Michele was on the floor of the main room, hugging her legs to herself and trying to stop shivering, when they came back. Not all of them left, of course. Two were upstairs with Crys, and one was there with her, playing with an eight-inch hunting knife.
Before, she would have been scared. Now she wanted him to use the damn thing already.
She tried to crawl further into a corner when they returned. They hurt her most when they were happy or angry, and they were angry now.
The one who yelled the most was the one who had captured them. She could tell by the baseball cap he wore backwards and by the way he waved the gun around, like he had that night. Waved it around and laughed.
Now he wasn't laughing. He was yelling at a man with a moustache. She couldn't tell his words except when he'd make a point by yelling "Bo-bo-bo!" and pointing the gun. No spent shells came out, so she knew it was empty.
She couldn't concentrate enough to make sense of the words, but she saw a hit from moustache man throw the other one and the gun across the room.
There was silence, then more talking. Michele almost couldn't feel the footsteps walking past her. She could hear the first blast and the funny angle the moustache man's leg was at when he went down. She heard ringing when she saw the his arm fly up. She heard screaming when she the brass fly in little arcs above her, and when she saw moustache man's head explode.
She didn't see the body when she was carried across the room, into the kitchen and thrown down the stairs. She did still hear screaming and crying.
She didn't know how long it took her to realize it was her that was screaming.
"Hi! This is Willow Rosenberg's cell phone, for use when she's not home. She's home right now, so leave your name and number and she'll get back to you as soon as she's out again."
"Hello? Weiner? This is Xander. Listen, I don't want anyone to be worried. Everyone's fine, or will be. The new girl is at ... is it pronounced 'whiner' or 'weiner'? Anyway, the big hospital around here. Hospitals. I gave 'em the corporate card. There was a deal with an arrow. I'm - I'm sorry. Anyway, tell everybody, and keep an eye out for a bill.
"'I hate voice mail."
It was a mistake. Another mistake!
Kennedy sprayed the blue stuff on the seat, then wiped it off with a paper towel. The light above the gas station pumps clearly showed the streaks of blood run down the vinyl to the tan carpet.
It came from the right instincts. It's a joke but it's real; the sergeant is tough on the trainee because he knows how hard it can be and wants the troops to be ready. Her watcher was out of kind words when the bastards ...
Buffy had cut Chloe down. Buffy had put her in bags like a stack of pizza boxes and dug a hole in the garden. Knowing 'Mom', they hired someone to cut out the old marble and put in some without bloodstains.
Beth was down. Who would've known she had a second wind?
Another squirt from the spray bottle as Kennedy tried to clean up after her mistake.
Hospital waiting rooms always have old magazines.
Xander liked looking through the old magazines. It gave him a way to work through frayed and antsy nerves, so he quietly looked through stacks, pulling out People and Entertainment Weekly, leaving Newsweek and Ladies Home Journal.
Then he saw it.
The satellite cover.
Time magazine. Six months old now. Big black-and-white satellite photo, showing the Pacific Coast Highway going past a big hole in the ground. Big white letters spelling "Gone". Rona had bought it in when they were still at the motel, still in California.
That was when everything had hit him, back then.
Even now. He needed air.
A nurse stood at the Emergency door, a parka on over her scrubs. He took a breath of air, which chilled his lungs.
They stood in silence and looked at the street lights. The light reflected off the clouds, giving the sky an amber glow.
She broke the silence first. "You want one?"
"No thanks. Don't smoke."
"Filled with arguments why I shouldn't, I bet."
"Nope. You nurse, me patient. Not right now, I mean." He breathed deep and let it out slowly. "Besides, everyone has things that'll kill 'em."
She took another drag of her cigarette. "You brought that girl in, right?"
"Right. How's she doing?"
"Don't know. She's in post-op. I'll call up after break." Another drag. "The sheriff will want to talk to you. You know that."
"What are you going to say?"
"What is there to say?"
"A girl comes in with neck wounds and a wooden arrow in her chest. That leads to questions."
"You want to know some answers?"
"Would be nice."
"What is there to say?" His instinct to cover up fell away. "She fell on a barbecue fork? Bats? The ever-popular 'neck rupture'?"
"How about 'wolf attack'?" She's in on the secret. Hard to say how much she knows, but she knows something.
"Wolves attack people around here?"
"Not a documented wolf attack in North America in over a century, but we've had five suspected wolf attacks in the last six months. Two on my shift. No wolf sightings, either."
"My principal used to blame drug gangs on PCP. That is, until he got eaten."
She held up her cigarette and looked at him. "You get him?"
"The one who did this? Yeah. I got him." He sighed. "There's more."
"You gonna get them?"
"That's the plan."
"I'll check on the girl. And don't worry about the sheriff."
"It's a full moon out, above those clouds." She took a last draw and dropped the cigarette. "That's when the freaks come out." She walked back in through the electronic doors.
Xander took another breath. "Don't I know it."
It was hard for her to tell when she came to. The lights were off and the room was dark, so the fuzzy edge of consciousness had even less definition. It took her somewhere between five minutes and nine hours to recognize the regular beeps as the heart monitor, then another two minutes to five hours to connect the full feeling in her arm to the plastic hoses hanging next to her.
"Good morning, Beth." It took some time before she could place the voice. Not recognize, place. Eventually, she decided it came from her right.
It was Xander, with his grim face and his glasses.
"You're still dopey. That's fine. Enjoy the ride while you can. People go to jail for trying to feel like you do now."
She coughed, trying to get words. "Stupid people," she rasped.
"I should probably give you kudos for that, but I won't." He coughed and moved his seat closer. "Hospital gowns have no pockets to put 'em anyway."
A slight giggle became a wet cough. "Pretend I'm laughing."
"Ken... Ken... Her?"
"She doesn't need protection. You do."
"Why isn't she here?"
"Cleaning up the car."
Beth started to feel the sensation, not pain really, under her left arm and at her throat. "It got me. Arrow."
"The gobs-of-slayers thing is still pretty new. There are still things to work out." He moved his chair forward. "We're sorry."
Beth considered a number of responses, but was too loopy to get to the end of any one of them, so she stayed silent.
"Look, Beth, I gotta know. What happened? Why did you go off? Did you see something or hear something?"
"I had a dream." Beth worked to sit up. "There was this vampire. We fought, and I..."
"...and you just followed the script?"
Beth stayed silent. She couldn't think of anything to say.
"Let me tell you a story. Years ago, there was this Slayer. All the prophecies said she was gonna die and this big evil guy would break out and destroy everything, and she was scared. Which makes sense, because it was scary. But she didn't face it alone."
"Did she ..." Beth's voice is weak. "Is she OK?"
"You tell me. You saw her this summer." Xander reached out and held Beth's hand. "Buffy never took a setup at face value. She always figured something to turn it around, make it her own. "
Xander leaned forward, hands on the bed rail. "That's the lesson. Just because something is written in a book or flashes into your head doesn't mean it has to be that way.
He stood up and stretched. "And I'm being the intense freaky guy. I'm sorry about that. It should be silly stories and root beer floats or something."
"Don't like root beer."
Xander laughs, leading Beth to tentatively giggle. "That's good to know." He pulled a stake out of his pocket. "I don't know if any vamp knows we'ae here, but take this, just in case. We'll watch out until your parents come, then they'll probably chew us out at high volume."
"Wish I wasn't here. Wish I could go out again."
"You'd miss out on your chance at the Edie Sedgwick weight loss plan." His attempt at a smile fell. "And word to the wise? Ixnay on the Iyay ishway. That way lies badness. You rest."
And she faded out before he shut the door.
Kennedy looked up from her seat in the waiting room when Xander walked in. She had spent the last half hour ignoring an infomercial about some cooking thing or other. "How is she?"
"Resting. She wants to go back out." He reached up to wipe the exhaustion from his eyes, first his right, then, carefully, his left. "Doctor says she'll be down for a week."
"It'll be sooner." Kennedy shifts in her seat. "I have her bag. Her homework, her sketchbook and everything."
"She's asleep. You want me to carry it up?"
"We gonna talk about this, or we gonna talk around it?"
Xander rubbed his left temple with the heel of his hand. He looked around the waiting room, at the TV, the stacks of old magazines and gray benches and chairs. "Rick and Laura are coming in about a half hour. They'll be absolutely thrilled to find their daughter in a hospital room at 3 in the morning. I'll take that duty."
"So that's the second choice, then."
Xander stopped a second. He turned toward the wall, standing in front of a colorful abstract framed print. "You thought you could make the shot. She moved. You can't tear yourself up over-"
The bag passed his head to the right, flying open as it hit the plexiglass. "You know that's not what I'm talking about!"
Xander turns around, right shoulder first. "Here we go. The 'I don't need a babysitter' rant. When you stop throwing other people's things for a few minutes, we can revisit the issue of adult supervision."
"Supervision? I need supervision? You Custer off without backup and you turn this back on me?"
"That's the way the game is played. You make it-"
"It's not a game!" Kennedy's hands waved. "It's not some first-person shooter! I can't go back to Willow and say 'Xander lost all his health but if we camp a spawn point, he'll show up'. When you die, you die, Xander, and when you go off half-cocked-"
"I didn't go off half-cocked. I drew 'em in so we could hit 'em. George C. Scott read Rommel's book so I wouldn't have to. That's what happened tonight. We hooked their nose and kicked their ass. That was the plan."
"It's good you explained it to everyone. It sure kept us together!"
"I didn't, OK." Xander turned and took a step away, toward the exit. Just one step. "I could've, but I didn't."
Kennedy stood there for a moment, then started collecting the papers and books from the floor. Xander stood back for a while, then joined her.
"This is her sketchbook?"
"Yeah. She's good."
He opened it up, flipping through the pages. "Teenage girls and horses. What's up with - whoah!"
Kennedy looked up. "She really got him, didn't she. Looks just like that-"
"No. No. Not the guy. The house!" Xander flipped the pages back and turned the book toward Kennedy. "This house." I know that house. It's off the highway, on the way to Beth's place."
Kennedy looked closely at the picture, then at Xander's face. "You sure about this? I mean 100 percent?"
She put her stack into the remains of the backpack. "Let's roll."
Xander put his pile down. "No."
"No? That's what we're here for!"
"No. Reason number one: Beth. We wait until her parents show up, and we take all the yelling I just know they have for us. That's part of the job. Reason number two: sunlight. There is none. They have the advantage. If we can get the happy glow-y ball of fire on our side, let's do it. Reason number three: I'm exhausted. Sugar, caffeine and nervous energy got me through high school, but I now suggest a nap and a good meal before saving the day. And reason ..."
"I can't believe this!" Kennedy grabbed her coat and went off toward the door. "You can stand around if you want..."
"Stop it!" Xander grabbed her arm.
"You stop it!" She turned around with anger. "I'm a Slayer! This is my duty, so let me do it!"
"That's right! That's the fourth reason. We do it and we do it right. No going off half-cocked. We've seen what happens when that happens. Blundering into bombs and vineyards full of ..." Xander put her face into his. "We need plans. We need strategy. And tactics. We need to use our strengths, but not rely on them." The grit and determination dominated his voice, his face.
"When we go off, we need to go off big and hard and fully cocked."
The last line hung in the air.
Xander winced. "Oh God, I didn't just say that."
Kennedy was stifling a giggle. "You said that. At length."
She broke out into hysterical laugher. After a second, he joined in. "I'm telling," she was barely able to croak the words out.
Xander soon joined in. Soon they were doubled up and unable to stand, so they ended up on the waiting room couch.
Kennedy recovered first. "You do that on purpose, don't you?"
Xander smirked. "Don't tell a soul."
"So, do you have an actual plan, or you just like talking' about 'em?"
"Well, a wise man once said 'Most human problems can be solved by an appropriate charge of high explosives.'" He rubbed his hands together, getting ready to plan. "Do you know if there's an Army base around here somewhere? Or National Guard armory?"
Michele was able to stand again. Her vision tunnelled, her head spun and her fingers tingled, but she was able to stand.
She tore through the orange juice and cookies, set on a wooden chair by the stairs, with a roll of stickers that read "Be Kind To Me. I Gave Blood." She consumed everything. She knew she should've saved some for Crys, for Kim and for Tiff, but she just couldn't stop herself. She drank the juice straight from the carton, a dribble running down her neck, stinging at her bites. The cookies, animal crackers, crunched in her mouth. She had so little saliva that she had to wash them down with the juice.
She couldn't believe what she believed. This was like the movies. She thought a moment about how to fight them. The empty carton and box fell to the cold as she lifted the chair high and brought it down hard. And again. And again. If it broke, she could protect them.
The chair did not break. She wasn't strong enough to break it.
Her legs gave out and she fell to her knees. As she heard steps travel down the stairs, she could not control her tears.