Xander's gotten used to this. Passing through airports like a ghost, amidst families heading on vacations, slipping past the reuniting lovers, the soldiers being welcomed home with tears and relief. Occasionally he feels a twinge of loneliness, but mostly he's good with it. He's a world traveler now, and who'd have ever thought? He'd never even left California until Sunnydale's collapse.
This trip is different. This time he's got Oz along with him. In the last six weeks he's discovered Oz is a good traveling companion. You can be with him and still be alone with your thoughts sometimes. Xander remembers when he used to use other people to avoid being alone with his thoughts. He still catches himself at it on rare occasions, but the past couple of years have worked a lot of changes in him.
Oz has decided to come along on the California leg of his journey, to see the crater that he used to call home. After that, he'll decide whether he'll accompany Xander to London. For the last couple weeks, ever since Oz said he was taking the side trip to Sunnydale, Xander's given a lot of thought to whether he should go too. In the company of anyone else, he doesn't think he would. But he'd like to be there for Oz when he sees it for the first time.
Weariness overtakes him as they make the long slog to the baggage claim. He'd kill for a good double latte about now. Starbucks, even. A darting movement catches his eye and he follows the motion to see two sixtyish women catching each other up in a fierce hug, shrieking like junior high girls. It makes him think of the time he went with Willow and her family to pick up her penpal at the airport when they were fourteen. It makes him grin. It makes him ache. He's about to turn and say something to Oz when he hears another squeal, one that fires all those memory synapses. That's when he catches sight of the sign:
WELCOME HOME XANDER + OZ
And there's Dawn, flapping the sign and then dropping it onto the tiles that clickclickclick under suitcase wheels. She runs at Xander, flinging her arms around him, nearly bowling him over. "Oh my god, Xander, I'm so glad to see you." Her feet leave the floor. "Look at you, you're so tan, you're so skinny, we have to get you to an IHOP."
"And you," he says, laughing, "you're so Xander-squishing, you're so school-cutting, you're so very very far from Chicago." She's in her sophomore year at Northwestern, and the semester, he's pretty sure, is currently in session.
She loosens her hold. "I'm only blowing off Monday, which is just one class. See?" She points to a carry-on bag on wheels, near the sign she dropped. "I just got here myself. I thought you two needed a welcoming committee." Releasing him, she turns her attention to Oz, who's completely bemused, and she goes surprisingly shy. "Oz, hey." She hesitates -- it's been years since she's seen him -- but she's grown sensitive to the left-out population, maybe overly so. "Welcome back," she says softly, and gathers him into a hug.
It turns out Oz wasn't completely bemused before, because there's a great deal more bemusement to be had. He puts a careful hand on her upper back as he says, "Thanks."
She lets go of him and touches a tentative hand to his hair. "Wow. So is that your real hair color?"
Oz turns his puzzlement on Xander. "Um, would you like to introduce your friend?"
"Yeah, that's right. Last time you saw the Dawnster, she was something like twelve."
"Last time I let you call me Dawnster and live, I was something like fifteen."
"See?" Xander says. "Taller, more -- um, other things -- but still the same mouthy goodness you remember."
That gets him blank.
"Dawn," Xander says.
And more blank.
It annoys him some, though he doesn't know why. "The Dawn I've been talking about these past few weeks, along with all the other people we know. Buffy's-sister Dawn."
A furrow appears at Oz's brow, and he looks at Dawn, then back at Xander. Some part of Xander thinks about the peculiar physical density Oz seems to have. He's small, but compact. Solid. It's like he's got his own gravity. He seems to gain mass at this moment, and Xander feels this gravity tugging at him as Oz says, "Buffy doesn't have a sister."
An expression crosses Dawn's face like her stomach is doing a slow roll. Xander's happens to be matching it. "Where'd you get that idea?" The question is inane, he knows, because Xander's the one who's gotten an idea -- along with Dawn and Buffy and Joyce and apparently the rest of the world -- and he knows exactly where it came from.
Oz's frown deepens. "From the fact that she's an only child. We all are. The Scoobies, I mean. We used to joke about it."
Dawn takes a step backward. "I, um, I need to ..." She whirls and starts for the nearest exit, but Xander reaches out to grab her by the arm.
"Dawn, wait --" His depth perception always a bit off, he catches her hair instead, his fingers tangling in the long silky strands.
She yelps, even as he's saying sorry, sorry, but at least she stops fleeing. She keeps her distance, though, just a step or two back.
"What's going on?" Oz wants to know.
"That's what we need to find out. It's a long, long story, but Dawn is Buffy's sister, and we'll definitely find out what's going on." The baggage carousel bleats its warning signal and the belt starts to move. "Dawn, hon, go snag your bag before it disappears, and we'll go get ours."
"Why doesn't he remember?" she whispers urgently.
"I don't know. We'll figure it out. If you want to grab a place in line at the Avis desk, we'll be over."
As they're waiting for their bags to tumble from the chute, Oz asks, "What's her deal?"
"Girls," he says. "You know how they get when you call their existence into question."
"Why are you both expecting me to remember her? I've never seen her before."
"Because I do. We all do. Willow and Giles and Buffy. Even Faith." That's why this is throwing him. Faith wasn't around when Dawn made her first appearance, but she got the memories too. So why not Oz?
Oz looks away, regarding the parade of suitcases, most of them identical, marching along the conveyor, then looks back at Xander. "This is some weird Sunnydale shit, isn't it?"
"Welcome home," Xander replies.
Xander and Oz find their luggage with no difficulty at all, since their bags are the most battered pieces on the conveyor belt. By the time Xander catches up with Dawn at the rental counter, she's managed to rein in her emotions, though he can tell she's frightened.
He touches her shoulder. "Hey."
"Hey." She forces a smile. "When's your eye appointment?"
"Not until Monday afternoon. I might have to stick around a few days if they need to make me a new prosthesis."
Dawn peers at him, focusing on one eye and then the other. "Could be. It's not quite the perfect match it was last year. The socket's probably changed. I bet they'll need to adjust the fit."
Funny how she sees this, but he hasn't noticed. When he shaves, he sees the same face as always. Plus she's clearly done some research. He's not exactly sure how to take that.
"So we've got the weekend free," Dawn says. "Zoo, or Mexico? Or beach? I could do beach."
"Well, Oz and I had made a plan to drive up north. To see the crater. He hasn't been."
"Oh." Her brittle bravery develops a hairline crack, and he can hear her effort to keep her voice even. "I don't think I can do that."
"There's no reason you should."
She draws her lower lip in, worrying at it with her teeth. "I should have emailed you before I bolted out here. It's just that I can never tell when --"
"Hey," he says softly. "No worries. Here's what we'll do. Drive most of the way up and rent a beach house. We'll hang out there today, then in the morning Oz and I will head on up to Sunnydale. You can loll around on the beach until we get back, and that night I'll take you out to a kickass dinner."
"Yeah, sure," she says. "That'll work. I mean, if it's okay with you and Oz that I horn in on your thing."
"You couldn't horn if you wanted to. You're completely invited." Xander wishes he could say something to bring back the bouncy nineteen-year-old who'd been here just a few minutes ago, but it's his turn at the rental counter. "It'll be okay," he tells her, just before he steps up with his credit card.
It turns out he takes her to a kickass dinner tonight, too, because the drive up was so weird and strained that if they do what they'd planned and grill some fish at the beach house and sit around all evening, he's certain all their heads will explode. His will, at any rate, and since he's driving, his vote is the one that counts.
They find a place on the beach, with seating on the deck. Dawn orders a glass of wine with dinner, flashing a fake ID, and Xander doesn't have the heart to stop her. It's medicinal, he tells himself, though when the waitress goes, he says to Dawn, "Just the one."
"Okay." She's so controlled and contained that he knows she's still frightened. Oz is just weirded out. And Xander supposes he's somewhere in between.
Somewhere two-thirds into the glass of wine, Dawn starts playing Don't Tell Me You Don't Remember This. It's a terrible idea, Xander knows, but he can't stop himself from jumping into the game.
Dawn starts with, "You don't remember sneaking me into the hospital when Willow had her skull cracked?"
Oz shakes his head.
"C'mon, I was there when she did the spell to get Angel's soul back. You all made me sit in the corner and told me not to move or touch anything."
Another shake. "I got nothing." Unflappable as Oz is, it's looking to Xander like he's wanting to flap.
But that doesn't stop him. "What about the time Dawn blew out your favorite amp? That doesn't ring a bell?" Clearly, no bells are being rung. "Willow brought her to a sound check when she was babysitting, and Dawn wanted to see how loud it could go?"
"Thanks a lot for reminding him of that one."
"It's not a reminder," Oz says. "Didn't happen."
"Works for me," Dawn tries to joke. "Well, how about the time you saved my life? You actually met me before you even knew Willow."
Oz is doing that gravitational thing again. Xander can't quite describe it, but it's like he's pulling his Ozness close to his body, making himself even more compact and unassailable. And why else would he do that other than feeling like he's under assault?
Dawn doesn't seem to notice. "That Halloween when everyone became their costumes, remember? I was a dancing bear, and some guy nearly shot me. You stopped him, let me into your van, and took off."
"I let a bear into my van," Oz says dubiously.
"I was a cub!" she blurts, too loudly. There are spots of red high on her cheeks. She casts a glance at the tables around them. "Fan. A Cubs fan!"
"I didn't know that," Xander says.
"Not the part about the Cubs fan," she says under her breath.
"No, I didn't know you got shot at."
Dawn looks close to panic. "Not you too -- wait." She lets out a breath, closes her eyes for a brief moment. "Of course you didn't know. I didn't tell anyone."
"You didn't tell? Someone nearly shot you, and you didn't tell us?"
"I was supposed to stay with you guys, and I went off. I didn't want to make Buffy mad. Don't tell me you've never done anything you didn't tell anyone about."
He thinks of the zombie night, and the school basement. "Saved the world, once."
"Oh please. Willow? You talked about that all the time."
"Twice," he says softly, but Dawn is already talking.
"Anyway, Oz is the only person who knows. Except he doesn't."
"I'm not trying to offend, but you two sound -- well, sort of brainwashed."
"Of course we're brainwashed," Xander says, and this rocks Oz back a bit. "That is precisely the thing. You're supposed to be brainwashed too."
"I am," he says in the dubious voice.
"Dawn, you want to tell this, or should I?"
She sits back in her chair, raising her arms in a "hands off" gesture.
"There were these monks," Xander began. "About a year after you left. Well, no, first there was this hellgod. Glorificus. She got kicked out of her hell dimension, I don't remember if we ever heard why. Maybe a tornado picked her up and set her down here. She wanted to get home, which unfortunately, like most everything, would mean the end of the world. She was looking for her ruby slippers, which in this case was a ball of mystical energy, that would open the portal back to Hell-Kansas. Only the monks got there first, and made the key -- her ruby slippers -- into a form they knew would have Buffy's protection."
Xander can see the realization, well, dawn. "A sister," Oz says slowly.
"Exactly. Enter Dawn. Only to every single one of us, including her, there was no entrance -- she'd just always been there. Everyone's memories got rearranged. You didn't have to be in Sunnydale to have the mojo work. Their father in L.A. believed it, Faith believed it -- she was in prison when Dawn arrived, but when she got out and came to Sunnydale, she had a whole history with her, same as everyone else. Buffy's even run into high school friends from L.A., and they ask about Dawn. That's why it weirds us both out that you don't remember all that history. We do. We know -- somewhere deep inside, where we don't think about it very often -- that it's all fake. But it's also real. It's part of who we are now. It's shared. So we remember a history with you and Dawn together, but you don't. Kind of an invitation to the freakout party, if you can understand that."
"Oh, I understand. The other side of this is pretty freaksome too. There's a past where I saved a dancing bear who blew out my favorite amp, and I wasn't there. But you two were."
"The question is why weren't you there?"
Dawn is sitting with her hands pressed between her knees, and when she speaks, her voice is so very small. "Maybe he's the first."
"No, Dawnie, he can't be. You hugged him, I've hugged him -- in an entirely manly sort of way," he adds, to lighten the mood. "He's got the whole corporeal thing going."
Her hair is a shining curtain that swings gently as she shakes her head. "I don't mean the First. I mean -- what if he's the first person to lose me? I've served my purpose, I'm all done being the Key. What if all those fake memories go back to being the real ones, and I just slip away?"
Xander puts on his fake stern voice. "That's just crazy talk." He reaches for her wrist, teases her hand out from hiding. "There's, what, five years of memories that you've made since you got put here. Those are real. Those are indelible. You're not going to slip away, not as long as I have anything to say about it."
"How indelible?" she asks. "Because Buffy would have thought her memories of, say, her eighteenth birthday were set in stone. But something came and made her remember it was me who that crazy vampire kidnapped and held in that old house. But I didn't exist yet. Not as Dawn Summers. So just because all those new memories, after I really did exist, happened a certain way, that doesn't mean it's going to stay that way in our heads. You won't have anything to say about it, not if that's what's happening."
He doesn't know what to say, because he refuses to say she could be right. He wants to tell her how knocked out he is by her courage tonight, that he's moved by how hard she's working to keep herself together. What he says is, "We'll call Giles." Because Xander's utterly useless right now. It's a condition he's familiar with, though it's been a while since he's felt it this strongly.
Dawn tosses her napkin onto her plate and stands. "I want to dance." She heads inside the restaurant.
Rising, Xander looks at Oz and shrugs, and then he follows.
When he finds her on the dance floor inside, it's fairly open, because the DJ is playing something pretty much undanceable. He goes to her and holds his arms out to her, and she steps in close, grabbing him tight enough that she can't possibly slip away.
As they'd planned, Xander and Oz head out early the next morning, while Dawn's still asleep. As they drive, Oz sips from a thermos cup filled with green tea, but Xander's gone for the high octane and stopped by a Starbucks. "What's the Italian word for vat?" he'd asked, but the barista didn't get the joke.
"So all these weeks I've been talking about Dawn, and the name meant nothing to you."
It bugs him unreasonably that this is true, and bugs him more that Oz apologizes for it. "Well, who'd you think she was?"
"I figured she was one of these new girls. One of the Slayers."
"But Oz -- " He can't say why this is irritating him so much. "There's a hierarchy of talk. There's the amount of time you talk about a new Slayer, and the amount of time you talk about your Scoobies. You didn't get that?"
Oz shrugs. "There's also the amount of time you talk about a girl you have a thing for. I figured it was that."
Xander nearly chokes on his coffee. "A thing? There is no thing."
"Well, I get that now," Oz says, but it's got that quality to it, that sly ironic Ozish note that means the opposite of what he says.
"I've known her since she was --" Well never mind figuring that out. That way lies madness. "I used to babysit her."
"Age difference isn't all that much, is it?"
"I dunno. Six years, I guess. Stop. There is totally not a thing. How about a new topic? Can we get a new topic?"
"Okay. So you saved the world, Dawn said. You and Willow?"
Oh yeah. Subject change was a great idea. "Something like that."
There's a pause. With Oz there's almost always a pause, so he's not sure it's significant. "But not like that."
"There's our exit," Xander says, almost with a touch of relief. He's screwed enough with Oz's memories for one 24-hour period.
As he expected, Oz goes quiet. Quieter. He has no desire to speak either. He guides the rental car down empty roads that no longer lead anywhere. He passes a few warning signs and then pulls off to the side of the road a few yards before a big barrier.
"Last chance to back out," Xander offers.
"No," Oz says. "I'm up for it. What about you?"
"Yeah. Let's do it." He unlatches his seatbelt and gets out of the car.
He sticks close to Oz, who's taking all this in for the first time. Oz approaches close to the edge, hunkering down to get a better view. Xander gets closer than he had the day Sunnydale disappeared; he's adapted to the whole monovision thing, and edges don't wig him like they used to.
It doesn't look much different than he remembers. A vast hole that shows no signs of the life that it swallowed. There's not even recognizable parts of buildings; it all looks like raw stone. How can that even be? It took a whole town, not just a building or two. How can there not even be a trace?
He thinks of Dawn, her quietly-held terror that she will disappear just as completely. Not on his fuckin' watch, he doesn't care whether Dawn believes it or not. He will not give one more person to the void.
He's not sure if he should speak, but he feels compelled. "Anya's down there. Anya and Joyce. Tara. Jesse. Jenny Calendar. Spike." His parents too, but he can't say that. He doesn't exactly know why.
Oz doesn't answer, but Xander doesn't need him to. Xander sits on the ground beside him, legs crossed, and they sit in silence for maybe an hour.
"I think I need to walk around it," Oz finally says.
"That's a pretty damn big stroll."
He nods. "I slung my pack in the trunk. I've got my bedroll."
Xander looks over this barren landscape. "It feels quiet here. Quieter than it ever has. We haven't heard about anything happening. But I don't think we would. There's no one here to witness anything."
"I've got my wolf," Oz says simply.
Xander knows. Oz's pack also has a set of shackles. "Yeah, but it's, what, two weeks before the full moon?"
"Ten days. Doesn't matter. He comes and goes. Especially when I'm in danger."
Frowning, Xander says, "I thought when you came back that time that you were all but cured."
"I was close. That was before those government freaks got hold of me."
"Those fucks," Xander murmurs. After a moment he says, "I don't know that I like the idea of your wolf out here, either."
"It's all right. I'm not picking up anything out here at all."
Xander regards Oz. As far as he can remember, Oz has never lied to him. "When do you want me to come back for you?"
"Tomorrow'd be okay. How about noon? Right here."
"Okay," Xander says. Though he hasn't minded being here up until now, once that's settled, he can't get back to the car fast enough.
It's still morning when he gets back to the beach house, and as he'd suspected, Dawn's still asleep, curled up into a question mark in the center of her bed, covers piled over her.
"Hey, Dawn. The day's getting away from you." He enters her room, bearing a white styrofoam clamshell full of Denny's Grand Slam breakfast. "I brought you breakfast in bed. Sorry it's not a little classier with the tray and the china plates and the bud vase, but there's just melamine and the only thing in the house that would work as a tray anyway is a Ouija board, and we are so not going there."
As he rounds the bed, he sees she's not asleep, and he'd guess she hasn't been for a very long time. She's just huddled there in a nest of covers, staring at the wall. The sight of her squeezes his heart.
"Hey." He puts the clamshell down and sits on the edge of the bed. "You have a lot of existential freaking out to do, and I see you're getting right on that." He'd thought that would be a good tack to take, light but acknowledging what she's going through, but when it comes out it sounds so, so bad.
Her gaze doesn't even move from the wall. "Wouldn't you?"
"Course I would. But it's been proven that the best place for an existential freakout is a nice sunny California beach, and since the Council has generously sent us to one, we should take this there." He brushes her hair back from her forehead. "C'mon," he says softly. "I really think it'll help some."
"Where's Oz?" she asks dully.
"He's not here. He's doing his own thing for today and tonight, and we'll catch up to him tomorrow."
She shifts for the first time since he came into the room, and looks at him.
"C'mon outside," he says again. "Get some sun on your skin."
Xander retreats and waits for her on the porch, hoping she wasn't just humoring him. When she finally emerges, she's dressed way cuter than he'd have expected from her state of mind. He gives her a smile. "You look nice."
"So where is Oz?"
"He decided to stick around Sunnydale for a bit. He needs to take it all in."
"He wants to be there? Maybe he's evil. Maybe that's not Oz at all. Maybe this whole thing about not remembering me is part of some kind of plan --"
"Dawn," he says quietly, and the stream of words dribbles to a halt. "I just spent six weeks with him. He's just Oz."
"Why doesn't he remember?"
"I don't know. C'mon. Let's walk." They head down to the water's edge where it's easier. "Did you sleep at all?"
"Some. Just in fits and starts, and always full of weird dreams. All these thoughts keep crashing around in my head."
She shakes her head. "They're stupid."
"No they're not. You can tell me."
She clutches at the sleeves of her cotton sweater as if she's cold. "I was thinking if I'm made up of people's memories of me, maybe they should just let me go."
"You were right. That's just stupid."
"No, really, think about it. It's all memories like, 'Dawn gets herself kidnapped by the swingin' underlord of song and dance.' Or 'Dawn traps us all in the house with a raging demon.' Or 'Dawn nearly turns Mom into a zombie.' Who needs memories like that? Who needs me?"
"There's also 'Dawn invited me over after Cordelia and I broke up and it turned out she'd made me a picnic.'"
Dawn surprises him by turning a flaming shade of pink. "Oh, yeah. Hot dogs and potato chips, board games and dumb jokes."
"Those jokes got the first real laugh out of me since she dumped me. 'How do you make a Venetian blind?' On second thought, that's not so funny."
She flinches. "Xander. Jesus."
"Which reminds me. The way you stuck so close to me after Caleb poked my --" He stops at the sharp hiss of her breath. He really is too cavalier about this sometimes. "After that whole thing. I'll never forget that. I know that's one of those things people say without really hearing themselves, but me, I'm making a promise. I'll never forget that."
Dawn grabs him by the front of his tee shirt and draws him toward her. Her hand goes to the side of his face and before he knows it (though come on, he knew it), she's kissing him. And some part of him -- every part of him -- knows this is a very very bad idea, that this kiss is about her feeling real, knowing that she's really here, but all these parts still respond hungrily.
It's been so long since he's been kissed, since he's been touched by someone who cares about him, so very long since he's felt known. In a way, the need that drives her is no different from his.
It's just that he's old enough to know what a disaster this is.
He feels her lips part beneath his, and it's like seeing the collapse of Sunnydale. Sold ground crumbles and begins to drop away, and all he can do is watch.
And let himself fall.
The only thing that saves them, like a scrawny branch in a Road Runner cartoon, is the fact that they're out here on the beach instead of back at the house. As it is, they reach a pretty advanced state of get-a-roominess before they come up for air.
"Wow," Dawn says, breathless. "I always heard you were a great kisser."
"That's me," he murmurs. "I always seem to pick the kiss-and-tell types. Now it'll be all over the locker room again, and my reputation --"
She stops him with another kiss, and she's pretty talented herself. He does not want to think about the college shitheads his little Dawnie's been practicing with -- and holy god, that thought makes him step back, breathing hard.
"Dawn. Dawnie. This -- this really isn't wise. I mean, I completely understand what this is about. You need to anchor yourself here, and I'm right here at hand --"
Now she takes a step back from him, hurt flashing on her face. "Dumbass." She turns and resumes walking -- fortunately, heading farther down the beach.
"And I'm not exactly keeping a cool head here either. Africa's lonely. And I --"
"Asshole." She keeps marching.
He stops dead in his tracks. This is possibly the strangest declaration of love he's ever heard, but he has a sneaking suspicion that this is what it is. "I want to do right by you," he says, and Dawn at least stops and turns to look at him. "It would kill me to hurt you."
Tears shimmer in her eyes, and again he feels something clutch at his heart.
"Let's just take things slow."
"There are things?"
He thinks about what Oz said, and smiles a little. "There could be. I think we won't really know unless we give them space. Every relationship I've ever had, I've just fallen into. I'm a different person now. I want to do this differently."
"All right." She starts walking again and he falls into step beside her. "Tell me about Africa. I didn't know you felt lonely. Your emails were all so upbeat."
"I wasn't faking that. I love the work I'm doing, going places that are nothing like I've ever seen, meeting all kinds of people. But I miss being with people I can relax with, who know the score, who know me."
"The last few weeks you've had Oz there. Has that helped any?"
"Some. It's been good. But I didn't really realize what I've been missing until you met us at the airport and hugged me." Xander finds a flat rock just up the beach from the shoreline, and veers off to retrieve it. "This might sound weird, but it's not just the kissing. I miss all that casual touching between friends. Contact. Connection and comfort." He sidearms the stone out over the surface of the water and it skips twice, three times. "Most of the time I'm not in one place long enough for anyone to know me that well. I get closer to the new slayers when I find them, but then I'm busy making sure everything looks absolutely kosher. There are so many people out to exploit girls in poor countries. I tried my best to gain the girls' trust and their families', but there were still people who thought I was up to no good."
"That's really depressing."
"No, what's really depressing is that a few of them offered to sell me their daughters. That's how desperate things are in some places."
"Didn't it just break your heart being there?"
"A lot of the time, yeah. Sometimes it made up for it, though, in the most spectacular ways."
Her hand brushes his, then she clasps it as they walk. The contact warms him. He remembers what Faith said, that night she nearly wrung his neck. It's just skin. She's wrong. He believed that then, and knows it now.
"So let's have the state of the Dawn address," he says. "How are you liking school?"
"I was liking it fine. Having a good time and occasionally learning something."
"Now it feels like I'm wasting my time. I want to do something that means something."
"Something on the Scooby order of things, or something else?"
"I don't know. If I do something with the Council it's got to be other than being a general pest. Ready to go back?"
He thinks he's cooled his jets enough to stay out of trouble. "Sure."
They swing around, still holding hands. "Look at our footprints," she says. Hers, on the firmer sand where the water laps on the shore, are well on the way to being erased. Xander's tracks are still clearly visible.
"Don't go pretending that's significant," he orders. "Water and sand is all that's about."
"I know," she says, but her voice is wispy and small.
When they get back to the beach house, Xander sets about building a completely unnecessary fire in the hearth. Dawn rummages around the closets while he's busy, and when he draws the firescreen she presents him with an armload of board games she's found. They play until they're starved then they drive down the coast road until they find the hot dog wagon. They eat in the car, filling up on dogs and chips and frozen custard, and telling stupid jokes.
Though there's not another kiss or talk of hooking up, Xander's pretty sure it's the best date he's ever had.
When they get back to the beach house, they spend an hour on the phone with Giles, but the upshot is, he can't tell them anything without talking to Oz. "The last time he was in Sunnydale, he didn't stay long enough for me to learn anything about the meditation techniques he learned, or much of anything else."
"We'll have him call tomorrow. He's spending the night out at the crater."
"The crate-- Sunnydale? Have you taken complete leave of your senses?" he asks mildly.
"It's always possible," Xander cheerfully admits. "He's convinced he can take care of himself, so I didn't argue the point." They spend a few minutes on catching up and a little gossip, then they leave Giles to his books. While Xander's builds the fire back up, Dawn takes her turn picking a game.
"Ooh, here's one I haven't played in about a hundred years." She pulls out a battered box with the Game of Life. She checks inside. "I think all the important pieces are in here. Want to play?"
"Sure. Here's my chance to finally go to college."
Dawn sets up the board and starts organizing the money. "You still could, you know. I've got gray-haired ladies in some of my classes."
"Are you suggesting they'd be my peers? My age-appropriate dating pool?"
"You know, I'm sensing a theme here."
"If the shoe fits." She stretches out on the floor between the fireplace and the game, and the unself-consciousness of it reminds him so much of when she was a kid. "I saw how it bothered you that you couldn't go. You thought it made this big divide between you and Buffy and Willow."
"You don't think it did?"
"Yeah, maybe. But at least partly because you let it. That year you tried all the crappy jobs, you let yourself think they made a difference. That they were who you were."
It floors him that she saw all this when she was just thirteen. "You're just saying nice things so I won't notice you've bogarted the fire."
"Crybaby." She folds herself into an L, her upper body near the fire and her legs along the side of the board, so that now there's room for him to do the same.
"So you're telling me I should think about college just when you're planning to bail."
"I didn't say that. I said I want to do something meaningful. Which for now might just mean changing my major. I'd forgotten about these stupid peg people, how they're always falling out of the cars. Remember that time --" The sentence comes crashing to a halt.
Xander laughs softly. "I know what you were going to say. That time Anya asked if she could sell her tiny pink children. You know, don't you, that evening was the birth of her raging love for capitalism."
"You were still in love with her when she died."
Xander twirls a little blue peg person between his thumb and forefinger. "Yeah."
"Why'd you leave her at the altar?"
"You know, it's in poor taste to blindside a guy who really is blind on one side."
"Oh, god, Xander --"
"Don't. I'm just yanking your chain, because it's so very yankable." He pushes himself up, sitting with his legs crossed. He's never told anyone what really happened. Maybe because he didn't want anyone to think he was trying to justify what he'd done to Anya. Maybe because he didn't want anyone thinking it was justified. "There was this old guy who came to the wedding. He pulled me aside, told me that he was me, years and years into the future. He showed me a vision, what he said would happen if we went through with the wedding."
Dawn sits up too, touches his knee. "What did you see?"
"Nothing I want to go into. But it was brutal and it tapped into everything I was afraid of becoming. I was just like my father, only worse. Anya was miserable, and so was I. Turns out the whole thing was fake, and future-me was really a demon, one of Anya's vengeance victims out to ruin the wedding for revenge."
"A demon? You mean the one you and Buffy killed?"
"That's the one."
"How could you be taken in? There's no way you could be like your dad. You're one of the best men I've ever met."
Xander shakes his head. "It worked because I'd already heard myself talking to Anya like my old man talked to my mother. You know it's true, because there were times you heard me. I didn't just treat her that way; I did it in front of other people."
"You would've been good to her."
He takes the conversation on a hard left turn. "So what happened to the art history, the whole restoration career? You made it sound plenty meaningful when you decided on it. 'Saving ancient texts from the Xander Harrises of the future,' is how I remember you putting it. Which, hey. It was only that one time I set a book on fire, and that was purely by accident."
She flicks her finger at the spinner again and again. "It is important. I just don't know if it's enough for me anymore." Dawn chucks the spinner back into the box and flops back onto the floor. "Ugh. The Game of Life is giving me a massive headache."
"I'll second that. Checkers?"
Xander dumps the rest of the game into its box and gets up to search the closet.
The fire's gone out. Xander wakes on the floor. Someone's covered him during the night, and his head is pillowed on an actual cushion, not the carved wooden neck support one of his hosts gave him. The air smells wrong, and the sounds and quality of the light feel off to him, too.
On alert, he remains still, trying to sense as much as he can about his surroundings before revealing that he's awake. He hears the breath of another person in the room, but only one. Along with the smell of the dead fire, there's the lingering odor of cooked food. The scent is spicy, unexpected, yet somehow familiar.
Pizza. Xander relaxes. He's home -- though not home; he doesn't have a home in the States anymore.
He sits up, working the kinks out of his neck, takes in his surroundings. Ugly brown plaid chair he doesn't recognize, an end table that doesn't even merit the term furniture, a burnt-orange sofa that should be burnt. Sitting cross-legged on it, ignoring an opened textbook, is a sight he does recognize: Dawn. Right. Welcoming committee, beach house, sexual near-miss. He covers a yawn with his hand, using the opportunity to check his breath. It's even worse than he'd feared. "Morning," he mumbles, tight-lipped.
"Wow," Dawn says. "Do you have any idea how incredibly still you can get? You were awake just now for that, right?"
"Awake for what?"
"That thing you just did. The Who me? I'm just a log floating in the river, not a crocodile, no sir, not me."
Xander breaks out laughing at the perfection of her description.
"I've gotta say, that wigs me just a little bit."
"I forgot where I was. I thought Africa at first, before I opened my eyes, but things sounded and smelled wrong. It made everything strange."
"I want to see what it's like there. Did you bring slides? Like that weird guy who used to come to school every year? Remember him?"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." The memory had been blank, then hazy, then suddenly swam into focus like the message on a Magic 8-Ball. "He used to say everything was tamendous."
Dawn snorts. "I'd totally forgotten that! Everyone used to go around for days after, going, 'That's so tamendous!'"
"Did I really wig you?" The thought makes him sad, for some reason.
"No! Not at -- well, just a tiny bit. It was a commando vibe. There's -- well, there's this whole you I barely know. Africa Xander."
This isn't helping the whole sad thing. The person he's revealed the most of himself to this past year, and she feels he's a stranger. "I wrote you emails. You're one of the few, the proud."
"And they were great. They really gave me a feel of the place. But they're not the same as being with you."
"You think I've changed."
"Well, of course you've changed. Everybody changes. I've changed."
"No you haven't," he says, before she even finishes.
"Don't be a big doof. Of course I have."
This makes his chest ache, and his left eye, always more prone to tearing up, starts to water. He wipes at it, delicately, from the outside corner to the inner so he doesn't pop out the prosthesis.
Dawn scrambles off the couch to sit on the floor next to him. "It's okay," she says.
What's okay? Changing? Crying like an asshole? Wanting everything to stay stuck in time while he's been away, like a bug in amber?
She touches his face. "We'll always be okay, you know that."
He doesn't know what he knows anymore.
This time it's Xander who initiates the Kiss-for-All-the-Wrong-Reasons. It's soft and warm and a little morning-breathy. Just a bit salty and so, so sweet.
The chasm opens up again, and this time he sees no reason not to fall.
Now that they've got a room, there's nothing to put the brakes on. Xander is amazed at his own ability to make with the making out all the while a running commentary track is remarking on the action.
Not that it's Apocalypse Now Coppola-level commentary, more on the order of This is bad news, oh so very very bad, mmmm, nice, escalating to holy shit! as her hand travels below the belt.
He yelps and jerks back. "Yow! Rosy fingers of Dawn!"
"You've been saving that one up."
"No, I --"
"I know you, you have."
He's grateful for the pause in the action. "Dawn. The last thing I want is --"
"To hurt me. You think I don't know that?"
"Yeah, but. Track record: not so good."
She's moving in close again, her voice barely audible. "Like you said. You're a different person now." Her breath flutters on his lips.
I'm a different person. You've changed. Why does there feel like a difference? The one he hopes for. The other feels a little like a death. Xander thinks the word crocodile figures into this difference.
Then Dawn's lips are back on his, sending a buzz through his synapses that settles into the crotch zone, and the commentary track goes stupid again.
"I trust you. You proved years ago you'd die to keep me safe. How many girls can say that?"
And then there are hands and lips and tongues and ... other things, and some part of him doesn't want to think of them as Dawn's hands and lips and tongue and things, because he's known her since she was --
But the rest of him insists on being very clear about this. Because if it weren't Dawn's breasts he's kissing, Dawn's soft cries teased from her with his rough carpenter's hands on her satiny skin, if it were any other most-beautiful-woman-he's-ever-seen, none of this would mean anything.
Later, as they lie sprawled on the bed, Dawn's hair fanned out over his chest, she says, "I want to go with you."
"In a while, when you go pick up Oz. I want to come with you to Sunnydale."
"Are you sure you want to go through with this?"
"Xander," Dawn says with infinite patience. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't want to be."
Smiling ruefully, he touches his neck. "Believe me, I know."
"Sunnydale's where I spent more than a third of my life. Well, except the four years that were just implanted memories." Dawn brightens. "Hey, I've got implants. I always wanted a set of those."
Xander resolutely watches the road. "You have absolutely no need for a set of those."
"Oh my god, you're blushing! That is just so cute."
He feels his face growing even warmer. "We're almost there."
She falls silent and he does the same until the last barrier is in sight. "Do you want company, or would you rather--"
"Oh, definitely. Company. You, I mean. Though I don't see Oz."
That worries him some, but he doesn't want to pass it on. "He'll show. We're early."
"Here goes," Dawn says under her breath, and she opens her door.
For a long time she stands behind the barrier, arms crossed over the top rail. "Wow." She finally says. "You know, the day it happened, I couldn't take all this in. I was just so giddy to be alive. That Buffy was safe, and you. Anya and Spike didn't really sink in until later, not to mention the whole town being gone." She turns abruptly toward him. "I wish I'd brought some flowers. Why didn't I think of that?"
"For Mom. This is the closest thing she has to a grave now. I used to go sometimes and talk to her, now there's noplace I can go. Sometimes I wake up thinking about her, and I'm so afraid she's lonely."
Xander knows from experience that there's nothing to say that makes this feeling go away. He touches her shoulder and when she steps into his arms, he enfolds her in a hug. She nestles into his shoulder the way she used to, but there's a different quality to it now. He holds her in silence for a while, then says, "I never told you how important your mom was to me."
"Oh, Xander, I know you loved her."
"It wasn't just that. Joyce made a big difference in my life. She was the first adult I knew who gave me hope that I could be something other than what my parents were. The first grown-up who knew who I was and cared about me anyway. I wish I'd told her that before she died."
Dawn has stepped back, studying him, holding both his hands in hers. "Didn't Giles --"
"Things were complicated with Giles. I couldn't always distinguish stern adult male from angry fucked-up adult male, so it took me longer with him. I think it's because of Joyce that I had the trust to ride it out with Giles."
Her eyes get misty. "I never knew."
"I realized that. That's why I'm saying it now."
"No, I mean about your family. How hard things were for you."
A strong breeze blows long strands of hair across her face, and Xander brushes them back. "I didn't want you to have to think about that stuff."
"But I -- I wish I could have done something to make it better."
He smiles. "You did." If they were anywhere else, he thinks, he might have kissed her, but the crater's too -- sacred is definitely the wrong word. It's a place of power, though. "You could leave a stone."
"Instead of flowers. It's a Jewish tradition Willow taught me. When you visit a grave you leave a small rock on the headstone. Like a reminder."
"That's nice, I'd like that."
Together they search the ground nearby for small stones. When she's found and rejected a couple and then found a third, they approach the crater. "Feels wrong to just chuck it in."
"I think so too. We could put them by the edge." Xander kneels beside Dawn and places his stone near hers. As he straightens he feels a sudden prickling at the back of his neck.
Xander turns and sees Oz at the passenger door of the rental, settling his backpack in the dirt at his feet.
"Oz, you're hurt," Dawn says.
"I'm all right. Got some scratches, is all."
"That's not all," Xander says. "You've got a pretty fierce sunburn too." Oz knows better than this, Xander wants to add, but there's nothing more useless than an after-the-fact scolding.
"I know. I got a little trancy out here yesterday." He seems a bit spacy even now.
Xander steps in for a closer look, about to mention the possibility of heatstroke, when Oz's gaze sharpens, then flicks to Dawn. "Not a word," Xander says.
"Not saying 'a thing.'"
"That's -- hey."
Dawn touches his face. "He's hot. And he's not sweating at all. There's a little bit of water in the car, but we need to get him more. In fact, let's get him to a doctor." She opens the back door and tells him to lie across the seat.
"You always -- " Oz staggers a little as she shepherds him to the car.
"Watch your head." She guides him onto the seat.
"Head hurts. You always were such a --"
She's not even noticing. "Dawn --" Xander says.
She gives Oz a tiny sip of water from the bottle she had in the front seat. "Just a little."
"That baby bird," Oz mutters.
"Oh my god," Dawn says. "You remember me."
"Sure." He sprawls back on the seat. "Xander's friend."
As Xander slings Oz's pack into the car, Dawn says, "Find a t-shirt or something in there, would you?" She wedges herself into the space between the front seat and the back.
He hands over a well-worn t-shirt, which she wets and dabs on Oz's face.
Xander settles behind the wheel. "Hang on." He swings the car around in a 180, then hits the accelerator.
"How weird was that?"
"He knew you. For about three seconds, but he remembered."
"I don't know about you, but that creeps me out more than him not remembering me at all."
"You lost your wig," Xander says.
"Are you sunstroked too? What wig?"
"Your existential wig. Somewhere along the line you stopped being afraid of disappearing."
"That's your doing. I realized how tight you hold onto your friends, your memories. I know I'm safe as long as I have you in my life."
"Or at least until something whacks me on the head and I get amnesia."
"You know, you really can be a dope sometimes." Dawn tips the bottle onto the tee and blots Oz's cracked lips. "C'mon, Oz. Stay with us. Xander, can you drive any faster?"
He leadfoots it, and the nimble little rental responds.
"He's all burnt under the shirt. Scratched up, too. I wonder what happened?"
"If he went wolfy, we may never know."
Oz stirs again. "Try a lightbulb. Keep it warm."
"God, that's freaky."
That's a good word for it. Xander tries not to think about the end of the baby bird story, the first time he'd encountered a completely distraught Dawn. Why the fuck does this have to be the one memory Oz can tap into?
Dawn must be thinking along the same lines. "Hurry, Xander."
He spots a blue highway sign with a big H on it. "Hang on. I'm taking this next exit." He hits the offramp too fast, and it takes some doing not to wind up plowing through the tall grasses bordering it. Even over the shriek of brakes, he hears Oz retching in the back seat.
"Are we close?" Dawn asks.
"This next turn. Hang on," he says again, but he's talking to Oz just as much as he is to Dawn. He pulls the car up under the emergency entrance portico, and as soon as he slams the car into park, he scrambles out to drag Oz out of the back seat. Already there are ER staffers running toward them.
"Tell your girl," Oz mumbles as his pale lashes flutter. "Sorry 'bout her dress."
Dawn emerges from the ladies room, a large wet circle on the front of her dress. She sits next to him in the waiting area, flapping the skirt to dry it. "No news while I was gone?"
Xander shakes his head. "Giles was right. I must have lost my mind, letting Oz stay out there alone."
Dawn snorts. "Because this would be so much better if you were unconscious too. And besides, since when is Oz not responsible for his own decisions?"
"I know. I just --"
"Take things on yourself. I know. Hey, when's your eye appointment?"
"I pushed it back a couple of days. I called while you were trying to fix your dress."
"'Trying' being the operative word. This thing's a goner."
"Too bad," Xander says. "It looks very pretty on you."
"Okay, this is about to get into a whole disgusting realm, but what I was washing off my dress -- well, it wasn't frat-boy puke."
Xander doesn't want to think about where she's had the opportunity to study the emissions of frat-boys.
"I think he must've wolfed last night," Dawn says. "I just don't want to know what he wolfed."
The girl's got a way with words. Xander's stomach does a slow flip.
Dawn looks at him. "Wait. Last night wasn't the full moon."
"No. Oz told me he can change pretty much anytime. Especially if he's in danger. It's why I felt I could leave him there on his own. Though in retrospect, I guess that wasn't such a bright idea."
"That sounds dangerous. The thirty-one-days-a-month thing. Three days can be hairy enough. So to speak."
He shakes his head. "I was with him for six weeks in Africa, and he only changed on the full moon. I didn't even know he could until he told me yesterday."
"So what happened last night?" she asks softly. "I guess we may never know."
"I'm not holding out a lot of hope. Even aside from the condition he's in, he never remembered his wolf nights back when we were in school."
Dawn falls silent, slouching in her chair as they wait for news. Xander slips his arm around her shoulders and she nestles against him. He hopes it gives her a small amount of comfort. It's working for him, just a little.
After a while, she says in a small voice, "I keep thinking about that baby bird. God, I cried so hard when that poor thing died that I felt all hollowed out."
"I remember," Xander says. He holds her closer and plants a kiss on the top of her head.
"You were so sweet. It just killed you that you couldn't cheer me up. Then when I think that none of it really happened -- " She straightens, pulling away from him. "Why did they give us that memory? That whole roller coaster of thinking we could save that bird, him nearly dying so many times and making it so many times, and then just ending after we thought everything would be okay? And me crying and crying and being so horrible to Giles because he was supposed to know how to fix everything. Why did the monks put that in our heads? What possible purpose did it serve?"
It made you into someone I love, he thinks. It made me willing to die for you. "It made you real," he finally says. "Anyone who's real has had their heart broken at least once."
She dives into her purse for a length of toilet paper, blowing her nose with a mighty blast. "Well, I feel plenty real now, I'm the fricken velveteen rabbit of real. So all this heartbreaky shit can just stop. Starting with Oz. After all we've been through, he can not die of something as stupid as heatstroke."
"Well, okay then."
This is a shtick they used to do when she was twelve. The Excessive Agreement game. It drove Giles nuts. "You know it."
"Bloody well right."
"Damn straight," he affirms.
Just then a guy in ER scrubs appears, seemingly out of nowhere. "Are you with Daniel Osborne?"
"Fuckin' A," Dawn says, still caught up in the game. "Uh, I mean yes. He is not allowed to die."
The ER doc seems taken aback.
"Just so you know."
The doctor studies them. "Then we need to have a conversation."
The conversation turns out to be more interrogation. The doctor wants to know if Oz has used any recreational drugs or if he uses any psychoactive medications.
"No, that's just Oz," Dawn says.
No response from the doc, just more questions. He keeps calling Oz Dan. Was Dan drinking while he was out roasting himself alive, does Dan have any history of mental problems?
They're so unnerved by this barrage that they don't even protest that this isn't his name.
Does Dan have any history of seizures?
What's going on in there? Xander envisions Oz strapped down on a gurney, wolfed out or stuck somewhere in between. "I don't know what I can tell you. Until recently I hadn't seen him for maybe five years, so I'm not up on the history. And I wasn't with him when he was out there hiking yesterday. All I know is I've traveled with him the last six weeks in Africa, and never saw him take any medications. We had a beer or two now and then. He said he got trancy when he was out there yesterday. I think that's why he let himself get all sunburned."
"Where was this?"
"North of town. Out there where Sunnydale used to be."
"Jesus Christ," the doc moans. "Aren't you a little old for making stupid frat-boy bets?"
Xander doesn't mind the insult for himself, but it pisses him off that his friend is fighting for his life while his doctor is judging him. "He spent the first twenty years of his life in Sunnydale, and he left a few years before it collapsed. If he felt like he needed to be there, I think you should respect that."
"Just tell us if he's going to be all right," Dawn begs.
"Right now Dan's undergoing aggressive treatment for heatstroke. We have to bring his core temperature down quickly, and we can do that faster if we suppress shivering. We use Thorazine for that, but it lowers the threshold for seizures. We're running tests right now to see what kind of organ damage we're looking at, and any further treatment will be determined by what we find."
"Organ damage," Dawn breathes.
"Once the body's ability to regulate its temperature breaks down, there's a cascade of --"
A howl rises up from the inside of the ER, more wolf than human. It might not be bringing Oz's temperature down, but it sure as hell chills Xander's shit.
"I'll update you when I can," the doctor says in a rush, and wheels around to head for the ER at a run.
"It's not Dan," Dawn calls after him. "His name is Oz."
But the doctor's already gone.
Dawn drops into one of the plastic chairs, hugging herself. "He's dying, isn't he?"
Xander seats himself beside her. "He's not allowed to die, remember? Besides, what was it the doctor said about lowering his temperature? Aggressive measures, right? You can get a picture of what that means."
"Yeah, I guess."
"Now think back to the last time the hot water ran out when you were taking a shower."
"Are you implying something?"
"No, I'm pretty much saying it outright. There were times, back when the potentials were all living at your place, when I thought you were destined for an operatic career."
Another howl rises up, this one with maybe a shade more human mixed in.
Dawn shudders. "You're telling me that was because of an icy rude awakening."
"I'm sure hoping it was."
"What if he wolfs out? What would they do to him?"
"They'll keep treating him, because he's their patient. By the time it's all calmed down, they'll convince themselves it never really happened, or that there's a perfectly reasonable explanation, which they'll probably think up on the spot. We've seen it a million times in Sunnydale."
She tucks her hair behind her ear. "You're really good at this."
"The comfort thing?" Sometimes he thinks it's the only thing he's good at.
"Saying something reassuring as if you know what you're talking about."
He's surprised at how much that stings. "Don't I usually? Wait -- don't answer that."
Dawn takes his hand, absently rubbing her thumb over the calluses on his palm. "He just -- he looked so bad when we brought him in," she whispers.
"I know. But he's strong. All the supernatural Scoobies are. C'mon. I saw an espresso bar just inside the main entrance. Why don't we go get a latte, stretch our legs a little?"
"Would you go check on him first?"
"Honey, they won't let me in. There'll be a lot of people working on him. I'd just be in the way."
"Do that thing like you did this morning. When you got so still. I bet you could slide right in there without anyone noticing."
"If I'm perfectly still, how am I supposed to get in there?"
"I have faith in you. I bet you can move and be still at the same time. Make like a crocodile."
This time the image teases a grin from him, and he decides to rise to the challenge, summoning his inner croc. He drifts into the ER area, pausing to take stock and find the space containing the most bustle. When he slips into Oz's cubicle, no one notices.
Xander had forgotten what a small guy Oz actually is.
There's little of Oz to be seen under the large ice packs covering him. Tiny shudders run through his body now and then. The sunburn on his face has developed like a Polaroid, to a bright unhealthy red. The only sign of the wolf Xander can see is his brow, more prominent than usual. His eyes are closed.
He lets the medical talk swirl around him, unintelligible to him. He takes in the tone, if not the content. Urgent, but contained. It seems like what they're doing is beginning to have an effect.
He glides closer to the head of the bed, feeling the cold rising off Oz.
Oz stirs, taking a delicate sniff of the sterile hospital air. He turns his face toward Xander, eyes still closed. "Xander."
"Yeah, man. I'm here. How do you feel?"
"Fuzzy." His lashes flutter open, and Xander can see his eyes are seriously glazed.
"They gave you something. To help the ice work better. You're going to be all right, just try and relax."
"Yeah." He seems to drift for a moment, and Xander thinks about backing out of the cubicle before he's discovered, but then his eyes open again. "I remember. Everything. Dawn, I mean."
Relief floods through Xander. He's about to say, That's great, Oz, when Oz continues.
"I remember it both ways. That time Dawn found out Angel was back. Her stealing that glove, and that crazy watcher. Mrs. Post. Nearly killed her."
"Why don't you rest now? Don't fight the meds, you need to let them help you."
"Remember the real way too. How it was you who found Angel. You and Faith went. Going to kill him."
Xander and Faith? Taking off to kill Angel?
"Those monks. They didn't just give you memories. They stole the others."
He's drugged up, Xander tells himself. Because that's just --
His inner stillness vanishes.
"Just what the hell are you doing in here?" A burly orderly manhandles him toward the waiting area, chewing him out the entire time.
Him and Faith.
They stole the others.
This is something he never thought about before. It shakes him.
He casts a quick glance toward Dawn, whose attention is elsewhere. He slips into the men's room, where he tries to find his reassuring face.
By the time Xander emerges from the men's room, Dawn's working on frantic. "What took so long?"
"Sorry. Being a crocodile takes time. And I talked to Oz some. He could speak a little. He even made sense."
Dawn lets out a relieved breath. "What did he say?"
"How he was feeling, is all." Not precisely a lie. "He's feeling pretty thick-headed, I think."
"Thorazine will do that, I guess."
"Why, what's that?" Xander asks.
"They use it on psychotic patients. We had some readings in psych class. Which oh, shit."
"I'm supposed to be on a plane back to Chicago in --" Dawn checks her watch -- "five minutes. Well, there's no way I'd leave now, anyway. Not until Oz is out of danger. I'd better call my advisor, though, and my psych prof." She kisses Xander, then goes off to find a place where she can pick up a cellphone signal.
Xander finds a chair, reflexively grabbing a battered copy of People to leaf through, but his mind is wholly occupied with mulling over this latest development with Oz. It was freaky enough when he encountered the other version of Willow, but this -- to think that there's a world where things happened differently -- Xander and Faith heading out on a mission to kill Angel --
That world isn't another reality, some alternate version of things. What Oz is telling him is what really happened. This is not leather-wearing Willow, but the same old Oz he's always known. He just missed, somehow, the monk's mojo when it hit everyone else. And he's the only person who remembers the true history of the pre-Dawn Scoobies. Xander's true history.
Xander and Faith charging off to kill Angel. He struggles to fill in the gaps in Oz's sketchy description. Did this end up with Faith or him getting hurt? They didn't succeed, that much he knows, and they didn't get killed, because Angel's still around and so is Faith. Him and Faith. It's hard to picture. Was that typical? Had the two of them forged a connection and patrolled together apart from Buffy?
Oz knows what really happened. Everything between the time Buffy came to L.A., up to a few months before Dawn's real appearance. Wait, no. They didn't really know Oz until halfway through their junior year, and he took off early in his first year of college. A little under two years' worth, then. Still, two years is not insignificant. It's not everything the monks took, but it's likely to be all he'll get.
It's all he can do not to march back into that treatment room and demand that Oz tell him everything.
Instead he tries to picture it. Not the big pieces of the puzzle, the apocalypses and the terrors-of-the-week, but the small things. Hanging over at Buffy's house and not having Dawn there to shadow their every move. Going through the breakup with Cordy without her relentless efforts to cheer him up. Xander remembers so clearly that picnic with her, Dawn's solemn announcement that her best friend in second grade had stopped speaking to her for no reason at all, and so she understood how bad he must be feeling. Her staunch refusal to believe that their breakup could be his own fault.
Either history he chooses, he loses something. And maybe he's lost something already, just by knowing that there's a history that's true but obscured, by knowing that four years of his own life are just as implanted as Dawn's own memories.
None of them had considered any of this, back when Dawn's true nature had come to light. Not even Giles, who usually thought everything through to the point of brain implosion. They'd all done what they could to help Dawn through the first and worst of her existential wig-outs -- everything except share it. They'd all viewed it from a remove, grateful it wasn't them. Jesus, she was only fourteen when she found out where she'd come from, but she was the only one who'd had the courage to face it. She'd done so with a surprising amount of grace, considering, and nobody had really seen that or given her credit.
Xander suddenly misses her, tossing the ancient People back on the rack and heading out toward the courtyard to find her. He spots her long chestnut hair shining in the sun and he pauses to watch her talking on her cell. She's serious but animated, gesturing as she speaks. The sight of her this way makes him smile.
And it abruptly comes to him. If their shared memories -- dead bird and all -- have made her into someone he loves, then they've also made him the man who loves her. Tease out one thread in this web of shared history, and who knows if the whole thing unravels.
He knows he'd fight before he'd let that happen. He'd fight Glory again, if he had to.
He steps into the field of the automatic doors, and watches her turn as they glide open.
The light of her smile is something he wouldn't trade for anything, not even the truth.
It takes her a while to finish, but he doesn't mind waiting. Xander sits in the sun, his fingers laced through hers, content for now to discover piecemeal what's happening. Sounds big, tectonic plates shifting, new continents being formed, others vanishing into the sea.
He hopes he's on one of the continents that survive.
Judging by the smile she gives him, Xander thinks so, but you can't always know. Not even Dawn can know, not yet.
He can't quite grasp who she's talking to. For a while, it's about her next move at school. Sounds like she may take a little time off to sort things out, then make up her work before the summer break is done. Then, he surmises, a new program. But the conversation veers into talk about the nature of memory and identity, and he wonders if it's Giles on the phone. It's not a talking-to-Giles vibe she gives off, but she's being pretty free about discussing the existential wiggins in exactly those terms.
The conversation winds down into pleasantries (definitely not Giles, too polite) and finally she flips her phone closed. "Wow. Sorry. I didn't think that was going to be so epic. We had a three-way conference call going there for a while."
Xander nods. "It sounded like a lot more than 'I'll be gone a few days longer than I expected.' So you talked about the wig."
"Yeah. I didn't expect to, but I got this urge. I gave a bullshit version of the real story, gave poor Oz brain damage, and I didn't get into why I was so susceptible to wigging, but it didn't matter. Dr. Cameron totally got it."
"From what I could hear, you've got some ideas about the direction you want to go in."
That animation brightens her features again. "We talked about me going into some kind of research on memory and self. That means switching my major to psych. So here I go again. The continuing adventures of Dawn McFlightypants."
"No." The vehemence of Xander's tone surprises them both. "There's nothing flighty about it. It's the same thing, really. The whole thing about art restoration was about preserving the ancient books. Rescuing history, what holds a people together. Now you've decided you want to take that to a personal level, to the individual's sense of self. It makes perfect sense to me."
"How did you get to be so good at this?"
"The bullshit reassurance talent?"
"No, dumbass. The way you can show me some other side to a situation, one that makes things look so much better. Makes me look better."
Xander rubs his thumb over the back of her hand. "I believe that's the nicest 'dumbass' you've ever bestowed on me."
She shifts in her chair, leaning across the arm to kiss him, but suddenly she straightens, her hand tightening on his. "It's Dr. Jackass."
Xander rises, prepared to accost him, but it turns out he's crossing the courtyard specifically to talk to them.
"I was told I'd find you two out here. I've got some news about your friend. Oz, you said."
"Is he all right?" Dawn asks.
"We've got him stabilized and are about to move him into a room. His vital signs and the early test results look good, no organ damage presenting at this point. He's a very lucky young man."
"Can we see him?"
"Once we've got him settled into his room, sure. He'll be sleeping for a good while; he's still heavily sedated."
Once the doctor has finished reporting and moved on, Dawn says, "Maybe that's best."
"Seeing him while he's still knocked out. Me, I mean. Not you. I think I put pressure on him, just by being around. It's the last thing he needs right now." She looks off in the distance, squinting in the sunlight. "I don't care if he never remembers me. As long as he's all right."
Xander takes her hand once more, kissing it. "Why don't we go for those coffees now. By the time we're done we can probably go see him."
As the doctor predicted, Oz is completely out of it when they find him in his room. It's nothing like his usual style of sleeping, which Xander has gotten to know the last few weeks in Africa. He's a light sleeper, his wolf hidden but standing on guard, aware of any noise or scent that's out of the ordinary. This Oz looks like an atomic blast wouldn't rouse him. It's almost like no one's in there at all.
"Oh god, look at his face," Dawn says softly.
Blisters from the sunburn have risen on his nose and lips, made shiny by whatever topical medication the hospital staff has put on them. He's still got IVs and tubes and monitors hooked to him, which look wrong on anybody, but even more so on someone like Oz.
"So why him?" she asks.
"What do you mean?"
"He said he got all trancy out there. You went there twice. It didn't hit you the same way. Or me."
"You think maybe the crater did something to him?"
"When it comes to Sunnydale, that's kind of my baseline assumption. So why not us?"
He watches the steady rise and fall of Oz's chest. "I don't know. Maybe it doesn't kick in until you're there for a while. I was there for an hour and a half, tops. He spent a whole day and night. Or maybe there's something about Oz himself. He went to Tibet and learned all those meditation techniques. Maybe it's easier to slip into that state. Maybe he went looking for it. He wasn't exactly coherent enough to tell us. Hey." He turns his attention back to Dawn. "I wonder if that's why the memories didn't take. We had our mental monk mojo, but he had his first. Maybe your monks were out-mojoed."
"Maybe so." She shrugs. "It doesn't matter anymore. I'm good with it."
Right there on the spot Xander is seized with the urge to say how much he loves her, but that would just be too weird here in Oz's hospital room.
He buys her another sugar-laced coffee drink instead.
"I love watching you do that," Dawn says.
They're back at the beach house, waiting for the coals to heat up so they can finally have the grilled salmon. Xander's arranging wood in the fireplace, placing each log just so. "What?"
"Building a fire. I see now why they call it that. You go at it with the same eye for structure that you use for your carpentery thing. You get in that super-competent mode. It's sexy."
Super-competent? Sexy? This flusters him beyond belief, and he stays turned to the fire, even though it needs no further attention for the moment. "You're just buttering me up so you can bogart the fire again."
"Funny thing," she tells him. "I've been applying my own analytical skills to the two-people-one-fire problem. I think I've figured out a solution."
He draws the firescreen closed and turns to her. "Yeah? Let's hear it."
"I'm more of a demonstration girl." She launches herself at him, sprawling him back onto the threadbare rug in front of the hearth, then she stretches out her full length on top of him. "See? An elegant solution. Now we both get maximum fire exposure. Are you warm enough?"
Scorching. "I'd, um, I'd have to say yes."
As she comes in for a kiss, a curtain of chestnut hair swings into place on either side, obscuring his vision of the fire and the rest of the room. It's as though the world has narrowed until it contains just the two of them, a thought he finds fantastically sexy. Xander reaches up to lay his hand on her cheek, but she turns her face, pressing a kiss into his palm.
"You have such beautiful hands," she murmurs.
Sure. Rough, callused, a split nail or two from mishaps in Africa. He can't contain a laugh.
"No, really. I've always loved the way they move when you talk." She's got his hand in hers now, her thumb making gentle circles in the center of the palm. "The bird cliche doesn't quite work -- they're too quick, too darting for that. Unless -- maybe a hawk."
He's not so sure he loves these predator associations she keeps making.
"Or -- like Cary Grant in that movie we used to love. 'Are you talking to me?'"
Xander knows the gesture she means; he adopted it sometime in high school. There is no bad, he thinks, in reminding a girl of Cary Grant. Especially Dawn, who adores him.
Drawing his hand back to her lips, she presses another kiss. "I love that you use them to build things." She traces a callus with her tongue, and his breath catches. "At the beginning there's a pile of boards, and when you're done, there's something that didn't exist before." More with the tongue, and he finds it hard to breathe properly.
He's always been embarrassed by his hands, but Dawn's attentions are making him rethink the whole thing. He'd never realized before that they're directly wired in to his groin, but it turns out she knows all the contact points.
He slips his arm around her waist and turns with her, tumbling her onto the rug with him above.
The chestnut curtain slides away, but she is still all that he sees.
Xander slips into Oz's room soon after visiting hours begin. Every time he sees him here, he's struck anew by how small Oz is. Or maybe this place is shrinking him. A few of the monitors have been taken away, but he's still hooked to an IV and another tube or two. His hair, weirdly enough, is the opposite of bed hair. It's flattened out so he barely looks like Oz at all.
His eyes have been closed, but as Xander approaches he opens them. "Hey." His voice sounds as rough and abused as his skin looks.
"Hey. How are you feeling?"
The wry makes him feel like Oz is finally back. "I brought you some magazines. Music, mostly. Some other stuff too."
"Thanks." He accepts the brown paper bag Xander offers and takes a cursory look inside, hampered by having only one free hand. "These are great."
"Dawn helped pick them out. She sends --" He feels suddenly awkward. Sends what? Her love? She does, but as far as Oz is concerned, he's only just met her. "She, uh, sends her best."
"Where is she?"
"She's out in the courtyard, studying. She feels like it puts pressure on you to be here, and thinks you need to concentrate on resting."
"But she was here."
God, that weirds him out. There are damn few secrets you can keep from Oz. And if he can detect the presence of her scent from last night -- Xander feels the blood rising to his face. "Yeah. Last night, while you were still asleep."
"Things are getting kind of intense with you two." It almost has the inflection of a question, but it isn't one.
He knows what Oz means, but: "Not intense. Things are getting ... relaxed between us. It's easy being with her. Easy being myself."
"You must've missed that." What he means, Xander's sure, is that Oz misses that.
"I never had it before." He knows that Dawn is right about giving Oz space, knows he himself is right about not wanting to know certain things, but a compulsion rises up in him that he can't suppress. "Do you still remember?"
Vulnerable as he is, it's amazing how fast Oz can do wary. "Remember what?"
"Dawn. You said yesterday in the ER --"
"I know what I said." He's quiet for a long moment, and Xander gets jumpy in a way that he hasn't in a long time, maybe since high school. His fingers drum softly on the footboard of Oz's bed.
"I do and I don't," Oz says. "I remember remembering. I remember the details. But it's like something I read in a book. Not the memory of things that happened to me."
The urge to ask for more is nearly overwhelming, even though Xander knows it's one of the worst ideas he's ever had.
"I can't do this," Oz says, before Xander has a chance to prod for stories from the real history.
Xander steps forward, thinking there's something he wants -- to adjust the bed, to move the bag of magazines. "What is it? I'll help."
"I can't be a Scooby."
"What do you mean?"
"It's not going to work. All of you have a set of memories that I'm aware of, but I know they're a lie. I have a set of memories that nobody shares."
"Maybe Giles can --"
"What? Cure me? Just because I'm the only one without the memories, doesn't mean I'm the one who needs curing. It's the rest of you who live in an altered reality. You don't want to be cured either, I get that. I know that you love her. I know why you love her. But I can't live with one foot in your world and one in mine. I can't pretend mine doesn't exist."
"What are you going to do?"
"What I've been doing, I guess. Travel."
"You can't go tramping around the tropics like you have been. Your doctor told us you'll always be susceptible to heatstroke."
"It's a big world." He shifts in the hospital bed. "Listen. I think I could use some rest now."
"Sure. That big long speech tuckered you out."
Oz offers a ghost of a smile. "Yeah. You take care."
"I could come by later." No matter what, Oz shouldn't be in the hospital alone.
Oz shakes his head. "I appreciate it. But I think Dawn's right."
"Sure," he says again. All he can think is to echo what Oz said. "You take care." Inadequate doesn't even begin to cover it.
He steps out into the hallway and leans against the wall, feeling oddly hollowed out. What makes him feel the worst is the enormous sense of relief that sweeps through him. Whenever Oz is around, there'll always be the temptation to discover what he's forgotten. He's seen enough Star Trek episodes -- not to mention heard a bible story or two -- to know that it's knowledge that gets you booted out of paradise every time. Though he's chosen Dawn over that long-lost truth, it would only take a momentary lapse in his resolve to risk losing everything.
He pushes away from the wall and heads to the coffee bar to buy a couple of lattes, then he goes in search of Dawn.
Xander could get used to this. Wedged in an airplane aisle waiting for a family to gather up totes and diaper bags and children, standing behind Dawn with his hands resting lightly on her shoulders. She's accompanying him on the trip to London and Rome, using her time off to sort out her next move. She's talked about getting input from Giles and Buffy and Willow, but he can see the confidence she has in her own decision, even if she can't.
Xander's decided to follow her lead and use this time to determine his own future. He'd like to be a little more rooted than he's been, and he knows Dawn has a lot to do with this desire.
She takes his hand as they head down the jetway to the gate. Dawn seems to have an instinct for walking on his blind side: They rarely stumble into one another, and he never feels like she's steering him around.
He could get used to this, but he'll never take it for granted.
Dawn stands behind him in the Nothing to declare line, kneading his shoulder muscles. "I wish Oz had come. He needs to be with family too."
"He can't, Dawnie. He doesn't feel like we're family anymore. The same thing that binds us together is what separates him now. What's true for him isn't true for us. You know Oz. He's not the kind of guy who can handle that."
"I know. I just hate to think of him all alone."
So does Xander.
Finally they make it through customs, lugging their bags, their energy flagging after the long night on the plane. Dawn's still on his left, so he senses rather than sees her perk up a split second before she squeals at the sight of the welcoming party.
"Oh my god, Buffy's here too!"
And so she is, looking more rested and happy than he's seen her in years, dressed in a style that looks elegantly European. With her are Giles and Willow and his three African Slayers.
This is what he's missed in all his comings and goings this last year.
Smiles and squeals and hands reaching out toward him.
Hugs and exclamations over how well he looks.
Connection. Memory. Family.
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