liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,
liz_marcs
liz_marcs

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Water Hold Me Down (Part 37)

This part is nervous-making in the extreme for me.

I think it's going to be a love-it or hate-it part. I'm probably going to lose a couple of you (in fact, I'm almost sure I will). It might even seal the whole notion in some quarters that I'm a Xander-basher in disguise. I can only say this in my defense, "It made sense for the story and it made sense for Xander as a character."

I've always half-jokingly admitted that aside from being able to sum up my plots in a pithy sentence, you could always boil down the themes to a single word.

Whisper was always about memory: how it's altered, how it suppressed, how past events are remembered, how time alters perceptions, and how nothing is ever really forgotten or lost.

Living History was always about information: how it's passed on, how it's recorded, how it's not recorded and forgotten, how it's shared or not shared, how it's altered to suit an agenda or because of human error, and how information, or the lack of it, changes perceptions completely.

Water Hold Me Down is about choices and always has been. It isn't necessarily about things happening to you that's simply beyond your control, or blindside you like a car accident. It's about what you do in the aftermath...or in this case, the heat of the moment...that makes you who you are.

The thing is, alternaXander chose to go for something resembling a normal life and achieved it for a time with mixed success. "Our" Xander chose to become a Watcher, probably before he completely understood what that meant, namely, that he'd have to make some hard life-and-death choices. He probably never considered that he'd sometimes have to act against his own instincts and that he'd have to learn to live, albeit uneasily, with those decisions.

So, you might say, in this part, Xander forced to choose whether he's a Watcher in name only, or a Watcher for real.

Ummm, yeah. This is kind of a warning. Some of you are going to be pretty unhappy with me and this part.

*kicks ground nervously*

All previous parts can be found here.

Go here for Part 36.

Will I ever be the same?
No I won't.
It's a cold day in a cruel world.
I really wished I could have saved you.
Then who would've saved me from myself?

 

The sound of ocean was just a little too loud in Xander’s ears as he began his trek down a side street full of cottages. He circled the houses and one run-down motel to see if any of the boards had been removed from the windows or doors, a signal that someone—or something, he amended—had taken refuge inside.

He kept focused and attentive to his surroundings. Even as his one eye critically looked for any opening in any of the houses, his ears strained to capture any sound that didn’t fit. The intense mental concentration he exerted in his quest to find anything that looked even slightly out of place probably wasn’t necessary, but he knew if he let slip for just a fraction of a second, he’d crack into a million pieces.

Before now, he would’ve said that he’d already been rejected by the best. Buffy, Willow, Cordelia, Anya after the wedding…the list was pretty extensive. All of it hurt at the time, but he got over it and moved on because, really, what else was he supposed to do? Pull an Angel and brood until he got his way? Cry his eyes out until someone took pity on him? Besides, whenever he did try to get his way with someone else, he spectacularly screwed up in the form of love spells, dancing demons, wrecked weddings, and a screaming fight with Anya in the middle of the street while holding an axe.

Usually, though, he never saw much of a point bothering to aggressively push his case because he knew he’d always end up on the losing end. Living under the same roof as his parents for more than 19 years taught him that much, at least.

But what the hell was he supposed to think when he was rejected by someone who was essentially him? He knew he couldn’t fix anything when it came to other Xander and him, but he wanted to at least explain and get an explanation in return. He’d be the first to admit that he pulled some pretty awful crap since he got here, but he didn’t think he was so hideous that another version of him wouldn’t even want to deal with him as a concept.

Right now, he couldn’t do a damn thing about the situation—assuming he could do anything about it at all—and he fell back on the tried-and-true method of getting through a shot to the heart, namely, by stumbling on to the next step.

Except this time it felt like the wrong thing to do.

So Xander was stuck not just in a geographical limbo, but a mental and emotional one as well. Whenever the subconscious worm wanted to worry at this crowning achievement in his history of interpersonal relationships and split his attention, he redoubled the effort he put into investigating the latest house or suspicious patch of ground.

The tiny problem with this tactic was that any niggling doubt was brutally suppressed so he could focus on what was in front of him. Had he at least given his mind a little maneuvering room, he would’ve caught on to what exactly was wrong with the abandoned beachfront settlement a lot sooner.

He was at the point where the second block gave way to rubble and was just rounding the corner to walk up the third side street when the wrongness of the area slammed into him like a ton of bricks.

Xander froze a moment as he stared at the destroyed section, too terrified to turn around confirm his realization.

Not one house, the thought stuttered. Not one business, not one cellar window, not one ice cream stand, not the rent-by-the-hour motel, not that four-story hotel…

Not one piece of property had been tampered with.

He slowly turned around and backtracked to the corner he’d just left behind. He stepped off the curb and made his way to the middle of the street. He wasn’t worried about getting run over. He hadn’t seen a single car since other Xander drove off. He hadn’t seen any people, either. Or animals, for that matter. Not one dog, not one cat, not one rat, either alive or dead.

That realization gave him an attack of the wig.

His eye traversed up the length of the street, pausing on each house long enough to confirm that, yup, they were boarded up tight and nothing had been disturbed. The only thing that hinted at the occasional presence of living things was the trash blowing around in the ocean breeze. He wasn’t comforted knowing that the trash didn’t necessarily come from the worksite behind him. It could have come from anywhere.

Although the southern California winter sun made the air feel like a veritable heat wave compared to the sun over Cleveland, Xander shivered liked the wind was blowing off the Great Lakes and slicing him down to his bones.

This looks like Sunnydale.

The thing about Sunnydale was the way people were anal about getting their lawns neat and clutter-free, like the residents subconsciously knew they were living with Hellmouth chaos and needed to convince themselves that they had control over something. All those neat lawns gave off the illusion that Sunnydale was no different than any other California suburb, not just to the people passing through town, but also to the people who actually lived there.

During the day, those lawns looked normal. Toys, bikes, lawnmowers, and yard implements were left scattered around houses, a testament to the normal in a town that was anything but. When the sun went down, though, it was a whole other story. Lawn litter disappeared and the yards became oceans of unbroken green. Even his parents, who weren’t the world’s greatest at keeping the outside of the homestead ship-shape, fulfilled their civic obligation to keep the yard a chaos-free zone after dark.

God help him, he thought that was normal. Of course no one would leave stuff hanging around outside after the sun went down. So, when he landed in Oxnard, he was surprised to see that not every place was like Sunnydale. Sure, things were picked up and put away, but there wasn’t an obsessive final sweep that ensured everything was locked down.

Then there was the case of abandoned property in Sunnydale. Not always neat. Not always locked up. But no one stuck around either, especially after dark. Even before he knew about vampires and things that went bump, he and Jesse never thought to explore the forgotten spaces in town or the Sunnydale waterfront. It was one of those things that just wasn’t done.

Weren’t teenagers supposed to be all about that? Weren’t teenagers always looking for a hidden place to get away from their parents or to party down with their buds? Yet, aside from that one “vampire club” he, Willow, and Angel investigated back in the day, he couldn’t remember anyone talking about it, let alone doing it. The only teenagers he knew who did that kind of thing were the teenagers on television.

Until he met Faith. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. Until after he got to Cleveland and met Faith again, if that made any sense. It wasn’t like they sat around and shot the shit about what they did when they were kids. It was more Faith making a comment, him asking a question, and Faith elaborating. He had assumed their childhood habits were so fundamentally different because their hometowns were so fundamentally different in a big city vs. suburbia kind of way.

While he knew that not every place was like Sunnydale, and he knew that not every town’s quirks centered on keeping the mental and real monsters at bay, it wasn’t until he spent time in Cleveland that he realized how creepily unreal Sunnydale was. Although he had more than once bitched and moaned about how big city Cleveland was chaos squared, as he stood in the middle of a Zihuatanejo street he suddenly realized that Cleveland chaos was a lot more preferable to the alternative. He never connected Sunnydale’s obsessive sense of surface order with the Hellmouth. He could only credit Cleveland chaos with the fact that, despite the presence of a smaller, less active Hellmouth, it was not a closed community.

Unlike Sunnydale.

Unlike Zihuatanejo.

Something is keeping everyone away. That’s why there are no victims here. There are no victims to find! You dumped me in the middle of a death trap! his mind howled.

He pawed through his jacket pocket and brought out the cell. He flipped it open and scrolled until he landed on Faith’s cell number. If he called, she’d be here before he snapped the cell shut. Hell, she’d probably tell him not to move before he got three words out of his mouth. He wouldn’t have to explain a damn thing because she already had a quick look at the place and she didn’t like it any more than he did.

If he called, she’d be here. He knew that for a fact.

His thumb hovered over the send button.

Except, Faith was on the other side of town. By the time she got to her car, got turned around, and found him, they’d lose too much daylight and too much time in the Haley search.

His thumb tracked back to the scroll button until it landed on other him’s cell number. He was a lot closer. He said he’d come if Xander called.

Xander’s thumb didn’t even make it off the scroll button.

He could already hear the conversation.

You find anything?

No.

Is something wrong?

Things are too quiet. The houses are too neat. And there’s no one down here. I can’t even find a dead rat.

Yeah, that answer would go over really well with other Xander. Other him would either tell him to stop bugging him and call him if he found something, or worse, he’d show and then start screaming about how Xander was now sabotaging the search for Haley.

Rupert wasn’t even an option. Faith had dropped him off in another area before going to her own. Assuming Rupert took him seriously—which was not at all a sure thing—there was no way for the Watcher to get here.

Xander slapped the cell shut and squeezed his hand around its tiny, comforting presence. He swallowed hard and looked to the sky.

I’ve got an hour, an hour-and-a-half at the outside, before the sun sets.

He gazed despairingly out over the blocks he still had to cover. No way. He wouldn’t be able to cover that much ground before it got dark. He could make a dent, but he couldn’t finish.

“Xander Harris, you’re a fucking idiot.” He was pretty damn sure he meant the other Xander and not him.

He turned and continued where he left off, doing his best not to imagine that eyes were watching him through the non-existent chinks between the boards and the windows. He tried not to imagine that something in those houses was waiting for sundown just as eagerly as he dreaded it.

It was in this jumpy frame of mind that Xander completed his third side street. No less than two bushes, five plastic bags, and an empty McDonald’s cup were staked in the course of his travels.

When he reached the waterfront, he paused and checked the sky. He still had too much light to justify calling anyone. He stepped onto the boardwalk and winced at the sound of his boots echoing against the wood. He cast a suspicious eye in front of him. He didn’t like the set-up at all.

The entire wooden section of the boardwalk was underneath an overhang. Although the western sun lit up most of the area with a bright afternoon light, a hungry vampire might be willing to chance a singe in exchange for a fresh meal. The buildings were flush up against each other, which meant his only option would be to stumble onto the waterfront road if something tried to grab him. Even though the waterfront side of the boardwalk was completely open, it was also on his blind side. Not an ideal situation. It would be just his luck that some motorist would be speeding down the street if he needed to take refuge on the tar.

He hunched low in the vague hope that it would make him a smaller target, and cautiously stepped forward. He was unhappy to see that the storefronts weren’t sealed as well as the cottages. They were closed up using riot gates and metal storm shutters. The windows that weren’t papered over or soaped up stared blindly back at him. The darkness behind the glass didn’t reveal any hint whether something was lurking inside just out of reach of the afternoon sun.

About halfway down the row of stores, Xander reached what he supposed was either a theater or concert venue. The marquee he had seen from other Xander’s van loomed overhead, and the gate across the wide opening had a gap just big enough to let a single person through.

Xander stared at it and tried to remember if he saw any similar gaps in front of the other storefronts. He knew it was a pointless exercise, since he already knew he hadn’t.

Xander ran a nervous hand through his hair and then stood flush up against the gate’s metal latticework to see if he could tell whether any of the doors had been tampered with. The shadowed interior confused his eye too much to give him an answer.

He should just walk away and get back to this one, preferably with backup. That was the smart thing to do. Hell, other him made it pretty clear that he didn’t think Haley was down here, so it would be no big deal if he gave it a miss.

Except Xander knew if anyone had asked his or Willow’s parents what they were doing in high school, their answers would’ve have been very far off the mark. Granted, the Harrises and the Rosenbergs weren’t the best guide to go by, but it was the only guide he really knew.

There was nothing for it then. He had to at least make a quick check and hope like hell all the bad guys were snuggled together in some other building.

He reached to widen the opening in the gate, since it was a little too small for him to squeeze through, and froze when he realized that there was more give in it than there should be. He stepped back and reconsidered his idea.

“Fuck,” he muttered under his breath.

He took out the cell and stared at it. Even though he hadn’t felt it vibrate, he decided to check for any incoming calls signaling that Haley was found and that the search had been called off. His shoulders slumped when he saw that there were none.

Maybe the gate was sprung because of kids sneaking in and out; maybe it was sprung for other reasons. Either way, he needed to keep the gap wide enough for him to dive through if he had to.

He pulled the two stakes out of the jacket pockets and jammed them into the rear pocket of his jeans. The cell was shoved into the other rear pocket. He took off the coat and jammed it under the gate so the opening would hold. At first, the cloth kept giving and wouldn’t keep the gate in place. It took Xander a few different coat-bunching attempts to find the right shape that would keep the opening wide enough for him to get through with minimum trouble.

He shivered against the stiff breeze off the ocean, and was suddenly very glad that he insisted on wearing the heavy, green turtleneck.

Once his task was complete, he edged through and silently stole up to the doors. He had to get pretty close to see that one of the metal doors was off its hinges, leaving a gap big enough for a someone to get around the edge of it and push it aside. After checking the ground, his suspicions were confirmed. It had been moved and moved recently.

He tentatively tested the door’s weight. He could shove it aside with a little effort, which meant that a vampire or Slayer would be able to move it with ease.

He looked over his shoulder at the opening out onto the boardwalk to make sure the gate was still wide enough for him to get through in a hurry.

I have to at least check inside. I’ll just poke my head in and if I don’t see anything, I’ll just take off. If I attract bad attention, I’ve at least got a head start and the sunlight to protect me.

With a final mental order that he could do this, Xander got into position and gave the door a hard, quick shove. He immediately whipped his head around to see if something was coming at him out of the dark and relaxed when there wasn’t anything.

The sound of shattering glass, cracking wood, and the roar of a fight just getting started cruelly cut short his moment of relief.

Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no, no.

Instinct, more than anything else, propelled him forward. The interior of the large building was somewhat open on the first floor. There was some ambient light filtering through from some high-placed windows behind what looked like a bar. A large, wide staircase up to the top floor was to his right.

A bloodcurdling female scream against the backdrop of a lot of male yelling echoed down to him.

“Haley,” Xander whispered.

He grabbed a stake and rushed for the staircase. Once he got there, however, he realized that running up the stairs was not really an option. Haley’s best chance was if the cavalry could take her attackers by surprise. He had no idea if she had others with her, or if she was fighting alone. He had to at least see what was going on before he rushed in.

Although every instinct was telling him to run, run, run, go, go, go, help, help, help he dropped to all fours and forced himself to cautiously crab his way up the stairs. As he reached the top, he saw that there was some dim light up here and that there were waist-high walls that extended a little way out into the room from the top step.

A body landed close to the opening. The person-shaped thing smoothly flipped to its feet and ran back in the direction from whence it came.

Not an ideal cover, then. If he was lucky, everyone would be too busy to notice him peeking around a corner.

He crouched low and edged forward.

His eye was immediately drawn to a window in the corner directly in front of him and he realized that was probably the source of the sound that shattered the quiet. Dangerously sharp shards of glass clung to the frame and there was no board in evidence over it. There was enough light to keep most of the combatants away from that particular spot, but since the window was facing east, the sunlight didn’t enter the room nearly enough to provide any sort of lasting shelter for anyone who tried to use it, nor did it light up the cavernous space enough to provide breathing room for any trapped humans.

What it did do, however, was give him clear picture of what he was faced with. More than a dozen vampires were whirling about. Half were concentrated on a young girl, who definitely looked like Haley. The other half had three other kids—two boys and girl—trapped in a heavily shadowed corner at the far end of the space.

The taller of the two boys swung a flashlight around him in a desperate attempt to keep the vampires away. Another boy fought like hell to break through the vampire blockade and was screaming Haley’s name. The girl was screaming bloody murder as she tried to keep behind the boys.

Xander knew that the kids’ attempt to keep the attackers at bay wasn’t doing any actual good. The vampires were just playing with the kids to keep their hopes cruelly alive. He could see that the smug bastards were darting forward and dancing back as they laughed and whooped with glee.

The vampires around Haley, on the other hand, were more serious, probably because she was an actual threat. She managed to keep them off her, but only just. The only weapon she really had was her 12-year-old body, good enough for someone with a lot of experience like Buffy and Faith, but not nearly enough for someone who only yesterday figured out what she could do. Haley’s punches and kicks landed, but either she wasn’t hitting them hard enough or she wasn’t hitting the vampires just right to do more than get them to stumble back.

In a flash, Xander saw what Haley’s problem was. She was panicking. She was trying to save her friends first and to keep the vampires away from her own neck second. Instinct may be telling her to kill, faster pussycat, kill, kill, but the switch hadn’t yet flipped in her brain telling her that it was okay for her to do just that.

She was fighting like a human, not like a Slayer, and that was what was going to get her and her friends killed.

It took barely a minute of watching for all this to register in Xander’s furiously working mind.

There’s got to be a way. There has to be. There’s always a way.

But try as he might, he couldn’t see it.

An untrained Slayer didn’t have a chance against these odds, even if he jumped in and helped.

Those kids were going to die, and take a Slayer with them.

Xander froze with indecision as he clutched his stake. Calling for help was out of the question. No one would get here in time. This decision was all down to him, god help them all.

He chose.

Then he threw himself into the fray.

A vampire turned just as he landed into the back of one its fanged buddies. The ugly bastard smiled the most evil smile Xander had ever seen and said, “You’re mine, Archer.”

Then the vampire lunged for him.

Haley was so distracted by his arrival that one of the vampires broke through her valiant, if doomed defense. The vampire picked her up and threw her against one of the bare brick walls.

The kids started screaming for Mr. Harris to do something and, oh, god, they were going to die, and to pleasepleasepleaseplease help them.

Xander managed to plunge a stake into his attacker’s undead heart and squirmed free of the melee’s chaos just as the vampires around him started an NFL-inspired pile-on on the spot where they thought he’d be. With an alacrity that even he didn’t think he had, he booked it for Haley’s position.

One of the vampires, maybe even the one that threw her, was steadfastly beating Haley’s head against the brick wall to make sure she was unconscious before it went for the kill.

The kids screamed for Mr. Harris to throw them a weapon, to draw off the gang members, they were sorry they didn’t tell the truth when he asked them where Haley was earlier, and they would never, ever lie to him again, just pleasepleaseplease…

Xander slammed his stake into the back of the vampire whaling on Haley and it exploded into dust. He tossed a final despairing look over his shoulder. The vampires were closing in on the other kids now. The girl’s shirt had been ripped off, one of the boys was in a sleeper hold, and the other boy was now backed against a wall and swinging his flashlight for all he was worth. The vampires that had fought with him and Haley were untangling themselves from their pile and getting ready for a full-bore attack on his position.

He scooped an unconscious Haley up, threw her over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry, and stumbled for the stairs as the vampires roared behind him and the kids screamed for him to come back. He barely avoided breaking his neck as he pitched headfirst down the staircase. He tripped a few steps under Haley’s weight when he reached the bottom floor before he regained his balance and ran for the door.

When he reached the gate, he roughly shoved Haley through the opening first, counting on her Slayer resilience to make sure that more injury wouldn’t be added on top of her existing ones, and then dove through himself. He paused just long enough to throw her again over his shoulder in the fireman’s carry, a move that nearly cost him. One of the vampires obviously thought a little sunlight burning was worth the risk and he could feel a hand tugging at the back of his jeans.

With a final, fear-inspired burst of effort, he broke free. The sound of cloth ripping barely registered over the frustrated hiss and scream of pain behind him. He stumbled for the street, accompanied by jeers that the Archer would get his and the echoing screams—maybe real, maybe imagined—of the three kids he abandoned to their fate.

He landed in the middle of the road, nearly sobbing with relief that the sun was still strong enough to keep the vampires back. He wanted nothing more than to just sag to the tar and catch his breath, but the reddish tinge of a sun starting its slide for the horizon told him that he didn’t dare.

He half-stumbled under Haley’s weight as he made a run for it. He blindly turned down one of the side streets and kept going, leaving the slaughterhouse behind him. His breath hitched as he ran the three blocks to the demolished section. His breathing finally evened out when the adrenalin kicked in as he used the sidewalk to skit the ruined area and make for the tree-lined, still inhabited streets beyond.

It wasn’t until he ran another three blocks deeper into the residential area that he was forced to pause. As he helplessly looked around him, he realized that he had no idea which direction he should go. Other Xander had turned this way and that to get to the waterfront on what was probably a back road shortcut. Great if you needed to get somewhere in a hurry, not so great if you didn’t know the town and needed to backtrack.

He sank to the ground and, with a wince, slid Haley off his shoulder. The muscles in his back started grumbling in protest once the pressure was released and threatened to quit altogether. He ignored the pulling strain as best as he could and leaned over the girl to check her for injuries. Her left temple was a bloody mess, thanks to the vampire that repeatedly kept smacking her head into the brick wall. The left eye was sporting a shiner and there were miscellaneous cuts and bruises on her face. She had no broken bones as far as he could tell, although he couldn’t guess at the condition of her skull after the beating she took.

She was unconscious, but breathing fine.

He then realized that his left eye was stinging and his hand flailed up to his face. For a crazy moment, he thought he maybe he lost the glass eye in the fight, although he knew that wasn’t too likely, and sighed with relief when he felt the reassuring bump under his eyelid. When he took his hand away, he saw it was covered with blood.

He carefully reached up again and felt around his eye. When his fingers landed on the cut on his forehead, he winced at the pain of contact and bit his tongue to prevent himself from making a noise. He was hurt worse than he thought then, but not as bad as he could’ve been. For one thing, he wasn’t fighting a concussion on top of everything else.

Help. Have to get help, the shell-shocked thought finally broke through.

He reached around to his left back pocket for the phone. He could tell the others that he had Haley, but that they needed to get to the waterfront first to save those kids before it was too late. When his hand came into contact with his ass, he groaned with despair.

The pocket had been ripped away from his jeans. The phone was gone.

“No, no, no, no,” he whispered.

The sun was setting. He was lost. Both he and Haley were hurt. And he had no way to summon help. If he stayed where he was they were dead, but he had no clue where he could go. Knocking on a random door would raise too many questions, assuming anyone would even open the door to half-beaten crazed-looking guy with an unconscious kid slung over his shoulder.

Haley stirred with a soft moan.

Grateful that maybe he’d finally get some direction, Xander leaned over her prone form just as her eyes slit open with a soft hiss.

“Haley?” he asked in a hoarse voice.

“Dad?” she whispered back.

He swallowed. “Wrong Xander.”

Haley blinked in a disoriented manner as she tried to sit up. “Where?”

Xander looked around and spotted some street signs up ahead. “The corner of Hallows and Thayer. Can you get us back to your house from here? I’m lost.”

“Yeah. Turn left on Thayer first,” Haley said weakly.

The girl was still out of it, but Xander knew there was no chance she was getting slung over his shoulder again in his beaten-up condition. Even if he was in tip-top shape, he’d hesitate to do it. Once Haley got her bearings and realized that her friends got left behind, he’d have a hell of a fight on his hands.

“Can you walk?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she admitted in a wavery voice.

“Time to find out,” he said as he dragged her to her feet and ignored her protests.

“How…” she began.

He yanked her forward, making sure to keep her off balance. He knew the second she planted her feet, he wouldn’t be able to move her from the spot for love or money. If she had time to think at all and managed to re-capture her equilibrium, he wouldn’t be able to stop her from undertaking a suicide mission to save her friends.

He had size and he had leverage on his side. He had to use it.

He tried not to hear Haley’s barely coherent questions, or the sounds of three kids desperately screaming for him to save them, or the warning roar of the ocean that he was running out of sunlight.

***

A shiver traversed Faith’s spine and she paused to check dusky sky.

The last vestiges of the weak winter sunlight painted the horizon a deep blood red.

The dimming light was getting dark and still no sign of Haley.

He’s wearing a dark green turtleneck.

Faith froze. A sudden breeze tussled at her short hair.

He’s alone.

Haley’s not with him.

We’re shooting arrows in the desert.

But Haley was still missing, so what they were doing wasn’t completely useless.

No. Anya’s wrapping her in chains.

Faith spun around and started running for the Harris house located on the other side of town. Her running speed turned the ground under her feet into a blur as she leapt over and swung around any obstacle in her path.

No time. We’re running out of time.

She won’t be in time.

You could have done something and you didn’t? You cunt!

She should check her cell. She should use it to call him and make sure he was okay.

But instinct told her there was no point.

She knew that whatever was going to happen had already started.

Prophecy is—

—Overrated.

The end can change. She’ll make it change.

The barrier stops her from doing the right thing. It doesn’t stop you.

She promised.

She promised some fresh-faced Slayer who could look at tomorrow and see a future.

She promised some innocent kid who never had Caleb whisper in her ear while he cut her.

She promised some snot-nosed girl who had no idea that she had it easy.

She promised another Slayer that she’d get her Watcher back.

She promised the her who could have been.

Faith dug deep to find that extra burst of desperate speed and forced her legs to run faster.

***

Xander was reduced to limp-running as he dragged Haley behind him. There was a stabbing pain on his right side that told him that there were more exciting injuries under his clothes. The cut over his left eye kept weeping blood. He knew the adrenalin was running out, because his body was throwing up a cacophony of signals that he needed to put the flight on pause.

“We have to go back,” Haley desperately said. She had finally recovered her wits about a half-mile back and had non-stop pleaded with him to backtrack to what she called the old dancehall.

It hadn’t yet occurred to her that all she needed to do was to plant her feet firmly on the earth to stop their forward momentum. Sooner or later she would, Xander knew, and when that happened there’d be trouble. Her worry for her friends had to be addressed before it got to that point.

“In here,” Xander yanked her into some bushes and, using all of his body weight, shoved her down to the ground.

“We have to—” Haley began.

“Shush,” Xander ordered. “Listen.”

Xander figured the only reason why Haley did as he asked was because he looked like her father.

Please, Mr. Harris, please...

His left eye was stinging and tearing like someone had poured salt in it. He was probably going to have to remove the eye and wash off the blood. Christ, he hoped the socket didn’t get infected because of this.

“Do you hear anything?” Xander asked in a whisper.

“No,” Haley whispered back.

I really, really didn’t like the look on faces of those vampires when they were looking at that girl after her blouse got ripped off. She’s going to suffer before she dies.

“We have to get back to your house. We have to get help,” Xander whispered.

“My friends—”

“Already dead,” Xander said in a low voice. Unless those vampires like playing with their food, a dark thought amended.

“We left them to—”

Xander squeezed Haley’s shoulder, partially as a warning to lower her voice, partially to get her to shut up. “They were already dead when I grabbed you.”

Or they were right after we left. Or they will be really soon, he silently accused himself.

“No,” Haley sobbed.

The boy with the flashlight was still fighting when I grabbed Haley and ran. Maybe…maybe…maybe…

“Listen, there was nothing you could do,” Xander urgently whispered.

I couldn’t see any of their faces clearly. Thank god…thank god…thank god…

Haley stuffed fists in her mouth to stifle the sound of crying.

“There were too many,” Xander added. “It’s not your fault.”

It’s mine, the accusing mental voice added.

“Even if you had years of experience, there was nothing you could do,” Xander whispered as he clutched Haley close.

You left them to die, you son of a bitch. You failed…you failed…you failed…

“Haley, you didn’t ask to be attacked,” Xander said. “Blame the right people, don’t blame yourself.”

Blame me.

Haley’s shoulders shook as she fought to keep her crying silent.

If only it was Buffy, or Faith, or Kennedy, or hell, any of the Sunnydale veterans, he might’ve chanced it. No. He would’ve chanced it. But an untrained Slayer with only him as backup? It was a no-win fight. Anyone could see that, even with two eyes.

Think that’ll help you sleep tonight? the accusing mental voice asked.

Xander forced the guilt aside. Later. He’d deal with it later, when he wasn’t out in the open with his Slayer.

No. Not his Slayer. Someone else’s. Not his. Never his.

“Haley, I need you to calm down,” Xander whispered.

They’re still screaming.

Haley’s red eyes finally looked at him. He could see that right now she was willing to believe his lies. But if she took even a second to think about it, she’d knock him on his ass and go after the pack on her own.

The only thing he could do was force her to take the alternative.

“Your mother has everyone’s cell phone number,” Xander said quietly as his mind desperately scrambled to come up with a plan that would keep Haley out of the fight until she was less emotional. “Get home. Tell her we were attacked. Then have her call in your father, Faith, and Rupert.”

“And then?” Haley asked.

“We come up with a plan to take them out,” Xander said.

Why won’t those fucking kids stop screaming?

“How will we find them?” Haley asked.

Xander bit his lip. “Your father’s been managing to keep them on their toes.” You’re mine, Archer. “He probably has a pretty good idea where they hang after dark.”

“What about you?” Haley desperately asked. “You’re hurt and—”

“I think we probably lost them.” Xander touched her cheek to keep her focused on the immediate problem and winced when he saw that his blood-covered hand had smeared her bruised cheek. “I’ll catch you up, but you have to hurry.”

“But—”

“Haley? You don’t have a Watcher right now, which means I’m the guy who’s got to keep you alive until you get one,” Xander said firmly. “And as your acting Watcher, I’m telling you to get your ass home and get help. Faith has 17 years doing this. Your father spent 19 years dusting vampires. Rupert has been doing this since he wore tweed diapers. Your mother knows more about demons than any other soul on the planet. Don’t argue. Do it.”

Haley opened her mouth, probably to argue some more.

“Good lord,” Xander hissed. “While we’re arguing, those vampires are hunting humans. We can’t let them kill anyone else.”

Haley’s mouth snapped shut and she gave him a nod.

Thank god, Xander thought. “Now go. Run as fast as you can.”

Haley poked her head out before pulling it back in. This time when she looked at him, Xander could see that she was standing on firmer emotional ground. “Go a half-mile down and turn left onto Swan Point. There’s a white one-story house with yellow shutters right at the corner. Swan Point will take you right to the house.”

“Got it,” Xander said.

Haley nodded in response and took off.

Xander hissed in pain as he got off the ground and cautiously scanned the sidewalk for any sign of life. He looked down at his clothes and winced. He hoped he didn’t run into anyone between here and the Harris homestead. He’d have a hell of time explaining why he looked like he just crawled out of a car wreck.

He limped-ran as quickly as he could down the sidewalk and tried not to hear the screams of the three kids he left behind to die.

Those vampires knew who I was, the thought intruded.

Not him so much, but the vampires knew the twin. Unless, and he really doubted this, there was some other guy who practiced his archery skills on the local vamps.

They called me Archer.

Which meant they didn’t know other him’s name, but they knew what he looked like.

That train wreck was a hell of a lot closer than he thought. Lucky him, he was the one who got caught in it instead of the twin.

There were four vampires sneaking up on that crypt.

He could see it. Other him was on top of the crypt and shooting arrows into the darkness. Four vampires were waiting for other him to call it a night and start climbing down. Other him didn’t bother to look around before tossing that rope to the ground. He thought they were just taking advantage of the fact other him was concentrating on killing the vampires he could see. Now…

Trap? Xander wondered.

Faith said she saw the whole thing while she followed him around, but didn’t say much beyond that. He’ll have to ask her what she thought about it.

The sky was getting on the darker side of dusk. If those vampires were bent on getting to Haley or “Archer,” they were already following the blood trail he and Haley had laid down. If the vampires wanted them very badly, they probably got started the second the shadows started to lengthen.

His only hope was that the waterfront vampires were less obsessive than Angelus or pre-soul Spike. Hell, Spike wasn’t called a Slayer-killer for nothing. He couldn’t imagine an unchipped, unsouled Spike giving up the hunt for a Slayer that once was in reach of his fangs, especially a newly minted Slayer who wouldn’t be able to put up too much of a fight when he caught her.

The pain in his right side began to howl. His left eye was stinging even worse and it took everything he had not to rub at it. A thousand smaller aches and pains were clamoring for his attention.

Xander reached the house Haley had described and checked the sign to confirm he was at the Swan Point intersection. He caught himself sagging against a tree and was half-tempted to collapse where he was.

You know what happens when you get unlucky with vampires, right?

He forced himself upright. He wobbled a bit with exhaustion as his brain hysterically ordered his feet to move. It was slow going pushing off from the tree, but he picked up speed as he turned the corner.

If there were any vampires in the area, he probably smelled like a real nummy treat.

If Spike showed up right now, I’d kiss him on the lips. With tongue.

Hell with that. He’d offer to let Spike lick him clean if the blonde menace was willing to watch his back until he got to safety.

Which led to the disturbing thought that Spike might’ve already tasted his blood after he was rescued from Caleb.

Ewwwwwww, the brain voted.

At least the thought of Spike licking him stopped those three kids from screaming for all of ten seconds. He’d take it.

No wonder why Buffy nearly went off the deep end in Sunnydale, Xander thought. All those girls, all that cannon fodder, all that nothing she could do to stop some of them getting killed.

He paused a moment to get his bearings and let out a sigh of relief. The Harris house was not even a block away. He forced a little more speed into his legs. The burst of energy propelled him down the sidewalk and through the front gate.

Home free, he thought as he limped up the walk.

Something landed into his blindside. All those training sessions with Robin teaching him how to fall kicked in and he immediately dropped and rolled to his feet.

He spun around to face his attacker and saw that a vampire was standing between him and the front porch.

“Archer,” the vampire said. “And you without your arrows.”

Xander reached for the remaining stake in his back pocket.

The vampire lunged forward.

 

 

Continued in Part 38

 

 

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