New-fic-with-no-name, Part 4a
Previous installments: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3.
4. ALL FOR ONE
Xander screwed a finger into his ear to block out the sound of the shrieking metal detector and fumbled with his phone. It took him a moment to figure out how to put Dawn on hold so he could dial out for Buffy, but eventually he got it.
And got Buffy's voicemail.
Cursing, he left a shouting-over-the-noise message, and switched back to Dawn. "No answer!" he yelled. "I'll keep trying! Where are you guys now?"
"Still at the door. There's---" A burst of static cut Dawn's voice off momentarily, and he could've sworn he heard a ghostly echo of his own voice yelling something incoherent in the background. "--staying right by the door. No one wants to move. It's really weird here, Xander."
"I know. Just... try to stay calm." Still holding the phone to his ear, he gripped the axe handle tighter with his left hand and raced from one end of the high school hallway to the other, peering through the windows in classroom doors as he went.
Nothing. No one. Only the siren, and the sound of his own boots hitting the floor.
"Do you see anything?" Dawn's voice sounded tinny and far away.
"Nothing!" he yelled back. "Just stay put, I'll keep looking!"
Would this be an alternate dimension or an alternate timeline? Anya would know, and wow, he was so done thinking about that. It was enough to say that he was out of his depth on this one. He made a loop through the hallways back to the front desk, and tried dialing Buffy again.
Same voicemail as before. He swore under his breath and started to leave another message, and then the shrieking alarm suddenly stopped.
Phone still at his ear, Xander looked up.
An African-American man in a gray suit was standing near the front door. Xander felt a weird moment of jealousy for the way this guy looked; cool and collected as James Bond, and if those weren't expensive shoes, he'd eat his hard hat.
The man removed a key from a control panel on the wall, pocketed it, and folded his arms, all without taking his eyes off Xander.
"You mind telling me what you're doing here?"
Downtown Sunnydale was quiet. Or more properly, the short strip of commercial main street that locals referred to as "downtown" was quiet, as most nearly abandoned places are.
Long since deserted by most businesses for office parks and the shopping mail on the outskirts of town, Sunnydale's old small-town retail district had the feel of a movie studio backlot--picturesque, but empty. The ruins of the Magic Shop still occupied one blackened, midblock lot, and of the surviving business--the Sun theater, two thrift stores and the Espresso Pump--only the coffee house ever saw any business in the morning. There were no cars and few pedestrians to notice when Anya apparated directly in the middle of the road.
Her feet already moving when they touched ground, she walked into the Espresso Pump without the smallest pause, glance, or break in her stride.
"Anya!" Halfrek waved to her from a corner booth. Anya lifted her chin in acknowledgment, then wrinkled her nose at the musical duo strumming guitars in the corner.
"You're not being very subtle these days," Halfrek said disparagingly as Anya slid into the booth. "Flaunting your powers out in the open like some kind of lower demon."
Anya ignored the comment."It's far too early in the morning for warbling coffee house singers," she said, andd added a spoon of extra sugar to her extra-large foam-topped cappuccino. "Listen to them! Love, love, love, love. Ten to one she'll be calling on me for vengenance within a week."
Lips pressed together, Halfrek put some effort into adjusting the position of her coffee cup. "Anya. Listen. No one blames you for being bitter about the whole Xander thing--"
Anya let out a bark of laughter. "What are you talking about? Of course they do. Hallie, I was a vengeance demon for over a thousand years. I know better than anyone what happens now." She fixed her gaze on the singers. "First comes the part where everyone's sad and shocked, and they all say they're sorry. Then comes the split into 'his friends' and 'her friends.'"
"Right, that's why I'm--"
"His friends will say that she was a bitch anyway, and he deserves better. Her friends say that he's a bum, and she should've made a better choice. Or that she should've kept up her appearance, so he wouldn't have looked at other girls, and that she let him get away." She aimed a challenging stare at Halfrek. "One way or another, it'll all be her fault."
Halfrek held her gaze for a long moment, and then shrugged. "Okay, we'll skip that part then. It's not the main reason I'm here anyway."
Anya deflated a little. "Fine. What's on your mind?"
"You're not meeting quota. You say you're back in the demon fold, but as you and I well know, vengeance is a global business. Why, the calls I'm hearing from the Middle East alone--" She shuddered, then got back to business. "What are you doing still hanging around Sunnydale?"
"Why do you think? You think I'm here because Xander Harris is still here? Because I want to keep tabs on the guy who dumped me? That I'm stalking him so I'll know the exact moment when he regrets ever having turned his back on me?"
"Well, honestly I--"
"Well, you'd be right, but that's not the only reason." She stared out the window. "Something's coming. Here. Something big. I can feel it, and I know you can too. So don't try to tell me it's all about quotas."
"Fine. Have it your way. But you need to get out of here, Anya. All the lower levels are buzzing about this; whatever's coming, it's older than old. And if you stay, you'll wind up caught up in something you can't control." Halfrek heaved a melodramatic sigh, but then actually looked sincere for a moment. "Leave him, Anya."
"I can't." Anya gave her a faint smile. "Whatever happens, I'm going to be here." She picked up her cup. "Right here at Ground Zero."
At the Doublemeat Palace, Buffy elbowed a escaping trail of sweaty hair from her forehead and continued filling order bags with french fries. The heat lamps over the prepared food painted her skin the molten gold of a devotional statue. Venus at the Fryer.
"Fifteen minutes to break, fifteen more minutes to break," she chanted under her breath.
She rearranged her face into a welcoming smile before spinning on her heel, food bags in hand.
"I'm in a hurry," one customer announced sharply without taking her eyes from her cell phone's text screen. The majority of the waiting line was likewise occupied, with phones pressed to their ears or busily typing with their thumbs.
"Uh..." Buffy held up the bags. One by one the customers snatched their respective bags from her hands and disappeared, with only a minor pileup at the glass doors as several people tried to pass through the same opening at once while still talking/texting.
"It's a bad morning," Gina said slowly. Stationed at the stainless steel coffeepot, she arranged cups for filling like rows of tin soliders. "I can feel it in the ground."
"Me too," Buffy said automatically, because it was always easier to agree with Gina than try to have a conversation. But the customers did seem extra agitated that morning, and there was a funny, charged feeling in the air. "Does it seem busier than usual this morning, or is it just me?"
"Excuse me?" A customer barrelled up to the counter. "Number 5 breakfast combo, to go?"
Buffy smiled robotically and went about gathering the order. It was creepy, how rushed and tense everyone seemed. She'd thought it was probably just her, with the first-day-of-school nerves, not to mention the quick puff on that cigarette. Which had just made her feel more nervous, by the way, and wasn't nicotine supposed to calm you down? Mood-altering substances, definitely not Buffy's friend.
"Gonna be a bad day," Gina said. Buffy found herself silently agreeing.
She took a breath and another glance at the clock. Fourteen minutes to break. I hope Dawn is alright.
The front door banged open as another group of customers all piled in--why did they always seem to arrive in groups?--and she put on a bright smile. "Welcome to the Hellmouth--I mean, uh, the Doublemeat. How may I help you?"
Meanwhile, the phone in her purse, tucked away in a locker in the breakroom, continued blinking its alert for new voicemail.
The ground beneath the school rumbled yet again to a chorus of student screams. The eco-friendly glass curtain wall began to shake violently and the rows of tasteful track lightning began to swing back and forth, knocking against the glass. Bulbs began to shatter.
Dawn corkscrewed a finger into her ear to block out the noise and hollered into her cell phone. "Buffy! Pick up the phone!"
"No luck yet?" Carlos hovered over her shoulder, trying hard to maintain a semblance of cool, but clearly on the verge of losing his machismo in a big way.
She shook her head. "I lost my connection with Xander, and now I can't get through to anyone. Dammit!" She tried another number, only to be greeted with a sirening wail on the other end of the line. "I can't believe this is happening. I mean, I knew high school was going to be bad, but not this bad. I mean, not this bad this soon."
"It's like a monster movie." Carlos crouched down, careful to stay away from either the windows or the door. Since that first look outside, they'd all been nervous about looking again, afraid they'd see something even worse. "I keep expecting to see Dracula or something."
My sister's met Dracula. "I can't believe she's not picking up," Dawn fumed. "'You'll never be alone, Dawn.' Yeah, right!"
"Or that Wolfman guy," Carlos was still babbling. "You know, my cousin saw the Wolfman here at the old school. Covered with hair and howling and the whole deal. All of the adults just said he was on drugs."
"Adults say all sorts of things." Dawn let the phone drop into her lap. "I don't think they really lie on purpose. Or, at least, they don't think they're lying."
"That stuff's all real." Carlos's voice was so even and controlled, it made her look up. He was staring at the far wall with the calm expression of someone who's just had some kind of religious experience. "You said that before, but I'm getting it now. Really getting it. It's all real. Comic book stuff. Monster movies." He turned his head in her direction, locked eyes. "Heaven and hell?"
My sister's been to heaven. "Uh, yeah. It's all real."
"I didn't really believe... I never paid any attention in church. I'm going to hell, aren't I? If I die here?"
Dawn swallowed. "I don't know. I don't know how all that stuff works."
"My nana, she prays every day. I always thought she was crazy. 'You're gonna go to hell, Carlos, you'll go to hell.'" He rubbed his arms. "I'm going to hell."
"You're not gonna go to hell." I don't think. "My sister'll be here soon, and she'll fix it. She does this sort of stuff all the time."
"The sister you can't get on the phone?"
"Yeah, but... I'm still trying." She started punching buttons again. "It's cool. She's probably just busy and hasn't looked at her messages yet. Buffy's never been good with gadgets. Like, when we were little, she couldn't figure out how to make the VCR play because the buttons didn't have names, just little pictures."
"Buffy? Your sister's name is Buffy?" Suddenly he looked less worried about hell. "I've heard of her. I heard she's some kind of superhero." He laughed. "She's real too?"
Yeah, she's real alright. "Superhero?"
"Yeah, like she's part monster, or something. My cousin said she was like super strong, and there were other monsters who were her friends." He shook his head. "I just thought he was on drugs. She'll really save us?"
Dawn nodded. At this point, believing in Buffy was about all she had. "Yeah. Eventually."
"I'm going to school with Wonder Woman," Carlos said. This news seemed to have totally overshadowed his sudden fear of hell. He was almost cheerful now. "Or like... Lady Dracula. That's prety cool."
Dawn dropped her chin to her knees, eyes still on her phone. Some things never change. "Yeah. Pretty cool."