Echoes from the Battleground
Copyright April 2012
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon,
Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
This story was done for the Choose-Your-Author Ficathon, at the request of tiny_white_hats.
The sound, though muffled, was sufficiently loud and startling that Curtis Moore's pen skidded on the entry in the account book. He sighed, and set aside the pen. Good thing that hadn't happened while he was working with a customer; in several phases of the process, a jerk that violent could cause damage that the family would not appreciate. Of course, he had long experience in preparing … damaged subjects for viewing, but there was nothing to be gained by making unnecessary work for himself. He reached for his desk phone, confirmed the label next to one of the buttons, and pressed it for a pre-set number.
Unsurprisingly, it was answered on the first ring. "Sunnydale Funeral Home, this is George Mathisson speaking."
Moore had several times reflected on the questionable judgment of anyone who would pay advertising revenues to publicize the name of the city, rather than a business name distinct in itself, but none of that showed in the professional courtesy of his tone. "Curtis," Moore identified himself. "Did you hear that?"
"Yes," the other man acknowledged. "Do you know what it was?"
"Not so far," Moore admitted. "But if I remember right, high school graduation should be happening about now. That would be, um, high-yield. But even if it was just a city building —"
He didn't have to spell it out any further. "I'll start calling the others," Mathisson told him. "And I'll get back to you if anyone has further details."
"Thank you," Moore said, and hung up. If the other men on the list were as quick on the uptake (and, by now, they very well should be), his task should be completed in less than another five minutes. The owner of Moore's Chapel was at the top of the phone tree; with Sunnydale Funeral Home notified, he needed only to call Heritage Funeral Home, Bonn-Wheeling Memorials, and Restfield Funeral Chapel. Each of them would make three or four other calls, and then more substantial preparations would begin.
Like hotels in major cities, and some airlines, the funeral homes in Sunnydale had an arrangement whereby they would cover for each other in the event of what might be politely called overflow. It didn't happen often, but if much more than half a dozen 'customers' were delivered within a few days' time, a single establishment might find its facilities taxed. In such an event, other businesses in their informal cartel would quietly handle the excess, for a pre-agreed service fee, so that the overloaded business could maintain face.
In addition to which, there was always the possibility of an event so severe that they might all need to work together. It wasn't something any of them spoke of, but the recognition was there in the background, discernible by the things that were never explicitly stated in the soft, circumspect conversations among those in the trade.
Curtis Moore's children were grown, his grandchildren being raised well away from Sunnydale, so he had no personal stake in this. All the same, as an essentially decent man, he found himself praying — as he had done so many times before — that business would not suddenly become too good.
When the motel room phone rang, Dawn dived across the bed for it, but her mother was even faster. Joyce Summers snatched the handset from the cradle, millimeters from her youngest daughter's lunging fingers, and snapped, "Yes, hello, yes! Buffy?"
And Buffy's voice came over the line, a relief so enormous that Joyce felt the room begin to spin around her: "It's okay, Mom. We're okay. We're all fine."
Dawn was babbling questions, but Joyce silenced her with the flat-palm STOP gesture. "Are you in the hospital?" she demanded. "Or at the hospital with any of the others?"
From the other end of the phone, she could hear the wariness in her daughter's tone. "Nnnooo, like I said, we're all fine. Why —?"
"If you're not at the hospital, then go home. We'll meet you there in half an hour."
This time, the tone was one of bewilderment, quickly giving way to exasperation. "Half an hour? from Los Angeles? Mom, I told you —!"
"I took Dawn out of town," Joyce said firmly. "I did that much, just like you said, but I wasn't about to go all the way to L.A. Don't raise your voice to me, young lady! It's done, and it came out all right. We're on our way home now. Be there." And she hung up.
"Told you," Dawn scoffed as her mother turned to the bed to grab up two suitcases that had never been unpacked. The twelve-year-old's face was set in an expression of exaggerated disdain. "Major build-up, no delivery. Total Drama Buffy, as usual."
"No," Joyce said. "Get the door." Dawn obediently pulled it open, and Joyce carried the suitcases out to her Jeep, parked five feet away. "Something happened there, something big. It may not be as bad as she thought it would be, but it was bad."
"How can you tell?" Dawn insisted.
"Her first words were to tell me she was okay." Joyce keyed the remote to unlock all the doors, began stowing the suitcases in the back seat. "You don't say that unless there was a serious chance it could have gone the other way." She closed the door, got in on the driver's side. "Belt in," she instructed her daughter, who had automatically taken her own seat. "I'm not going to break the speed limit, but I don't plan to go under it, either, not till we're home again."
They had helped the others in the search for any wounded who might still need help, until the growing presence of police and other rescue personnel made the process not only unsurpassably difficult, but unnecessary. They'd had the 'moment' with Buffy, Xander, Cordelia, Giles, and then separated from them when the moment passed. Now Willow sat with Oz in his van, the two of them sharing silence and weariness and relief and, perhaps, just the slightest touch of uncertainty.
"I never thought to ask," Willow said finally. "With, you know, how crazy things have been. Your parents, were they —?"
"Elsewhere," Oz filled in. "Told 'em graduation was no big deal, said this was probably a great time to do that Disneyland thing that'd been on the back burner for, like, forever." He smiled. "My dad, he gave me a look and said, 'Hm. You need anything?', and I said, 'Nah, we're on it,' and that was all he needed. They took to the road this morning."
"They knew?" Willow asked. "I mean … they understood what you, well, what you weren't saying, and they went along with it?"
"Yeah," he agreed. "We got the communication thing down pretty solid. You can do a lot with just an eyebrow, if the person on the other side knows the code." He regarded Willow with gentle concern. "And your folks?"
"At a conference," Willow told him. "It was already on their schedule, so I just didn't remind them that graduation was today. That part was easier than anything else we've had to deal with this past week." She put her hand on his. "You should phone your parents, let them know you're okay."
Oz shrugged. "Already did. Will you —?"
"I don't think so," Willow said. "In fact, I think I'll just wait for them to get home, see if they even notice there was a disaster while they were gone."
An eyebrow lifted (and, yes, it did communicate quite a bit to someone in the know). "Cold."
"I see it as more a matter of scientific observation," Willow countered, with more than a trace of tartness. "You know, watch to see if the trend plays out."
Oz nodded. "Well, you should at least go home, so if they hear something and call, you can tell them nothing happened to you."
"I can do that," Willow admitted. Then, a beat later: "And, and you could stay with me. I mean, as in stay the night."
Oz didn't answer for almost half a minute, but Willow knew him well enough by now that it didn't unnerve her; he would simply take the time to fully consider a matter before rendering an answer. At last he said, "That sounds good. Our first actual, you know, night together." He gave her a glance. "Only, I'd kind of like it if we could just sleep."
Despite all her assurance, all her trust in him, Willow felt a flutter of uneasiness. "You're losing interest in me already? The thrill is gone that fast?" Still, she kept tone and expression humorous: there was to be NO PRESSURE here. (Anyway, wasn't that the guy's job …?)
Oz put his arm around her, pulled her close. "Thrill's still there. In fact, it's requesting an encore right now. But … We've done panic sex, and we've done we-may-be-dead-in-an-hour sex … I don't want our next time together to be survival sex. More like, you're-the-one-I-want-to-be-with sex." He placed a kiss on her forehead. "Since, you know, you're the one I want to be with."
"Let's see if I've got this right," Willow said. "You're turning down my heartfelt offer of further carnal bliss — for now — but you're asking if you can sleep with me."
A smile. "Pretty much."
"Well, okay then." She turned her head on his shoulder to look up at him. "But in fairness to you, I should warn you that I've never slept with a man before."
"So you're saying tonight will be your first time." The kiss was on her mouth now, but still gentle. "Hey … works for me."
The signs on Interstate 90 were beginning to mark the distance to Spokane International Airport, which meant that Anya Christina Emanuella Jenkins (as she was now known) was within fifty miles of where I-90 intersected US-95. Once she got onto 95, she could make it to the Canadian border in less than two and a half hours. Maybe that would be far enough, maybe not, but she had no intention of stopping before then.
Much as she (still!) hated men, Anya envied them the convenience of a penis. A man could pee in a bottle while driving, dump the contents out the window, and keep on motoring. A woman had to spend at least a couple of minutes in one or another horrendous gas station restroom during the unavoidable fuel stops, especially if she was pounding down energy drinks to stave off sleep. Still, she'd managed to keep going for twenty hours now, and willpower would carry her the rest of the way.
She didn't expect to like Canada very much, but given how limited her funds were, it would probably be some time before she could afford to travel much farther. One thing was absolutely certain, however: regardless of whether the Ascension took place or the Slayer and her idiotic hangers-on succeeded in stopping it, there was absolutely no reason for Anya to ever, EVER return to Sunnydale, California.
Even without a Hellmouth, the place would still be a revolting pit, and she was better off with it far behind her.