Chapter 3: Come As You Were
Chapter 3: Come As You WereAN: Disclaimer in the first chapter; I still do not own any of the settings, characters, or products depicted in this story.
Gaige fiddled with the ancient technology, marveling at it. Clearly, it had been through the wringer. The screen had been cracked a few times, but not to the point of no return. If she could sell it, back in her time period, an artifact of that age would comfortably float her for… several lifetimes. The thought made her smile crookedly, wondering how she was going to get home.
"So, it's been more than five minutes," Axton added, resting his assault rifle on his shoulder. He'd leaned the unconscious victim against a stubby tree planted in the sidewalk. "Not the most reliable guy, this Angel."
An explosion echoed through the town.
"He could have been held up," Gaige replied tonelessly. The soldier nodded. There really wasn't a lot more to say on the subject. Lilith seemed to be getting progressively more and more out of it. The Siren was shifting her weight rapidly from side to side, and whistling tunelessly. Gaige could feel a pretty serious case of the jitters coming on.
"I've got to go to the bathroom," Lilith blurted out.
"So go do it," Axton growled.
"Where? There's no toilets around here."
"Go behind a car or something. It's what we did in the Dahl marines."
"No, I wanna use a real bathroom. With a toilet," Lilith snarled right back, her hands starting to glow a deep, unsettling red.
"Okay, let's just calmly ask one of the locals in that house," Gaige pointed at the closest, suburbanly boring house. It was maybe ten feet away, the paint appeared as a cowardly pale yellow in the night. She picked up the unconscious "If no-ones there, we'll break in."
"This is fucking ridiculous," the commando shook his head, and stomped over to the door.
A muffled "Leave us alone!" could be heard even before his hand touched the golden, cross-shaped door knocker. Gaige and Axton shared a look.
"Um, can we use your bathroom?" Gaige asked. "Sorry to be a bother."
An uncertain pause hung in the air. Some hushed whispers hurled themselves around, only to drowned out by what sounded like mortar-fire. It had the distinct hiss followed by a heavy thud that resonated in Gaige's thin chest. It sounded far too close for comfort.
"You're not one of them, right?" A female voice wavered, from right behind the door.
"One of what?" Gaige asked.
"You don't know? And you're still alive?" That even gave Lilith a chill. Gaige could hear several clicks as the deadbolts disengaged, and the door opened a crack.
"Are those real guns?"
"Yes…" Axton said, cautiously nodding. "Yes, they are."
The lady behind the door seemed to relax, as though some great mystery was revealed to her. She opened the door wide, revealing herself to be a frumpy, middle-aged woman in jeans, fuzzy slippers, and a pastel turtleneck, "If you can walk through the door uninvited, you can use our bathroom." Lilith was through the door before she even finished the sentence. "It's the second door on the left. Oh my," Lilith disappeared within, slamming the door shut behind her, with a quick "Thanks."
Gaige and Axton followed at a more sedate pace.
"The gang members probably left you alone since you had your guns," the lady said, walking down the short hallway, thick with family photos. " They usually aren't this wild on Halloween, but things have really been slipping lately. Take a seat while your friend with the tattoos uses the facilities. You can set your unconscious friend on the couch there, the poor dear. Would you like something to drink?"
The living room was… quaint. It had that prefabbed, Homeowner's Association feel to it, with the doilies, the overstuffed chairs, the cat (which hissed at Gaige and ran away) and the much polished mirror over the mantel.
"Uh, no, I'm fine ma'am," Axton murmured, ignoring the lady's delight in his polite mannerisms.Watching Gaige, set down the girl and put a pillow under her head, he cleared his throat, "So these gang members- short and eat people? Or are they pale, wear dark colors, fangs, drink blood? Yellow eyes?"
"You don't actually have a gang problem, do you…"
The lady slumped. "We're going need something to drink. Something hard," She mumbled, disappearing into the kitchen.
"Halloween?" Gaige whispered. Axton shrugged. "How should I know? You're the big brain."
"Well, if this is old Earth, we don't actually know all that much about it, civilization-wise," Gaige replied in the same soft tone. "During the evacuation, after World War V and the runaway greenhouse effect started really getting bad, a lot was lost. And well, it's ancient, y'know? There's more relevant history to cover. Someone who specialized in it might know more."
"Excuses, excuses," She stuck out her tongue at the smirking soldier.
The lady of the house finally returned from the kitchen, looking haggard and carrying a clear, heavy bottle of vodka by the neck. She set it on an end table with a sigh. She ran a hand through her hair, and then set three glasses beside it. Opening the bottle, she poured a drink in each.
"Sunnydale, California," she took a pull straight from the bottle. "Home of the monsters."
"The town is completely overrun with them- vampires, werewolves, demons, witches, ghosts… if you've heard of it we've probably got some. Magic is real too. And we're stuck in the middle."
The vault hunters listened, not entirely sure what to think. Gaige wanted to point out the implausibility of it all, that lycanthropy was a biological impossibility, that real hemophages do exist… in the parasitic world, that demons were mostly outdated religious iconography, witches were charlatans, that magic was either illusion or science that hadn't understood yet, and ghosts were hallucinations induced by several gaseous compounds or attribution errors. She swallowed her words and kept her mouth shut.
"You probably think I'm crazy, but I was born at Sunnydale General. My family moved here in the sixties, and we picked right up on what to do. Always have a mirror handy, wear a cross, don't invite anyone in, don't go out alone, don't go out at night, don't have a 'Welcome' mat, keep a gun or two handy… We've always been survivors. I can remember my first friend I lost to a 'barbecue fork accident,' when I was fifteen," She laughed bitterly. "Oh, Annie… I haven't thought about her in years. It means a vampire attack. We use double talk, saying one thing, meaning another, and hoping that everyone else gets it. I don't really know how many other people in Sunnydale know about its… nightlife, but I bet it's quite a few. My husband is on the police force, and he says the town government knows about it."
She stopped for a moment, taking a quick sip of liquid courage.
"They're sitting on it though. I think it's to keep the out-of-towners and tourists coming in and spending money- it's how the economy around here works. But, but without the town government behind it, the police, the hospital, and the morgue can only do so much. We've tried fighting them directly, and that only ends up with a lot good people dead for reasons we can't admit."
"So leave," Axton said.
"Been trying for years," the lady said glumly. "My husband can't get a position anywhere else- no-one wants Sunnydale cops. With the double mortgage, no-one wants our house. And… It's safe enough as long as you just keep your head down. Obey the rules. Don't stand out. Don't think about it. Be normal. Smile for the tourists passing through. It's… not as bad if it's people you don't know who become victims in an Animal Attack or Gang Violence. You just kind of learn to adapt, and lay low."
She sighed again, and finished her bottle. Axton was about to open his mouth and say something, prompting Gaige to kick him in the shin, hard.
"it's been getting worse though. Just awful stuff, like this. Normally Halloween night is the time of the year you can really spend a night on the town and not get eaten. Now…" She gestured vaguely, and lapsed into silence.
"Fucking hell, it finally stopped coming. I'm going to be raw for weeks," Lilith's muffled moan of relief filtered out of the bathroom, followed by an "ohshit," and what could only be described as explosive retching and Lilith being blown backwards- breaking the bathroom door off its hinges. Axton was already running to provide cover by the time that Gaige could begin reacting.
There lay Lilith, flat on her back, soot covering her chest, hair blasted upwards as she coughed and wiped at her mouth with the back of her hand.
"I feel better now," the Siren said, weakly. "Sorry about your door."
Suffice to say, an aroma of what could only be still-burning vomit wafted gently out into the hall. The results of a Siren's powers unleashed while throwing up brought a whole new meaning to the term 'technicolor yawn.' The toilet was still intact, if blackened by charred vomit, though multicolored embers embedded in the plastic toilet seat still smoldered.
"Don't worry about it," the lady waved her near-empty bottle in Lilith's direction. "Won't be the first time, believe it or not."
Axton helped Lilith to her feet, and half-dragged her over to a chair.
"No offense lady, but your town sucks," Lilith murmured, curling up in her wingback. "Being here is like getting drunk on a sugar rush, getting gut shot, having the worst cramps you can imagine, and cumming until your brains leak out your ears. All at once."
"That's a vivid description," the lady giggled, watching as Gaige propped up the door to the bathroom. "We were just discussing that, actually.
"Monologuing, really," Gaige grumbled under her breath.
"You don't even know our names," Axton blurted out. "Why are you telling us this?"
"If you stick around for a while you'll get it," she sighed. "Every week or so a friend dies in a horrible way, and you either cope with the paranoia of not knowing which of your friends and neighbors are the monsters or you end up one yourself."
She picked up another glass and chugged it down.
"This is me coping," She smiled faintly and yawned. "If you don't believe me… Well, I'm just a crazy drunk lady, right? Nobody important. It's better than ranting to an empty room while my son plays his video games."
After a few moments of silence, the four conscious people in the living room heard the stairs creak as a heavy set boy with thin mousy hair and an intent expression on his face waddled down the stairs. Gaige assumed this boy was the son she'd talked about. He ignored the group sitting quietly, and trundled into the kitchen. He returned with a silver can.
Pausing, he glanced back. "Hey, nice Borderlands 2 costumes," he grunted.
"Uh… thanks?" Gaige said.
"Yeah, I liked the Mechromancer DLC a lot too," He continued, unperturbed by his mother's glare or the confusion written over his audience. "She's freaking amazing against hordes of little dudes with a shotgun. You need to switch over to a Hyperion SMG against bosses and badasses, though. The DPS is better than the burst damage. Shame how bad the Infinity pistol is on her, though."
Nodding to himself, he waddled back up the stairs. The three vault hunters shared a look.
"I bought him some special headphones for his birthday," the mother mumbled sleepily. "They cancel out noise or something. He probably won't even notice anything is going on."
"Oh god, what is that smell?" the sleeper awoke, scrubbing her eyes. "Look at this costume! Partytown is never going to return my deposit- Ugh. My throat feels weird."
"Probably because it nearly got torn out by vampires," Axton replied.
"Shut up Xander! I know! God, it smells like a distillery and a bulimia convention here," the girl groused.
"Speaking from personal experience there, cupcake?" the soldier drawled.
"Yes. I had to pick up Harmony from one," She ran a hand through her dark, somewhat matted hair, trying to get the tangles out. "Let's get out of here and find Giles so Buffy can go slay whatever it is this time."
"I mean, seriously," she glanced at Lilith. "Talk about falling down on the job. You look like Lindsay Lohan without make up."
"Who's that?" the Firehawk asked, still groggy. "Is she hot?"
"No, she's a used up… Wait- Buffy's costume got her? We're doomed," the girl groaned, propping herself up on her elbows. "Seriously. We need to get her to Giles, so he can make with the voodoo, and de-freakify her,"
"Okay kid, who the fuck are you?" Axton finally snapped. "We saved your goddamn life and now you're just giving out orders like you're a commanding officer? What the hell?"
"And who's Giles?" Gaige asked.
The girl in cat suit pushed herself into a sitting position, grimacing in pain, muttering things like: "This is ridiculous," and "Why do all of them have to be effected?"
"So none of you remember anything about, y'know, the deal with Sunnydale or who you all are-"
"We know who we are," Gaige interjected, "But we don't know much about the bodies we're currently stuck in. And uh… this fine, kind, drunk, and totally asleep lady who never told us her name did tell us that apparently magic is real, that this town is creepy, and that there are made up monsters that live here."
"Okay, I'm Cordelia, and Giles is the guy who seems to know about everything spooky," the girl said, "We really need to get to him before tonight gets any worse."
"Angel is on the way," the Mechromancer leaned forward. "Maybe he can take us to this Giles guy. 'course, that was what, twenty minutes ago? He said it would take five..."
Conveniently, at that moment Buffy's phone began to vibrate. The red-haired girl quickly unlocked it with a swipe of her real hand (her prosthetic one didn't activate the touchscreen) and answered, "Hello?"
"Willow, it's Angel. I can't get to you. A whole bunch of nut jobs in Star Wars costumes blew up my car," Buffy's boyfriend said in a tight whisper. "They've got me and a platoon of National Guard pinned down on Thousand Oaks Drive. Can I just say that getting shot by a fake blaster hurts like hell?"
"Maybe we can get to you?"
"Don't bother," he replied. "Get to Giles at the High School- he'll know what to do. Dresden Street's near the Sunnydale University, right? Cut onto the interstate, and go around that way. Main Street's a mess too, full of Zombies. Shit- that's a lightsabre!"
Abruptly, Angel cut out. Gaige set down the phone carefully.
"I don't think Angel's coming," She said. "Um, how do we get to the interstate from here?"
The lady of the house simply wouldn't wake, so the group decided it was in their best interests to leave as quietly as possible. It had gotten even darker outside, somehow. Streetlights blinked on and off, and the thick, coppery scent of slaughter had grown more potent. Cordelia had replaced Axton's heavy pack, piggybacking on the Commando. Lilith carried it instead, grumbling about how heavy the metric fuck-ton of ammo inside the pack was.
"We need a car, but we're not just going to steal that lady's minivan," Cordelia groused. "I don't care how hard up we are, I am not riding in a minivan- I'm far too stylish for that."
"Gaige, think you can hot-wire one of these ancient hunks of junk?" Axton asked.
"Oh please, I was making fusion reactors when I was six," She grinned. "This is going to be cake."
Finding a car worth stealing was something of a problem actually. Gaige's rampage had managed to turn most of Dresden Street into swiss cheese. Silently, she hoped that no-one was home when she'd been attacked- some of the houses looked structurally unsound with the sheer number of bullet holes in them. One thing Gaige had never been good at was constraining the collateral damage her techniques caused. On Pandora, it generally was a bonus, since it was a sparsely inhabited border world full of scum and villainy.
Here, in ancient suburbia, it might not be.
"What the fuck happened here?" Cordelia whispered, seeing all of the small, child-sized corpses- and chunks of child-sized corpses- splattered about. "This horrible."
"Bunch of psycho midgets were running around eating people. About sixty of the little buggers," Axton replied, hoisting her up further on his back. "They attacked us. We self-defensed them with bullets until they stopped. Since they were all psychos, that meant they were dead." Cordelia went quiet, and you could practically hear the cogs whirling in her head.
"Put me down," She whispered.
"What?" Axton turned his head toward her.
"Put me down, now!" Cordelia shrieked. "Don't touch me, you monster!"
Axton dropped her, all of the vault hunters were staring at Cordelia like she'd grown a second head. She was scampering away, barely able to make herself stand.
"Those weren't midgets- those were little kids!" She pointed at the carnage. "You killed sixty innocent children in monster costumes, that got magicked! Ugh, just go away and go kill yourselves- you deserve it. You're worse than most of the monsters I know!"
"What were we supposed to do?" Lilith snorted. "Pat them on their cute, horned heads and give them candy?"
"YES!" Cordy howled. "That's what Halloween's about! One night out of the year, you get dressed up, you go out, you get candy from your neighbors, and you have fun. You murdered them for it! So just, just- you disgust me, you're evil, you- you child killers!"
Throughout all of this, Gaige had gotten very, very quiet. Cordelia's words hit a little too close to her own fears, but the title "child killer" rang in her ears until it wasn't Cordelia's voice saying it any more. It felt like the world dropped out from under her, and her sight blurred as tears came in great, gushing sobs.
She rushed away as fast as she could manage, her blood splattered boots thumping away into the darkness. Lilith cursed, and headed after her. Leaving Axton and Cordelia alone. The cheerleader stumbled backwards, still dizzy due to lack of blood, and collapsed against one of the street lamps. He calmly walked forward, gun in hands, a blank look on his face. He walked until he stood two paces from the shivering girl on the ground.
"Stay away!" She said, panicking.
Axton crouched, meeting her eyes, and rested his gun on his shoulder.
"You just made a 'monster' cry," He said softly. "Congratulations."
"Why should I care what a Halloween Costume with delusions of personhood says?" Cordelia glared at him, as her eyes watered.
"And you're a self-centered bitch," Axton chuckled, scratching behind his earpiece with his free hand. "There's nothing you can say that'll hurt my feelings- I honestly don't give a shit. This wasn't the first time I had to kill kids, and I highly doubt it'll be the last. I don't like it, but I'm not going to lose sleep over it either. Gaige might though. The punky little redhead. The other redhead is Lilith, incidentally.
"The thing is Gaige… well, Gaige is still young enough to believe that she's the hero in her own story. Lord knows I haven't suffered from that level of idealism since," He frowned. A serious, world-weary expression spread across his face like ink in water. "Since I'd just joined the Dahl corporation's mercenary forces when I was eighteen. My first deployment was pretty messy- let's just say it didn't change me for the better. We all got pasts, and what you just saw there was Gaige's catching up with her for a bit. "
Cordy expression lost a certain degree of stoniness.
"So here's what's going to happen. We're going to find this Giles guy, figure out who made this mess happen, and we're going to kill them. Quick, clean, and in a way that they're not going to come back," he paused. "We could definitely use your help doing that. We don't know the layout, and we don't know Giles from my aunt Susan. Are you in?" He offered his hand to the cheerleader.
The seconds seemed to draw out into hours, as Axton simply waited for Cordelia's response.
"Alright. I'll help," She said, finally, grabbing the soldier's hand. "You better put a stop to this, though."
"Call me Axton," He grinned as he pulled her unto her feet. "Can you walk?"
"Down the street? Yes. Several miles? No."
"Fair enough," He wrapped her arm over his shoulder, half carrying her. "Y'know, you're kinda hot when you get pissed off like that. Reminds me of my ex-fiancee."
"That may be the creepiest thing I've heard all night," Cordelia sneered.