You're buying, I hope you know, and if you *ever* tell anyone my middle name, no court in this land would convict me for your slow, painful death."
Dom laughs, and goes to buy him a drink.