AUTHOR: Roseveare, email@example.com
WARNINGS: f/f slash, references to m/f non-consensual
SUMMARY: Fred negotiates the perils of responsibility; Lilah discovers her inner Xena.
SPOILERS: Nothing solid beyond 4.7/7.7(ish), but based on spoilers for mid-season events.
NOTES: Part 2 of the story and series begun in Burning Down. To repeat the warnings from Part 1, the germ of this idea was a reaction against the spoilers around the time 'Spin the Bottle' and 'Apocalypse Nowish' were airing, a lot of which turned out to be inaccurate or misleading. It's therefore set a handful of episodes in the future from that point, with the assumption of various events having occurred. Additionally, with part 2 I was a little behind on and largely unspoiled for BtVS at the time, so this extrapolates from what was going on around episode 7.6. In other words, AU with a cherry and a paper parasol on top.
THANKS: To Katta for beta-reading, and to the other folks who read this before posting and encouraged me to send it out.
DISCLAIMER: Not mine, never will be, and after this one they're probably very glad of it, poor things.
A desert of scorched earth stretched as far as view around them, a reality of brown-beige colourlessness reflected into orange-red by the sky. A half-assed breeze tossed the dust around, carrying a noise like snakes through the air.
The bang of the truck's hood slamming closed cut through the hiss, the suddenness of the noise jolting Lilah from her daze. Her eyes shot to front, where the hood's closing revealed Winifred Burkle's skinny figure, and they followed the Twig as she stomped back around to the driver's door, arms wrapped across her chest, shoulders hunched.
She climbed back inside, the cab door banging after her, and sat and hugged herself and shivered in her stupid little goody-goody girl dress (it looked like innocence and summer, things Lilah could barely remember; pale flesh of thin exposed arms that really could have belonged to a girl and not a woman late in her twenties) before she finally looked over at Lilah and said, "It's no good. It's dead."
Which was, of course, the perfect cap to being stuck at the end of the world with the Texas Twig and a body that, thanks to Angelus, ached and chafed and grated with every fucking movement.
"If I had the tools and the parts, I could find out what was wrong and do the repairs. I mean, it probably just needs a new-"
"I think it probably needs a new truck," Lilah interrupted rudely. Talking hurt, pulling at the mutilated half of her face, which didn't improve her temper any.
Fred's nose scrunched up like she'd caught a bad smell instead of verbal snark, and she turned her head away. Yeah. The girl had truck issues; don't fuck with the truck. Lilah quashed a snigger. Or maybe the world did it for her. It had been one hell of a day and the muscles of her face objected to laughing for more reasons than just the pain.
"I have to tell you, I'm loving this plan so far," she said. "Sure. 'Let's go find the Slayer. Maybe it's not too late to stop this. She'll know what to do. I mean, according to Angel, she's saved the world from half a dozen apocalypses already. One more shouldn't be any big deal.' Sure, except for the part where we die here in the middle of nowhere or else, knowing my luck, get 'rescued' by a gang of demons out for Angelus' kind of fun."
"I don't whine like th-" Fred broke off her whine of protest and sourly snatched something up from the floor of the truck. She slapped it into Lilah's hands, and turned back to seize the gun from the dashboard. "We're not helpless. We can take care of ourselves."
Lilah looked down at the harness, weighed down by its various attachments and the memory of Wesley. "I don't want it. I told you, I can't use it."
"Well..." the Twig faltered and stuttered amusingly for several seconds before she finally gulped, drew a breath and snapped in a cold little voice that didn't sound much like Wesley's sweet little Fred, "learn. I'm not giving you the gun." She stared through the windscreen with narrow-eyed contemplation. "We can't be far now anyway. We can walk the last few miles. And there ought to be a garage around somewhere - even if its owners aren't anymore."
Much as Lilah didn't feel like walking a few miles anywhere, and particularly not in stained clothes and expensive heels through fire-blasted apocalyptic wasteland that might've been a fucking forest just days ago for all they knew, she certainly didn't feel like voicing that apprehension to Fred.
Who was still looking at her expectantly, and with steely determination setting her small face.
"Yeah. Sure. Whatever," Lilah said. She ran a finger down her shirt to pop open the buttons, and shrugged it off her shoulders to replace the uncomfortable straps of the harness.
It almost made her smirk to see how Fred flinched away from her nudity. Until she realised it might as easily be the bruising, and not modesty, that prompted the flinch.
The sift of dusty fire-blasted earth underfoot, its 'shussh, shussh' in time to her steps, her heels sinking and straining her ankles, the effort that seemed to increase anew each time she pushed off from her toes...
Lilah really missed the Twig's stupid damn truck.
She'd never been so aware of her nervous system. She'd fucking tortured people she was sure must have had more of a party of it than this.
"You okay?" Fred sounded a little breathless.
Lilah couldn't be bothered looking up. "Sure."
Like she was going to admit anything else. She'd already exposed far too much of herself to Winifred Burkle in the past twenty-four hours. It figured that she'd have to be saved from torture and turning by potentially the most irritating person in the world, and the one she would least want to see her so reduced.
And by Wesley. Except she wasn't thinking about Wesley.
The dust on the wind stung her eyes.
Not that the Twig hadn't provided a few surprises. Snapshots of Fred flashed through her brain as she walked. The concentration in her expression as she tried to sew Lilah's face back together. Scared as a rabbit running back to rescue Wesley from Angelus. Curled up in darkness (a patch of human warmth in the cradle of Lilah's arms) with a furrow of thought marking her brow even as she slept. ...Throwing out the admission that what happened to Lilah had happened to her. Not just once, but again and again.
A shudder ran through her and she blinked her eyes. There were too many things she could not afford to think about right now, and not enough safe distractions to prevent the thinking.
Angelus' hands on her. The violence of his invasion. The way he'd turned it into a joke. Her view of the serrated edge of the knife inches from her eyes as he made his untidy incisions. Her last sight of Wesley in Angelus' clutches. Fred telling her, there wasn't a body. Los Angeles in crumbling, burning ruins. The carnage on the road out of town. A world in ashes-
Hard ground grated underfoot, unbalancing her heel, sending her stumbling. Small fingers curled around her arm and held her up. A fearful voice threaded its journey through the wind to her ears.
"I think we've reached Sunnydale, Lilah," Fred said, and she looked up to see the Twig peering big-eyed at the reddish dust and fuck-all stretched around them. "I... I think we reached it quite a while back."
There were the remnants of foundations under the top layer of dry dirt - burned and blackened brickwork, a maze of modern archaeology. Lilah wasn't about to get on her hands and knees and start digging.
Fred was on her knees already, small hands scraping in the dust, carving out a hole maybe a foot in diameter, seeming oblivious of the way the action abraded her skin.
She stopped abruptly, pulled back with a gasp, her mouth falling open. She blinked up at Lilah as though dazzled by the dulled sun, then straightened and extended her hand. Little white shards rested sedately on her palm. Lilah regarded them with suspicion.
"It's bone," Fred said after a moment. "It's been... pulverised, I guess would be the word."
"So we're talking about something reducing everything in the vicinity to blasted foundations and pulverised bone?"
"I... yes." The Twig's face twisted up and she tipped her hands, releasing the bone fragments with a flicker of revulsion. She brushed her palms together slowly, shedding clinging dust.
"Then I'd say we're headed in the wrong damn direction. There's no Slayer here. We're too late. Everything here's already dead."
"We don't know that." Fred wasn't even looking at her, already turned aside and drawn onward by whatever paragraph in the good-and-plenty handbook stipulated the need to always head toward the gruesome and undignified death. "We don't know how far it stretches. We should at least go to the top of the next rise."
Lilah trailed after, unable to raise much concern one way or another. 'End of the world' struck her as a pretty fucking final category. No matter how much they battered away at fate's cage, those were bars they weren't ever going to break.
Her raw thighs chafed as she slogged up the slope. There were handprints on her skin, under her skin. When she closed her eyes unwarily, she could still feel the hands.
In front, Fred had drawn her crossbow and held it ready now as she walked, despite the emptiness around them. It was, unsurprisingly, she who reached the top of the rise first. She pointed excitedly, whipping her head around to shout, "There are structures over there, still standing! Maybe there are some survivors who could tell us what happened."
Lilah reached the crest several seconds of increased effort after and sank down in the dust at the level of the Twig's bare knees, to catch her breath and peer at the distant skeletons of what had been houses. They looked, now, as though they had been left to rot for centuries. She could see no sign of movement among the walls, but some of the structures over at the furthest side looked to be relatively intact, possibly even whole. Possibly, as Fred suggested, sheltering people within.
"I suppose someone down there might have a bunch of spare parts in their garage, or a car we can rip what we need out of."
"Or be able to tell us what happened here," Fred insisted stubbornly.
Lilah expelled breath sharply through her nose. "Whatever."
"I don't-" Breaking off, Fred raised a hand to shield her eyes as she glared intently across the ruined houses.
"What is it?"
"Movement. Over there-" Fred pointed far too vaguely and quickly for it to be possible to get an actual fix on the subject. "In fact..." Then, she was gone, running and sliding down the slope towards whatever she had spied, the skirt of her dress flaring up to flash her thighs in time with her running steps.
Lilah watched her; a bright blur of life and energy in stark contrast to the desolation surrounding. Her hesitation to follow was broken by the gritty texture of the coarse ground beneath her knees steadily increasing its discomfort until standing was less of a chore than staying where she was.
She dragged heavy feet in pursuit of the running form, but then something jarred Fred's progress, faltered her steps. The Twig turned around to deliver an unheard shout back, then sped her progress across the wasteland, crossbow held in a manner indicative of preparation for action.
She vanished from sight among the ruins.
Lilah drew to a halt, frozen with disbelief, and swore loudly at the air.
Fred might not have been her ideal choice for a comrade-in-arms at the end of the world, but certainly she was better than nobody at all. Her sudden absence now, as it had back at the motel before LA disintegrated in flame, made Lilah's chest ache.
The Twig had no doubt run off to help some needy helpless and get herself killed, leaving Lilah alone in this place with who knew what demons and a fucked-up wreck of a truck she hadn't the first clue how to repair.
With a curse, Lilah managed to increase her pace to a run - rhythmic chafing between her aching thighs, a burn starting low in her chest and rasping up through her throat to interfere when she breathed, feet twisting with her heels' dubious purchase in the dust.
Three sharp, pointed sounds hit the air. Gunshots. She kicked off her heels and let the grit eat at her bare feet, sacrificing skin for speed.
She rounded a wall fragment once part of a house to see figures - too many of them - and in time to see Fred toss the empty gun aside and point the loaded crossbow at a demon. Firing effectively disarmed her, leaving her to be jumped by another.
Lilah skidded to a painful halt, catching the edge of the wall to destroy her momentum, huddling into its shadow in an effort to stay out of sight.
She could see two demons of indeterminate type reduced by gunshot wounds to corpses on the ground. A third, injured by the crossbow bolt, moaned nearby. Also on the ground, one human male, presumably the reason Little Miss White Knight Complex had seen fit to leap in to the rescue.
One of the two demons still standing held a kicking and struggling Fred, its strength easily overwhelming her thin body. As Lilah watched, the creature laughed and pawed at the Twig's breasts.
She was moving before she even realised it, rage swamping thought.
"Get the fuck off of her!" The yell, raw in the back of her throat, didn't sound much like her voice.
Retracting the sword from its harness, she threw herself at the demon, sweeping her arm around in an arc that held the confidence and power of blind rage. Fred cringed and ducked her head, and the sword sliced smoothly through the demon's neck.
Fred shoved the corpse away and sprang back, with a small cry, from the rolling head as the line of its severance splattered green gore.
Lilah turned on the remaining demon. It backed away before her with its hands extended in supplication. "Hey... no hard feelings... you can have the bastard if you really want him..." It turned tail and fled, stumbling in its fear. Lilah had only taken two steps before Fred's protest broke through the haze and her own abused body betrayed her, letting her know by way of a wave of dizzying weakness that it would not stand the exertion of further pursuit.
She sagged, almost crumpling where she stood, barely managing to catch herself. To hide the stumble, she stabbed the tip of the sword down through the chest of the injured demon, silencing its distracting moans. The momentary support helped her catch her balance.
The, she wrenched the sword out, and realisation and reaction flooded in as she stared at the weapon in her hand.
"Oh, my-" She heard Fred's gulp, interrupting the breathy whisper of her voice. "That was just-"
Lilah couldn't tear her eyes from the blade. A ball of air caught in her own throat. "No," she said. "No. That wasn't - I couldn't-"
But words had failed them both, not a thing to occur often in either case. She could only raise her head to meet Fred's wide, astonished eyes, still speechless as the contact stretched.
A groan from the man they had saved split their gazes apart like guilty lovers'. Lilah looked down at the sword in her hand and felt stitches tug as the revulsion stretched her face. "Ew."
She knelt and wiped the greenish blood off the blade onto the dead demon. Then she tried to find a spot of grimy demon fashion she could bear to touch in order to wipe off the dribble of slime that had reached her fingers.
"Yuck," Fred agreed. She retreated a little as though she thought Lilah might choose to wipe it on her and hung back, her movements skittish, one small hand beating an irregular rhythm against the hem of her dress at mid-thigh. "What the hell was that?" she asked eventually. "I thought you said you couldn't fight?"
"I can't. I don't know. Luck. Dumb fucking luck. And without it, that demon would've been finishing what Angelus began, so what the hell was that, huh? Are you trying to get us killed?"
"No! But... I could see them tormenting that man... he was bleeding... I think they would've killed him if I hadn't done anything. I couldn't just watch. We've had to stand by too often. And he... we've seen nothing human still living in this place at all. I had to."
"After all, there were only five of them," Lilah spat.
But Fred wasn't listening. Her attention had been drawn back to their rescuee, and she'd sidled around to kneel beside the injured man. Lilah regarded the smudged blade of the sword dubiously, and tried again to clean it sufficiently to bear retracting it back into its sheath and to such close proximity with her skin.
Fred asked in a muted voice, "Are you all right?"
The man's response was a rather hysterically pitched giggle.
Lilah rolled her eyes and turned away, wrestling with the sword device as she trudged back up the slope to where she'd kicked off her shoes. She nudged them back onto her feet, wincing at the sight of their expensive leather reduced to a filthy mass of scratches. By the time she returned, Fred had gotten the dishevelled man to his feet.
The demons had marked him with fists and claws, and their contusions distorted his visible skin. Beneath the blood and bruises, he was youngish, slight, not tall, had stubby dyed-blond hair - and looked vaguely familiar.
Lilah studied him narrowly. "I know you."
Fred raised her head from fussing over his scratches, her mouth opening in surprise at the announcement.
The sword shot out from Lilah's arm, considerably easier than it had been to coax the thing back. "Move away from him, Twig. That isn't any man."
"I bloody am," the creature in question protested. "Here, you want me to prove-"
"Shut up!" Something - Lilah wasn't sure what - had clued Fred in as well. She darted to the demon corpse with her crossbow bolt still embedded in it and yanked the bolt out. She raised it in her hand, held ready to stab. "You're a vampire!"
"He's more than that," Lilah said, amused. "He's William the Bloody, another one of Angelus and Darla's brood. Spike." She tipped her head on one side. "Lilah Morgan, Wolfram and Hart. I believe you spoke to my colleagues that time when you were in LA a few years back. But then I heard you had a chip in your head. And then I heard you had a soul. The Senior Partners were getting in one hell of a snit over that one."
"Yeah?" The vampire's movements were uneasy, shifty. He wasn't the type to run, though he might want to. "Well, you and your people can just sod off, all right? I've had it up to here with being used. Villains, white hats, you're all the bloody same. I don't give a shit. Just fuck off already and leave me alone." He sneered at Fred, who was continuing her impression of a goldfish long past the point of tedium. "Both of you."
Fred swallowed and pulled herself together. "You have a soul?" And, hell, already her voice had softened at the information, her hand falling to her side, the weapon in it held slack and useless. Silly little bitch. "How? Were you cursed as well?"
"Oh, don't bloody start. I am not going through my deeply pathetic life story for-" He paused and sniffed, and his head twitched violently to the side as though sickened by what he sensed. But he just said, "Fucking hell," then shut his mouth and settled into a vague look of brooding disgust.
"If it helps, Wolfram and Hart doesn't exist any more," Lilah said dryly. "Destroyed with everything else. We have no intention of using you for anything. The only matter we need to settle here and now is why we shouldn't chop off your worthless head and watch you niftily transform to a pile of dust where you stand."
"Lilah!" Fred piped up. "He has a soul."
"I have a soul," Lilah pointed out.
That shut the Twig up. For all of two seconds.
"We can't just kill him - besides, we need information. If he's survived what happened here, there's a chance he can tell us what caused it." Fred rounded on Spike and, a challenge in her voice, asked, "Well?"
Spike sneered. "I don't have to tell you anything. 'Cause, you know, vampire. Super-strength and all the trimmings ringing any bells here? Reckon I could take you two bints with or without the toys."
"These two... bints... just saw off your five demonic tormentors," Fred said. Her voice was quavering, and though it was probably with anger, it had to be said that the Twig didn't do threat and bluster precisely well. She made a visible effort to calm herself, though, and said more quietly, "Please. We need to find the Slayer. We need to know if there's a way we can still set right everything that's happened. If anyone can, surely it would be her. And if you can tell us where she is, or where she might have been..."
Spike's howls of laughter drowned out the rest, and killed any further reasoning as Fred's lips froze and she stared at him, a realisation in her face. Shocked comprehension lay behind it, enough to show this development awoke more than a few personal ghosts.
Little mystery as to why. Even Lilah could see that either the soul or the apocalypse or both had sent William the Bloody mad as a hatter.
His laughter wound up finally and he brushed the back of a hand across his eyes. The moisture smudged dried blood and mud around his face. "Slayer's dead," he said hoarsely. "Nothing anyone can do to bring her back this time, either." Another giggle escaped, except it wasn't, and Lilah let out a frustrated hiss of breath and tapped her fingers on the sword handle while Fred, of course, knelt down to offer comfort to the sobbing vampire.
"Geroff," Spike said indistinctly, and then Fred was hurtling backwards. Lilah had no time to move, and barely managed to avoid skewering her on the end of the sword. They both went down in a heap.
"Sorry," Spike added - none too sincerely, but that was possibly more through preoccupation than malice.
Lilah wrested her right hand free from the tumble of limbs and struggled to retract the blade again, cursing. Spike's next words caught them as Fred was halfway up onto her knees.
"She laughed, and they burned. They were there to fight her, thought they'd found a way to force her - it - to materialise corporeally. All of them, there, threatening her and she laughed. They burned in the fires she called up. It swept through here... a firestorm so hot there was nothing left... they smelled like pork, the Slayer and all her little friends and all the stupid girls... smelled good..." His maniacal laughter softened into whimpers.
Fred clambered to her feet and helped Lilah to hers. In order to stand at all, it was necessary to rest a lot of weight on that skinny little body, which felt as though it might snap beneath her, but didn't. She could count Fred's ribs easily under the palm of her hand. Her fingertips found a bruise, prompted a wince, and since their faces were inches apart and their foreheads all but touching, she leaned just a little closer to whisper an apology into the Twig's ear.
When they looked back to the vampire, still hanging onto each other for support, Spike was staring intently at them. "Why're you all shiny?" He blinked a few times and shook his head. He tried to peer at them with his head turned at different angles. "Nah. Can't be. Two silly bints... Angelus' rejects..."
Lilah felt the blood leave her face. "How the hell did you-?"
"He can smell it on us," Fred said nervously.
"Yeah, you both stink of that psychotic ponce. Must be losing his touch. He usually fucks 'em dead."
"We got away," Fred said thinly.
"Like I said."
Lilah wrapped her arms around herself, feeling the hard shapes of harness and weapons press against her breasts. She'd showered, and showered, and showered, and scrubbed half her skin raw, but she'd had to put the same clothes back on afterward. She'd been wearing them maybe fourteen hours now. They almost stung against her skin - had done so even before the brutal reminder. She felt as though she'd never be able to get clean again.
What the fuck had Spike meant by that 'shiny' talk?
He glanced between them. "His taste's taken a dive as well, that's for sure."
"I hear it's just that you're all about blondes now," Lilah snapped.
The vampire snarled, but caught himself on the verge of a threatening move. Heck, maybe he had reformed. She'd seen stranger things.
"What I want to know," Fred's voice suddenly cut through to them with deliberate volume, "Is how you could possibly have survived when everything else here was burned to nothing. Vampires aren't immune to fire." Lilah saw she had the bolt raised again in threat.
"Because it suited her that I did, you stupid cow." But the words were without force, and Spike slumped cross-legged on the ground in apathy. "Thought it was dead funny. A big joke."
"Who is this 'she'?" Fred pressed.
He looked around as though he expected just thinking it, let alone voicing it, would cause his mystery entity to materialise.
"The First Evil," he said finally. Something resembling sanity returned as he provided dry facts. "Some kind of incorporeal shape-shifting entity. Styles itself all-powerful. Hell, maybe it is. All I knew for the largest time was that I had dead people talking in my head. Wasn't too great in there to start with, with the soul and everything. Bitch fucked me up."
"You helped her - it," Fred said resentfully. "That's what you meant by 'used'. You helped this happen."
"Not by choice. I tried - damn it, I tried-"
"You still can," Lilah said.
"What?" Two faces turned her way.
"Help us, Spike. We need to know if there's anything we can do to put things right. You need to do something to assuage the guilt on your soul. Now, it seems to me that we could come to an arrangement here that benefits all of us. You must know mystics, have contacts in the magical world, maybe even other survivors here and now who could help. And after all, what do you have to lose?"
She became aware that Fred was watching her intently over the souled vampire's bowed bleached head, her eyes alight. Lilah had to quash her responding smirk, given that it probably wouldn't help induce confidence in the competitor across the table from her in this particular negotiation.
She looked back to Spike.
"All right," he said dully, after a long pause. His voice was softer, almost pleasant, and somehow more human than it had been. "I'll help you, here and now. I'll lead you to the others. After that, whatever you do - it's down to you. They won't want me around."
"There are others here, then?" Fred asked eagerly.
"Oh, yeah. Normal folks, mostly, but - there's a witch, and some other guy that's supposed to be some kind of magical dabbler. Maybe they can whip up something between them. If there's any help can be given at all, that is - because me, I'm betting on the apocalypse."
Spike led them through a forest of jagged wall fragments spearing precariously up into the sky. Lilah trailed her fingers down her right wrist as they progressed, feeling the reassuring bulk of the weapon held underneath, just gently enough not to spring the blade. She might be the one responsible for their current arrangement, but that still didn't mean she trusted Spike.
And they only had his word on it that the entity which had destroyed Sunnydale, the Slayer, and all the Slayer's friends (some of whom had not been without power themselves, from Lilah's recollection) was gone.
Take the mad vampire on trust? Yeah, right.
"I don't see any signs of life," Fred was saying with waspish impatience. Hell, even the Twig was suspicious.
"No," Spike agreed, stopping in his tracks. Fred and Lilah glared at him as he cocked his head. After a few seconds, his eyelids lowered a little and he sank to his knees in the dust in a smooth slump. His hands caught at something on the ground... no, in the ground... a metal handle. He yanked it up. An approximate two-foot square rose with it, tipping dust. Fred, caught a little too close, stumbled back spluttering.
Lilah realised then that the harder texture of the ground underfoot was scorched kitchen or hallway tile beneath a thin layer of charcoal-dust. That the fragments of ruin around them followed the line of four walls, smaller fragments marking out the thinner walls that had divided the rooms within.
"A basement," she said.
Spike was backing off from the hole, eying it with caution. "This is as far as I go," he said.
Fred started to protest, but another voice cut through the air before she could.
"Yes. It is."
The woman covering them with an old hunting rifle looked on the edge. Her clothes were domestic, pastel checks on a pinafore dress, matched with blonde hair and hoop earrings. A wedding ring caught the red glint of the altered daylight on her hand.
She said to Spike, "I thought I told you to stay away."
"I'm going," Spike said, hands rising open-palmed to the level of his shoulders, slowly backing off. "Don't fucking shoot me again, all right, you bitch."
The gun jerked and clicked in the woman's hands at his movement.
"Don't-" When Fred stepped forward (and why the hell? It wasn't as though the bullets would kill Spike, assuming they even gave a damn about the welfare of Spike), the barrel spun around to zero in on her. "We asked him to bring us here. It's not his fault."
"And who the hell are you?"
The gun didn't waver. The Twig fidgeted under its aim, which was unlikely to make the trigger finger of PsychoSusie Homemaker any less itchy.
"We're human." Lilah felt her voice rasp in her throat, cracked and dry, thin as paper, sounding as frail as she felt. The woman with the gun evidently reached the same conclusion; although her eyes flickered minutely, her aim never wavered from Fred.
It was probably a testament to Lilah's state of exhaustion that it was only after a moment of dying inside that she realised Fred was still holding the crossbow and the empty gun, albeit loosely in hands dangling by her sides. Fred had evidently been too surprised to even think of bringing them to bear. It was probably why she was still alive.
Fred caught Lilah staring, followed the line of her gaze, and tossed down the weapons with a convulsive motion that almost got her shot anyway.
"We're not dangerous!" she protested, raising her hands in a copy of Spike's gesture. Her eyes slid nervously around. "I swear. We only want to try to put things right."
The woman gave a bitter snort. Lilah figured it would be unwise, in the circumstances, to raise an objection on the grounds of semantics.
But the woman was looking more closely at them now - taking in the bruises, the bandages, the blood, the stained and torn clothes. "Where did you come from?" she asked slowly. "We looked all over here. We spent most of yesterday and this morning looking. We thought we'd found everything human that had survived, that the demons hadn't got to first."
"We came from LA," Fred told her. "It's... things are bad there, too. Anarchic. The city was crumbling... earthquakes and fire... when we left."
"And you came here?" The woman laughed. "Of all the directions you could have chosen. Everyone left here is trying to get out and as far away as they can."
"We thought there might be people here who could help. I thought - have you heard of the Slayer?"
The woman nodded, and at last the tip of the gun fell. "You're out of luck. The Slayer's dead."
Liquid grey eyes flickered across to Spike. "Yeah," she said. "You should know, then, what this one did as well?"
"He claims it wasn't from choice," Fred said, sounding like she was trying to exorcise her own doubt. Her voice grew firmer as she spoke. "He claims he has a human soul. We can't leave him here, when we leave, if that's true."
The woman's eyes glittered, but quickly narrowed again in suspicion.
"I heard those too. That's why I didn't saw his head off after I introduced him to Doreen for the first time." She moved the gun in her hands indicatively. Doreen.
"I don't think he'd hurt us."
"Unless he was jonesing for a snack," the woman said, and there really was nothing Fred could say to that.
Spike was still trying, surreptitiously, to edge away.
The woman looked at Lilah again. Her face softened (Lilah flinched at the sight of pity) and she let out her breath in a drawn 'hmmmfh'. The rifle drooped in her hand and finally rested harmless, parallel to her thigh.
"All right," she said, and jerked the tip of the barrel towards the basement hatch. "Why don't you all stop gawping out here and come along in?"
There were a dozen of them huddled into the underground room, which took on the aura of a nuclear bunker with such a crush of frightened humanity within. The woman with the shotgun was called Sarah-Jane Kramer and seemed to be more or less in charge. Fred came alive with nervous, driven energy when presented with the array of tools and junk in the basement, and took Sarah-Jane aside almost immediately, the two of them quickly becoming buried in discussion of tactics, options and survival amid a battle of their warring drawls. Lilah didn't miss the whispers and the sideways glances towards her that marked a brief departure close to the beginning of their kinetic debate.
She was left, awkward and self-conscious and increasingly angry with it, to the mercy of ten strangers and Spike. The strangers regarded Spike with suspicion and her with vague pity. She sidled closer to Spike.
"Here." The man introduced as Garth something-or-other whom Lilah had pegged tentatively as Spike's mystical dabbler (Garth was fortyish with a beer belly and wore the most ludicrous clothes she'd ever seen on anyone, ever, including in the surveillance tapes Wolfram and Hart had taken of Angel's fashion-sorry band) offered her an opened tin can and a fork. She cringed at the cold baked beans within, the smell alone almost enough to make her retch. It was over twenty-four hours since she'd last eaten.
"No," she said, turning her head aside reflexively. "Get it the hell out of my sight."
Spike's staple goddamn diet would have looked more appetising.
The man's eyes narrowed as he said, "You should eat."
"Well, I don't fucking want to."
"I'll have it-" Spike began.
"Don't feed the vampire!" Sarah-Jane's voice rang out sharply, echoing in the small underground room. The woman had ears like a bat. "Save it for those of us who actually need it."
"Bloody witch," Spike muttered as the beans were withdrawn.
"I resent that," piped up the teenage girl all in black (apparently keen on playing up to stereotype). Spike aimed two raised fingers behind him without turning. She kicked at the back of his ankle with one inordinately bulky black boot.
Good old Garth gave in his efforts to make Lilah eat, and with an extra-suspicious last glance in Spike's direction, turned away.
"So," Spike said, voice muted in the back of his throat, lips barely moving. "Your girl. She's pretty good at this stuff, right? One of the massive poof's band of the brave and bold?"
"Yeah." Fred was rifling through boxes, snatching up various items she and Sarah-Jane passed back and forth between them in study. "How did you know that? I mean, yeah, you were consorting with the Slayer and all - in the very biblical sense, from what I hear - but I didn't think those two ex's were much on communication."
"Willow said there was a girl called Fred working with the poof." Spike shrugged. "Don't know why I remember, really. Said the bint hid under the table the entire time she was at Angel's place in LA. Could be what stuck in the mind."
Lilah snickered, then fell abruptly quiet, watching Fred lift up something with a heap of wires trailing from it, and examine it with bright-eyed knowledge.
"She's changed a bit since then, I gather."
"I suppose so." She watched Fred animatedly planning the survival of a dozen souls with a woman who ten minutes ago had been threatening her at gunpoint.
"People climb back up all the time, I guess," Spike added. "Even the ones you think are too far gone. Even the ones you might think can't, or wouldn't."
"Even the ones who aren't people?" Lilah turned to look at him archly.
Spike swore and stared at his feet. His fingers twitched as though missing a cigarette, which set Lilah's thoughts on a track of similar cravings. She wanted food - good food. Alcohol, preferably a halfway decent scotch. Most of all, she wanted a change of clothes. They didn't even have to be a label.
She could already see it would be a waste of time asking these people about any of those things.
"Nifty device you got there. I meant to say, before." Spike trailed a finger on Lilah's wrist, and the unexpected touch made her flinch. "How do I get one of them?"
"I have no idea. The person who owned this had it made. It may have even been to his own design."
"Another of the poof's?"
"In a roundabout sort of fashion." Lilah explained, flat-voiced, briefly, about Wesley.
"Sounds like you got it bad," Spike observed when she'd done.
"Fuck you, Soulboy Lite."
"Angelus won't have killed him. You know that. Not if he meant enough to the bastard to have him all riled up in stalk mode. Those, he likes to take his time with."
Lilah didn't want to hear that. "Doesn't matter. They're both dead under the rubble of LA anyway."
"If you say so." Spike shrugged, and returned to watching Fred. His eyes were narrow and thoughtful, the insanity temporarily on respite. "You and her. Opposite sides. Pretty much opposite everything. How far you gonna follow her, huh? How long are you gonna let her lead you?" Something oddly resentful - oddly wistful - in his voice.
Lilah blinked, and didn't tear her gaze from Fred to look Spike in the eye. "I don't know."
"Garth says he knows how to fix us up a line to the Powers - the 'mystical oracles' or something like that, he said." Fred was smudged with grease and engine oil, perched uninvited on the wall fragment next to where Lilah leaned observing the proceedings from out of the way, feeling numb with an insistent buzz of exhaustion running through her veins and inside her head. "You know, I think Angel might have spoken about them once."
"The oracles were destroyed," Lilah responded irritably.
Garth popped his head over Fred's shoulder on his way across to the mended truck carrying supplies. "New oracles," he emphasised somewhat warily to Lilah, before ducking back and continuing on his way.
Fred's attention followed him a second, then returned, flashing Lilah a slightly scrunched-up smile. "New oracles," she repeated unhelpfully.
Lilah supposed it was indeed possible that the powers hadn't sat back and let their oracles be slaughtered without at least replacing them. She hadn't known of a gateway located anywhere near Sunnydale. "They only see Champions," she said. "Although I guess since those are a bit in short order at the moment, all things considered, they might see you."
"Don't laugh." The Twig's hands were bitterly clenched into fists at her sides. "Do you want this to be the end of everything? The Slayer's dead. Angel's gone. Cordelia..." Her face twisted. "They're probably all dead, and the truth is, we were losing sight of the mission even before. It was supposed to be about the fight, not about our petty squabbles."
Blinking, Lilah stared, intrigued by her phrasing. "The fight? I thought you helped the helpless?"
"We killed evil demons. It's the same thing. We made the world better... can we forget the semantics?"
Lilah shrugged. She'd pursue the issue another time, assuming she could be bothered. Assuming there would be another time to pursue it. She watched their not-so-merry little band of allies trudging back and forth, taking everything they would need and could carry out to the truck.
"I noticed you've been avoiding everyone." Fred sounded annoyed, and gave a quick glance around before she continued, as though she'd been waiting for opportunity to bring this up in some semblance of private. "Do you hate people so much? I know you're evil and everything, but shouldn't you ought to try get along?"
"I don't - all right, so maybe I do hate them. But that's not why." She bit the sentence off with a growl.
"Why is it, then? I mean, you were a lawyer, so in theory that means you can at least pretend to be polite to people, right?"
"I hate the way they look at me," Lilah finished.
"Oh." Fred cast her gaze down.
"Or the way they don't," Lilah added maliciously, finding some consolation in her relish at the look on Fred's face as her eyes shot back up.
"I didn't mean to-"
"Yeah. Of course. Spike's a shit, but at least he doesn't flinch from a reality that's staring him in the... face." She glared down the depths of the Twig's widened pupils, driving the point home. "Angelus fucking raped and tortured me. That's not going to change. This-" her hand flew to the bandaging covering the side of her face "-isn't going to change either. End of the world rules out cosmetic surgery as much of a viable option. My face is going to look like dogmeat for as long as I survive. But fucking deal, already. And give me some credit that I can."
"They don't mean anything," Fred said unhappily. "And it's not like they don't all have their own pain, too."
"I don't care."
They faced each other in angry silence for long moments, before Fred slipped off the wall. Her feet hit the floor and she leaned in to Lilah, and she started talking, her eyes fixed unblinking to some point on Lilah's breastbone.
"Sarah-Jane's two children were out playing in the street when the flame wall hit. She saw them burn as it swept through. Her husband shoved her down into the basement but he was caught by the fire as he followed. Half the flesh on his back was cooked and he took three hours to die while she had to watch."
Fred paused to absorb Lilah's silence a moment before moving on.
"Garth was out jogging. He had a split second to cast a protective magical shield around himself, before an entire street of people turned into ashes around him. If he'd thought quicker, thought about more than personal survival instinct, he could have made a bigger shield. He doesn't know how many he might have saved."
There was moisture in Fred's eyes now. "Ruth," she said. "The little girl? She was playing in an underground den in her garden. Her home was on the very edge of the town, the fringe of the fires. She heard the screams as her family burned slowly in the heated air."
"Stop it," Lilah said.
Fred took another gulp of breath.
"I said don't." She could feel her nails digging potholes in the flesh of her palms, couldn't unclench her fingers. A shudder ran through her body. "I don't want to hear it. I don't care."
She really didn't. She had no idea why she was trembling.
"Lilah was raped and tortured by a monster who then... killed the man she loved," Fred said in a rush, a hitch in her voice. "Who loved her."
God, her eyes were stinging, and there was actually something - a hot, damp trickle sliding down her cheek. Wet heat, too, from the gouges in her palms.
"Who's denying reality now?" Fred's voice was shaking, too, wildly fluctuating and crossing registers. "Does it hurt so much to acknowledge it, Lilah? To be just like everyone else? To be just one more human victim?"
"Fucking shut up!" Lilah grated, almost a scream. A couple of heads turned their way, but she was too angry to dial it down. "Shut the fuck up! It's no wonder Angelus wanted you to shut the fuck up. All you ever do is fucking talk!" She sagged down onto her knees.
The only reaction from Fred, thin and brittle and pale from more than just the verbal onslaught, was to reach out a shivering hand, and with it wipe the trail of tears from Lilah's face.
Lilah's knees jolted against the dashboard in the rhythm of the truck's laboured progress across the terrain, adding to her mosaic of bruises. She pulled her skirt again as far as it would stretch to cover the skin of her legs, and hugged her arms over her chest against the cold. The discoloration of the sky seemed to eat up the sun's Californian warmth, reducing her thin, torn clothes to a joke in lieu of protection against the chill. And some fucking ingrate refugee in the back of the truck had claimed the blankets.
Beside her, Garth cautiously offered his jacket again, and again she told him to fuck off. A fury was buried within her, building steadily as the hours passed, as more of these little exchanges added fuel to it. Didn't he realise who and what she was, what she had been? The things she had done?
Could he not see? Couldn't any of them? Had Angelus torn down her aura of power so completely that all remaining of her was a thing to pity?
"I hope my people are all right in the back with your damn vampire," Garth said, blatantly reaching for anything to say at all to fill the resounding silence.
"More pertinently, is our damn vampire all right in the back with your people?" Lilah responded pissily.
'Cause, yeah, they thought Spike - William, Will, whatever the hell - was evil. That pathetic creature had never willingly sold his soul anytime he'd had a soul and a choice about it. Evil? These people were fucking clueless.
"I don't think he'd hurt anyone," Fred said again.
Eyes on the road ahead and not looking at either of them - for the last hour, not looking at the power struggle taking place quietly beside her in the cab of her loser-ex-boyfriend's truck. The Twig was talking like a broken record, and less readable by the hour. Lilah hadn't the first idea anymore what was going through her head, whether she was too tired to tell them to shut the fuck up or too annoyed in whatever opinion she held on it to let loose her restraint. But Lilah was increasingly aware just how far Wesley had had his head stuck up his ass where it came to the goody-two-shoes girl of his dreams.
The still quiet of the wreck of a world outside the window was the same as the composure Fred held. There were angry red wastelands in that, too... wrapped in sweetness and innocence stretched thin as paper, threatening to split completely and reveal whatever hard little core lay within. The girl had lived five years in Hell. Lilah had only administrated for it, if for longer - from a luxury apartment that she missed with the same kind of intensity she missed every other comfort stripped from her being.
When they stopped, she was going to Fuck Up that bitch who had stolen her blanket.
Not that she would have had the chance if Lilah hadn't been so distracted by Fred. She wasn't thinking about that confrontation. Not the things that had been said, and not the outcome. Certainly she wasn't thinking about the feel of fingertips brushing her face, not unkind, but not kind either.
To distract herself, she thought back again to the minutes after, to watching all huddled in on herself after she'd dragged her feet back under her and backed off, as Fred skittishly turned and half-ran to rejoin the last of the loading.
She remembered, like fleeting photographic snapshots, the faces of the people as they stopped loading tools and salvaged goods and started loading the human baggage. A dozen souls crammed into the back of the truck, weight shifting heavily on the wooden boards that had provided Lilah and Fred's bed of the previous night. Those raw emotions painted on their faces were ones she remembered all too clearly from their own flight out of LA.
Then, 'away' had felt like 'safety' amid the noise and panic, running without direction or goal an overriding instinct. She knew now both consciously and subconsciously how little of safety was left anywhere. The flight instinct had been stifled within her, reduced to a numbness of mixed fear and acceptance, and the dizzy buzz of exhaustion and of nerve endings raw and tired after too long on overload.
She remembered lying awake in the back of the truck the previous night, warm only from Fred's warmth, a small sleeping body curled up in her arms.
The world drifted.
Until, with a jolt, it sharpened again and sped up as the truck pulled to a halt. The half-smile fled Lilah's facial muscles as her knees hit the dashboard, her head hit the window, and she became aware she'd been dozing, the night's sleeplessness catching up on her at last.
Garth's voice said, "Yes. This is the place."
The temperature of the air had dropped to an even more biting chill, and outside, the truck's headlights pierced an almost total dark.
The engine cut and she heard the scuffle of shoes against boards, the thuds of heavy landings as their passengers disembarked from the back.
Then, she heard Fred swear - well, she heard Fred say "oh, crap" - and her eyes shot up in time to see the non-human shadows moving in the headlights' beams. Fred reached to turn the key back, then stopped (Lilah supposed she didn't dare use the truck to mow down the shadows when she didn't know where their own - Sarah-Jane's - people were milling around outside) and reached instead to grab the crossbow and single remaining bolt from the dashboard. She smacked open the door and vanished out into the night.
A gunshot sounded: Sarah-Jane.
Garth moved as though to try hustle Lilah on out so he could get past, then changed his mind and started to climb over and out of the driver's door after Fred instead.
Lilah cursed as she heard a cut-off scream from somewhere. There were a morass of figures out there now, and she couldn't tell which was Fred in the darkness. One of the human shapes fell. She shook the last of the drowsiness from her head and hit the door. Slid heavily down from the truck, jerking her arm to send the sword scything out. The handle fell into her palm almost neatly this time around.
A scaly form slammed into her from behind, the edges of its skin abrading her own with the hard contact. She reversed the blade without thought and stabbed backwards under her arm. The jolt was harder than she'd anticipated and she felt it all the way up to her shoulder, wrenching already sore and bruised muscles. But she must have scored a lucky hit, because the body collapsed - dragging the sword with it and almost pulling her over. She set her feet and hauled forward, double-handed, and nearly overbalanced the other way when the dead flesh let go its hold.
She looked up, and staggered forward in time to disable the demon about to disembowel one of their humans, her swing as ungainly as an amateur wielding a poorly balanced baseball bat.
The demon faltered and its victim had chance to gasp out a syllable. She recognised the voice and winced.
A spark erupted on the demon's chest and blossomed out to engulf the whole of the creature. Garth sat down abruptly, like he'd been drained of all energy, as the smell of cooking chicken and charcoal filled the air.
Fucking typical, Lilah thought, glaring at the man with disbelief.
Around her, things had quieted down, no fighting still taking place, only six demon corpses in various states of 'yuck' on the ground, and a bunch of exhausted humans standing around them. Or, alternatively, huddled still in the back of the truck.
Fred was trying to pull the last crossbow bolt from a body. "We need more weapons," she said. She freed the bolt with a grunt of effort, and it came away without the tip. "Not to mention ammunition."
"Why the hell did we stop here anyway?" Lilah demanded.
Garth regained his feet, breathless and pale, wide eyes fixed on her. "Because this is where the oracles are," he said in a thin reed of a voice.
'This' was a small track leading off the path, through a sprawling patch of densely packed but scrubby trees struggling to grow in the dry dust of the non-irrigated landscape. Contrary to much of the scenery they'd been presented on the road in the previous twenty-four hours, this place looked barely touched by the effects which had ravaged large portions of the land.
"There's power, here," the teenage witch said, nervously. "I can feel it."
"You can?" Fred perked up interest.
The girl nodded palely. She was avoiding looking at the corpses of the demons, and Lilah gathered she'd been little use in the fight.
Fred looked to Garth, who shrugged and looked disenchanted. "All I feel is drained."
"Oh." Concern sparked in Fred's face. "Can you still perform the rites?"
Garth nodded. "There's little to no actual power involved. It just needs someone with knowledge to speak the words. I suppose the presence of power here would explain its draw for demon activity." He turned hesitantly to Lilah, then. "You saved-"
"Just stow it," she snapped. She realised she was still holding the sword in her hand, and that perhaps this would explain why the mystic looked about to piss himself. She wiped the blade off and snapped it back up into its sheath with a quick motion of her wrist. Garth eyed it, his trepidation making it plain he'd been unaware of its presence throughout the day. The experience provided, Lilah found, something of a buzz.
"Garth..." Fred nervously distracted him, casting a brief, narrow glare at Lilah. "We should do this as quickly as we can. There could be more out there. We shouldn't oughta be just waiting around for them all to decide to come and attack. Lilah-"
"Huh? Because I really need to be there to see the mystical oracles that my firm had put down the last time it had any contact with them? I don't think so."
"Fine," Fred snapped, "But we only have two working weapons left-" she held up her crossbow, lacking ammunition "-and we need one left here and one with us. It makes more sense for Sarah-Jane to stay and use the shotgun to protect the group."
Lilah looked around. The faces turned her way were largely hostile and apprehensive, now they had some inkling of the reality of her. And for all that might make her smile - no, she did not want to stay to protect the group.
"I'll come," she declared.
Great. She was a fucking bodyguard now. She jerked the sword out again.
The Twig didn't expend anything but the briefest of nods in acknowledging.
Lilah tagged along as Fred and Garth headed away, pausing only to glance back when Sarah-Jane shouted, "Don't you be too long, now. We can't wait around here forever!"
When Fred shouted back acknowledgement, the woman added a belated, "Good luck!"
The Twig, a little ahead of Garth on the track, looked alone and small, pale and vulnerable as she raised a hand and uncurled her fingers a little to show her palm in something that almost didn't qualify as a wave... and she was none of those things. She turned again, showing her back, a hunch to her shoulders.
Garth trailed after her, and Lilah reluctantly brought up the rear.
A little way on, sound and sight of the band left behind had faded away and other noises emanated from the darkness to either side. Lilah wished they had a torch, but there had been no such thing on board the truck or in anyone's possession.
She almost walked straight past their goal when they reached it, shoving at Garth when he halted dead in front of her at the edge of the small clearing, cursing him. He whipped around and hissed back at her, pointing out the flat, shallow basin on its ceremonial stand half-hidden in the scrubby vegetation.
"This is it. It's still here."
"Whatever." Lilah watched unimpressed as the two of them fussed with herbs. She'd done her fair share of rituals and spells - who at Wolfram and Hart hadn't? - but it wasn't something she had any particular interest in or skill at, and she was all too happy to stand by and watch others do the mystical legwork.
Her attention drifted, and she made a few experimental passes with the sword still in her grip.
It felt more familiar than it had done, if still an alien device to her hand. She'd have traded it in a moment for some minions or a loaded gun. Yet if someone with the occasional astonishing ungainliness of Wesley Wyndam-Pryce had been able to wield it effectively.... well, why the hell not?
She spun the blade, feeling its weight shift, trying to maintain its balance. In the background, she was vaguely aware of Garth's chanting reaching a crescendo of finality.
The world abruptly turned to white light.
"What the shi--?"
Lilah stared around at the bright, ornamented room she suddenly found herself in. Garth was nowhere to be seen, but Fred was six feet away and gave an exclamation of surprise when she turned and saw Lilah. Then, looking beyond her, she closed her mouth, swallowed, and froze.
Lilah followed her gaze around. Two people moved as one down the few small steps off the dais, one dark, one blonde, both adorned in decoration of blue and gold.
"Not the most prompt Champions ever," said Brother Oracle. He had distrustful eyes, an Irish brogue and, apparently, a bad smell up his nose. "You sure took your time in getting here."
"We weren't certain how long we could wait. This place has also been under siege," Sister Oracle added, more serenely.
"We... we came for information," Fred said uncertainly. "We j-just wanted to know if there was anything that could be done. To help. To set things right... and, hey! There's an apocalypse outside! We came as fast as we could!"
Lilah was struggling to find her voice. What she wanted to say, disinclined to mince words at hearing the 'C' word spoken, and spoken in the plural at that, was "What the fuck are you people smoking?" What came out was a meaningless squeak.
Brother gave her an arch look. Brother, in fact, looked vaguely familiar. She couldn't place where from.
"You came," Sister said. Sister looked a little awkward for a mystical oracle, Lilah privately opined. "It's all that really matters."
"That's more than anybody else has done," Brother agreed.
Lilah finally found her voice. "'Champions'?" she croaked. Fred, looking similarly freaked, exchanged her a covert glance.
"There's not precisely much left in the way of options," Brother said.
Lilah narrowed her eyes. "Salvaged from the reject pile?"
Brother tipped his head. "Yeah, well, happens to the best of us. Personally I'd hoped it would be the broody guy. Although there's a point when hope gets kinda silly for a mystical oracle who can see all the paths of the future, I guess."
Sister drifted to his side, and despite her calm formality, Lilah was convinced she saw a blue and gold elbow jab into Brother's ribs. "Your chance is a slim one," Sister agreed.
"But not impossible," Fred insisted.
"Little truly is." Brother was wearing a rather un-oracle-like smirk.
"Wait," Lilah spluttered. "Wait. I did not come here to... I am not... Goddamn it, I'm not even on your fucking side! When did we lose sight of the fact that, hey, evil here." She stabbed a pointed finger toward her own chest. "And I'm not working with her." She turned the finger onto Fred.
Brother frowned disapprovingly. "Two are required."
"Neither of you could attempt the task alone," Sister said.
"Together you may prevail-"
Brother shrugged. "Failure is still possible."
"Nothing is assured. But there exists, yet, a chance. Those who laid waste to the world have left. They think there is nobody now to oppose them. But the remnant of their power will not tear down the world overnight." Sister crossed the floor, contemplative, keeping her distance from Fred and Lilah. She did not look at them. "Evil did not mean this to happen any more than Good."
"It's the work of chaos, all right," Brother agreed. He lounged slightly against a bowl on a stand, twin to the one in the clearing, and received another sharp look from Sister for it. He ignored her and concentrated on Lilah. "Your people, while not precisely special favourites of mine, they want the two of you working on this as much as we do."
"If you do not try, there may not be others to do so," Sister said. "Many Champions have been l-lost." Her voice had quieted, and was almost choked as she spoke the last, the trace of a stammer shattering the serenity.
Brother turned to Sister, an odd sadness in his eyes. "She won't be lost much longer," he said. "This place will fade once these two are gone, and there'll be nothing to stay for. You'll be able to join her."
"I know." Sister's frantic, silent gesture, which she at least attempted to keep furtive, drew his attention back to Lilah and Fred.
In a faint annoyance that smacked of 'why are you still here?', Brother said, "Tsk," and raised a hand.
Light flashed, took the room and the oracles away in a dizzying whirl in which Lilah heard words reverberate with the solemnity of prophecy, echoing into infinity as she tried to latch onto them... and then they were back in the clearing.
The only sound was the faint noise of fighting drifting across from the direction of the truck.
The radio was a low hum in the background as Lilah sat stiffly, allowing Fred to peel off the bandaging on her face and examine the jigsaw of cut flesh underneath. Fred dabbed a clean cloth into the antiseptic appropriated from the motel and she cleaned the cuts gently, with concentration, her teeth sunk into her lower lip and small creases cascading down her forehead, racking up between her brows.
Lilah was grateful for the brandy sloshing around in her gut, warming her inside. She'd been cold since the night before, since the last drink had worn off.
The radio aired the President's speech again in the background, returned presently to strains of country music that rang a sad and plaintive sound through the night air.
"Am I hurting you?" Fred asked, pausing in her ministrations.
"Yes." Lilah's fingers stabbed all the harder into the mattress, and it was as well she'd remembered to take off the weapons harness before they did this, otherwise she would've killed the bed about fifteen times over by now. "Get on with it already."
They were both wearing towels, both damp from the shower. Lilah hadn't bothered to point out that Fred's was slipping, and Fred was too buried in concentration to realise a pink nipple peered over the fluffy towelling. Lilah focused on it as Fred's dabbing opened up something on her face that wept red and dripped to stain the white of her own towel.
"I'm sorry." And Fred was backing away, looking like she didn't know what to do with her hands. "I shouldn't do this. I'm so clumsy - and there are other recourses open to us now. I can get-"
"No," Lilah said with vehemence. It was enough that the Twig should see her like this. That fact, it was too late to help. She wasn't about to invite any others to partake of it. "I want you." She swallowed hard, and jerked her chin up to square her face back in readiness. The setting of her jaw made Angelus' masterwork sting like fuck. The pain forced her to relax the muscles again almost at once. "I want you to," she grated, somehow forcing down the howl battling for release from her throat.
But Fred didn't resume her unpleasant chore - not immediately. Instead, she crossed to the cheap dresser, caught up the bottle of brandy, and returned to hand it over.
"Thanks." Lilah knocked back enough to stop her shivering before she relinquished it. She glared as the Twig lingered over by the dresser. "Are you planning on finishing this today?"
"Y-yes. I'm sorry."
Crossing back to the edge of the bed, it finally came to Fred's attention that the towel had slipped. She awkwardly adjusted it, reddening. Lilah expelled air from her nose in a cross snort.
The motel was located some one-hundred-and-fifty or so miles down the trail from where they'd stopped to call in on the oracles. Its owner had greeted their arrival in the early hours of darkness with a shotgun, but upon being assured they were human (they chose not to draw attention to Spike) he had welcomed them, after a fashion. With a bark of inappropriate laughter at their explanation of where they'd travelled from and what they'd seen, and a brusque remark to the effect that he'd run this motel twenty years, his father twenty more before that, and he was damned if he was going to pick up and run and piss the business away because of some lousy apocalypse.
Because, outside of those areas worst hit, it seemed the world continued to turn almost as normal.
There was no secret any more about the existence of magic or demons. Nor was it any secret that the events of the last few days were portents spelling a slow doom for the world. The President had made a speech on it. The hysterical authorities were working flat-out to try to calm public hysteria.
But still, the world turned. Businesses kept running, people went to work and to school, the economy somehow limped on (Garth had grumpily paid their motel bill by card, so it looked like American Express, at least, had weathered the apocalypse) and the greater chunk of society took the readjustment in its stride and continued as normal, if nobody could deny the fact that the sky above shone down on them a fiery red.
The army was mobilised, and just beginning to start the gruesome task of salvaging what they could from the areas worst hit. There was a move being made towards demon control by law enforcement agencies. The scientists of the world were trying to figure out what had made the climate go insane and how to stop it.
The voice on the radio station wormed its way into her concentration. "So tell us, Clifford. Have all of these phenomena really 'appeared overnight'? Or is it rather as the stronger factions claim, and much of this is due to the emergence of a vast underground population that has always existed on the fringe of human society?"
Cliff the demon answered with a casual Californian twang. "Oh, yeah, these things always existed, dude. You just didn't see them. This whole thing has been, like, a wake-up call for the demon population, you know?"
Fred finished applying clean, and somewhat less bulky and restrictive, bandaging to Lilah's face even as the radio presenter wound up with a, "Thanks for coming onto the show to enlighten us with your thoughts, Cliff," and the media-hungry demon, whom Lilah suspected wouldn't be long for the altered world once the novelty wore off, gave his own profuse thanks and lapped up the audience applause.
Lilah was thankful for the return of the country music.
"I guess it sucks to be you, huh?" she said to Fred with half-hearted venom, as the other woman cleared the medical gear away.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, there you thought you'd found some folks you could go do your thing with. You could get shot of me. Now it seems fucking destiny wants us in this together."
"I hadn't really thought about it." Fred's forehead creased, and she looked anywhere but towards Lilah. "I was more preoccupied with the part where they said there was a chance we could save the world."
"Oh, yeah. The part where we save the world. Well, hoo-rah," Lilah drawled.
"Don't." Fred hurled the remnant of the bandages back into their box.
"Still, you'll have to say goodbye to your little friends. Don't tell me you didn't want to stay with them. Lead your own merry band of men..."
Fred jerked and stiffened her bent poise as though every muscle inside her body had locked. "I'm not any kind of leader. The way they looked at me... I don't want to be relied upon. I don't want to be looked to. My skin crawls just thinking about it. I was insane. For five years, I was insane... and I don't want to be responsible for looking after those people, Lilah." Her voice was an odd mix of anger and relief.
Lilah, surprised, stopped, swallowed and re-evaluated before she squeezed a response from her croaky throat. "Well, they do have Sarah-Jane, not to mention crazy-souled-vampire protection. And, by the way, I'll never get over the sight of PsychoSusie Homemaker hugging Spike. Who'd have thunk it? Still, I hear tell there've been a few other people haven't done too bad out of that kind of protection in the past. Maybe there's a bright future out there for the Bleached Avenger after all. To that matter, why the hell didn't they land him with this job?"
"Because they wanted two of us." Fred looked up, finally. Her face was flat, and Lilah realised that, good-and-plenty or not, the Twig didn't want this. She'd been expecting to be handed an outside solution, some other Champion they could find and pass the mission on to. "One from each side. Nothing else would have worked. Can't you see that? This is chaos - nobody wins. I don't know what the Beast's and the First's agenda was, but it wasn't the same as that of Wolfram and Hart. You know that. And Angelus... Angelus is mad. Last time he was around he tried to destroy the world and himself in it. This wasn't all about good and evil. This was just about... I don't know, screwing over everything and spitting on the pieces."
Fred walked across and flopped down on the bed. On the bed, lay and stared up at the ceiling, looking drained. "We should go down and watch the television with everyone else."
Lilah leaned back and wrinkled her nose. "Or not."
The minutes drifted past.
"You heard the last thing the oracles told us?" Lilah asked finally. "When they sent us back. Something about... how there'd be signs? ...about knowing what to do?"
"They said we'd know what to do when the time came. And that we'd have help when we needed it. That we had to find... something."
"'Something' having of course the potential to be fucking anything, thanks to the PTB really vaguing that one up for us," Lilah said. "We don't even know where to start looking." She let herself relax completely, and rolled onto her side, next to Fred.
They lay opposing each other on top of the covers, towels extra. The Evil-Lawyer-Bitch and the Texas Twig. Another day it might have been almost funny.
"Spike knew," Fred said presently. "When he looked at us... he saw... something. He knew."
"Spike's off his fucking rocker."
Fred shrugged her shoulders, a small retreat in her face. The movement, lying down, made her whole body give a tiny jump, and Lilah felt the reverberations through the mattress.
"So we are doing this?" she asked. "You and me... we're really gonna...?"
"From where I'm standing," Lilah replied with abrupt enthusiasm. "I don't see any point in not." Impelled by alcohol and desperate whim, she rolled over and straddled the Twig.
"What the hell-?" The abrupt sullen tone and the flinch and the shifting of the skin-and-bones form beneath her reminded keenly of Wesley.
Lilah ignored the sting and the blurring of her eyes, and shifted her hips, rubbing her crotch into Fred's thigh. She rasped, "We could die tomorrow. I don't want the last touch I remember to be Angelus'. I don't want as many scars on the inside as he left me on the surface. Besides, we seem to be stuck with each other. Might as well make the most of it." She blinked her eyes, but she still couldn't see clearly. Wesley, Fred and Angelus blurred.
Her voice lowered to a growl as she crawled up Fred's body. When Fred moved her elbows to back away, the ends of the towel escaped her grasp. Lilah pinned them and prevented their reclaiming. Fred backed up further against the pillows, pretty much exactly where Lilah wanted her.
"Don't pretend you don't want this too," she hissed, gliding her fingernails down Fred's small breast, lowering her mouth to briefly savage a hard, cold little nipple with her tongue. Fred wriggled and let out a muffled noise. Lilah's other hand slid down, tracing the sharp body under hers from shoulder down to thigh, divesting it of the last annoying clutches of the towel on the way, negotiating the concertina edges of ribs and the soft shallow of what she supposed ought technically be called a stomach before sliding into the crease between Fred's pelvis and thigh and following it down.
Fred's thighs clamped shut, catching her fingers short. "If we're stuck with each other," she said, her voice a breathy gasp, "I really think... this is exactly what..." Lilah's fingers strained harder. "...nnnh... what we shouldn't do."
Lilah worked her lips against their captive breast, teasing and prodding the nipple with her tongue, closing her teeth to deliver the gentlest of nips.
A soft gasp and a surrendering from the body under her, and she gained entry. She explored soft, feebly protesting depths. Dizzy elation twisted her mouth almost to the point of ineffectiveness at the thought of having, at her fingertips, the power to make the Twig squirm.
And like Wesley, once the innocence and the reserve had been bypassed, Fred's responsiveness could almost be characterised vicious in its intensity. Lilah might be doing the work, but the needy body she played took as though it was the one in control, and made nothing of effort to give anything in return.
Lilah didn't want anything. She threw herself into the task with savage fervour, letting lose the coiled pressure of the last few days with a callous disregard for the comfort of her nominal partner. Fred's hips twisted and her leg crooked up and around, allowing, inviting - challenging. Her heel planted in Lilah's back, pressed hard enough into her bruised body to make her cry out. The cry twisted, and embraced Fred's own cry in the air. Lilah punished Fred with her fingers and her teeth, making her scream and buck, and damn but that had to hurt, but apparently it hurt good-
It wasn't then - it wasn't the moment after - the one after that-
Abruptly, though, Lilah's face was shoved into the sheets and she almost tumbled off the bed and onto the floor as Fred kicked away from her and bolted up the pillows, skinny knees bending so like violated innocence that Lilah would have laughed if she hadn't been distracted by the pain of her face. Fred scooted off the bed and away. She hung at a safe distance, her hands clenched into fists at her sides.
"No... I know why you want this." Her voice was harsh and accusing. "You just hate what it is we've been chosen to do so much that you'll taint it any way you can. Any way."
She sounded close to tears. Lilah was in too much pain to give a crap.
"You little bitch," she rasped, writhing on the sheets, hands stalled inches from the bandages covering her face, not daring to touch.
Fred's hurt fury collapsed. A squeak escaped her and she rushed forward, helping Lilah up. Hands that hadn't given a damn a minute before were now fussing wildly, soft touches picking at Lilah's shoulders, soothingly brushing at her breasts, smoothing her hair, easing her back against the pillows.
"Oh, God, I'm sorry. I didn't realise... I'm so sorry. I don't know what I was thinking. I didn't mean to hurt-"
"Stop whimpering." Lilah drew her arm back to put all her strength behind a slap that filled the room with its crack!
Fred silenced, the hand print newly adorning her cheek red and angry. She stared, and gulped in a breath that might've been a half-formed sob but Lilah. Did. Not. Care.
The sting in her own face was subsiding. The sting of being discarded like so much trash was not. She glared balefully at the Twig.
Fred, crouched on all fours on top of the blankets, breasts drooping under their own admittedly not-too-significant weight, looked down. "I wasn't wrong, though," she said, belligerence underlying the words. "I wasn't wrong. You don't want me. You just want to... to prove a point." her head swung up, hair slapping wetly back against bare skin, against the pronounced ridge of a collarbone. "You. Angelus. I've heard the belittlements. I know I'm not... someone that's wanted, in that way. Not for any reason that's real. Just a bone to be fought over. Angelus... Wesley... Gunn."
Lilah started to laugh.
Fred stared back at her, big-eyed skinny-bodied freak who didn't see what the fuck they all saw in her either.
"You think..." she managed to choke out, and it wasn't funny, so she hadn't the first idea why she was asphyxiating herself in her mirth "...that I'm... any great prize... now?"
And Fred, at that, reacted like she'd been slapped again.
"I just wanted to forget," Lilah said savagely. "Who the fuck cares if we use each other? At least we've got each other to use."
"Oh." And Fred's sigh was soft, and in expelling it all the energy seemed to drain out of her. She flopped limply back against the pillows, and curled uneasily at Lilah's side.
She stared off into space so long Lilah was half convinced she'd fallen asleep there, with her eyes open and that vacant expression painted on her features.
"Well... we could try again?" she finally suggested. Tentatively, but - goddamn, was that a hint of hopefulness in her voice?
"Tomorrow," growled Lilah. "I'm too fucking tired."