"All done!" Louise announced gaily. "Y'all turn around so she can throw on some clothes!" A smiling female technician rolled a hospital screen in front of the imaging chamber, and another opened the chamber's door and pulled Fred's gurney out. A few moments later Fred pushed the screen aside, fully dressed and looking quite pleased. When she saw Spike's stricken face, her expression sobered. He snatched her up into a ferocious hug.
"Don't ever scare me like that again," he rasped, his mouth pressed against her ear. "I was about to rip that machine apart with my bare hands."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to. We're just so excited about it and it's a really good solution, honestly! So we wanted to get started on it right away. They've even bumped us ahead of two other projects, and there's a breakfast buffet, and finally someone in California gets that hash browns need to be served with white flour gravy. I didn't mean to freak you out." Fred wiggled around in his embrace until she could look him in the eye, and added softly, "This is really important."
Buffy bit her lip and looked the other way.
Ever the hostess, Louise gave the group a lounge area to take a break in, complete with sandwiches and coffee, before she breezed off on whatever rounds were on her schedule. Willow stuffed her mouth with cream cheese and watercress on rye and tried to speak around it. "Iss is oh ool; I an't wai- um- wait fo' Iweeria ooh ge' here!"
Buffy remained unconvinced. "Look, shouldn't we let people we're familiar with handle this thing? People that we know are professionals? I can call Riley. His group of ex-Initiatives is probably just as up on building robots as these-"
"No," Oz snapped. His face had gone pale and grim, and he hugged his arms protectively across his chest. She stared at him in surprise.
"Oz, Riley's your friend, remember? He helped us rescue you from Walsh's lab. His team is – well – hey, are you all right?"
"What Wolf Boy's trying to say," Spike explained, "Is that some of us here have had our fill of blokes who play with electrical shock devices." He rubbed the back of his head unconsciously, and Fred tensed as her hand went to her throat.
"Okay, chill, I won't call," Buffy said, understanding about Spike and Oz but uncertain what the deal was with Fred and her neck. It was there again: yet another unspoken bond between others that she was not privy to, and it made her uncomfortable. She found herself missing the company of Faith and their fellow slayers. Glumly she poked at her sandwich. "Are any of these pickle loaf?"
Gunn poured himself a cup of coffee. "I gotta admit, if this lady's 'bots are anything like what we saw at Wolfram & Hart, Illyria's gettin' some classy set of wheels. Powerful, too. She's probably gonna make Robocop look like a wind-up toy." He took a gulp of java as the lounge door opened and a young woman backed into the room with a fresh plate of pastries…and then he choked and sprayed the mouthful of coffee across his lap.
"CHARLES!" the young woman squealed with delight.
Gunn stared and set his cup down. "Harmony?"
"It is you! Oh my god, I thought they were just pulling my finger when they said you guys were here! Eeeeeeeeeeeeee!" Harm flopped down the pastry tray and threw her arms around Gunn's neck. "And FRED! You're, like, alive and stuff!" She released her choke hold on Gunn and danced over to Winifred. "And you're not that ooky blue thing anymore!" She gave Fred an enthusiastic hug, then added cautiously, "You're not, are you?"
Fred grinned. "Not at the moment."
"Oh, good, 'cause I guess I just totally insulted her and I don't want to get punched in the face again. Welcome back!" She turned and looked at the rest of the group one by one, murmuring, "Don't know you - don't know you - hi, Oz! – ew, slayer – Blondie Bear! – Willow, hi, I guess – hi, Angel! You're not still pissed at me, are you?"
Angel groaned. "Please don't tell me you work here."
"Well, yeah! Thanks to your nice reference report paper!"
Spike rolled his eyes. "You gave her a reference?"
"Shut up, Spike."
"Hey, I'm a valuable part of this company!" Harmony said, offended. "And I get a major discount on the makeup and hair care products, and their shoe line is killer. And no, Buffy, I haven't eaten anybody in ages, so just leave me alone. Angel, make her put away that stake."
"It's all right, Buffy," Angel said quietly, then to Harmony he added, "You'd better be telling the truth."
"Pinky swear! They've got an even stiffer no-kill policy here than our old job had."
"I can't believe I'm listening to this," Buffy said, hands on hips and still holding her stake, its tip pointing directly at her former classmate-turned-vampire. "Harmony, I swear if you so much as raise a hickey on anyone human, your ass is ash."
Harmony stepped back nervously, but gave her a defiant pout. "Meanie."
"Hey, cool; petit fours," Paloma said. She scooped up one of the small iced cakes from the pastry tray and popped it into her mouth, her sharp little piranha teeth gleaming. "Y'all have dulces like this every day?" At Harmony's blank look she added, "Desserts."
"Oh! Yeah, sure. I don't speak Italian." Harm paused as another staff member waved and gestured to her from the hallway. "Oh, they've got a robot ready for you in the lab! Come on; we can take the cakes with us." She grabbed the tray and waved back to her co-worker in the hall. "Hang on, we're coming!"
In the laboratory, they met again with a proud Louise as her scientists showed them the features of Illyria's new mechanical body. It stood unaided, looking eerily like a crash test dummy or department store mannequin, faceless and skinless and bald as an egg. Its artificial jaw had no lips and its artificial eyes no lids; the gelatinous eyeball surfaces had yet to be installed, and tiny twin cameras sat exposed in the gaping sockets.
"It'll be a perfect fit!" Willow cheered. "And once we get it decorated, you won't be able to tell the difference between IllyriaBot and IllyriaFred, right, Fred? …Fred?"
Fred didn't answer. Her eyes were shut and her head lowered, and her mouth was moving silently. She seemed to be having a conversation with herself, grimacing and scowling one moment and earnest and beguiling the next. Faint streaks of blue faded in and out across her skin.
Then, suddenly, the bluish tint vanished completely and she was herself again.
"I think I've talked her into it. She says she's willing to give it a try."
"Illyria? She's here?" Angel asked.
"Uh-huh. Hang on a sec."
Then Fred was gone and Illyria stood in her place, looking imperious. She eyed the robot suspiciously.
"Don't worry," Oz assured her. "I know it looks all Metropolis Maschinenmensch Maria right now, but wait 'til you try it on."
Slowly, deliberately, Illyria walked all around the robot. "The Burkle claims that because this is a machine rather than a living organism, I will be able to enter and exit it at will. Is that correct?"
"That's right," Willow said, "You'll have your own little doggy door, and when you want to go astral cruisin' - which, hey, I don't blame you; I'm an a-plane surfer myself - you can just park it in the corner. Only don't leave it laying around in public, 'cause the police would probably haul it off."
Illyria stared at her without saying anything, until Willow began to squirm uncomfortably. Finally she blurted, "So go on, hop in and take it for a spin around the block!"
The Old One turned her gaze to the robot once more. She cocked her head to one side; ran her hand over a ventilation screen at its waistline. Then in the blink of an eye, the alien color and haughty demeanor disappeared, and gentle Fred was back.
"My goodness," said Louise happily, "It's just like watchin' The Three Faces of Eve, ain't it?"
Circuitry lights inside the transparent shell of the 'bot began to glow and wink, and several of the gauges detected a slight rise in temperature. A pleasant technician studying the monitors gave Louise the thumbs-up gesture. "She's loading her brainwave data into the unit successfully. It shouldn't be much longer before we see physical movement."
Harmony, who had lingered at the edge of the group and taken a seat next to Thu, smiled at the young girl in a friendly manner. Thu smiled back. "I love your outfit," she whispered.
"Why, thank you!" Harm replied. "Aren't you the cutest thing! Are you here on a Career Day assignment or something?"
"No, I'm a slayer. Career Days blow."
"God, tell me about it. Like some old guy with a comb-over would know what kind of job I'd be good at."
Thu nodded. "Really."
They watched the robot in comfortable silence for a few moments. Then as their respective identities simultaneously dawned on them, they suddenly glanced warily at each other and inched their chairs farther apart.
The 'bot's mouth opened. Its synthetic tongue made a tentative, exploratory motion that reminded its audience horribly of a garden slug. And then from the orifice, through intricate speakers embedded in the roof of its mouth, they heard the voice of Illyria.
She was clumsy at first, staggering a little and moving her hands and fingers as if they were cursed with arthritis. She took a few halting steps, overbalanced, and toppled forward, but when Angel caught her arm to steady her she shook him off. Her eye cameras turned slightly in their sockets and fixed on him. "I do this on my own," she said - slowly, but with menace in her new mechanical voice.
"Fine," Angel huffed, and stepped back. He found himself itching to poke those creepy little cameras out with his fingers and see how she liked it.
She continued to experiment with body movement, swinging her robotic arms, grasping objects, stepping heel to toe. Within half an hour, she'd gotten the hang of it, and was marching confidently around the room. "I want to lift something now," she announced. "And then I want to break it and throw it."
"Don't look at me, C-3PO," Spike snorted.
"I can take her to my home dimension for a couple of hours," Paloma offered. "There's all kinds of rocks and shit she could bust up without bothering anybody."
"Well, that's awful sweet of you! I'll have to round up a non-human tech to send with y'all, though, on account of that poisonous air there. Our little lungs couldn't handle it." Louise winked and picked up a phone to find the proper personnel.
"I think I'll go along, too," Angel said. His own little lungs, he knew, would be quite safe. There was no telling how exuberant Illyria might get with her rock-throwing.
"And I think I'll just stay right here. I've sort of missed L.A. – well, small parts of it – believe I'll wander about and do some revisiting." Spike pulled several wadded, rumpled bills of U.S. currency from his pocket and began calculating how far in the city they would take him.
"The sun's still up," Oz reminded him.
"Uh. Right. Well, it's a good job that there's still miles of underground and assorted tunnels all over. Any of you gents and ladies want to meet up with me somewhere accessible?"
He flashed at them all the charming, slightly wicked smile that Buffy remembered so well from the time before his soul…the time when that smile was aimed at her and her alone, daring her to give in to carnal urges and join him in the dark; the concealing, blessed dark…
"Oh, can I go, too? Could I take the rest of the day off, Ms. Albright? These are all my old friends and I haven't seen them in soooooo long!" Harmony jumped up and down and clutched at Gunn's arm and batted her eyelashes at Lady Louise imploringly. "Please, please, please, please, please…"
"Lord, yes. Go, scat, clear outta here." Louise waved Harmony away. "And you behave yourself out there, y'hear? Don't make Louise have to come after you."
"You're the best boss ever!" Harmony cheered. Then she turned to Angel. "Oh, you were okay, too."
Angel rolled his eyes.
The clacking of Harmony's high heels echoed like ticks of a clock in the rounded hollow of the tall, brick-lined tunnel. She clutched her handbag tightly and tried not to complain about the loss of the Wolfram & Hart necro-tinted cars. "This is fun," she chirped at Spike, a step or two ahead of her. "I've been working really hard on being good lately. There's so much to remember, of course, and I have to keep post-it notes all over the place to remind me what's bad and what's not. Like, I'll be right in the middle of drinking someone, and then I'll notice the scrunchie I put around my wrist to remind me not to do that, and I'll apologize and let them go. Once I even called an ambulance for one of them! He kept pointing at me and moaning to the paramedic, but everyone thought I'd just found him that way."
"Thought you said you hadn't eaten anyone in a while."
"I haven't! Not to death. Just to weak and woozy." She lengthened her stride and caught up with him. "By the way, is Gunn seeing anybody?"
Spike raised an eyebrow and looked over at her. "Not that I know of. What, do you fancy our Charlie Boy now?"
"Maybe," Harmony said loftily. Then her voice became eager. "We totally bonded when he was in the hospital. You know, when Wes went all stabbity on him after Fred…oh my god, this is so amazing! We're, like, dating each other's exes!"
"You haven't landed a date with him yet, Ducks. Don't count your chickens before they hatch, yeah?"
"This could count as a date. A group date."
Spike sighed and shook his head in defeat. "If you say so."
He walked on a few more paces, and looked thoughtful. His steps slowed. Then, suddenly, he stopped. Something that had been eating at his conscience for quite a long time surfaced, and he spoke. "I owe you an apology, Harm. Shouldn't have treated you the way I did the day I got my body back. I was an arse and a bastard to you, and I'm sorry."
Harmony stared at him, well and truly floored. "Really?" The memory of that insulting incident rushed over her, and for a few seconds she almost got mad at him again. "Wow," she murmured. "You never told me you were sorry about anything before. Ever. Not even that time you staked me." She continued to gaze at him, and a little happy smile appeared on her lips. "This is…this is really special." She hesitated; then: "Do you think maybe we could..."
"No." Spike was firmly, completely adamant. "You're a nice girl, in a manner of speaking, and I apologize for all the times I made you unhappy, but there is no way in hell that you and I will ever get back together again."
"Oh, I figured that," Harmony replied. "I meant do you think Charles and Fred would be interested in a four-way?"
Louise walked softly, slowly around the white room. She trailed her fingers across its walls; the walls that sometimes held, and sometimes receded back into infinity. The silence here too was infinite. Louise closed her eyes and listened to the silence. Then she opened them, and whispered.
"You're in here, aren't you? Left behind, or escaped, and hiding and waiting to see if it's safe to come out."
She looked slowly, quietly over her shoulder. "I've been feelin' you ever since they first came here. You feel them, too. I can tell. There's not much anyone can hide from Lady Louise."
She put out a hand and touched the soul of the former watcher.
"Not much at all."