liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,
liz_marcs
liz_marcs

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Water Hold Me Down (Part 21)

Buuuuusy weekend, but here 'tis.

I finally decided to let Xander have his head and do it his way. (Did I just blame a fictional character? Why yes, yes I did.) It did actually work out better than my way, although I'm somewhat disappointed because the kick to Xander's head when he finally talks to Haley one-on-one at the end of this part won't be as traumatic a fall if he had finally accepted the alternative universe theory. But, again, it works better if he thinks everyone around him is a stand-in for something "real."

Wheeeee!

Continued from Part 20

 

 

Don’t think.

Xander wasn’t sure where he was going.

Don’t feel.

All he knew was that he was running away from the cemetery. The small corner of his brain that still believed in self-preservation told him that heading in that direction was a one-way ticket to Deadonia.

Don’t think don’t feel don’t think don’t feel…

People.

He needed to get lost in a crowd of people because if other him spotted him there’d be questions and demands for answers. He wasn’t entirely sure if faced with either or both that he’d manage to keep it together.

Real? Not real? Nightmare? Hallucination? Alive? Dead?

Some of the things Anya said made zero sense. Husband? Living with Giles? Something somewhere about an accident? What? How? Who? Hunh?

He ended up somewhere near a playing field where some team was practicing football. Without a moment’s hesitation, he ducked under the bleachers. It was the best compromise he was going to get between his need to just be near living, breathing humans and hiding from the people that counted. Yeah, it was icky under the bleachers, but then again he was icky, so it was a perfect place.

He restlessly moved deeper into the gloom as he tried to just focus for one moment on his situation, but the whole argument with his hallucinated Anya kept intruding.

Anya mentioned something about a car accident. Obviously it was bad enough that other him couldn’t stay involved with Slayage. But—and this was a big but—other him didn’t look and act at all like he’d been through something like that.

Hey! Think they noticed you only had one eye?

Touché. Still didn’t explain the fact other him seemed surprised by his scars that first day. If there was a really bad car accident lurking in other him’s past, wouldn’t other him just assume the scars came from the same place?

“Broken bones, maybe?” Xander quietly wondered.

Okay, so a broken leg or two broken legs or maybe even broken ribs could be serious enough to toss him on the wounded list. And since this wouldn’t have happened in Sunnydale circa 2002–2003 during the great First Evil smackdown, he probably would’ve been benched “until further notice” by Buffy. Lord knows Giles and Willow wouldn’t have argued against it.

He could also see where it might’ve led to a falling out. He hated, hated, hated whenever Buffy got on her kick about keeping people fray-adjacent. Blessed with twenty-twenty hindsight—okay, maybe just the single twenty in his case—he could see where she was coming from.

Didn’t mean he had to like it.

Besides, Buffy was starting get all fray-adjacent about everyone—even Willow and Giles—about the time she hooked up with Riley. It took him years to figure out that it was just part of Buffy’s make-up. The way he saw it, Buffy sometimes shut people out partially because she didn’t want to see anyone she cared about get hurt and partially because she really did feel that there were some things only she could handle. Whatever nasty thoughts he had about Spike, he had to give the son of a bitch his due: thanks to fangface sparking that fight during the Adam debacle, Xander finally saw that Buffy’s occasional tendency to push people away didn’t apply to just him.

That lesson was later reinforced with a slap in the face after he found out that Buffy had turned to Spike for comfort instead of confronting him and Willow about what they’d done to her. The blame wasn’t all Buffy’s since he, Willow, and Giles were dealing with their own complications at the time, but she never gave any of them any hint that she needed a shoulder to cry on.

Of course, that realization had its downside. It was a large part of the reason why he gave Buffy so much slack up until the eye gouging back in Sunnydale. He figured she’d finally come around and start sharing the burden like she always did. He was right. She did, although she did it with a vengeance after they survived some pretty major drama.

Meet the Scoobies, the original avoid-y crew, Xander bitterly laughed. Why mention the suck when you can close your eyes, stick your fingers in your ears, and la-la-la it away? Because everyone knows that always works out.

Whatever happened with the car accident thing Anya mentioned, the aftermath was probably bad enough that other him thought that Buffy was only targeting him for removal from the frontlines. It would explain why other him didn’t see fit to mention to his friends that he was leaving Sunnydale for good until he was far, far away.

“This could be it,” Xander said quietly. “If we’re talking world without shrimp, we may have a winner on where it all went wrong. Or right. Or right and wrong. God, I’m a little too stupid for this.”

Even getting stuck living with Giles for a month or two was kind of plausible. Stretching credibility, true, but vaguely possible. He had no doubt in his mind that the kind of injuries he’d get from a car accident would probably knock him out of the minimum wage workforce. No wage, no money. No money, no rent. No rent, Tony would’ve evicted his sorry ass to the dumpster behind the burned-out high school.

Xander angrily chuckled. This is the same Tony that hits me up for a “loan” almost every time he calls to see how I’m doing. Really should’ve stuck to that promise to not care what happens to him or Jessica.

“Yup. Definitely too stupid for this,” Xander agreed with himself.

The thing that was throwing him off was this: Olaf the Troll as Anya’s first husband. He wasn’t completely deluded when it came to Anya. The bod may have been virgin territory, but Anya sure as hell wasn’t. But when he asked about Olaf, she said that they had just dated. At no point did the word “married” cross her lips.

“The big question is, why would I think she’d lie to me about it?” Xander asked the filthy underside of the benches.

That, more than anything else, seemed to toss him right back into hallucinated territory. It had to be something in him that wanted to paint Anya as a first class liar when it came to her-and-him as a relationship. And lying about Olaf’s status when he’d directly asked her about it kind of seemed…petty?

No, wait. Wrong word.

A big red flag. That was a much better phrase.

If the Olaf thing was true—not that he thought it was, but just supposing it was—the fact she didn’t trust him enough to tell him was a big red flag with the words “this relationship is doomed” embroidered on it in sparkly thread.

So, if he was walking in nightmare/hallucination territory, it looked like his brain was trying to still place blame on where it all went wrong with her and him. He was either trying to turn way-too-honest-for-her-own-good Anya into a manipulative liar, or his brain was trying to point out that he never gave Anya any good reason to believe she could tell him the truth about anything important.

He’ll go with his brain trying to turn Anya into the bad guy, although this kind of lie was a pretty far-fetched one for him to cook up on his own. But, hey, he just had himself screw Anya—a very married Anya; an ex-vengeance demon Anya who specialized in splattering the entrails of men like him who did what he just did—behind her husband’s back. So really, this Olaf-the-husband business would be icing on the bad-guy Anya cake.

On the other hand, back in the real world, Anya did hesitate a bit when he’d asked her about her relationship with Olaf. He thought. He wasn’t sure. Maybe his memory was inserting a hesitation when there wasn’t one. At least she was pretty sure she liked him better than the Olaf, so that had to count for something.

Xander found himself treading back into world without shrimp territory. Maybe.

“Not possible,” he muttered. There was the fact that a lot of things seemed to track with what he was familiar with: Sunnydale getting destroyed in an “earthquake,” the Mother House conveniently located in Cleveland with the same phone number…

“And that Giles failed,” Xander said as he straightened up. “I mean, c’mon, Giles had to have known I’d left Sunnydale, right? So he didn’t come with backup or something? Giles got to Willow long before Buffy and Dawn faced off with those root people underground, so no way. There was no way Willow could’ve killed Buffy and Dawn before he got to her. Before that, she was pretty focused on taking out Warren, Jonathan, and Andrew and getting more power. She didn’t try to go for the kill until after Buffy tried to lay down the Slayer law. Right?”

At least he was pretty sure that’s how things went. What he didn’t know was if Willow had the opportunity to kill Buffy or Dawn before then. Things about that day were so hazy, even now, he wasn’t entirely sure what happened and when.

And now that he thought about it, every time he asked Buffy or Dawn what happened in their confrontations with Dark Willow, they always turned the conversation around to what he did on Kingman’s Bluff. It wasn’t so much that he was hazy on the details; he simply didn’t know what was happening while he and Anya tore through those books back at the Magic Box and he indulged in a little guilty free-association.

And Anya pointed out that I was more worried about Willow and Buffy than I ever was about her, Xander winced.

Ooooo, yeah. That red flag of relationship doom now had rhinestones outlining the words. Except now he could see the fractures in what he actually knew to be real.

He leaned against a support pole and slid down to the littered muck. “I suck. I suck like a great big sucking thing and not in a good way, either.” He waved his hand around, as if pointing out to an invisible audience that his surroundings proved the point. “Check it out. I’ve even got proof.”

Or maybe not…

His eyes widened. “I’m being isolated.”

It made sense. Everything in this hallucination seemed specifically designed to demoralize him on a personal level. While he was sorry about how he and Anya blew apart on the day of the wedding, he was never really sorry about not going through with it. Part of it was because he was convinced there was an element of truth to those visions; but a bigger part was that he’d realized he simply wasn’t ready to get married.

However, the whole scenario he walked into—the big house, the almost-never-drinks other him, the success, the happily married him-and-Anya with kid, the freelance Slayage—was all designed to make him think he made a huge mistake by not marrying Anya.

Then when he showed up things quickly spiraled out of control. Why? Because of everything he did, ranging from his bickering with fake Anya whenever they spent more than five minutes alone together all the way up to his massive lapse in judgment in having sex with other him’s wife. It was yet another way for his brain to say, You’re poison. You not only can’t do anything right, you fuck up everything you even think about touching.

He got up, started pacing, and muttered to himself. “I just managed to cut myself off from the one place I knew I was safe. Not comfortable because, so not. But safe-ish from things that go bump. And I lost any and all help in trying to figure out what’s going on. The ol’ brain told me that fake Anya had the key to getting me out of here, but I managed to turn key-holding fake Anya into an enemy, which means I turned other me into an enemy, which means…”

This whole thing, the whole delusion, was designed for him to get so beaten down that he couldn’t even dare to hope that he could get out this.

He started giggling again, only now it sounded a little broken around the edges. “God, I really hate myself, don’t I? Yeah. Abandon all hope ye who enter the mind of the great Xander Harris. So, if I give up, it makes it harder for me to get me out of this mess.”

He bit his lip and forced himself to back away from hysteria. “So the whole fight, everything fake Anya said, is all designed to isolate me from help. Throw in that I can’t expect help if I call and beg fake Faith to point me in the right direction, I managed to build castle-sized walls all around me.”

There had to be another way around it. There had to be. All he had to do was find that crack between the rocks and squeeze through or find the loophole to grab on to, and he’d wake up snug in his own Cleveland bed.

“Unless it really is the world without shrimp,” Xander deflated.


The moment the words escaped from his mouth, there was a thunking sound of someone mounting the bleachers and taking a seat.

A warning zing went up his spine.

Oh shit! Magic!

Just when he thought his day couldn’t get any worse. Judging by the sheer violence of the feeling, he’d guess whatever spell triggered him was either freshly cast or very powerful.

He crouched low and suspiciously looked around him.

Even though he spotted a pair of female legs and a book bag over to his left, he thought it wise to first look for any sign that the area on under the bleachers had been used for spellwork, not that he expected to find one. That stupid sensitivity of his would’ve knocked him on his ass if that were the case.

The area was clean, which confirmed his suspicions, and he once again focused on the female legs on his left. Whoever she was, she was sitting right near the edge.

Maybe she was witch fresh from spell casting?

Make that a pretty powerful witch who just happened to take a breather by sitting on my bleachers. Xander grinned. Just when he thought all was lost, his brain handed him help on a silver platter. That is, assuming the witch in question would buy whatever lie he cooked up and would be willing to help. Still, if the ol’ hallucination was going to introduce a new character, there had to be a reason for it. He didn’t think it was completely out-of-line to expect that his sorry, worthless ass just got saved. Maybe his brain didn’t hate him after all.

He silently moved towards the back of the bleachers before making his way left. The smart thing would be to get a look at his witch and hopefully get an idea of the best approach to take before confronting her.

He poked his head out to take a look and quickly ducked back in. Haley? Haley is my witch?

Xander ground his teeth in frustration and clenched his fists. As twists in his already twisty hallucination went, this was bad. This was very bad. He was so screwed that it wasn’t even funny.

What really killed him was that it wasn’t like his brain hadn’t been warning him all along that something like this might be in the offing. Every time he came into contact with Haley, something kept telling him that all was not right with the girl. He had put down the unsettled feeling he got every time he looked at her to a lot of things, some of them pretty mundane reasons. He never considered the source of all his Haley-related issues might be magic-related.

Okay, he hadn’t gotten that magic feeling around Haley, but then again, he didn’t really get it from Willow either, unless she was in the middle of casting or had just finished casting a spell. According to Giles, it was a reaction to the energy that crackled around Willow and not so much Willow herself. If it applied to Willow, it probably applied to Haley.

Xander wasn’t entirely sure how long he remained frozen with indecision. The unreality slip had screwed up his sense of time so much that he could’ve stood there for five seconds or five hours and not known the difference. In the end, however, he realized he had no choice. If Haley was a witch and his brain had decided to point it out, he probably should just go with it and hope like hell he was doing the right thing.

He quietly stepped from the shelter of the bleachers and moved forward, keeping his eye trained on his quarry. Obviously he wasn’t quiet enough, because he was just out of arm’s reach when Haley startled and her head whipped around. Large eyes dominated her face as she stammered out, “U-u-u-u-uncle Rory! What are you doing here?”

“Me?” Xander smiled what he hoped was a friendly smile. “Going for a walk. I got turned around and got lost. Then I saw you and hoped—” He cut himself off mid-sentence when he realized that Haley was desperately trying to roll down her left sleeve over her left wrist.

Her uninjured left wrist.

Xander leapt forward, grabbed her wrist, and stared at it. No bandage. No sign she had stitches. No sign she was ever even injured.

“Haley, what is this?” he asked. He looked up into Haley’s face. She was pale and shaking all over. Her eyes, if anything, got even wider, except now they weren’t showing surprise, but unadulterated fear.

“Where’s the bandage, Haley?” Xander fought to keep his voice calm.

Haley started shaking even harder.

“Were you injured? Were you really injured?” he insisted. He scanned the immediate area and spotted the discarded bandage on the bleacher seat behind Haley. There wasn’t a trace of blood on it. “Oh, god,” he whispered.

“Let me go,” Haley asked in a small, shaky voice.

Xander couldn’t take his eyes off the bandage. “You healed. You never went to the emergency room for stitches, did you?”

“Leave me alone!” Haley shouted as she yanked her arm away from him—just a little too hard, his mind registered—jumped off the bleaches and landed on the ground—just a little too far away—and ran like hell—just a little too fast—for the trees on the far side of the field. Before he realized what he was doing, he was already chasing her, running faster than he ever had in his life.

He wasn’t worried that anyone would notice. If anything, he was dead certain that no one would even see what was going on. Reality slipped and slid around him, as if to make room for what he just knew was a new and exciting assault on psyche. He had no idea what was real and what wasn’t, but he finally knew one thing was true. When he saw Haley’s perfectly unblemished wrist, he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that whatever was going on, something out there hated him more than he thought possible.

When he hit the copse of brush-littered trees—maybe too late, maybe too far behind— he paused a moment and listened.

He wasn’t exactly shocked that he heard nothing. If he was right, Haley’s instincts wouldn’t let her give her position away. If he wanted to find out her deal, he’d have to be the one to make the first move.

Xander took a deep breath, pushed aside the underbrush, and moved into the shelter of the trees. He didn’t bother trying to be careful, because the last thing he should do is sneak up on her. He suspected that he had just terrified Haley and a terrified Haley, assuming he guessed right, would be a very dangerous Haley, especially if she had no idea that she could hurt him pretty badly.

When he went as far in as he dared, Xander scanned the area. “Haley?” he asked. “Haley, are you there?”

No answer. Okay, not that he was expecting one, but kind of disappointing just the same.

Right. He’d been on enough Slayer recruiting missions. Maybe she was, maybe she wasn’t. Either way, he figured he’d try that tact. “Haley? There’s nothing wrong with you. I want you to know that.”

Still no answer.

Xander swallowed. Time to bring out the mental checklist. God, how many times had he seen Giles do this, or Robin? Okay, not a whole lot, but at least several times between the two of them.

“You’ve been having dreams, haven’t you?” Xander felt a bothersome trickle of flop sweat down the back of his neck, but kept his hands by his sides. “Dreams about monsters, maybe? Or people with…with…these really ugly faces and yellow-ish eyes, right? And they’re all coming after you.”

He thought he heard a rustle, but he wasn’t sure.

Okay, she’s twelve, so if whatever this is resembles home at all… “You run faster than anyone else. You’re stronger than anyone else. You have to be really careful, otherwise someone might notice, right?” Xander asked.

Yup. Definitely a rustle. Thank god. He had her attention now.

“But what really freaks you out is that when you get hurt, you don’t stay hurt, do you?” Xander asked. “You don’t bruise easily. Other things that would really hurt someone else don’t really hurt you. But when you do get hurt, all of the evidence disappears really fast.”

He idly wondered if Anya knew. Going by that dinner conversation about Haley’s accident the first night, he knew damn well that other him didn’t know. Maybe if asshole wasn’t so busy hiding what he was doing from his family, he might’ve noticed something was up with the kid.

If I’m right about this…Xander fought down the spike of anger. The last thing he needed was to sound or look angry, otherwise he was going to lose her just as surely as he lost access to the Harris homestead.

“You’re scared of being found out because you’re afraid there’s something wrong with you. That you’re a freak.” Xander kept scanning the area around him. “But you’re not a freak, Haley. You’re someone really special.”

Something, make that someone, was moving toward him. That more than anything else told him Haley didn’t have a lick of training. Buffy, Faith, hell, even the newbie Slayers who’d been tutored even a little bit at the Mother House, learned how to move fast and silent no matter how many bushes were between them and a target. She hadn’t learned yet, which meant that her Watcher hadn’t shown up, or that the Watcher’s Council hadn’t found her. Of course, he was kind of assuming the Watcher’s Council existed wherever he was. Given that Sunnydale was a hole in the ground here too, he was assuming an awful lot.

“You’re what we…I…I mean we…call a Slayer.” Xander paused. Haley had stopped moving, probably because the word ‘Slayer’ sounded hella scary to her. “That’s a good thing, by the way. It means you’re like a superhero. You protect people from the bad things that would kill them, like those monsters you dream about.”

The second the words left his mouth, Haley’s head popped out of the brush practically in front of him. Xander jumped.

“Superhero?” Haley asked haltingly.

“Superhero,” Xander confirmed quietly.

Haley’s internal war played across her face. He could see she wanted to believe it, but that she was more afraid that what he was saying was true.

“I can prove it,” Xander said.

Haley’s expression settled on hopeful doubt. “How?”

“Is there somewhere we can go where we won’t be spotted?” Xander asked. As Haley’s expression darkened, he quickly added, “You don’t have to take me anywhere where you don’t feel safe, but I can’t show you in front of the team out there.”

Haley remained suspicious.

“Even if I was tempted, which I’m not by the way, I can’t actually hurt you. I can’t do anything you don’t want,” Xander said. Calm. Stay calm. “Is there a really big rock somewhere in there? One you don’t think you can lift?”

“Yeah. I guess.”

Xander let out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. “Okay, I’m going to prove you’re a lot stronger than me. I want you to go, lift that rock, and throw it as hard as you can. Ummm, aim it away from me.”

Haley disappeared into the underbrush again. There was a sound of movement, a slight grunt, followed by one hell of a crash. There was the sound of scrambling and Haley reappeared, looking a mix of elated and terrified.

“Now can we talk?” Xander asked.

Haley jerked her head to indicate he should follow her and led the way a little deeper into the trees. Xander stumbled and bumbled through the bushes. Branches whipped back at his face disturbingly often, mostly because his one-eyedness made judging just how close he was to getting a welt a difficult thing to do.

He was so focused on fighting his way through that when he stumbled into a slight, brush-free depression, he was taken completely by surprise. He let out a little yelp before he finally found his feet.

Haley nervously giggled.

“Okay, now that I’ve entertained you, I’m going to reach up my sleeve to get something.” Xander hoped he sounded like he knew what he was doing because he felt so in over his head that it wasn’t even funny. “I’m going to pull it out and hand it to you.”

Haley took a step back and warily watched him.

Here goes nothing, Xander thought as he pulled one of his hidden stakes free. He flipped it around so the pointed end was facing him, and held it out.

Haley hesitated for the barest of moments before taking a quick step forward and snatching it out of his outstretched hand. The expression on her face immediately transformed from questioning to certainty as she adjusted her grip on it. When she looked at him again, she was almost smiling.

“That’s a stake. You use it to kill vampires.”

“Vampires aren’t real,” Haley said as she clutched the stake harder.

“Those guys with the yellow eyes in your dreams? Vampires,” Xander said.

Haley looked speculatively down at the stake.

“Okay, if vampires aren’t real, than why does the world need Vampire Slayers?” Xander asked.

“Which are like superheroes,” Haley said quietly.

“That have dreams about monsters so they can be warned that there’s danger. Who can run really, really fast. Who can heal even faster. Who aren’t hurt all that easily. Who are really, really strong,” Xander said.

Haley looked at him. “Tell me.”

***

Faith’s mouth hung open as she watched her Harris look-alike send this girl through her paces.

She couldn’t possibly be seeing what she was seeing.

She pulled out the pendant and stared at it suspiciously. Little bastard should be heating up and vibrating its ass off if she’s legit.

The tiny stone on the chain remained cold and still.

But the kid, whoever the hell she was, had the moves. She had the fucking look. She was scurrying up trees, flipping around the tiny clearing, and executing fighting stances that no non-Slayer could possibly pull off.

Unless she’s a demon. It would explain the dead rock and what I’m seeing.

Faith’s gut instinct disagreed on the demon front. Besides, this looked pretty close to the tests they used to run on suspected Slayers back in the bad ol’ days before the Devon coven cooked up the idea to equip Slayers and Watchers with Slayer detectors in the form of enchanted necklaces.

She didn’t normally wear it on account of the fact that the Cleveland house always had Slayers around, which would’ve meant non-stop heating and vibrating around her neck. But she always knew to take it with her whenever she was leaving for any length of time.

Although, she had to admit, she never actually found an undiscovered baby Slayer before.

Actually, not you, dumbass. Him. He found her.

She was almost willing to bet that he didn’t expect that to happen.

She’d actually had lost him for a little bit somewhere on the athletic field. She had been walking the perimeter, hoping against hope she’d spot her quarry when she spotted this guy moving at a dead run after the girl.

So, yeah, she tore after him, figuring that some evil shit was going down. Given the sun was still out, she knew the kid wasn’t no vampire, so it wasn’t looking good for assface’s younger twin. By the time she caught up with him, he was already giving his little superhero explanation. While she’d never heard any Watcher ever explain it that way, she had to admit the approach worked.

So for the past half-hour, she sat and watched this guy tell the girl everything before he started putting her through her paces.

The kid was now swinging from a branch as she smiled down at the guy.

Oh, fuck. The dream!

The way the kid was smiling at him…

Shit. It’s that girl on the porch in the dream!

Faith’s hands clenched.

Except, in her dream this guy was a vampire. He was looking distinctly un-vampy at the moment. If anything, he sounded a hell of a lot like a Watcher, albeit a Watcher who wasn’t so good about the tweedy way of doing things. Plus, as far as she knew, not too many Watchers would get caught dead in jeans and a sweatshirt.

Who the hell are you?

He was a dead-ringer for Harris when assface was younger, but the way he acted didn’t match up with her memories. This guy seemed a lot more self-assured for a start. He also seemed to actually have a clue about how Slayers ticked.

“Okay, I think that’s enough,” the guy said.

The girl let go of the branch, did a little twist in the air, and landed on her feet within a foot of the guy’s nose.

He didn’t even frigging flinch.

“Showoff,” he remarked.

The kid hung her head and kicked at the dirt. “Sorry.”

A grin exploded across the guy’s face. “Didn’t say you should apologize.”

She looked up with a nearly identical grin.

Related? Faith wondered. Might make sense. Maybe he didn’t actually stumble across the kid. Maybe he was just trying to get her alone.

“How long have you been having dreams?” the guy asked.

The kid’s grin disappeared.

He reached out and touched her shoulder. “Haley? It’s okay. You can tell me. I’m not going to get angry or anything. I’m just curious.”

“Ummm, last year,” the kid—Haley—mumbled.

“Ahh. Do you mind if I sit?”

Haley shrugged.

The guy lowered himself carefully to the ground. “Do your parents know about this?”

“Mom does.”

The guy closed his eyes like the answer stung. “But not your…your…I mean your father doesn’t know?”

“No,” Haley said. She quickly added, “My mom got really scared when…see, we, my mom and me, we were taking my old clothes to the second-hand shop. I…I didn’t see where I was going and I kinda fell down the stairs. And mom started panicking because she was afraid I was hurt. But she got really scared when I didn’t even have any bruises or anything. Then right after I started getting the nightmares and…my mom’s really, really scared. She told me not to tell anyone, not even dad. She said if I told, some men might come and take me away.”

Even in the dimming daylight, Faith could see the guy go pale. “Did she say why?”

“No. Just that she’s really scared that someone will take me away,” Haley said. “And we have to do stuff to make sure no one notices, like the thing we did last night while you and dad were out. She does this…I’m not sure what she does. It’s really weird some of the things she does with me, and I’m not sure what good it does because I still have to pretend I don’t have nightmares and I have to pretend to get hurt when I’m supposed to be hurt and I have to pretend that I’m not really, really strong.”

“And you can’t tell your dad about this,” the guy said quietly. “So, why are you telling me?”

Haley looked back down at the dirt as she kicked at invisible twigs. “The dreams are getting worse. Like, really, really scary. I can’t tell mom these dreams, even though she says I should tell her all of them, but I can’t tell her these dreams because…I just can’t.”

“Can you tell me?” the guy asked.

The girl shook her head.

“But you told me everything else, so why not these dreams?”

“I told you because you could tell me what was happening because no one knows. Not even mom knows why I am the way I am.”

The guy sure as hell didn’t look like he was buying the kid’s line.

“Haley, remember what I said about the dreams being a warning?” He awkwardly angled his head to try and look up into the girl’s face. “If they’re bad, it’s for a reason. It’s a ‘Danger Will Robinson’ moment. Hiding from them doesn’t help.”

Faith fought back a snort. Not hiding from them never helped either, at least in her experience.

Then, from out of the clear blue sky, Haley asked, “Did you know you’re dead?”

The guy froze.

Faith’s eyes narrowed. Now this is getting much more interesting.

“I dreamed it,” Haley said. “I dreamed you were dead.”

“Well, I don’t think I’m dead,” the guy was trying to sound like it was no big. “Breathing. Heartbeat. 98.6 degrees. Yup. Definitely alive here.”

“You’re not my uncle either, are you?”

“What makes you say that?” The guy wasn’t entirely being successful holding on to that light-hearted mask, Faith could see.

“In my dreams, mom calls you Xander. She only calls dad Xander, ’cause that’s his name. Which you know. I mean, you can’t both be Xander, so I’m really confused.”

Holy shit. Hoooooly shit. The dream was literal. There really were two fucking Harrises running around, except one was a pansy-ass coward and the other was a hardcore player.

Okay, so she had herself two Harrises. Where the fuck was the other Faith?

“Haley, it’s really complicated to explain. At least the name part, anyway. So, stick with Rory for me. Easier for everyone all around.” Harris Jr.’s face seemed to disappear into shadow as dusk started settling into the trees. “Can you tell me anything else about the dream?”

Haley hesitated.

“It’s important,” Harris Jr. said.

“You had yellow eyes and you were killing people.”

Faith felt her stomach drop. It wasn’t common for two Slayers to have similar Slayer dreams, but when it did happen, that was a big ol’ sign that bad shit was a-coming and that her usual duck-and-cover routine would only make the situation worse.

Harris Jr.’s face was heavy in shadow now, so she couldn’t discern his expression.

Looks like you just scored yourself a bodyguard, sweetheart, Faith thought, although she wasn’t entirely sure whether she meant Haley or Harris Jr. Hell, maybe she even meant both.

“Since you don’t…I mean I don’t see yellow eyes, I don’t understand,” Haley said.

“Could be a warning for you not to trust me,” Harris Jr.’s voice sounded a little too calm to Faith, “could also be an…ummm…parable? No. Wait. Allegory. Sorry. If Giles was here he’d kick my a—I mean, my butt for saying parable. Could mean that I might bring danger into your house just because I’m around.”

Faith started at the mention of Rupes’s name. Harris Jr. very obviously was ignorant about the score around here.

“Oh. So what do I do?” Haley asked.

Wow. The girl really was clueless. Harris Jr. basically told her that trusting him might not be a wise move and she was asking his advice.

Harris Jr. was clearly thinking along the same lines because he chuckled, although Faith could hear the hard edge of disbelief on it. “Right now? What I’d do is go back home and sit tight. Oh, and whatever you do, do not mention my name. And if your parents bring me up, don’t get involved.”

“Why? Mom would be relieved if someone told her about—”

“Trust me. She very much wouldn’t.” Harris Jr. stood up and leaned forward, just enough so Faith could see his face in the dimming light. “Your mother and I, we…unh…had a bit of a fight. I’m not exactly welcome back at the homestead. Could be your dream was making reference to that, too.”

“But—”

“Haley,” Harris Jr. interrupted. “We don’t know what your dream means and right now I don’t have the resources to find out. So, please. For your own safety, go home and sit tight. Don’t worry about the dream or me right now. Just…just keep doing what you’re doing.”

“I can’t,” the kid sounded close to tears. “I can’t just pretend that I don’t know anything.”

Harris Jr. dropped to one knee in front of Haley. “It won’t be forever. There are some people who can help you, but first I have to fin—I mean get in touch with them. They’ll be able to help you out a lot more than I can. They can train you and teach you and they’ve got resources to protect you until you get your Slayer legs. Right now I don’t have anything that can help and there’s no point in putting you in danger or getting you in trouble until I reach them.”

The kid looked doubtful.

“Haley, I promise. I’m not going to abandon you and you’re not going to have to pretend forever.” Harris Jr. said. “Give me a couple of days first, especially since tomorrow’s Friday and I might have a hard time reaching people over the weekend. If I don’t show up on your front porch with help by Monday morning, meet me at the bleachers right after school on that day. If I still don’t have anything, we’ll think of an alternative then. Okay?”

“You’re not going to leave me alone?” Haley asked.

Harris Jr. shook his head. “No.”

“What about my parents?” Haley asked.

Harris Jr. winced. “Normally I wouldn’t go for keeping them out of the loop, but maybe we should for now, especially since I’m completely on the outs with them. Hell, I mean, heck, telling them about your Slayer status is the number one alternative if I can’t get in touch with the people who can help you.”

Haley nodded. “’Kay.”

“Look, it’s getting dark.” Harris Jr. gave her a tight smile. “Go home. I have to go find some place to crash for a few days, but I’ll get right on tracking down some help for us first thing in the morning.” He reached out and touched the girl on the shoulder. “Haley? It’s okay. You’re not alone. I promise.”

“See you Monday, then,” Haley said dully.

“Probably before,” Harris Jr. said lightly. “It’s a matter of tracking down a phone number. I have a pretty good idea where to start.”

The kid gave Harris Jr. a nod and his stake back before she began pushing her way out through the bushes. Thankfully, she was far enough away from Faith’s position that the kid would never spot her in the growing darkness.

Shit. Stay with junior or go with the kid to watch her back? As she watched Harris Jr. sink to the ground, she remained torn. Without a doubt he had a date with a vampire at some point, so leaving him alone after dark wasn’t smart.

Then again, her Slayer dream had been pretty literal so far—as literal as the damn things ever were, at any rate—so that date was probably going to be on the front lawn of that damn house and not here.

Besides, the kid was a newbie and, given she was a Slayer, had a target on her back. From what she’d seen in her dream and with her own two eyes, Harris Jr. seemed to at least be able to defend himself. Given Harris Jr.’s body posture against that tree he was leaning against, Faith was willing to bet he wasn’t going anywhere for awhile.

She wasn’t entirely happy with her decision, but then again, she wasn’t really thrilled with her options. Okay, follow the kid home, and then beat ass back here to meet and greet our new best friend.

Continued in Part 22

DOWNLOAD (good for seven days): Holy Tears by Tara MacLean

 

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