Rating: R, overall for violence, language and sexual situations.
Summary: The world of Lotrips mingles with Stephen King's The Stand (and The DarkTower). For those who've survived Captain Trips, life has become dangerous and strange. Las Vegas is destroyed, Randall Flagg fled from the world, but what will become of Dom? And will Billy and the others make it home to Idaho safely?
Feedback: is much loved and appreciated.
Disclaimers: This is entirely fictional. No disrespect to anyone, real or fictional, is intended. The Stand was written by Stephen King. The title comes from T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men.
Chaps. 1 through 45; Chap. 46; Chap. 47
This Is the Way the World Ends, Pt. 48
They've been heading nearly straight north for hours, traveling toward Idaho on Interstate 93, when Vig brings the SUV to a sudden halt, just in the centre of the freeway. Max has begun a low keening, an almost humourous noise, like an electric kettle about to go on the boil, but Billy knows the reason for that sound isn't humourous at all.
There's something building, building, building in the south, and the pressure of it seems to push out from behind his eyes and to make the inside of his head feel thick and uncomfortable, like flying with a bad cold when the plane first leaves the ground.
Billy glances down at Dom--in truth, he's scarcely looked away from him in all their hours on the road--but this is different. Unresponsive as he's been, he knows Dom's feeling this too, as he's been feeling what's led up to it during all their long drive home.
The others don't know, and Billy's not sure why he hasn't told them (perhaps he knows Viggo would stop, and it's essential, somehow, for their lives, that he not stop), but as the miles unspool behind them Dom's begun to undergo a terrible change.
First it was his fine, soft hair, sifting away through Billy's fingers, then his nails, dropping off one, by one, by one. The mirror-brightness of his eyes has been covered by a milky film and the inside of his mouth is red and sore, bloody round the roots of his teeth. His lips are cracked and splitting.
Billy scarcely dares to touch him now.
"What's going on?" Elijah asks, his voice high and tight, as if he's just short of panicking. "Why have we stopped?"
Viggo doesn't answer, only opens the door, sliding down out of the driver's seat. His bootheels click on the tarmac. After a moment, the others pile out too--Billy can see them through the back window, though he feels very far from them in this moment, very alone.
"Lijah's right, Vig," Orli says. "What's happening?" He sounds nearly panicked too, and quite young, younger than he has done in years. Elijah's holding Max on his hip, and Orli puts his arms round them both, squeezing them close.
"We have to get home," Sean explodes. "Viggo, the women…"
"Ssh," Viggo hushes them--quietly, though his voice carries.
The sound comes first: a soft thump, scarcely more than the sound of a shoe being dropped to a carpeted floor, then a second, huger sound, not thunder, not the tolling of an iron bell, not an eagle's angry shriek, but something of all three intermingled, growing until they're forced to press their hands over their ears, the noise of it--not so much the loudness, but the noise itself--too much to bear.
Next, down by the horizon, the sky is painted in blotches, furious purples, crimsons, vermilions, oranges, the colours fading, spreading, as they climb higher against the blue.
Last of all, far in the distance, the cloud.
Billy's reminded of when he was fifteen, a day in late January, having eaten supper early so that he could sit in front of the telly with his gran and Margaret to watch the Space Shuttle Challenger launch. The women couldn't be bothered, really, they only had it on for him, but Billy was mad for space. He'd have loved to be an astronaut if he wasn't too small, and Scottish, and hopeless at maths. He remembers that awful moment of the explosion, the fire, the lovely ship with its brave souls aboard tumbling backwards in pieces through the air.
He remembers, to this day, the horror, the utter disbelief, his mind refusing, altogether, to see what it had just seen.
That's what the cloud's like--not some cliché depicted in a thousand films, but something brooding, malevolent, obscene. Something to drain the brightness from the world. Something not to be believed.
God, he thinks, Let us be far enough. Let us be far enough away.
There are tears running down Billy's cheeks, soaking uncomfortably into his collar. Blindly, his hand reaches for Dom's ravaged hand.
For all his hated of Flagg, the thought of the people of Las Vegas, all those poor people lost now inside the cloud, nearly destroys him.
"Ah, Dom, céile, that's where you've been," Billy murmurs--though he's known all along where Dom was going, he'd no idea this would be the outcome. Not this devastation. Not this ruin.
Billy doesn't understand how it can be (since wherever else his spirit may have been traveling, Dom's body has been safe with him) but he's seen enough of the right kind of science fiction films to know the symptoms Dom's exhibited are signs of radiation poisoning.
He can't look at the cloud any longer, and so he turns back to Dom, cupping Dom's face between his palms, stroking the bare curve of Dom's skull with his fingertips, and then down, until his hand's resting over Dom's heart.
"You've been brave, haven't you, love?" he murmurs. "Braver than you'll ever tell me, I imagine."
Dom's heartbeart is irregular, skipping beats, starting up again in a flurry of pulses. Beneath Billy's hand, his body arches suddenly backward in a taut bow, lifting from the SUV's rough grey matting, slamming down again. A yellowness comes over him that Billy realizes, after a moment, isn't colour, it's light, brilliant yellow-white light pouring out of Dom's skin until the tiny hold they're crowded in is filled with it, then the entire vehicle, then the world.
Billy cries out, eyes burning, skin on fire, the light aflame in his lungs. He tries to cry out again, but there's no space left for sound anywhere, no place for air.
He's tumbling backwards through the darkness, burning.
Billy doesn't expect ever to wake up again, but when he does it's under the most prosaic of circumstances, for the most prosaic of reasons: he's tucked up snugly in his bed in Idaho--he can tell by peering through slitted eyes at the bare, candlelit beams of the ceiling overhead--and he needs to piss.
He's very tired, and he tries to ignore the urge for as long as he can, but after a bit it's no use: he'll have to either get up or embarrass himself. Gingerly, he sits up in bed, swinging his legs over the edge. The tiredness, he's pleased to discover, isn't debilitating. It's more as if he's done many hard hours of physical labour, work that will make him stronger, once he's rested, rather than the reverse.
Cheered by this, he crosses the hall to the toilet, relieves himself and returns to his bedroom. There's an earthenware pitcher of water and an already-filled glass standing ready on the bureau, and before he settles, Billy pauses to drain it dry: it's delicious, cool and fresh, with a taste of good minerals. He pours a second glass, drinking thirstily.
From the mirror above the dresser, his face looks back at him. His skin's ferociously crimson, as if he's gone surfing for hours, without benefit of sunscreen, on the hottest day in August. His eyes are bloodshot and wary, red-rimmed.
Billy touches a fingertip to his nose, hissing a little at the sting of salt on his skin. It's exactly like a sunburn, no worse, no better. His hands and arms are scarlet, too, beneath the sleeves of his t-shirt, and though the areas covered by his clothes are pink, not red, the sting continues.
Dom. I should go to look for Dom, Billy tells himself, with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, but for this moment he's simply too weary. It's all he can do to slide back into bed, hissing again at the rasp of the covers against his sore skin. His eyes slip closed, and in a moment he's dreaming.
He's in their sometimes-house in Glasgow, the one they use mostly at Christmas and in late springs and early summers, when Dom's not filming, with a few odd weeks, here and there, in between. To his surprise, the furniture's been changed, and the happy Spaniel twapping its tail against his legs isn't Feathers, his good-natured black-and-white English Springer bitch, but a red-and-white Welsh Springer male.
Billy reaches down a hand, fondling its ears absently, the Springer's soft head pushing against his palm. The dog knows him, or thinks it does-though in a moment it's trotting away, into the darkened kitchen, nails clicking on the lino.
Billy follows it into the dimly-lighted room. Over by the back door, there's a man standing, gazing out into the nighttime backgarden, a baby in his arms. He starts as Billy comes up behind him, turning to glance over his shoulder, then swiftly back to the glass again.
It surprises Billy how unfamiliar he looks, all things considered.
"I can't see you," the man says. "Only in the window."
Billy nods. "I'm not really here," he says. "I'm dreaming." He realizes then that the other man, this other Billy, is weeping.
He wishes there was something he could say to him, something comforting, but there isn't anything he can think of that would have any meaning.
"He's not coming back, is he?" the other Billy asks him at last, wiping his eyes on the sleeve of his grey t-shirt.
"No," Billy answers. "He's not coming."
"Was…?" He shakes his head suddenly, violently. "No, I won't want to know."
"I was with him," Billy says. "He wasn't alone."
The other Billy nods. His eyes don't hold any gratitude, not really. "I wish I could say that made a difference."
"I don't suppose it would to me, either. All things considered."
"And your Dom? Did he make it back safely?"
"Aye." Billy shuts his eyes for a moment. There's no point going into the whole story, is there, really?
"I'm a much better liar than you are," the other Billy tells him. "S'pose I've had more practice."
"He did make it back," Billy says. "That much is the truth. And for that, I thank you. You looked after him, I know. You were good to him."
"Fuck you," the other Billy spits out, simultaneously weeping again and blazingly angry. Billy steps back from the look in his eyes; he's not the only one with a Gunslinger in him. After a moment, though, it's gone, leaving the other Billy, once more. grey and mourning.
"You don't deserve that," he says at last, softly. "After all, you were the one who noticed, weren't you? You were the one who loved him. Is that why our worlds split, do you think? Because I didn't love him enough, or rightly? It seems a lot to be responsible for."
"I don't know," Billy answers. "Dom's always understood that shite better than I do. With his bloody Stephen Hawking."
The other Billy laughs softly. "Yours too?"
"Aye," Billy tells him. For a moment, they share a grin.
"Tell him--" the other Billy says, "That I miss him?"
"I will." Billy's watching his own reflection now, fading from the glass. "I'll tell him." His voice hovers in the shadowy kitchen, as he's there and not there, as the kitchen goes altogether dark, and he's nowhere, aware of nothing.
There's a touch on his wrist, a cool, impersonal touch rather than someone comfortingly holding his hand. A moment later, something pokes intrusively into his ear.
"Oi!" Billy protests. "'s cold!" He sits up abruptly, the room spinning once or twice around him
before holding perfectly still. Toni's sitting next to him on the bed, an electronic thermometer in her hand and a startled look on her face.
"Billy, oh, Billy!" she cries, flinging her arms round him, the thermometer flying, and in a moment they're clutching at each other wildly, blubbing like mad people.
It's then he realizes, once and for all, that he's home. That Idaho, now, is home, as much as Glasgow ever has been.
He realizes, too, that if he doesn't stop himself from crying now, it may be a long, long time before he can stop.
Toni appears to recognize the same thing, at the same time. She sits looking at him in silence, her beautiful, large Cleopatra eyes bright and dark all at once, her face full of sorrow and smiles. Almost shyly, she reaches out, touching a finger to the tip of his nose. "You, young man," she says, "have the devil's own sunburn. Also-" She passes him a glass of water. "You're dehydrated. Drink up. You've slept for nearly seventy-two hours."
"I was tired," Billy tells her, as if that explains anything. "I did wake up once to--er--use the toilet."
Toni laughs at him, and kisses him on the mouth, and laughs again.
Billy drinks his water, watching her, knowing he'll need, in just a moment, to ask about Dom, but not wanting to, because he's frightened of what he'll hear.
When he's done, Toni takes the glass away. Her fingers go to the back of his head, then, to the spot--only slightly sore now--where the Minotaur hit him. "How's this now? Not so bad?"
"Not so bad," Billy agrees. He feels a bit impatient, suddenly. "I'm fine. Completely fine."
"You frightened us," Toni tells him, but she doesn't elaborate. "Viggo wanted me to tell you--we picked up equipment, counters, to monitor the radiation. As long as we're reading things right--and we went over the manuals pretty carefully--none of you are radioactive."
Billy closes his eyes. He can still feel Dom's hair slipping loose in his fingers. "None of us?"
"That's including Dom, Billy. When y'all first got here, I could have sworn he would be, that he was dying. Now, he certainly looks as if a strong wind could carry him away. I don't say he's all right--" Toni lays a cautioning hand on Billy's wrist. "Not yet. But I think he might be. I honestly think he might be, in the end."
Billy finds himself sagging against her, his head on Toni's shoulder. When she helps him back into bed, he discovers he doesn't have it in himself to argue. He's so tired, so utterly exhausted.
He wonders if the others are the same, so completely knackered they can't even think. He wonders if the past summer has drained them dry, the way it has him, or if they're made of stronger stuff.
Go and see Dom, y'lazy bastard, Billy chides himself, and he knows he should. He desperately wants to see Dom, at the same time he's afraid to see him--only he can't make it, not this time.
He lets Toni unfold the duvet over him, and plummets into sleep.
The third time Billy wakes, it's once and for all. He couldn't rest another moment if his life depended on it. He's achy, his skin still overly-sensitive, and utterly famished. He has no idea what day it is, or what time of the night it might be--he only knows it is night. The sky outside his window's deep indigo, so dark not even the stars show.
His room smells of lemon and vanilla, one of those jar candles Margaret always liked so much, left burning on the bureau. Billy's thankful for the light.
He takes the jar with him across the hall to the bathroom, where he relieves himself again, then stands looking into the glass above the vanity, scritching his fingers absently through his beard. He'll have to shave immediately: he looks like a half-mad mountain man, and Dom wouldn't like it. Dom likes him clean-shaven--ironically, considering the variety of scruff Dom's stubble-burned him with over the years.
Dom. He should see Dom. He must see Dom. Dom will be wanting him, as he always is.
Instead, Billy hunts out a razor and shaving foam from the cupboards and drawers. He shaves slowly, carefully, concentrating on the pull of the blade across his skin, rinsing the razor frequently under the tap.
Stalling, you're stalling, Billy Boyd, his brain informs him, and Billy knows it's true. He's not proud of it.
He wipes the last of the foam from his face with a towel, watching tears well up in his eyes, then spill. How can it be that he appears so unchanged? He ought to look older, harder--but he doesn't. It's just his eyes that have become watchful Gunslinger's eyes, and that's only sometimes, certainly not now.
The truth is, he wants Dom to be his Dom again, his own foolish, flash, impulsive, generous, bratty, loving, laughing, impossible Dom. His peacock Dom, with his trendy clothes and blonde-tinted hair that glints in the sun.
He wants to see Dom with his head thrown back, eyes sparkling, giggling his arse off at some adventure he's had, hands waving in the air as he tells Billy the no-doubt-embellished story, his rings and and the buckles of his wrist-cuffs flashing in the light.
For better or for worse, William, Billy tells himself sternly. That's what you promised. You stood up in front of everyone you knew and loved, and you promised. It's more sacred now than ever, since so many have gone.
Sighing, he drops the towel into the hamper and makes his way downstairs.
The furniture in the lounge has been moved around a bit to accommodate a fold-up cot, where Sean's fast asleep, snoring deeply and peacefully, like a bear in hibernation. There's a fire in the fireplace, the room's only light, and it makes the air just slightly too warm, but for all that, Dom's bundled up under a heavy duvet on the sofa--or, at least, Billy thinks the shape on the sofa must be Dom. There's only an almost-familiar hand visible beneath the duvet's hem, so much like Dom's and yet impossibly fragile.
Someone, Toni most likely, has bandaged Dom's fingertips neatly.
Billy doesn't want to wake either of the sleepers, but he has to see--is Dom under there? How will he be? Conscious? Coherent? Himself again? He steps forward, meaning to be silent, but instead treads directly on Viggo's dog's tail. With a yelp, more of outrage than of pain, it levitates from the carpet and scuttles away, shooting Billy a reproachful look from its large brown eyes as it goes.
"Sorry!" Billy hisses. "Sorry!" His heart's beating too fast; he hadn't known the bloody beast was there until the moment it rose up before him--but, of course, it would be near Dom.
Dogs always gravitate toward Dom. Perhaps they recognize a kindred spirit. Or perhaps, in their doggy hearts, it amuses them to see him miserable with allergies. Feathers, their sweet Springer bitch, always seemed to laugh when Dom was sneezing.
On the cot, Sean lets out a bit of a snort and rolls over, kicking off his light blanket.
"Was ist los?" Dom calls out. His voice sounds rusty with disuse, his throat raw. He lifts up a little from the pillows he's been propped with, the duvet falling back from his shoulders.
Already, Billy notices, there's a fine fuzz covering his scalp. His skin is even redder than Billy's own--but then, he always did burn terribly if he wasn't careful.
It takes Billy a minute to process the words, but he knows this one: it's a phrase he'll often get from Dom when he's out of sorts, along with a kiss and a cuddle. Was ist los? Dom's arms around him from behind, Dom's breath warm, his nose nudging at Billy's ear. Was ist los, Billy?
"Nothing, Dom." Billy can't help but laugh at himself. "Nothing's wrong. I trod on the dog's tail, is all. Didn't mean to wake you."
Dom's head goes down once more. His gaze appears to be fixed on a point over Billy's shoulder, somewhere in the middle distance.
Billy doesn't know why he's disappointed: perhaps somewhere in the back of his mind he'd cherished a wee fairytale that it would all be over, the Dark Man would be gone (and he knows, somehow, that was the purpose of the bomb, that it required something so final, and so terrible, to drive Flagg from their world) and when that had come to pass Dom would be himself. He'd have his normal, ordinary sight back, but the future would be as closed to him as it was to everyone.
He'd be Billy's bright, playful, cheeky little otter, and everything would be right again.
"Wer ist es? Wie heissen Sie?" Dom sounds nearly panicked. He's trying to press up again, but a coughing fit interrupts him and his hand goes to his throat. His face twists with pain.
"Ssh, ssh, Dom." It's Sean, pushing in between them, awakened instantly by years of fatherly instincts. He looks very large and solid in his white t-shirt and striped boxers, the only one of them who's put on any flesh in this terrible summer. With his hair overgrown, in need of cutting as all their hair is in need of cutting, he looks very much like Samwise Gamgee. "It's only Billy. You remember Billy. He's come here to see how you're doing."
Sean lifts a glass from the tea table, a solid plastic tumbler, bright blue, with a straw in. "Okay, here's some water, then I'll give you some more of your medicine. Do you want to try with the straw again?" He guides Dom's hand to the cup, nudging the end of the straw against his lips. "There, can you feel it? I'll hold the water for you. Don't worry about spilling."
"He only started talking again a couple hours ago," Sean tells Billy soothingly, one large, capable hand holding the tumbler as the other gently supports Dom's head. "No English so far, but that'll change, I betcha. Vig has a theory that things have kinda broken apart for him, and Dom's picking them up, piece by piece, as best he can. We think he understands us, some of the time. He seems to want the sound of our voices, anyway."
Dom responds with a broken word or two in German, then tries sucking feebly at the straw, though he doesn't really seem to have got the knack of it. Despite Sean's assurances, his soft murmurs of encouragement, water does spill. Dom's eyes are flooding and spilling, too, though Billy couldn't say if he even knows he's crying. What comes off him, in waves, are pain, and frustration, and fear.
There's a clatter of footsteps on the stairs, then Elijah's voice from the doorway. "Never fear, I came prepared." He mops Dom off cheerfully with a large hand towel before pushing aside a pair of pillows in order to plop down beside him on the sofa, nudging Dom a little further upright, his arms around Dom's waist. "Hey, how's it going, Emo boy? Having a bad night?" Elijah draws up his legs and pulls Dom closer, practically into his lap. "You can't get too intense with him, or he senses it and gets upset. He likes to be cuddled, only you have to be kinda gentle, gentler than he wants, even. He's still on the side of breakable."
"Do you want to hold him while I give the medicine?" Sean asks.
"Fun times!" Elijah gives Billy a bit of a grin. "We don't think he likes the taste. It's supposed to be cherry. Plus, his throat's pretty much raw, Toni says. Hurts to swallow, doesn't it, Dommie?" He presses his face close to Dom's, whispering something in his ear that seems to go on, a joke or a story. Dom looks blank, but he doesn't struggle as Sean suctions pink liquid from a bottle into a large dropper, squirting it into Dom's mouth, stroking Dom's throat until he's swallowed it down.
"It's only a big dose of children's Tylenol," Sean says, deftly catching a bit of dribble on the edge of Elijah's towel. "He can't handle anything in pill form, and he pulls out the IV's as soon as Toni puts them in, so…" He shrugs.
Despite the warmth of the room, Dom's shivering in Elijah's arms, and Elijah tugs out the duvet until it's draped around them both, raising the right wing of it for Billy to climb under.
Just like we when we were young, just like when we were hobbits, Billy tells himself. Only it's not like when they were young, it's terrible. He feels rooted to the floor.
He can't make himself accept this, as Sean and Elijah seem to.
Christ, he wants his Dom back. His Dom wouldn't want to be this way.
"Billy, for fuck's sake," Elijah says gently. His amazing eyes catch and hold Billy's, as lucid and determined as they've been in his life. For all that's befallen him, it appears that Elijah's come out the other side, and come out stronger than before.
Sean's watching him too, nothing but kindness in his expression. They don't judge him, Billy knows. He'd hate to disappoint them, but he's afraid that he will.
Shaking, he takes his place by Dom's right side, the wing of duvet settling down and around him. Feeling his tremors, Dom turns to him, his hand hovering over Billy's leg, then touching down lightly. Dom's eyes close, and he's breathing slowly, carefully, with a strange sort of concentration.
Billy's reminded, suddenly of an old Kate Bush video, from back when he was a lad, back from even before his da died--Kate wrapped up in clingfilm, singing:
Breathing… My beloved in… Breathing… Breathing the fallout in, out in, out in…
No! Billy shakes his head violently. The fallout hasn't followed them, that's what Toni's said. The poison hasn't followed them. They're safe and together here in Idaho, and the Dark Man's gone from the world. It's all right to breathe.
"Wie heisst du?" Dom asks suddenly. His eyes are open again, and the film's gone from them, Billy realizes: they're once more silvery-blue, mirror-bright. His face is very close to Billy's, so close Billy can feel the feverish heat coming off of his skin.
Billy realizes, too, what Dom's just asked him, and what it means. The first time he asked Billy's name, "Wie heissen Sie?" he was asking a stranger. The second time, "Wie heisst du?" he was asking a lover, a trusted friend. That was the way German worked, he remembers Dom telling him, one half-drunk afternoon in New Zealand, with Billy teasing him, "Thank you for the lesson, Master, and may I have another?" (and he remembers, too, he'd liked the lesson that followed the German one infinitely better).
In German, a few small letters made all the difference.
Billy takes Dom's face between his hands, brushing Dom's torn mouth with a kiss soft as a whisper. "It's Billy," he answers. His voice cracks, but that doesn't matter. "It's your Billy, Dom. Your husband."
It strikes Billy in that instant, crushingly, that he's never called himself, in Dom's hearing at least, by that simple, old fashioned, caring word. For all the love between them, has he thought them somehow not worthy, second-best?
Tenderly, tenderly, he folds Dom into his arms, holding him to his chest, Dom's heartbeat a quick, light thrum against his ribs. "It's your husband, Billy," he says once more, softly, into Dom's ear.
Slowly, almost timidly, Dom's arms curl around him, until he's holding Billy nearly as closely as Billy holds him.
"Billy?" Dom repeats.
The name hums into Billy's skin.
All shall be well and all shall be well
- This Is the Way the World Ends, Pt. 48