AUTHOR: Roseveare, email@example.com
SPOILERS: Post-season 3.
SUMMARY: Los Angeles is about to be wiped off the face of the Earth, its resident guardian Angel nowhere to be found; Fred, Gunn, Lilah and Wesley are going to Hell in a handbasket.
NOTES 1: Takes place approximately 3 weeks after the events of Tomorrow.
NOTES 2: This version of the story still has a few rough edges, but I wanted to send it out before the season 4 premier. It may very well get re-drafted at some point. Any and all constructive criticism is therefore much appreciated.
DISCLAIMER: Not mine, just borrowing, no profit, yadda, yadda, yadda.
The Hyperion was too big for two people. She and Charles rattled 'round like marbles in all its space. Mornings were the worst, waking up with this emptiness to themselves the whole rest of the day.
Fred crept out of bed down the corridor to the shower, crept back towelling her hair, crawled under the covers again and snuggled into the chest of Gunn, who was still trying to steal an extra few minutes' sleep.
The damp coldness of her skin woke him to groggy curses. She giggled and rubbed her wet hair against his belly, but the mirth echoed strangely in the hotel's aura of absence and she swallowed it.
And it wasn't fair. Because this - this should be fun. She and Charles, it was new and it was special, and if Angel hadn't disappeared and Cordy hadn't disappeared and Lorne hadn't left and Wesley hadn't gone all crazy and betrayed them-
Well, if those things hadn't happened, having the Hyperion to themselves for a time would've been nothing if not of the Good.
Her ear, rested against Gunn's stomach, was excellently placed to notice his breathing once more begin to slow and the first rasp of a snore rattle up his chest into his throat.
A poke in the ribs turned it into a grunt.
"We should get up. It's almost nine. If you want to keep the office open..."
No debate or hesitation, no question, he woke in the space of a concept and suddenly she was the one still huddled beneath the covers, watching him pull on a fresh shirt with yesterday's jeans.
Sacred duty. They were big words, but they fit. The public face of Angel Investigations, the investigative agency, might not be the essence of what the operation really was - but in the absence of Angel, Cordy and Wes, it was something tangible to hold on to. It had become important the business stay alive. That they keep it running smoothly.
And because she'd promised herself she would break the habit, she bit her lip against wondering aloud if today would be the day one of them walked back through into the hotel's reception. It didn't prevent her from wondering it quietly. She could picture the scene in her mind. How they'd look around and take in all the signs that she and Gunn had kept things running, and they'd be so pleased and proud.
Well, not Wesley. 'Cause Wesley was at the very least enjoying serious under-the-sheets time with the opposition these days. But Angel. Cordelia. Even Lorne. She needed so badly some affirmation that it was all right, that they'd been not abandoned but entrusted.
She shook the thoughts away. They were familiar interlopers, occupying her morning brain every day for almost three weeks, but they were not helpful. Not the least helpful in the helping of the helpless that was the order of the day.
She slipped out of bed, picked a dress from the closet and pulled it over her head, leaning against Charles' back as he bent to tug his sneakers on and lace them. He rubbed against her playfully as she straightened.
This time she didn't allow the space to stifle her giggle. She reached back and entangled his fingers with hers.
"Come on," he said, drawing her along; out into the corridor, down the stairs. "You get the doors open for business, I'll bring you breakfast at reception."
Wesley grunted to wakefulness to find Lilah Morgan sitting on the edge of his bed painting her toenails an arrogant shade of pink. Relaxing back into the sheets, he silently watched her blurred form.
"Am I so interesting?" she purred coolly after ten minutes, not looking up. She crooked her other knee, perched her heel on the edge of the mattress, and blew briefly across her toes before beginning the next coat. "Well, I guess... Watcher. Watching. You Watch me paint my toes so beautifully, Wesley, I'm amazed the Council fired you."
He didn't dignify that with a reply - Lilah, he'd discovered, had a very obvious sense of humour - but felt for the new glasses discarded on the nightstand, and lifted them by a dangling spar to set them on his face. Movement made the covers catch the rough scar tissue on his throat, and he pushed himself up on one elbow.
"You don't usually stay for the morning afters."
He'd been getting used to waking up alone, and was on the way to convincing himself she'd broken the routine simply to irritate him.
"Habit is such an ugly thing. The scourge of innovation."
He winced. "Philosophy."
"You think minions of evil can't have depths?"
And he'd tried so hard to purge that question mark from his voice.
She replaced the lid on the nail polish and bent to set the bottle on the floor, pulled her legs up onto the bed crossing them carefully at the ankles and wiggled her toes at him.
The nail polish was the only thing she was wearing.
Wesley wondered what she saw in him that encouraged this game. The marks of too much alcohol and too little sleep, the scars on his throat and in his eyes. Were they the kind of darkness that drew a woman like Lilah?
He considered her question, feeling a sly smile mount a takeover upon the muscles of his face. "Demons, maybe. Vampires, assuredly. Soul-draining fiends of pure evil from the dawn of time, remotely possibly. Lawyers... hmm. Difficult. I'd have to consult my books and get back to you on that one."
"Books." She pouted and mimed a tossing-away gesture. "I always preferred practical research to boring old words."
"It is the time-honoured method to prove or disprove an hypothesis," he agreed, accepting the day's apparent roleplay of domesticity.
Lilah flexed her toes, extended a fingertip to lightly touch a nail, grimaced as she withdrew it and contorted her body to blow across her toes with quick breaths. After several seconds, strain forced her to relax her limbs and she settled for irritably wafting a hand over the drying polish.
Wesley flicked his glasses back onto the nightstand, doubting he'd be putting them on again anytime that day. He'd discovered the world, at the moment, was easier to handle out of focus. "For such an extensive research project, it's probably best if we start right away."
She shrieked as he tackled her, and continued to scream of her nails' plight until he found her something else to scream about.
First call of the morning took them to a restaurant where some crazy vamp was terrorising staff and customers. The vamp was dressed like a wino and staggering like one too; the clientele flinching from its ugly face and uglier breath wore suits that probably cost more than Angel Investigations made in a year. Gunn joked he was tempted to leave the vamp to it, maybe take some comedy pictures, but Fred's insistent prodding won out.
Vamp didn't put up much of a fight. He got more of a workout tackling the doorman who chased after him whining about a suit and tie. Some people seriously needed to sort out their priorities.
Gunn tucked the stake back inside his jacket as they left, and looked over his shoulder at the restaurant manager carefully watching them go. He fingered the roll of cash the man had thrust into his hand stammering a hurried 'thank you, goodbye'. "I'd give more than cash to see what Cordy could've made of that guy."
He felt a twang in his chest as he said the words.
"Never mind. Maybe Angel and Wes did the respectable-front thing better," Fred said as they trailed down the street to the truck, "But I'm glad it's you that's still here."
"I'm glad it's me that's here too. So long as it's you that's here with me." Gunn slipped his arm through hers and hung onto his restraint against anything more. They were working now. Mission time.
As the giddy haze of his initial hook-up with Fred began to fade - fighting the good fight as just a guy and a girl without souled-vampire-power would cause that to happen pretty damn quick - it had began to creep over him that at least some of the shit that'd gone down in those months might not have gone down if he'd had more of his eye on the job than on Fred. Maybe he would've noticed what Wesley was planning. Maybe he would've seen the signs of whatever it was caused Angel and Cordy to leave or took them away.
So now work got to be work, and no play, not even a little. Especially now they had only two minds and bodies to help the helpless, Angel Investigations couldn't afford wandering attention.
Didn't mean he didn't miss the haze.
Fred chattered, and he listened to a diatribe on science, and tests regarding what made a vampire a vampire, and trying to pin down the rules such as they were (Fred was frustrated by the inconsistency of the supernatural: everything, she said, had set rules and laws. You had only to find them out) and he kind of wished, as he had increasingly lately, that he'd had more schooling than he had. Because this was a girl he wanted to understand better, which wasn't happening when she could talk for hours with him grasping no more than half the vocabulary alone.
Didn't mean he couldn't still listen to her for hours.
A shrill noise startled him from his daze and he dug the cellphone from his pocket. "Angel Investigations, we help the helpless. Yeah?"
He listened to the voice across the line. Anger welled up automatically at the mention of the name and he quashed it. "Wesley Wyndham-Pryce doesn't work with us any more, man." He pulled a sympathetic face to Fred's wide-eyed look. "Angel's... Angel's on vacation. I... give me a moment." Covering the speaker, he asked Fred, "You know a Ralph Bowen? Claims to be one of Wes' contacts, says he's some kind of mystic?" She shook her head and he returned to the call. "Yeah... No, the agency's still open for business. What was it you wanted?"
Gunn listened to the answer with steadily mounting incredulity, then anger as the caller wound up.
"What? No, you've got to be kidding me. You're the one claims to know about this shit. You can't- No, hey, wait-"
He lowered the cell and glared at it.
"Charles? Charles, you're being scary. Charles, please, answer me."
-snapped back to reality with the realisation she'd been talking for some minutes while he stood staring at the cellphone in his hand like a crazy man.
"What's wrong? Charles? You look kinda-"
Gunn shook his head, trying to bring some order to his thoughts. "Mister Ralph Bowen," he said, wincing as his voice grated in his dry mouth, "just dropped the next best thing to the fucking apocalypse in our laps. He's leaving town. 'Cause, he says, this city's not a healthy place to stick around in - seeing as how according to his mystical mumbo-jumbo it's gonna be wiped off the face of the planet sometime today."
Mind-readers in the lobby was always a good indication it was going to be a Fucked Up Day At The Office. Lilah scowled as she pushed past them, feeling their stares absorb her memories of the morning and night.
A smirk on the lips of one irritated her.
"I'm recruiting," she snapped. She stepped into the elevator and the doors slid shut to cut his smirk from view.
God, she hated the paranoia in this place at times. Who were they after now? Had something serious happened, or just another round of examples?
She clutched her briefcase with whitening knuckles, didn't speak to the familiar faces in the elevator car who likewise weren't speaking to her, and tried not to sweat because on top of everything else she didn't need her foundation to drip. Her heart was beating too fast.
Screwing Wesley Wyndham-Pryce was hardly in itself a punishable offence, even if she hadn't shared all her plans with her superiors. But. Was she so sure there hadn't been anything, no matter how small, said to Wesley in the past few weeks that could be construed as passing information to the opposition?
No. No, she was sure. She was careful.
She slowed her breathing and calmed her pulse, relaxing through force of will. Relaxed, she ached. Wesley hadn't been gentle. He seldom was. Who'd have thought?
Opposition, though...? She smiled to herself. Hardly anymore. She was almost certain. Though the senior partners might be less so.
Her smile choked and died. She'd been certain about Bethany.
The elevator drew to a smooth halt at her floor and she strode out, exchanged a few nods of greeting with co-workers from her division and glared at interns engaged in hushed discussion. The haste with which they peeled off and returned to their work gave her a warm glow of authority. She carried on down the corridor to her office.
Opened the door to find Linwood sitting in there surrounded by a team. Shit, then the mind-readers weren't random sweeps. The place really was at Defcon One.
He looked up, and his flinty gaze followed her to her desk, where she rested her briefcase down and didn't sit. She raised an eyebrow and hazarded a smile. "Good morning."
Linwood always had been a humourless bastard, but lately he seemed to be going for some kind of record in maudlinity. "It most certainly isn't. We have a problem. Last night, there was a break-in."
Her breath caught. She registered that the harsh note in his voice was fear, and her brain pulled up a dozen different artefacts and files the sudden absence of which could prompt his 'we-are-all-about-to-die' intensity.
Then he said the name and she could've sworn her heart stopped beating.
Linwood nodded, not even mustering a smile of satisfaction at catching her off-guard. "It's gone, Lilah. And, whoever took it - they intend to use it. The psychics have been having nervous breakdowns since about 4am this morning. I hope you're ready for that Hell-on-Earth experience, because it's all going to happen considerably earlier than planned."
"So somebody broke in and stole this device - the... Naminore, you say? - from Wolfram and Hart? I'm aghast at such a disgraceful flouting of the law. And that they should target such an undeserving victim, obviously."
Lying flat on his back on the couch, Wesley raised his book to cover his face and returned to Dante and Beatrice.
"That's very funny. Except, the purpose for which they're going to use the artefact involves the tedious side effect of the destruction of this city and everything that happens to be in it. Think you'll still find it funny when you, me, and everything else within a fifty mile radius ceases to exist?"
"I hadn't any plans," he responded, and turned the page.
"Goddamn it, Wesley, this is serious. Listen to me. We're talking massive chaos and destruction, a loss of life measured in seven figures. You. Me. Your little ex-friends. My oh-so-charming co-workers. Everything gone."
"I'm sorry, Lilah, I think you mistake us for people who care. Even if you're telling the truth, I have no interest in helping either Wolfram and Hart or Angel Investigations. Now, if you don't mind, I'm busy." He turned the page.
"I wish you'd stop reading that book." She leaned over and dashed it out of his grasp. "You aren't Judas and it's not like Dante understood his damn theology that well anyway and you cannot want to die." She paused, breathing hard. He watched with interest as the real Lilah Morgan broke through the surface of her normally perfectly-maintained facade, and realised that her panic... wasn't faked.
"I do know that," he said, picking up the book and dusting it off. Resting it carefully down on the coffee-table and feeling his brow crease as he tried to absorb that the city might actually be in danger; to figure out whether it was surprise that was responsible for his lack of emotive response. "What precisely do you expect me to do? I'm sorry your firm has been screwed over in a manner that spells destruction for the whole of LA. Shouldn't you be booking your ticket out of here?"
"I'm not running."
"You astonish me. Could it be those depths we spoke of earlier surfacing to prove me wrong?"
"Do I look like Lindsey McDonald? I start things, I finish them. I don't get all whiny and back out. I worked hard to get this far. If I run, I'll have nothing. I'm not going to build everything from scratch all over again. It took too long and too much the first time."
"Ah, the self-serving impulse continues to rule after all. But I still don't see what you can possibly expect me to do."
"I expect you to help me stop it before it's too late."
Wesley managed to change his coughing fit into a grunt. "And Wolfram and Hart approve?"
"Hell, yes. Do you know how badly an apocalyptic event on this scale right now would screw with our schedule?"
"Ah." He quenched a smile. "But let's pretend for a moment that you're part of a powerful mystical firm entrenched in dark magics with a vast array of its own resources, internal and external. Why would you approach a... an independent like me?"
"Because most of the 'resources' who know their business at all are clearing out of LA as we speak," Lilah snapped. "I've a team on stand-by to help us if we need them. There are a dozen more teams tearing this city apart after whoever stole the thing, but if they've already invoked the artefact by the time they're found... we won't have much time before we're all going to hell in a handbasket pretty fucking literally. You've probably got more practical experience in stopping this shit than anyone else we have to call on right now. If any of the mystical types dumb enough to stick around have any chance at all-"
"You think I do," he finished. "Come on, now, Lilah? With my track record of late?"
She regarded him in silence. He rolled his eyes, breaking the contact.
"I don't understand. If you have this artefact, you must have a purpose for it. You've probably been intending to use it yourselves. So - why the panic?"
"Time and place, Wesley. It's been foretold in half a dozen different prophetic writings we have in our possession that the activation of the Naminore is a crucial portent of the next apocalypse, due in - well, not yet. It doesn't say for which side it will be a weapon. We want to be sure it's ours, at the time we choose. It's about control. Can't stop something from happening - see that it happens at your convenience. Basic rule of business, isn't it?
"Besides, we have over a century's lead on this thing. We had a reservation, damn it. Let some thief swipe it now?" She made a noise of disgust. "We need to recover the artefact and fast, before its power's wasted by some hack cultist or amateur collector who doesn't know the potential of what they're dealing with. The fact it would destroy Los Angeles is a small concern by comparison. Though I personally find it a fairly distracting one."
She paced a few times, some of the tension draining away. Maybe she sensed she had him. Maybe there was a limit to how much tension her tough, sensuous body could hold. Her mask had returned to its norm and he found himself mourning the refreshing honesty of the face underneath.
"You'll be paid, of course," she said, mistaking his silence for the last vestiges of doubt.
Wesley laughed. "Outside contracting for Wolfram and Hart to save over three million lives... It has a certain poetic perversity. My little ex-friends would have a fit. Still, I don't really see what I can do."
"Your performance hasn't let me down yet." Lilah smirked.
He rolled his head to one side, looked up at her crookedly.
"Well, then. Perhaps I could give it a try, at that."
Fred didn't need the force with which the door crashed inwards from Charles' shove to know that Charles was pretty darned angry. He had been since not long after he got off the phone and told her someone had stolen an object from Wolfram and Hart that was going to destroy Los Angeles. And that was fine and understandable as something to get angry about, but she'd suspected the anger had another source even before he finally vocalised it.
"This should've been Angel's deal. He's apocalypse-guy. Seen a handful of 'em, by all accounts, including some he tried to bring about himself. Damn it, if he hadn't run out and left us-"
"Don't," Fred said, and her voice cracked. "Don't say it. Please. We don't know what happened. For all we know he could be dead... dust... or imprisoned somewhere and he can't get back to us. We don't know that he left us on purpose. I won't - we shouldn't condemn him for it until we know."
Gunn turned, his fury crumbling. "I'm sorry, baby." He folded her in his arms. She indulged in the embrace for a second before wriggling out.
"I know we haven't talked about it much. Maybe we should have. But I think... we've other things to be doing now. It isn't a good time."
"It'll never be a good time."
"I... I know. But you get what I mean, right, what with the impending doom all impending. We should research this thing. What did your contact say, again?"
"It's called the Naminore. Somebody stole it from Wolfram and Hart. It's meant to be a portent in calling down the apocalypse. Something about it opening up a gateway to a hell dimension."
She frowned. "That doesn't seem a lot to go on."
"It's all he said, minus the asides of whimpering, the 'we're-all-gonna-die', and a generous slice of 'end-of-the-world-is-nigh'. Damn, for all I know he could've read it in some tea leaves. For all I know the guy's full of shit. Except... the fear was real, nobody could've faked that. He sure as hell believed what he was saying."
Charles perched on the desk that had been Cordelia's next to a whole pile of books that'd been Angel's and Wesley's. He picked up a book, opened the pages.
An instant later, slammed it down again. "God damn." He swung off the desk and paced angrily, back and forth over the same few feet of floor, until he jerked to a halt wearing an expression like thunder.
"What is it?"
"Fucking Latin is what it is. Or Aramaic... Etruscan... some other long dead or demonic language you and I have no chance of understanding."
Fred sighed, nodded. "I'll start looking at the English and Latin ones I can read." Necessity overrode her lack of enthusiasm for Wesley's former role. "You-"
"I'll try the internet. Then I'll try some more of Angel's and... Angel's old freaky magic contacts. See if I can't hire some research help in."
"For apocalypse type stuff, I guess we can stretch the expenses."
She tried to smile. He didn't laugh.
It wasn't the first time their lack of research-muscle had been an issue, only the first time in a case that could be serious. Many of the things they'd dealt with in their weeks running the business alone had been run-of-the-mill, the sorts of cases Angel and Wesley might've handed to the two of them as a matter of course. Others had not. She'd performed magical charms (mostly simple ones, and the one that had gone wrong hadn't done too much damage to the foyer); one exorcism of unfriendly spirits; had countless times sat up all night digesting heaps of books that threatened to turn her brains to kaplooey all over again. Charles had taken on demons that would've fazed Angel, and it was a wonder they'd only ended up having to go to the hospital that once.
Gunn set to work at Cordelia's computer and Fred stretched out the books on the floor and squatted cross-legged amongst the piles. Wesley would've known precisely where to look first, probably could've quoted several passages off the top of his head without the need for books at all. Fred had nightmares of that being her someday. She was just beginning to absorb facts like how the Books of Atnarjan were little use for accurate facts about the magical or demon world but excellent references when trying to track the mundane history of an object (it had only taken two instances of puzzling over descriptions of imaginatively wrought demonic species to work it out). And there were still so many of the books she lacked the linguistic skills to even read.
She wished more of these magical scribes had understood the value of indices.
Gunn's fingers tap-tap-tapped on the computer.
She looked up from the book she was working through, watched him bent intently in front of the screen.
"Maybe you're right," she confessed with a sigh. "Maybe he did leave us. And maybe we should talk about it. Admit that it's a possibility. He and Cordelia - maybe they went away on purpose, and they aren't coming back. You know how they were together, just before."
He turned his head; his eyes had taken on a hollow cast. "I know."
"And maybe we can't blame them," she said in a rush. "They've been fighting for so long, and they went through so much before I even got here - some before you did, too - and maybe they deserve some rest. Some happiness-"
"'Cept for the part where Angel turns evil when he gets some."
"Oh." Fred's hands flew to her mouth. "I... you really think-? He couldn't, surely, knowing what might happen..."
"He better hadn't." Charles' lips were set in a grim line. "But for what it's worth, I don't think that happened. You're right, though, we should be prepared. We should have talked about this before now, because we need to be ready. It could be what happened, whatever we want to believe. We never imagined that Wes-" He choked on the name. He hardly ever said it. But he picked up again determinedly, "that Wes would betray us. So we gotta be ready, up here-" he tapped his hairless skull "-just in case.
"'Cause we both know what we'd have to do, then."
"A hell dimension." Wesley was sitting on the edge of the couch now, fingers interlaced and rested under his chin, and his eyes were beginning to light with that fever of interest of those who actually got enthusiastic about such things for the sake of academia alone. "Overlapping LA? How extraordinary. I can't believe I've never come across this before. With something so akin to Sunnydale's Hellmouth, you'd think I'd have heard. I was provided extensive information on the Hellmouth, after all, in my training to be a Watcher..."
Lilah rolled her eyes. She paced, restless, feet aching inside her five-hundred-dollar shoes. The pulse of fear at the back of her mind had subsided, and she kept it under control. Reminded herself that, his penchant for fumbling aside, Wesley Wyndham-Pryce had been the brains of Angel's organisation.
Although right now she'd like to know what the hell had happened to Angel. The one time she could actually use the undead bastard of a Champion of Good, and he vanished without trace, leaving her to dig in the kooky-sidekick reject bin.
"It's not like the Hellmouth," she said irritably. "It's not even really there. It's just... potentially there, until the Naminore comes into play. Then we're all entering a whole new shiny definition of 'screwed'."
"Yes. I did grasp that point." Wesley flexed his arched fingers. "Naminore... It didn't register to me at first - your pronunciation really isn't terribly accurate, Lilah - but I think I may have come across the name before. It's of Eastern origins, isn't it? It came up for auction in Persia towards the end of the last century, after having long been thought lost, and swiftly vanished into obscurity again when acquired by an unknown - not so unknown anymore, I suppose - buyer. I never heard of any specific mystical purpose ascribed to it, though, it was more generally thought of as an ancient curio. A few rumours surrounding it which might reasonably be referred to as... well, as insane, to be quite honest. But I don't think even those mentioned anything about it being the key to a hell dimension, more along the lines of 'power beyond the dreams of mortal men'."
"Yeah? That would be because steps were taken not to advertise the fact. You know, your lot always underestimate the influence of my firm." She grinned at him. "Even you and your big old library of a photographic memory."
"Not eidetic, just exceptionally thoroughly trained." He stood and stalked to a bookcase; started pulling ancient bound volumes off it. The movement put his face in shadow.
Lilah pursed her lips. Ah, yes. She remembered now that Wyndham-Pryce senior had by all accounts particularly rigorous methods of teaching his offspring. In his defence, they seemed to have worked. She bit off a quip about how files and records could use him. So far repetitions of her job offer had resulted in a truly Arctic cold shoulder and an invitation to leave, and she couldn't handle a ten-degrees-below, pissy Wesley on top of the rest of the morning's shit. She contemplated the line of his back as he reached up to pull down books. It was rigid, tense. When wasn't it?
Oh. Right, yeah.
She wondered if Wesley suspected how much she knew about him, how far Wolfram and Hart's information on Angel's group of hangers-on stretched, how many of his weaknesses were catalogued in her current favourite bedtime reading; a big ring-bound file of prime Wyndham-Pryce screw-ups.
Lilah wasn't entirely sure this new incarnation would even care. How much of the information was defunct now?
"I have to make a phone call," she said. "You find some passages about the Naminore."
He turned and frowned at her, one brow lifting slightly.
"Research won't do you any good unless I call." She smiled. "Wait and see."
She lifted her cell phone to her ear, prodding the keypad. Linwood's tinny voice answered after two rings. "We're going ahead," she said. "Told you I could convince him. I'll need it lifted."
Linwood's response was pretty much as expected from their earlier debate. She pouted at him through the digital connection.
"We talked about this. If I could get him to agree, you'd contact them about removing the glamour. With respect, sir, it's not like it's serving any purpose at the moment. Whoever took the Naminore clearly knows exactly what they're doing already, and if we don't have all the information we can hardly go ahead-"
She rolled her eyes at the reluctance still dragging his grudging response.
"And the other thing, too," she said, before he rung off. "As soon as possible."
Wesley was staring at her from behind a pile of books. "Dare I ask?"
"Give it ten minutes, and there's a birthday surprise coming your way. Oh, and the scrolls we have that are connected with the artefact should be delivered by courier anytime now."
"Well, photocopies of them. The originals were, sadly, also stolen."
"Photocopies?" Wesley looked - the only word for it was 'scandalised'.
"Yeah." She replaced the cell phone inside her jacket. "Is there a problem?"
He shook his head. It was more wondering than affirmative. "You are aware, aren't you, that you redefine the term 'heathen'?"
Lilah was lifting the edges of her mouth to grace him with her most sumptuous smile when the tap on the door sounded. She went to answer it, ignoring Wesley's grunt of protest.
"Thanks," she said, taking the folder from the black-robed figure outside. She dug in her purse and passed across several notes. "Keep the change."
A noise of acknowledgement came from beneath the hood, where a blue-white chin was all that could be seen of a face. The figure dissolved away and she closed the door on its fading features.
Turned around to find Wesley directly behind her, arms folded, looking halfway between cross and bemused.
"Come on, darling." She salvaged dignity from her involuntary jump of surprise by standing on her toes to touch her lips to his, pressing the folder into his grasp. "Catastrophes to avert, lives to save. Does all this bring back memories yet?"
Two hours of thoroughly racked nerves later, Gunn had moved on from the scant online sources to the telephone and Angel's contact book, with its names and numbers scratched out in straight rows in the vampire's neat hand.
"...Persia, 1898...yadda, yadda... never seen again..." Fred read out between calls. "Guess that's how long Wolfram and Hart have had this thing. I could quote its history backwards by now. It'd be kinda nice to find something new. I mean, there's nothing here - no mystical purposes, no doom and will-lay-waste-to-large-chunks-of-Southern-California warnings. And yet, up until the early 1900's there're references to people obsessively searching for it, and it seemed to be some sort of coveted artefact."
"Why covet if the thing didn't have some sort of power?" Gunn summarised.
Out of five mojo guys so far, two hadn't answered, one hadn't even recognised the name, and the other two had informed him with gentle humour that the object had no known power and someone was clearly playing him false with their tip-off's.
He was beginning to think they were right.
"What if it lost its power," Fred said, "and somehow, now, it's been returned?" She groaned and put her hands to her head in severe research-pain. Gunn winced in sympathy. Fred didn't like being research-gal. "But if that happened, surely there should be a reference somewhere to it happening!"
She stretched out flat on her back among the mess of books with a 'huff'. Only the seriousness of their task held back Gunn's smile.
"Well, we know it ain't because the info's in the books we can't read. Two of these guys I rung are listed as expert in a dozen crazy old languages, and they don't know any more than you've found." He tossed the phone aside. "I'm with the book guys. I reckon someone's yanking our chain."
"I - I don't know." Fred raised herself onto her elbows. "I got a feeling - you know. Something's not right here. I think maybe we should try call-"
"Don't say it. Do not say it." He heard the threat in his voice and tried to rein in the anger.
"But, Charles, this is serious. The whole city could be in danger. Millions of lives at stake, and we want to get stuck on personal grievances? I just think-" She broke off with a small gasp.
Gunn felt it too. A split second where the air was charged and seemed to hum with... something. Didn't feel electrical. Felt more like when Wes had banished that Thesulac thing, here in the lobby, back nearly two years now.
He wished he hadn't thought of that. "What the hell?"
Fred was climbing shakily to her feet. "That was mojo. Someone's working mojo. We might be too late-" She stopped, still as a statue, halfway up off her knees, staring down.
At the opened pages of one of the books.
"Oh, my." She swallowed a few times, pushed her glasses further up on her nose, picked up the book and bent her head to it. Gunn was already on his feet, moving to join her.
"What is it?"
"This... wasn't here before. There're whole passages in here that've just appeared. Just now. I swear they weren't here before. I looked. I couldn't have missed them-"
Her voice disappeared and she was reading, chin almost touching the pages, eyes huge behind her spectacles, and for all that this was Fred and he'd have said there wasn't anything could make her look other than pretty, he didn't like the expression on her face at all, nor the horror in it that grew every moment.
"This is bad," she said, finally raising her head, light glinting off her lenses. "Very bad."
"How bad? I mean, what-?"
"Well, it's kinda wrapped up in a lot of big old mystical words, but basically we're talking bad in the sense of 'LA's reality being written over by that of a pocket-dimension foretold as the manifestation of despair upon the Earth' bad," Fred said matter-of-factly.
She snapped the book shut, rounding off the speech with terrified smile of accomplishment.
"So let me get this straight," Gunn said, running through the passages she'd read out. "LA's fate is to become a hell dimension that's some kind of temple to despair?"
"Well, I think the translation is 'ashes', or 'dust'... my Latin's not exactly fluent. But the references to despair, desolation... they're pretty clear throughout the passage. This is a Hell, a literal one, and if this ritual gets completed it's going to materialize in our dimension. Right here on the ground where this city stands."
"I'm so sure that should surprise me more than it does." Determination tightened his jaw. "We have to find whoever took this thing it and stop them. Any of your books say how we stop them?"
"They're not my books," Fred near snapped at him. "They're Angel's. And Wesley's."
Even so, she was already flicking through pages marked with little yellow stick-it labels that would've had Wes in apoplexy at the thought of damaging the ancient paper, and Gunn swallowed comment on her sharpness. It wasn't anything new that she was resenting feeling helpless over the research role she feared she couldn't fulfil.
The minutes ticked past as he watched her, his thoughts tightening his chest. His legs felt heavy as he crossed to the phone, lifted the receiver. He listened to the ringing a long time before putting it down.
Fred was hunched over the books another half hour before she glanced up again. Gunn was alarmed to see damp streaks on her face.
"Fred?" He was half risen from his chair when her next words stopped him in his tracks.
"I don't think I can do this," she said. "I can't - I won't be able to perform the rites to neutralise or reverse the effects of this thing. This is heavy mojo, real magic stuff. Maybe Wesley could, but... I can't do this. It'd be like a kid playing with matches. You know, matches and fire and burning and explosions. Anything could happen-"
"And 'anything' could be worse than a demon hell dimension swallowing LA?"
She gulped back the rest of her tirade to consider a moment. "Probably not that." She sighed. "I'm all right, I'm just... never mind. I know we have to try."
Next instant she'd jumped to her feet and was pressed against him, fingers gripping his arms with a strength desperation must've stretched her slim body to its limits to exert. His gaze touched hers and he knew what she was going to say.
The panic flowed out of her like blood. "We should go, Charles. We should warn people and go, it's the most we can do. The best thing we can do. Get the city evacuated, if we can make them listen. If people thought there was going to be a major earthquake - a deadly epidemic - something, anything we could make them believe. We do that and we go, get out of here. Together."
"Fred." His voice didn't sound right. "You know the folks at the top in this city aren't about to do a full scale evacuation on the doom-crying of some two-bit PI agency-"
She rolled right on, deaf to him. "The destruction - well, not actual destruction in the destructive sense, I mean nothing's gonna be destroyed, not like with a big explosion or anything, it's just gonna be gone, but never mind that - it's only localised. We can get away, to... we can go to my parents!" A brilliant, terrible smile took over her face, then died again the next instant. "We can't do this alone," she whispered. "We'll fail, and we'll die. This isn't fighting monsters. It's dark, dark magic. I don't even know enough to know how dark, but nothing that requires the spell components of this ritual can be happy, fluffy magic. We need Angel, and Cordelia, and Wesley, and they're not here. We're just the backup team, Charles."
She must have seen his answer in his face. Her eyes were brimming.
"No," he said. "No. Exactly what we can't do is leave. You're right - Angel and Cordy, they aren't here. And, damn it, I went and called Wesley, and he's not picking up. But we're here, and maybe the only ones in a position to even try stop this happening. So we have to try."
Her head hung, hiding her face, and he couldn't read her silence. He was unnerved - this wasn't his Fred. It wasn't like her.
"Fred, it's what we do. And we're not the backup team now, we're the main team. The main team can't slink off before the match."
She buried her face against his chest and after a moment his T-shirt was dampening but he could feel her nodding into his breastbone. "I know. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have suggested doing that - the running and hiding. It's just we have so much to live for now, and we've had so little time. It hasn't been enough, and I don't want us to die."
Gunn pulled her closer and almost wished he could change his answer. His fight had had casualties before had he'd be a damn fool to think it wouldn't have them again. He didn't want to get her killed, not the girl he planned to live a long life with. But the words were out now, no backing off, and he knew they were the right words. Everybody else had gone, lost the mission and disappeared. They weren't going to.
He wanted, though - wanted to send her away on the bus to her folks. Needed her too much to do it. Whatever small skills she'd learned in research and spells were a lot greater than he would ever have at his fingertips.
Anyway, he was willing to bet she wouldn't be any more likely to leave without him than he'd be to abandon her.
"We're not going to die," he said. "We're gonna kick evil's ass. Just like we've always done."
He kissed the top of her head. "Maybe we'll get there in time not to even have to do the mojo. Slay the bad guy, business as usual."
Fred nodded again. Breaking the embrace, she returned to pouring over the books on the floor.
"It wouldn't be us, anyway, if we ran," she said, her hair falling forward covering her face from view. "We'd be some other folks, who looked like us and maybe talked and acted like us, a bit, but we wouldn't be us. And we'd have such a hard time trying to find ourselves again, maybe we never would."
"It's a remarkable feat. I would have said impossible. To blanket-glamour near every source in existence that mentions the true nature of an object-"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Sprawled out luxuriously in the back of the limousine, Lilah waved a hand in limp dismissal. There was only so much enthusing over this esoteric shit a girl could take. "It was done over a century ago. They could do mass blood-sacrifices back then without the rest of the world noticing and taking exception. I guess, in a sense, modern times are a real pain in the ass for you mystical types, right?"
He looked up from the photocopied scrolls to glare at her.
"Of course," she added, flicking the edge of the papers in his hands with a perfect nail, "The downside of that is the fact none of our people could actually remember all the details. Releasing the glamour entire could mean trouble, later."
"From the writings I came across about the artefact, anyone with any mystical inclination who sees those passages is probably joining your more nervous colleagues clearing out of LA as we speak," Wesley said. "But this does rather beg the question, how does whoever stole it know what to do with it?"
She nodded. "Could be that whoever they are, they're old enough to have been looking a very long time."
"That wouldn't seem to bode well." His tone was bored; perverse bastard. His gaze returned to the scrolls and the limousine slunk around a corner, making him snatch for them as they slid from his knees. Irritably, he said, "Could you possibly have found us some transportation that was, say, a little more ungainly and conspicuous?"
"It's a Limo in LA, Wesley."
"I suspect this isn't an area that sees many limousines, nevertheless."
"It's hardly my fault you seem to have a map to all the crummiest places in this city tattooed onto the inside of your big old brain."
He shrugged. "The ritual concerned with the activation of the Naminore requires a 'hot spot' - a location with natural stored potential for dimensional transference. I know of three in the LA area. I apologise if they fail to have the decency to be in places you condescend to frequent." He squinted out of the window and tapped on the glass to the driver's compartment, to no avail. Looking pained, he began to search for a way to lower the barricade.
Lilah rolled her eyes and pressed the intercom. "Round about here will do." She glanced at Wesley.
He nodded grudgingly.
"Don't worry, I won't let on to any of our colleagues how out of place you feel with the high life."
"Because it would damage my fragile ego so much?" he said with sarcasm. "My family, if you recall, were not what you might call destitute. They just weren't so-" he gestured around him disdainfully "-so damned dramatic about it."
"No," she agreed. "Old money, right? Not like us upstart colonials. Polite dinners and courtesy and afternoon tea. Rules and belts and cupboards and a whole different world of repression. Forgive me if I wouldn't wanna trade."
Contrary to expectations, he just looked sour and didn't ask how she knew.
Well, that was one question answered, anyway - the psych reports on his reactions were nothing but obsolete waste paper. If they survived, she'd have to commission new ones. Couldn't let things fall behind.
The limousine had drawn to a halt but neither of them made a move to get out. When she was bored enough to break the silence, Lilah said, "Your father was an asshole. You know that, right? And, knowing who I work for, you must know I know assholes."
"I'll thank you to refrain from insulting my family, please," Wesley said tightly. He reached for the door.
"You need some serious therapy." Her disgust froze his grasp on the handle.
"This is not news." Wesley's fingers jerked down and a warm breeze sidled in through the door to stroke her knees. "I suppose you have your own analysts as well."
He got out and Lilah joined him. "Actually, no, we outside-contract those." She smoothed her skirt down. "But only the very best. We're very discerning."
He snorted, rolled up the papers and stuck them inside his jacket.
The street was dry and dusty, and she followed him along the sidewalk to a door in the side of a shaky-looking building. He pushed it open. Inside was dark and a faint tang of charcoal and some form of accelerant caught in her nose. She let Wesley go first down the staircase and returned to the limousine for a flashlight.
Cursing the debris underfoot as it stuck in her heels, she caught up with him at the bottom of the steps. He was standing, hands in pockets, in the midst of a large room with structures that might have been a bar and a stage before the damage reduced them to largely matchsticks. Place looked like it'd been nuked.
"Welcome to Caritas," Wesley said, his voice light and his face grim.
"The demon karaoke bar?" She'd heard of it. She couldn't imagine it was drawing many customers of late.
He didn't respond. He walked across to the stage and ran his finger through the dust on it, straightened up and shot a wry smile back at her. "Nobody's been here. On to the next-"
When they drew to a halt outside Los Angeles Public Library, Lilah pouted and said, "Don't we have enough books?"
Wesley was accustomed by now to the way she felt obliged to sniff and offer disparaging comment for every situation. He slid out of the limo and walked up to the main doors without so much as a glance in her direction.
They were blocked off by barricades and tape, with a sign reading 'closed - building maintenance in progress'. He peered through the glass panels, but couldn't see anything within, untoward or otherwise. Listened out for the sounds of hammering and machinery.
Foreboding filled him and the fear that had been distantly hovering finally thudded home. His lungs struggled to find oxygen and his heart sped up. Feeling surprised him. A lot of the time lately, he'd felt as though a thick veil stretched between himself and the rest of the world.
He pressed his lips into a thin line and stalked back to Lilah. "Call your team."
Crisis transformed her to all business. She pulled out her cell and dialled without debate. "Reyner," she purred when a tinny voice responded. "I need you here, like yesterday. We've found it. The Public Library. Yeah? Five minutes? I'll give you three."
She put the phone away and flicked her hair back; smiled at Wesley. There was something very false about her smile.
He recognised it in the next instant. She was afraid. Something of a revelation - Lilah Morgan who worked for Evil Incorporated, pitted herself against Angelus and placed herself in the path of countless demons and Billy Blim, also lacked for the brand of easy gung-ho physical courage that seemed to have surrounded him so prevalently since he came to California.
Wesley laughed, and she narrowed her eyes at him.
"Come here," he said, surrendering to the urge to find out what she tasted like while in the throes of a bout of humanity.
"Wesley, this would be a really bad time to be arrested for public indecency," she said, muffled as he grabbed her and buried their collective fear in lust.
He had her pinned against the hood of the limo, her tongue gouging the back of his throat, when his experiment was interrupted by someone tapping his spine with an object that was hard and smooth and felt alarmingly familiar.
Lilah made a choked noise, her eyes focused behind him, her hands fluttering against his shoulders.
They untangled, and he turned to face the half-dozen armed men who'd emerged from a badly-parked black van stretched diagonally across the sidewalk. In addition to the automatic rifles they carried, they were strapped with knives and stakes, their belts strung with ammunition. Oddly, while passers-by were staring, it was mostly at the two people who'd been sharing a kiss on the verge of being a public act of sex on the hood of a limousine.
The tall, shaven-haired man removed the end of his rifle from where it had nestled in Wesley's scar, mouth twitching in faint apology. He accorded Lilah a respectful "Ma'am" but lurking at the back of his eyes was a sarcastic, slightly apprehensive 'so good to see you're taking this life and death situation seriously'.
"Reyner." Lilah straightened her clothes and hair, visibly setting her composure back into place, and shot a glare at Wesley as though she suspected he'd deliberately planned to humiliate her before her subordinates. He filed it in his brain for future reference as another way to make her squirm.
She ran her glare around the troops and wordlessly pointed to the library, her posture full of command.
"Maybe not a good idea to burst in through the front door," Reyner said dryly. "There's only so much slack that the public's apathy and the inconspicuousness spells can take up, after all. Sewer access? Service doors?" He turned to his men. "Check it out."
While the troops marched off smartly to obey, Reyner waited with Wesley and Lilah in uneasy silence. Wesley took the case Wolfram and Hart, through Lilah, had provided from the back of the limousine and made the most of the excuse it provided, resting it on the car roof and checking through its contents thoroughly again. Five minutes later, one of Reyner's team returned to report sewer access.
The last thing Wesley had expected to be doing with his afternoon was following a group of heavily armed Wolfram and Hart thugs through the sewers to break into Los Angeles Public Library in order to save a city. But given the other options were drinking himself into a useless stupor in order to avoid thinking about the project of finding gainful employment for an ex-watcher, ex-demon-hunter, ex-fighter-for-the-forces-of-good that did not include demonic law firms, he failed to consider the turn of events to be anything very terrible.
In the darkness of the tunnels, he accidentally brushed against Lilah; felt her shudder through the layers of his clothing and her own. Closed his mouth on a snide remark about fear of the dark.
"Can't believe they just left. Walked out, left all that shit behind. Didn't even set the alarms." Charles' hands weren't on the wheel of his truck and his eyes weren't on the road. She nodded and said nothing, pointed at the oncoming minivan and hoped he'd remedy the situation. "Aw, man."
The truck swerved.
"Is it just me, or are there a lot of folks heading out of town for this time of day? Tell me there's not this many people in LA connected with the freaky and mystical who could've gotten the heads-up on this to do the mass exodus."
"I - I couldn't say. Maybe it's just normal traffic, and our brains are playing tricks 'cause we know."
The magic store where they'd gone to pick up the gear for the spell had been hurriedly closed. After a brief debate about the distance of the next nearest and the importance of not wasting any more time, Gunn forced the door. They'd left an anonymous IOU. Fred hoped the store didn't get looted, what with them having broken the lock and all. But maybe they had insurance.
Did insurers pay out for business premises being sucked into a hell dimension?
Charles was keyed up in a really bad way. His driving was scary.
"Where are we gonna get a human heart?" she asked again worriedly. He'd kept evading the question, and it wasn't making her any happier. "It doesn't say it has to be fresh. I mean, we could stop by the morgue, or - or even the graveyard."
"No time." He glanced at her and she didn't like what was behind his eyes, but she pointed back to the road and they at least returned to facing forward. "'Sides," he said reluctantly, "Odds are good that whoever's performing this crazy demon-dimension ritual has one of their own to spare. We can hope. We can hope all the more that we don't have to cast this spell."
Fred gulped and stared at the road ahead. Forced her attention back down to the books.
"Where we headed?" Gunn asked.
"Yeah. Well, logically, this kind of thing would work best at a spot where the borders between our reality and others were already thin. I can't translate all the information, but it makes sense that the Naminore should be activated on one of these hot-spots. And of those we know of in LA, the library is the one other folks are most likely to know about, and the one most possible to use discreetly for a major ritual of this kind. Also," she admitted, "I kind of really don't wanna go there so I know, you see, I know it's that one. Because last time I was there I got sucked into a hell dimension for five whole years and I guess I really wouldn't want that to happen again."
"If it helps," Gunn said, "I ain't too keen, either. So it's gut instinct, then?"
"I guess you could call it that." She reflected upon his naiveté in the face of nature's basic laws.
The truck glided around a long bend and the weapons made their familiar din rolling around under the tarp at back. The plastic shopping bag at her feet spilled out some of its contents and she toed them back inside, biting her lip in disgust.
Maybe she should've told Charles all of what the spell would do. But... no. It was better that he didn't know. She could at least save him any part of the decision whether to go ahead or not, knowing...
She studied him, his eyes narrowed in concentration as he negotiated them through sharper corners and darker streets. Even the sun had gone behind rare thick cloud and the bad light made it harder to trace his features. She resented the traitorous sun, wanting to mark his face into her brain, in case... just in case.
She loved him; of that she was sure. Big, scary, obliterating love. Movie style epic love.
And yet, she couldn't help but wonder how much of their crazy devotion could be chalked up to desperation. The friend they'd lost at least in part by setting out upon this love... having paid a price like that, there had to be a real good reason, didn't there? It had to be fate. Powerful, brilliant, until-death love, because anything less would be unbearable.
She hated that tiny core of doubt, but how could she tell how real they were, when all this guilt got in the way?
If they died side-by-side fighting the good fight, would that make it all alright?
They turned onto the street leading to the library. Fred could've sworn her heart trembled inside her chest at the sight of the big building. She looked at her knees.
Charles whistled a high, sarcastic note as he drew them to a halt. "Well, look what we've got here. Why am I not surprised to see who's throwing this party?"
Fred followed his gaze - to the black limousine and van parked over the other side of the road.
The ritual was taking place between ecology and horticulture, easy enough to find following the sounds of chanting. Lilah waited behind the safety of a bookshelf while Reyner's team ghosted out around the aisles to surround the anonymous robed figures.
The chanting, raw and discordant, grated on her nerves. The voice speaking didn't sound like it came from a human throat. She concentrated on her fingers, twisting them tightly in the fabric of Wesley's ugly jacket, and watched for the moment everyone fell into position.
Wesley was eying the action taking place around him, looking something of a restless fifth wheel, forced to stay back and watch others lead. He'd crossed his arms; she suspected to keep himself from fidgeting.
Lilah smiled and stroked her fingers down his sleeve. No problem, of course, with a take-charge attitude. If anything it was a pleasant surprise.
Nervous and irritable, darkly concentrating upon the tableau of the ritual in progress, he shook her hand off.
The circle of eleven figures hidden within dark robes was formed around a twelfth, and it was he who chanted. His robe was open, the hood hanging down his back. A tall man, with severe-cut greying dark hair, prominent cheekbones and nasty eyes. Lilah wrinkled her nose in disgust. Mortimer Chaney. That hack.
In front of him was a small altar, and upon it an oily black globe the size of a bowling ball that seemed to suck energy and light from the air around it. Scratches visible on its surface, too irregular to be decoration, too deliberate to be the random damage of years, might have marked out the shapes of runes though they looked like no symbols she recognised. The room seemed to grow darker the longer the artefact fixed her gaze. She realised the edges of her vision were blurring into malevolent black shapes that crept and shifted, and she tore her eyes from the Naminore an instant before it was ripped anyway from her view.
Her thoughts cleared. Time resumed its normal pace.
Wesley's hands trapped her face, painfully rough, and he frowned at her through their frame.
She pressed a finger to his lips, warning him against sound. He gestured frantically, and she understood it wasn't her phasing out that formed his principal concern. Chaney was approaching the end of the rite. Reyner and his team were waiting to make their move.
She nodded. It was time for an intervention.
Lilah stepped out from hiding, strode through the unmarked boundary of the circle, tapped her foot and cleared her throat loudly.
The chanting dried up with an unmanly squeak.
"Mort Chaney. Why doesn't it surprise me to find your dirty little fingers in this dark magic pot?"
There was a motion behind her. She heard Wesley grunt and a heavy impact. An acolyte slumped forward onto the ground almost at her feet.
"Next?" Wesley queried roughly. He joined her, casting a glance between herself and Chaney. "You know this... individual?"
"He's a chaos mage. I should've guessed. Who else would be dumb enough to summon a hell dimension down on top of themself?"
Chaney drew himself up indignantly, evidently recovered from his initial shock. "I don't appreciate this denigration," he said pissily. "I think a certain Wolfram and Hart bitch and her new pet Watcher are overlooking the fact they're outnumbered six to one." He drew a long, serrated knife and took a step towards them.
A click sounded. Lilah smiled as Chaney froze.
"Ah. Actually, no," she purred, as seven men armed to the teeth with the best small arms money could buy melted out from the shadows. "But... before you get shot to ribbons, Mort dear, would you care to tell us how in the hell you got the heads-up about the Naminore? There's no way you were alive before the glamour spells were put in place. It's beyond the realm of mortal comprehension how you've survived sixty years on this Earth."
"Fifty-four," Chaney snapped. "And I happened to attend the death bed of an ancient member of my order, who - oh, screw you, Morgan." He folded his arms in a sulk. "You can stay curious. It isn't as if you don't intend to kill me anyway."
She shrugged. "I never made any promises. As for the rest, I can live with my curiosity."
Backing off - not that she had any qualms about the aim of the men, but she knew from experience that blood had a considerable splatter-distance - she raised a hand to signal Reyner. Simultaneously, Chaney leaped to take the last chance he'd ever get.
A broad gesture and an improvised piece of magery snatched the rifles from the hands of the team, but couldn't recall the bullets already fired. Chaney, swathed from thigh to opposing shoulder, dropped to the floor convulsing, his blood splashing up.
The Naminore seemed to swell hungrily at the baptism.
Lilah staggered amid a hail of bullets. Her heel gave, skewing her balance, and a weight slammed her down just as she'd thought she'd caught herself. The weight pinned her and breathed hot and heavy against her ear. Its hand covered hers, pressing her palm flat against the tiled floor.
"Don't move," hissed Wesley.
"Get off me, you asshole."
The last of the gunfire dispersed, Wesley rolled away and she sat up, gasping, in time to see him borne to the ground by a tackle from an acolyte obviously a linebacker in his spare time. She hurriedly retreated from the action to reclaim her hiding place behind the shelf, almost tripping over Wesley's abandoned case.
Three of the chaos acolytes and one of Reyner's men had been cut down with Chaney. The chaos mage's final spell had reduced the automatic weapons to piles of scrap cluttering the floor, and in the absence of firearms Reyner's men and the acolytes were skirmishing with manly enthusiasm. Lilah accorded them enough of a disdainful glance to establish the Wolfram and Hart team firmly in control of the affray, then left the boys to it.
She watched Wesley knock out the man who'd jumped him and stagger upright again, mildly scuffed. When he took a purposeful step towards an acolyte taking on one of Reyner's men, she briefly ventured from safety to pull him back.
"What are you doing?" he snapped, leaning dizzily against the shelf for all his protesting bravado. He produced a handkerchief from somewhere and dabbed at a cut on his hairline.
"At our level," she sniffed, "You have to learn to let others do the legwork. We don't fight. We have minions to do that. Damn it, Wesley, there are rules. You don't put your neck on the line doing the menial work."
Disgust twisted his expression. "You really are-"
"Yes, I really am. But look at the Naminore and tell me that there's someone else here who can stop it if you go get yourself killed."
"With Chaney dead and the activation ritual incomplete, there shouldn't be any danger-" He squinted at the excitedly pulsing black globe and frowned. "Although I daresay having an open conduit to a hell dimension in the middle of LA can't really be a good thing. I suppose other unpredictable effects are possible. But we can't get to it for bodies now anyway, and if I don't help, that man is going to die-"
A final twist on the henchman's neck caused him to explode in a cloud of green dust even as Wesley broke her grip. Another of Reyner's people jumped the offending acolyte and demonstrated his displeasure by jamming a knife into the man's back.
"See? Minions." Lilah smiled gleefully.
Wesley stopped in his tracks. "I..."
"Thought they were human? We started looking for alternative options after that first fiasco in your old hotel. These guys, the evidence destroys itself. No bodies. It's a sweet deal."
His open-mouthed stare gave her a warm, fuzzy glow inside.
Reyner and the final remaining minion were finishing off the last of Chaney's people. Lilah bent down to retrieve Wesley's case and pressed it into his hand.
"Come on, let's do what we came here to do."
Whoever had recently gone in through the sewer entrance at the back of the library hadn't pulled the cover back down right. Fred's wild guesses aside, at least that meant they'd probably got the right place.
"Real smooth," Gunn said as he yanked up the grille.
Fred slid lithely through before he could move to check out the waiting dark first, and called back up, "It's all alright. All nice and quiet down here."
Right; girl had lived in a cave for five years. Sometimes he forgot that. Forgot how the dark was home and the normal ingredients of human fears posed no threat, not rats nor spiders (he almost grinned at the memory of her being called up to rescue Cordelia or Wesley from the occasional eight-legged brute of the Hyperion's mutant population) nor the mere absence of light.
Gunn really didn't want to think about her acclimatisation to the stuff of nightmares over the course of five years. He slid down into the dark to land at her side, boots squelching on shallow dampness, and pulled the cover back over after them, setting it slightly out of place as he'd found it.
Neither did he want to think about the need to hope whoever was doing this ritual was human so he could cut out their internal organs for the last component of the reversal spell. He'd never killed a human being, leastways not so far as he knew and he hoped to God he knew correct, but the memory of that incident as a stupid kid stuck in his mind, Bobby's blood on his hands after the fight and the relief when he found out the other boy was gonna pull through.
Nuh. Not thinking about it.
They headed along down the sewer, Fred too quiet at his side and he knew she didn't want to do this either. Could hardly blame her for not wanting to go back to this place or anywhere like the other, and he had to be strong for her, and be ready to do what was needed. If they failed... if there was any possibility they really could end up in some other demon dimension... Damn. The girl had gone mad in a cave over the course of five years in a world where humans were cattle. And Pylea - Pylea hadn't been a hell dimension, not as such, not for real.
"Do you feel it?" Fred asked. "The air - it feels kind of heavy. Static. Like a thunderstorm."
Gunn did feel it. "You think we're too late?"
"I... I think if we were too late we wouldn't be here to wonder." Her voice was shaking. "But I think it's started. I think we're gonna have to do... I think we should hurry."
They quickened their pace, though not so much they'd alert anyone left on guard with the noise of their haste. He tightened his grip on the axe as they made their way up into the basement, patted the uncomfortable lump of the crossbow zipped inside his jacket.
There was nobody waiting there, but he jumped as much as Fred did when the unmistakeable sound of gunfire ripped the air.
"Shit." Gunn looked sourly between his axe and her crossbow. "I'm guessing we're gonna have a serious armament problem."
"Who're they shooting at?" Fred wondered. Out of the sewers, she shivered nervously at his side. "Do you think it could be ritual shooting?"
"We should get moving." No choice. No chance now to get away.
"Right." Fred's left hand was bunched in the corner of his jacket, leaving him both hands free, her other hand holding the trembling crossbow ready. In the stark light of the library she was paler than even her norm.
Whatever the shooting had been about, it had stopped now, and they wove between aisles of shelves trying to track where it had come from. The air still felt charged and expectant; the faint noises of disturbance and murmurs of voices emanating from somewhere close by seemed to echo in it.
Gunn tried again not to think about the man he'd have to kill.
Then he turned a corner and his heart near thudded its last at the sight greeting him, 'cause things had just gone and gotten about a thousand times worse.
A circle of corpses and neon dust spread out around an altar with something on it that looked like the Evil Glowing Basketball From Hell, and standing over it muttering in some language that wasn't English-
Wesley added the mandrake root to the smouldering pile of spell components beside the Naminore on the altar, careful not to touch the night-black globe or let it draw his gaze too close. He didn't want Lilah having to snap him out of its trance a third time; twice had been tedious enough.
"Sheep's blood," he said. She handed him the vial and he poured it over the ashes, quenching the last of the fire. The smoke thickened and blackened, rising in truly unreasonable quantities. He choked and pulled out his handkerchief to press across his nose and mouth, and at his side, her complexion already a peculiar shade, Lilah crushed a sleeve against her lips.
After the initial gush the smoke dwindled to a slim chimney. The air around them cleared gradually and, with some relief, he allowed himself to breathe again.
All that needed be done now was read out the words, completing the spell to reset the balance of the dimensions, purifying the Naminore. He fervently hoped that his reinterpretation of the spell without the clause to consign its caster's soul to an eternity of despair would still work as intended.
Lilah was smiling and looking on approvingly as he took up the scroll - the original, taken from Mortimer Chaney's corpse, splattered with blood, a bullet hole piercing one corner - and began to read.
As the words passed his lips he could feel the power gathering in his own blood and bone, and the increasing effort it took to drag the words out at all. Despite his awareness of the spell's necessity and his pessimistic preconceptions of the issue as an already lost cause, he still had to fight down fears for the safety of his own soul.
Three lines from the end, the thought crept through his focus that Lilah had gone very still. His voice wavered on the guttural syllables of the next line, but he pressed onward. There really wasn't much left to-
Cold, sharp steel settled against his scar and silenced his determination.
"I really wouldn't," said a voice he recognised all too well, with an edge of danger in it that he could never recall having directed towards himself before.
He looked up from the scroll into the eyes of Charles Gunn. What he saw there dissolved his fear and reconstructed a familiar numbness in its place.
"Gunn." His voice in his surprise came out far more gentle than he could have intended, the result being that he spoke his former friend's name with a soft intonation not vastly different from how he'd said it a hundred times before, and surely there was something wrong there?
Gunn's face twisted in disgust and he didn't move his axe. A little way beyond him, hurt shock in her face, Fred was holding a crossbow to cover Lilah, Reyner and the other remaining non-human minion.
"I don't believe this. Man, I know you betrayed us, but - you're working for them now?"
Wesley felt a warm trickle down his neck from his scar. He took a breath and raised his head higher, baring his throat in obstinate challenge. He'd taken a bullet for this man once. Could Gunn kill him, after all they'd been through together?
He pondered his own approach to the question; the analytical interest where presumably there should be emotion. He said, "Outside contracted," and shrugged in faint apology, but couldn't hide his amusement at Gunn's horror. "You know how it is. You have to take the work where you can find it. I'm sure that maxim featured in your life on the streets on more than one occasion."
Gunn looked as though he'd very much like to take a swing. Evidently Fred thought so too, as her voice cut between them, "Charles, don't."
She took a step closer, careful to keep the crossbow on Lilah. Her eyes were wide and fearful. "We can't do this, Gunn," she said, something terrible and torn underlying her voice. "We can't."
"Can't do what?" Lilah asked. "Kill us? Of course not. You're the goody little two-shoes. Not even the ones who're vaguely dangerous."
Lilah did not know Fred and Gunn terribly well, Wesley reflected. Even Fred now glared at her as though she'd like nothing better than to use the crossbow in her hands. He'd seen them both more than ready to kill before.
"Lady, I will stake you through the heart if you don't shut the hell up, human or not," Gunn said.
Wesley leaned forward as much as the axe would allow to share a mocking confidence. "It won't help. You know she hasn't got one."
The hate in Gunn's eyes should've stung, and didn't.
His next words, however, threw Wesley's thoughts into confusion.
"Fred. Get the knife."
Fred really wasn't liking this. The evil lawyer woman was looking vastly entertained and Charles was looking like killing someone and Wes was looking vaguely puzzled and apprehensive in a manner that was all too much like the kind friend he had been rather than the traitor he'd become - and she knew what Gunn was thinking, she could see his intent in his eyes and face and every line of his posture and she had to stop this, stop it now, because they just couldn't-
"Gunn, don't," she said again. She had to break through to him. "Get away from him. Let me talk to him. Wesley! Wesley, you can't be working for these people. I know you meant to save Connor by taking him, even if you betrayed Angel, and I know that doesn't excuse anything, but-"
"I know," he interrupted, eyes cold now, voice rough and pitiless and not anything like she'd ever heard him sound before. Even when he'd been mad and trying to kill her with an axe, his voice had stayed scarily soft. "The road to Hell is paved with them. Let's not do this. Save it, Winifred."
"No, no, we have to do this. We can't save it because we have to save you, because otherwise he's going to kill you so, you see, it's not like there's gonna be another chance."
"Fred." Charles' tone was annoyed. His hands shifted on his axe. "I need that knife. This thing, it's a bit unwieldy for delicate organ-extraction."
Lilah's eyes were wide, impressed. "Wow. You really would kill him, wouldn't you? This guy who was your friend two years, fought beside you, even took a bullet for you... I think our people may have seriously underestimated you, Charles. We never did extend you a job offer, did we?"
"I said shut the hell up, you poisonous bitch." Gunn's eyes left Wesley a second to glare at Lilah.
Wesley grabbed the shaft of the axe with both hands, that tatty old bloodstained scroll scrunching between his palms and the wood. "What the hell's going on? Kill me? You're here to kill me?"
Even as a traitor, the question was taut with disbelief, as though he couldn't imagine any reason they'd do that. Fred had a cold feeling beginning to gather in her insides - not just the fear that had been there before, the fear at what they'd have to do, but the feeling that something wasn't right. They could be making a terrible mistake.
"Charles, I think maybe-" She jumped and gave a shriek, her fingers fumbling, coming close to shooting Lilah by accident as the remaining Wolfram and Hart minions took advantage of Gunn's preoccupation struggling with Wesley to make their move. Gunn took a hand off the axe to reach inside his jacket; withdrew the crossbow there and shot without hesitation, casting the weapon instantly aside as Wes came close to wresting the axe away. Fred gasped as a black-clad man who'd looked entirely human dissipated into greenish dust, and spun around to loose her own crossbow at the second.
"Crap," muttered Lilah.
She didn't waste time trying to reload, but snatched the knife from their bag of spell components instead, brandishing it at arms-length. She'd killed things with a knife in Pylea. They hadn't been human, she didn't know what it would feel like to kill a human, but she knew how to kill, the feel of the blood and the heartbeat dying beneath her fingers. Lilah must have seen; she kept her distance.
Fred risked a glance at Charles. Wesley had forced the blade back from his throat while he was distracted, but Fred knew from almost a year's worth of practise sessions that Gunn was the stronger, the result of the fight inevitable.
"Your man's got better instincts than you do," Lilah called over to Wesley, seeming oblivious to his danger.
"I am so not his man... in any sense," Charles said, getting flustered at the double-entendre, to skanky-lawyer-lady's obvious delight.
"Lilah. It's not the time for head-games," Wesley snapped. "Gunn, Fred, please - I don't think you realise what we're doing here, how crucial this is. Let me explain-"
"Wes-" The moment stretched, Gunn squinting at Wesley as though trying to find something in the bleakness of that barely-recognisable face. Then the moment snapped, and Charles regained the axe by unexpectedly jerking the shaft forward to crack across Wesley's jaw. He backed off, spinning the weapon, and glared at Lilah. "Enough of this shit, lawyer lady. You two, both of you step back from your Souvenir From Hell snow globe. Now."
"Wait, you don't understand." Wesley followed, his movements unsteady and his hand clasped to the side of this face like he had to hold his jaw together. "Fred," he turned to her instead. "You'll listen to me-?"
"Don't touch me!" In her haste to retreat, she tripped over the bag with the spell components, sending its contents scattering. Wesley looked down and froze.
When he looked up again it was in unquantified shock. "Those are - you were going to-" He was down on his knees, rummaging through the bag before she could do anything to prevent him. When he surged up she saw the book clutched in bone-white fingers. "Garvensal's Compendium?" he choked. "The spell in here - do you have any idea what it would have done to you?"
It broke her heart that he had such passion left in his fear for her. More so that Charles was watching, and now he would know.
She nodded dumbly, unable to lie.
"What's he talking about?" Gunn demanded.
Lilah's peal of laughter split the air. "You mean you two, you came here to save the day? Oh, that is so priceless..."
Gunn rounded on her. "I am gonna kill you the next time you open your mouth." He turned back to Fred. "What's he talking about, 'what that spell would've done to you'?"
"I-I-" she stammered.
"The price for working that particular form of the rite, as indeed with all of the original forms, is the caster's soul," Wesley said tersely. "I suspect she wanted to spare you the choice, Gunn." He paused, then his whole body flinched as though he'd been punched. "You thought that I-"
"You can keep your mouth shut, too," Charles began, before the words sunk in and he turned back to Fred with pain in his eyes. She looked away, unable to face it. "You were gonna-"
He'd come so close to her he'd forgotten about Wesley, who dived for the altar, tearing open the crumpled scroll in his hands. Words ripped from his mouth. The language wasn't English or Latin, but she recognised what he said verbatim.
They were the words she'd been practicing in her head most of the way over in the van.
Lilah moved to help Wesley, latching onto Gunn and trying to hold him back.
The last lines of the reversal spell. Inside Fred's brain, the world re-ordered itself with a neat click.
"Charles, wait! No!" she yelled, and leaped to help Lilah. "You mustn't stop him!"
Their strength wasn't enough to hold Gunn back, as he reached over the altar to grab Wesley's throat, strangling the last of the words into silence, yanking forward as Wesley's eyes widened in fear and he gurgled a warning.
The Naminore, caught between them, flashed a blaze of liquid darkness at the contact, and Fred screamed as the world disappeared around her for the second time in her life.