A breeze tossed particles against her skin. She blinked, squinted and shielded her eyes against the barrage. Vision didn't help much. She saw only the same alien landscape stretching out around in all directions.
A floor of grey ash, softening and giving beneath her heels.
A featureless grey-white sky soaring up into a giddying eternity.
A forest of pillars irregular intervals apart; uneven dark stalks like dead and petrified trees rising to scale the same endless heights as the sky.
No sign of end or interruption upon any horizon.
She didn't need Wesley and his books and painstaking research to tell her this place was a shrine to desolation.
Lilah walked through the dust, through the pillars, head down to avoid the vertigo of looking up, searching for - anything. Anyone. Mainly Wesley. The footprints she left in her wake sagged back into the dust of the ground, vanishing within seconds, and this place seemed as soundless as though she'd been deafened. Her feet made no noise, the wind no more than that. She could feel her heart pounding, but couldn't hear it. Her mouth was dry and her throat ached with fear.
The wind swirled the dust in unnatural little eddies and currents, spiralling, drawing pictures in the air. Its touch slid down her neck and shoulder like the caress of some slimy, living thing, and she shuddered, backed into a pillar and flinched from the texture of leathery dead flesh.
Something cold whispered through her brain.
She was in a goddamned hell dimension. Damn Wesley's little ex-friends. And damn him, too, for letting this happen.
Except they already were, all of them, damned. A giggle escaped her and she put a hand to her lips to keep in the hysteria. Realised only then that she'd heard sound.
She opened her mouth and shouted.
The cry hit the air, blazed through it like the passing of a supersonic jet direct overhead, fractured and spun around her. Its echo seemed to linger an eternity. By the time it ended she was on her knees in the dust, hands pressed over her ears, sobbing in soundless dry heaves.
She staggered up again, refilled her lungs determined not to be defeated.
Back on her knees, her skirt covered in dust, her head spinning.
"Goddamn it." She got one foot under her. A hand caught her by her hair and slammed her face-down in the dust.
Glass broke and she heard it shatter, felt sharp points nick her exposed skin. More caught in her clothes as she fell and were rammed through the fabric into flesh, trapped between her body and the floor as she hit.
The ground felt soft, like carpeting.
"He's not coming. You can't do anything without a man to answer your beck and call, can you?"
She choked on the dust she'd been spitting. She knew the voice. But he couldn't be here, any more than the carpet or broken glass-
He pulled her over, his hands to the throat she was still trying to force air through.
She gaped up and saw him standing over her/gaped up and saw nothing but the landscape of dust and columns and sky.
It wasn't like she should be surprised to find him a resident of her own personal Hell.
"Gavin, you f-"
A fist landed on the right side of her jaw, backswung to catch her left cheek. "Now, Lilah, you know I won't tolerate that." He yanked her around like a toy on a string and planted an elbow in her eye.
And yeah, she'd been here, done this (where the hell had her goddamn office come from?), knew the ending. Struggling didn't prove any more successful than it had the first time around as he dragged her to the desk, curled a hand through her hair and slammed her forehead into the edge of the wood, and the daze that followed reduced her to sickly-remembered passivity as he draped her across the desktop and ran a hand up her skirt.
"This isn't real," she said, her voice blurred, and she hadn't said that last time. "You get that? You're not even real, you little shit, you're just a re-run."
"You know how long I've been waiting to screw you, Lilah?" he breathed in her ear, oblivious, one hand curled under her back, the other busy elsewhere. Her gasp got stuck in her throat and choked her. "Everyone else gets to screw you. The firm gets to screw you. Why should I be left out? Come on, Lilah, it's not exactly an exclusive venue."
Her hands flailed to push him off, and he slapped them away like butterflies. They fluttered over the surface of the desk-
"Shit, no, you bastards!" the words wrenched from her throat, screamed up into the grey sky and the empty world and all the nothing that was in front of her. Her hands touched nothing, her back ground into the desk and there was fucking. nothing. there. "You fucks... you bastards... what the hell is this...? this wasn't what happened... didn't happen... fuck, this didn't happen... where's the file on the desk... the file... where's the fucking file... I know there was a file... I picked it up and I put a dent in the bastard's skull that had him hospitalised a week and I broke three of his ribs and whythefuck is this happening-!"
Someone grabbed her by the shoulders, pulled her away from Gavin, slapped her across the face and threw her back into the dust.
"You little whore."
"Wha-?" Her whole body was raw and she couldn't form words properly with her battered mouth.
Where the hell was Gavin? Because she wanted him back. Fine, her personal eternal torment was Gavin Park's scrawny little prick, so bring it on. Like, now.
She stared up at the owner of the accusing voice and shook all over. Noticed numbly how the oily-fingered breeze blew dust on the ground away to reveal tiles, their pattern distinct and half-forgotten, and sculpted the walls of an old hallway. "You're. Not. Here," she articulated with all the clarity she could muster.
Mother was crying. She'd always been good at that, in both her incarnations.
This version was younger as Lilah had almost forgotten her ever being, younger but still old, blue-checked house dress scraping the tiles, collecting up dust. "You'd prefer I wasn't. That I couldn't see how filthy you are. Offer yourself to any man who could pull you up another step on your glorious career. Was it worth it, Lilah? Now you've gotten so far, was it worth it? I knew you were dirty. I knew it ever since I came back and found you with him..."
A hallucination. It had to be. A hallucination, to know who she was and what she'd done. And surely she could tell a hallucination to fuck off-
"I suppose you won't believe me now any more than you did then that it wasn't actually by choice," she croaked. "I guess who cares anyway, when all the others were? Water under the bridge as they say and, in fact, he did me a favour. Taught me something about life, as the cliche goes."
"Don't you talk like this to me. You're still my daughter."
"Yeah? When did that happen? Last time I had a conversation with you when you remembered my name it featured considerable protest to the contrary. But, hell, you know I wasn't going to be poor. So what else was I going to do after dad died when you got with the fucking Bible Bunch full-time and didn't give a damn that the money was drying up while you were out crusading?"
"While you were out with your dirty men." Her bony hands wrung in the fabric of her dress. "Damning yourself."
"Yeah? You never did understand that it's all just skin. I was just trading in skin. Skin and bone and flesh and blood but, hey, I signed away my soul too, so I guess you were right about me after all, all those years. Does that make you happy?"
"I'll see you repent your sins if it's the last thing I do." Mother bent down and Lilah was forced to stand on bruised and aching thighs that shivered under her weight, the shaking memory of a fifteen-year-old's legs. "I'll take you to the priest, and you'll repent."
"The hell I will!" Lilah screamed and struggled against muscles powered by single-minded faith. "Get the hell off of me, you crazy old woman, get the hell off and leave me alone. You're not my fucking mother. In case you forgot, you forgot me, you bitch, you spent your life trying to make me someone else and when you couldn't you tried to forget I existed and then you finally fucking did! That money you hated so much is what kept you alive for the past six years and you don't know who the hell I am so leave me alone I'm not going with you and don't you fucking pretend you forgot me for any other reason than because you WANTED TO-"
He had to find Fred.
Was beginning to doubt the possibility of ever finding anything, here. Place was creeping him out. Ashes and weird-ass pillars leading from nothing to nothing and the kind of silence that made him want to yell like a crazy man to fill it.
As hell dimensions went, though - he could imagine worse options. No sign, at least, of fire and brimstone. Not much of anything.
Unreality pervaded the place, yeah; the pillars felt weird and the dust was kinda creepy in itself, too much like funerary ash for comfort, and the air he breathed lacked the city fumes of LA but was somehow dead and stale all the same.
And Fred... she might be here somewhere, alone, maybe in trouble, maybe afraid. Because of him.
Not just because of him. God damn Wesley for a stinking traitor.
He remembered the confused instant before the world fragmented into darkness and he found himself in this dead place. Fred had been hanging on his arm and yelling something, and the lawyer bitch on his other arm, but they'd disappeared and there'd been no sign of Wesley either. The demon eight-ball had touched them both - his chest burned where it had. If he was here, so was Wesley. Maybe the women.
He couldn't deal with the idea of Fred being here. Not after Pylea. The thought sped his steps through the desolate monotony of a world.
Through the swirling dust and something like the heat-haze of a nonexistent sun that permeated the air close to the ground, he caught a glimpse of a figure up ahead, before they were lost again in the forest of pillars.
"Hey!" he yelled, not liking the way his voice bounced back at him with volume way past the threshold of pain. He staggered and covered his ears, pressed his lips together and started running.
He was drawn on by sightings of the figure - slim, dressed in dark clothes, could have been Fred, too distant to tell for sure - who seemed to hold an impossible lead considering their meandering pace looked barely a saunter.
"Charles Gunn. Been a while since I saw you 'round these parts."
He froze. Behind him, leaning against a pillar-
"George? Man, you're dead. Love to chat and catch up on times, but I got better things to do than talk to some hallucination."
Breathing heavy, he turned his back. Whoever he'd been following still flitted in and out of view up ahead. He needed to catch them-
"Narrow of you, brother." George tagged at his side; he had Gunn's axe in his hand and it dripped blood that looked red and human. George had a pair of small puncture wounds in the side of his throat and wore his collar turned down as though to show them off. "I need to get seeing to the rights of dead black Americans, 'cause they're being seriously overlooked. Would've thought you could get behind that."
Gunn's skin crawled as the spectre followed him through the dust. Not threatening, but creepy as hell. Shadowed by his own personal ghost.
Wasn't real. Couldn't be real. Damn hallucination-rife hell dimension.
He wondered whose blood was on the axe.
"It's all right, dog," George said. "You know I forgive you, right? I wouldn't blame you for what happened. We could've waited. You had places to go, people to see. Your new group. They do good work, I heard. Or they used to. Not so much lately, with the in-fighting. You got my sympathy though, man. Never a good thing when families start to break apart."
"Never is," Gunn said.
The slim figure he followed glanced back but he couldn't make out any more detail than a white face, dark hair.
"You're cold, man..."
He quickened his pace. After a moment, he realised he was leaving George behind. The thud in his chest ousted transient relief at getting rid of the spectre, but when he paused and turned, it was too late. There wasn't anything there to go back for.
He twisted his eyes again to front to see the figure tantalisingly near. A last burst of running and he rounded a pillar to plant his hand on a slim shoulder.
"Hey, thank God I found-"
Wesley spun, shaking his hand off. "Don't touch me, please," he said with that kind of polite aloofness that had always pissed Gunn off the most.
Wesley gifted him a disapproving frown. "You left me behind, found the new thing, moved on." His English voice made ridiculous an attempt to mimic Gunn's speech patterns. "You don't get to kiss and make up now."
Gunn did what he pretty much always wanted to do to Wes in his smug-ass superior mode and had wanted to do a whole lot more the last couple of hours and swung a fist that slammed the superiority off his face. "You bastard. You got us into this shit."
"Responsibility really is an alien concept to you, isn't it?" There was blood on Wesley's lip and his tongue crept out to clean it away, unperturbed. Gunn stared at him a long moment.
"You ain't Wesley."
Wesley was pissed as hell right back at him at the moment. Wesley would have hit back.
"I know. It's fascinating, really. The temporary reality of these memory projections... this is really how you pigeonhole me inside your head?"
"Man, I'd forgotten how much you used to talk."
"Ah, yes. Thank you. I believe I may have been meandering from the subject a little." His eyes filled with hurt accusation and - irritatingly - pity and he crossed his arms over his chest. "I know you can't help it, but I really am terribly angry. I thought we were friends, but... you ceased to care so quickly. Like a snap of the fingers, and with a soul in your heart. But how could you not? You've seen too much. You've done things, and lost people. Too many things, too many people. Most before I ever even knew you."
"Damn, Wesley. What was that again? Think I drifted off there." This was illusion only. He wasn't about to let a phantom manipulate his emotions. He'd find the real Wesley, who had to be around here somewhere, and beat his face in.
He started to walk away. He'd left George behind, he could outrun Wes too.
Wesley's voice trailed him. "You think you can live in this world, pretend the killer in you and the hole in your heart doesn't matter. You can have the normal life, the normal girl. Pay taxes, grow old, be the good citizen. But you and I know better, don't we? I've seen how much you enjoy the fight."
Gunn stopped walking and rounded on him. "Shut the hell up, you fake."
"I'm not the only illusion here. You know of course she's hardly normal, don't you? There're all the physics degrees and the five years in a demon dimension, for a start."
"And that's what this is about, right? Well, she picked me, not you. For all your fancy talk and your big brain and the fact you both have so much more in common and she'd probably be - she picked me, all right?"
"Hardly the point I was making, as a matter of fact. But never mind, we're moving on now, anyway. Oh, and isn't that a wonderful irony? You've learned to move on so well, Charles, to accept loss and move forward, you forget that sometimes it's just the same as giving up."
"Damn it-" Stop. Swallow. Not real.
"How long do you think it will take for you to move on from her? If she dies, if you get her killed? Or will that be the last stroke? Do you perhaps see her as your connection to humanity?" Not-Wesley barked a long, bitter, laugh that echoed around the pillars and sky to surround them on all sides.
"I said shut the hell up!" Gunn's temper snapped, pressured by the amused tick of a sardonic smile and a world full of maddening hollow laughter, and he was shouting into Wesley's face. Wesley looked undaunted - fact, Wesley looked like he had every intention of keeping talking until someone beat him into unconsciousness.
Damn. He breathed, tried to get a grip. Illusions...
"I always thought we were alike, Gunn. You lost your Reason, but you kept on fighting. Because the fight was more important. But was it really the fight, or was it the kill?"
Gunn knocked him down and he kept talking. Hit him again. Again, and still with the words. He wasn't even sure they were coming out of Wesley's mouth any more or forming as heard in his own brain. His ears were full of bees and he couldn't see his adversary's lips move. Wesley wasn't making any effort to defend himself, but Gunn didn't giveafuck. Hits that should've knocked him cold weren't even making enough of an impression to break the flow of the goddamn words.
George's axe - his axe - was on the ground at his feet, the blade glinting as dust shifted over its surface. He snatched it up, brought it down.
Wesley still talked with his head half-severed from his neck.
He kept swinging the axe until the shape on the ground was unrecognisable and he was splashed over with red like he'd bathed himself in the stuff. It was only then the horror jumped him and sucker-punched him to his knees in the blood and dust. Hands to his face - they were wet. Streaked his cheeks and jaw like war paint as he pulled them down.
Gunn stared at his hands; the red gloves they wore.
"That wasn't real," he said aloud. He heard his voice shake. He repeated the denial, a yell the empty world tossed back at him distorted.
"Hell, no, big bro," the voice of Reason at his back said. "But I sure hope you're not gonna try deny it might as well have been."
She had been here years.
No. Not years. No? Maybe years?
She didn't know how long it had been. A long time.
She had been here a long time.
Here was desert, or at least something quite like desert. It wasn't warm, and its floor was ash instead of ground rock particles, and there was no sun, no seasons, no day and night, columns like some big old Roman temple except the temple was the world because there was no roof, no floor only ground and sky. There were no animals to hunt, no vegetation to feed on, unlike Pylea, but she didn't seem to need nourishment in this place. She wasn't even sure the air was - well, air.
Likewise there were no green people or grey people or hairy people or spiny people to hunt her, but there was so little else she missed even those. Man - or woman, she supposed with a giggle - couldn't live on a vacuum.
Vacuum, desolation, despondency... despair. A world of emptiness, a temple to despair. She remembered that phrase, coming back to her in a flash like she'd read it somewhere, or maybe heard it spoken.
She smiled at the memory of books and talk.
Perhaps she was dead. Perhaps dreaming. Pylea had been a dream, hadn't it? Or had that been the other place?
There had been a dark-skinned man, a good man, who held her and loved her and said sweet things, and they lived together and ate together and fought evil together. Before that-
Other faces. Another man... not really a man at all; a hero, a monster, a knight on a white charger. A princess, brave and funny and kind, and kinda scary too some of the time. One of the green people, only not like the other green people who didn't tend to wear bright colours and burst into song.
A third man. Clever and soft-voiced and nice. Until he wasn't.
She caught them in glimpses among the jumble in her head that lacked logic or order. A frustration - logic and order turned the universe around, didn'tyaknow, and she'd an inkling her brain used to have a significant reliance on them too. In their absence, things fell apart. Chaos and madness were no good, no good at all.
A bright flash of darkness - and see, logic had packed its bags outta this place, or how could darkness be bright? - had put an end to the dream world where things made sense and had brought her back to this one.
She slunk through the endless landscape, cowering down behind columns, ducking between them. Nobody was in sight and she was sure she would've looked pretty odd to them if anyone had been, but you never knew. She'd learned that, yes. Sometimes the things you saw weren't real. Sometimes you were seeing so many things that weren't real you didn't see the things that were real at all.
For all she knew, the denizens of this place could be invisible. Strings of calculations and theory poured through her head at the idea - how would invisibility work? The calculations came as natural as the animal caution that imbued her movements.
Dust and dust and dust... how long had she been journeying?
She was lost. She knew she was. She was lost and she needed to find her way back again. Back, back... back to the grim kind man from the world she'd dreamed?
That sounded right. She caught a tantalising glimpse of a name and pounced, tracked, hunted it down.
Gunn. Gunn, his name was Gunn. Such a strange name. Not a name but a thing. A - she ransacked the disarray of her brain for the right image. A weapon. Like a crossbow, but not at all really.
It fit the man in her thoughts very well.
So, Gunn. Maybe he was lost, too. If so, she had to find him. He'd never been lost before and he wouldn't understand what to do, wouldn't be able to look after himself so well as she knew how. She would be able to show him.
She searched through the columns, peering around, keeping her caution. It was like a forest. Or a parking garage. Darkness and cement pillars. She giggled and hushed herself as she heard the sound fall peculiar on the air. Yes, just like a parking garage, only it wasn't dark here.
Well, only on the inside.
No sun in the sky for illumination. The light wasn't real.
She dropped into a crouch, chasing her thoughts. The dust tickled at her knees.
Not real not real not real not real...
She was doing it all wrong. The dream was to blame. It had got into her brain, dulling her instincts, making her stupid.
She closed her eyes, tried to close her ears, block treacherous outside stimuli that could be faked. Really felt instead of just seeing, listening, feeling, and felt them all around her, not so far away at all. And so scared, so much fear and anger and hate, and she had to-
Fell through a rabbit-hole in reality and reached out and touched-
He was laying into the ground with bloodied fists, struggling as though against an opponent. She scrambled to his aid, aimed sharp kicks where the head of the invisible attacker ought be.
"Get off him! Don't you hurt him!"
Her kicks failed to connect. As he continued fighting, she cautiously went down on hands and knees and felt for his opponent, and her hands passed through air.
Gunn drew to a halt and looked up at her breathing raggedly. "Dead," he said, voice raw, face stretched in horror.
"Dead?" A revelation, as the lost look in his eyes told her she wasn't the one seeing things - or not seeing things - here.
She ran her hands again through the area he stared at so blankly, sifted sand through her fingers. Picked two handfuls and let it run out of her palms in rivers. The living wind caught some of it on its way to the ground and abraded it against her skin.
"There's nothing here," she said. "Look. Just dust. It wasn't real. Come with me, please, we have to find our way."
She let the last of the dust trickle away and stood. Held her hands out to him, for all the use her strength would be in heaving his tall frame upright if it didn't want to cooperate.
"He wasn't real?"
"No. I don't think anything here is. You haven't hurt anybody."
"Nuh-uh. Doesn't matter. He's still dead. The others, too. It doesn't matter whether they were real or not, 'cause they were real to me when I killed them."
He was on his feet now, but backing away from her. "You need to stay away from me, girl. You need to. There ain't nothing I do but kill. Sticking with me is the best way to get yourself made a corpse."
"You know that's not true." She leaned forward to grip his shoulders, held on tight when he flinched back. Another name broke free of the morass in her brain. "Charles. Charles... you have to believe me. You're a good man. You wouldn't hurt me."
She remembered saying those words to somebody else, who'd gone on to prove her wrong, and bit her lip to stop the thought running out of her mouth.
He was staring at her, blinking as though really seeing her for the first time. "Fred?"
"Yes!" She jumped in excitement. She'd known she had a name, for all that she'd lost it again in this place. She hugged him for giving it back to her. "Yes, it's Fred, Charles, it's Fred!"
He was laughing with a strained wonder, and the sanity was beginning to return to his eyes. Fred loosed her grip to lean back and take in a better view of his face.
"It's this place. It tricks you and it gets into your head but it's not real. You have to remember that it's not real and then we'll be all right. Whatever it tricked you into thinking, you have to not think about that, okay? Okay?"
"Fred, you-" She saw the edges of his smile fall. "Oh, man, no. You - what did this place do to you?"
"What?" She heard her voice shrink and then her throat swallowed it up completely and she looked down at herself, clad in rags, lifted a hand to her face and remembered she'd had glasses there but they weren't there anymore, which explained why the world was blurry...
She felt his hands on the side of her face and he lifted her head up. She tried to smile at him. It came out wrong. Her thoughts broke loose and followed. "No, no, no, no... I - I'm crazy, aren't I? I'm crazy again and you don't love me any more now I'm crazy. And I mean, that's okay, 'cause who would, and I can't blame you for that..."
She felt him stiffen through the contact of his warm palms. "Damn it, Fred. 'Course I do. I love you crazy, I love all of you, no matter what. It doesn't matter."
"Really? I mean, would you still love me if I had no arms or legs?" She squinted at him, curious at this declaration.
"Baby, I'd love you if you were a brain in a jar."
She giggled as her crazy brain in her head dug up the memory of that movie. "You really mean that?"
"Sure I do. No matter what. And things'll get better, just like they did before. I already know how strong you are. You gonna be all right?"
She nodded brightly. "Are we escaping?"
"Yeah," he said. "We're getting out of here. We're gonna go find that bastard Wesley and make him get us the hell back to LA."
Connor was following him, slashed throat gaping to expose muscle and cartilage, sometimes an infant crawling impossibly on limbs not developed enough, sometimes that wild teenage boy, sometimes other ages in between, a multitude of small children feral from the hell dimension where he'd consigned them.
Sometimes he blinked and it wasn't Connor, it was Faith, another child of the dark, her eyes like holes and a shard of glass in her hand, gripped tight enough to drip her own blood onto the dust floor. The blood faded away upon landing.
And sometimes it wasn't Connor or Faith. Should he even wonder why all the worst horrors of his life seemed to revolve around these spectres of damaged childhood?
Wesley knew how this place worked, knew that Connor and Faith and that other small boy weren't real, understood the forces that manifested them. It didn't mean they didn't bother him, but - he, of all of them, had to maintain some measure of control in this place. He had the knowledge, knew the rules, knew the theory that might take them home. He suspected the darkness in him ran too deep to permit this dimension full reign over it. He couldn't afford to let go.
It had taken too long as it was to fight free. If the others had also been transported, they could already be lost by now.
She was curled in on herself, head buried, arms around her knees. Huddled, rocking back and forth, back and forth. Her hair was in disarray, all trace of style gone. Her neat skirt had become a garment with all the elegance of a grey sack and was scrunched up by her posture, revealing a slice of buttock with a distractingly ugly red weal branded across it. He only recognised her by the process of elimination that confirmed she was certainly neither Gunn nor Fred.
She seemed not to hear him repeat her name.
Wesley knelt and firmly untangled her arms, caught her head between his hands and lifted it. "Li-"
She was just as unrecognisable when he could see her face. It was swollen, bruises darkening her flesh, one eye shut.
She reached out shaking fingers and dug them into his arms, pushing him away. The noise that crawled up out of her throat could only be called a whimper. Her terror of his touch was unmistakable.
He had ice water in his veins, but that touch felt like it was burning him, hot and fierce as a homemade flame-thrower cobbled together from lighter and aerosol spray, and he tried to drop his hold, but she in turn was trying so hard to push him away he couldn't extract himself from her grip.
The terror, the bruises, and he was almost sure he'd been caught up again, all this far too near to the stuff of his own nightmares. Almost sure. It would have been more convincing had it been anyone but Lilah.
"Lilah," he snapped. He couldn't slap her to bring her out of it. That would hardly help, even if there had been any patch on her where he could do that without causing her undue pain. "Lilah! It's Wesley. Whatever it is you've experienced in this place, it wasn't real. It isn't real, none of it. You and me and quite possibly Winifred and Gunn are the only real things here. You have to snap out of it. Can you hear me? It's Wesley. Wesley. You remember, your favourite pet project?"
The expression on her ruined face didn't change visibly, but the pressure of her fingers on his arm stopped trying to push him away and became a desperate, possessive clutch.
For a long moment she just clutched, and breathed, and he counted the rasps of her breath.
Then she said, "Wesley?"
Then she said, "Oh, my God."
And abruptly his arms were full of desperately clinging lawyer, the pressure of her grip creating bands of pain across his chest and back where he'd had his own old scars reopened, too many to count.
She was real, in the midst of this nightmare place, so he held her tightly in return and ignored the pain. She sobbed into his bloody and tattered shirt, and he remembered how once he had held Fred like this, in the midst of danger.
But Lilah was not Fred and after a moment her torn-out emotion silenced, he felt the familiar poise creep back into her form, and she raised her head, loosened her vice-grip a little.
Her eyes flashed with anger and her face was hard under the battered mask. "We have to get out of this fucking place," she said. She looked him up and down. "What the hell happened to you?"
"You did, in a way." He was unable to hold back the sarcasm as that particular connection struck him. "You sent her after Angel, after all, two years ago. I suppose it was more than a little irritating for you when you realised someone else caught the brunt of her aggression."
"The rogue slayer?" A smile touched the edge of Lilah's mouth, until a wince wiped it off again. She shrugged one shoulder daintily. "Nothing personal, Wesley. Bygones, right?"
He glared, too raw to accept her dismissal of it. She should realise how little he too liked being forced play the victim, even if he had been typecast in the role. "So. What happened here?" He traced a finger lightly - but not too lightly - down her swollen cheek, and watched her flinch.
"The day I tell you that, they'll be serving up ice-cream treats in Hell," she said viciously, shoving him away.
"We shouldn't lose each other," he cautioned dryly to her back. "Alone, we could easily get caught up in the visions again. Once our spirits and bodies are broken down, there'll be nothing but the battered threads of our souls left to drift in this place for eternity."
"Right." She reluctantly moved back in close, her shoulder to his. "So how do we get out of here? We can get out of here, right?"
"Yeah, Wes," a voice behind him said with grim joviality. "How do we get outta here? You want to share, bro?"
Remembering herself in bursts since she'd found Charles, Fred had recalled enough to be taken aback by the way Wesley spun at the sound of Gunn's voice and took an automatic step that placed him in front of Lilah; to gape at the protective vibe that was muted but undeniably there. She wasn't sure why she felt the twinge of betrayal, when Wesley had been lost to them for months now, and this didn't change anything.
Lilah's bark of laughter jarred the not-quite-air and Fred could imagine her throwing a wink over Wesley's shoulder... except her face was in no condition to do so. Fred gasped as details registered, taking the form of bruises and cuts, reddening swellings with knuckle marks she could pick out if she stared close enough...
"What happened to the two of you?" Gunn asked the question that hadn't yet made its way to her own lips, his grim facade shaken, his sure strides faltered, his hand clenched around the handle of his axe like any minute his strength could snap it in two.
Wesley might look like someone had beaten him within an inch of his life, but he was also as stern and wound-up as Fred had ever seen him. His eyes fixed on Gunn and the raspy thread Justine's knife had made of his voice coiled through the air. "So you're willing to let necessity overrule your thirst to spill my blood?"
"Yeah, well, call us crazy but me and my girl don't reckon much to this place. Nightlife sucks, fast food's rubbish too. Can't find a Taco Bell for blocks, and you know how it is, dietary essentials and all that. So we'd kinda like to get back to LA. Figured you being the guy with the brain and the books and all, you might just know how."
Wesley's smile was forced past the contusions on his jaw and stretched and bled the cut along the line of his cheekbone. "Hallucinations of times past starting to wear on your troubled psyche?"
"Says the man who looks like all kinds of shit."
"I think we both know the worst horrors aren't physical."
He said the words with conviction but the hollowness in his eyes spoke loud enough to her that he knew as she did it wasn't strictly true. All horrors started with the physical. What they could do to you. They could lock you up in darkness, hit you, hunt you, back you into living life inside a cave, make you afraid, make you push back the borders of what you were willing to do to survive, make you a monster. Her own madness pressed in from outside, cost of keeping the body alive in Pylea.
She noticed Gunn still flinched. Watched him stiffen, the muscles of his face bunch up in anger. Saw the gathering retaliation.
"Don't," she blurted.
Three pairs of eyes turned her way. She shifted nervously and edged closer to Charles.
"We don't want to do this." She tried again; the mediator, the voice of reason, the role that had become hers if she could remember how to do it. She'd never have imagined, back when she wondered what her place could be in an Angel Investigations so complete without her, that it would be for her to stand as the shield in the rifts between them. She dredged reserves provided by fear to strengthen her voice. "We really don't. The fighting, the arguing, the trade-off of insults, but especially not the fighting. We need to get out of here. All of us-"
"We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for your meddling." Lilah pushed Wesley aside, anger radiating from her. She pulled herself straight and tall to face them, a posture brittle with pain. Her voice was darkened by the hate her battered face lacked the mobility to express. "If you hadn't interfered, I... we wouldn't have had..." She choked. "This was an act of intervention to preserve the city of Los Angeles, which since it would've been wiped out of existence if we'd got there ten minutes later ought to be pretty fucking grateful. Including you and your little band of do-gooders."
"It won't help," Wesley interrupted wearily. The commanding quality of his tone and stance was achingly familiar even if the hand rested on Lilah Morgan's shoulder was not. "Fred's right. There's nothing to be gained by arguing. We're not each other's principal enemy here. Rather, we may be each other's best chance of escaping intact. You've experienced the power of this dimension. Alone, we're vulnerable to it. It will drag up the worst experiences in our past, the most terrible things we can imagine ourselves perpetrating or having inflicted upon us, in short those things that bring us nearest to despair. The less alone we are, the less vulnerable we are. And the more chance we have to formulate a plan to get out of here."
"That's sweet." Lilah hooked her nails into Wesley's arm as though punishing his gesture of comfort. "Real nice. But you and me, we don't need them. We can spot for each other. Admit it, Wes, it'll be a hell of a kick to leave them here after the way they treated you. Abandoned you when you were hurt, left you all alone - except for me."
"You b... That isn't true. He was our friend-"
"Fred, don't." Charles' hand curled around her waist to hold her back. "You heard the man. 'Sides, she's not worth it. You might catch something touching her."
"He was our friend," Fred repeated, hugging the arm around her waist with both her own. She couldn't remember ever hating anyone quite so much as Lilah, then, as the lawyer tipped her head and half-smirked. "He betrayed Angel. Betrayed us. But we might've... it didn't have to be like this. If he'd let us we might've been able to talk Angel round eventually, given him another chance. He... you..." Her eyes drifted to Wesley's. "You never let us."
"Instead he closes himself off, makes it clear he's all over with us, starts shacking up with the skanky ho lawyer enemy." Gunn wasn't talking to Lilah either. "How are we supposed to act, huh?"
Wesley's expression was bleak and his hatred apparently for everyone present. After a moment he settled it on Lilah. "Nobody gets left behind."
Fred's breath caught.
And Wesley's mouth twisted, grimly calculating. "It's far too likely that the energy drain from its victims increases the reality of this dimension in some manner and strengthens its power. I hardly need tell you we don't want to do that."
He didn't feel anything, crushing Fred's hopes. Without emotion, he observed the way her gaze and the corners of her mouth fell. Maybe he felt the smallest trace of intermingled sadness and satisfaction to see her learn he too could withhold the power of forgiveness.
Stretched in a tug-of-war between Lilah's showy possessiveness and Gunn and Fred's guilty enmity, Wesley strove to steer his thoughts along the path of reason. There were three people looking to him for answers. Four souls, including his own, to wrest from an almost very literal hell, and even if one was Lilah Morgan and the others people he could hardly bear the sight of anymore, he'd long been a soldier in the fight against evil. Had the reflexes of one still.
And even if a cold voice in his head persisted its whispering that not one of them mattered, he had to get out of this place.
He could see how the others had been marked by it. In the lingering madness in Fred's eyes, that had taken so long to leave the first time. In the way Gunn held his axe close to his side, uncertainty where there had earlier been deadly threat. In Lilah's fury, which spoke of how little she liked being the victim this place had made of her - and yes, he could relate, but it wasn't the worst of his fears.
Fred was staring at him again. "We did try," she insisted, her voice rising. She cast a guilty glance back to Gunn. "I tried. I wouldn't... I wouldn't want you lost. Wesley, you were our friend."
A new wave of blankness broke over him, and he felt his lips creep into a grin, crushed over grit teeth. "Yes, but wasn't I convenient gone?" He shifted his smile between the two of them, noticing the way they moved together, Fred's hand on Gunn's arm. He wiped expression from his face. "We can work together for survival. We need to. But we're not friends."
Gunn scowled. "You're telling us. That's rich, man."
He could have sworn Fred's eyes glittered with moisture as she blinked them closed.
"This is all very touching." Lilah's hand crept up to his neck and he barely managed to minimalise the flinch as she ran her fingernails along his scar. "Not to mention genuinely... pathetic. But we did have a subject - say, our current thorny trapped-in-a-hell-dimension problem - if anyone feels like returning to it anytime soon."
In Fred and Gunn's presence, he resisted the impulse to slap her hand away, but failed to keep the irritation from his clipped, "Precisely." He paused, thinking hard, skin crawling under Lilah's caress and conscious of Fred's appalled fascination upon his neck. He pulled out the photocopied scrolls - the originals, he presumed, still lay where they'd dropped in the library - and unfolded them, trying to concentrate on the fuzzily reproduced text and not the delicate trembling of the paper.
Thought came sluggishly - pain was never much of an aid to reasoning - but it came. After long moments, he crushed the papers in his fists and thrust the crumpled mass back inside his jacket.
He stared apprehensively out across the barren vista of the landscape.
"What the hell now?" Gunn asked.
"I'm not sure we're alone."
Fred made a small noise like a whimper and Gunn pulled her close enough that his body echoed the shiver of hers through the embrace. His grip on the axe shifted to something more resembling action-ready. "We've been trawling all over this place, and we've seen nothing. No demons, no minions, just freaky creepy hallucination vision shit. Wesley, there's nothing here."
"No," he agreed. "Not as such. The wording of the scrolls, however, would seem to suggest this place is host to some form of demonic entity."
"You want to quit with the head games, man, and tell us what you're getting at?"
"Oh, please." Lilah's voice dripped sarcasm like poisoned honey and her fingers continued to trail up and down Wesley's neck. He continued to tolerate it for the disgusted disbelief in Gunn's eyes. "The demon's incorporeal."
"'The Temple of Ashes will be called down upon the Appointed Place, and despair itself will walk the Earth and feed upon the souls of humankind'," Wesley quoted. "Despair itself."
Fred was staring very intently into a none-too-well-defined distance, her lips moving a little, and watching her he had the feeling whatever was left of her scientist's brain had made the connections before he had himself. "I can feel it," she said in a thread of a voice further muffled by the perplexed twist of her mouth and the teeth sunk hard in her lip. "It's watching, and... and I thought, before, it seemed as though there was an intelligence directing the visions."
"Huh?" Lilah said.
"Madness... alters the perceptions. I suppose it's possible she really can sense something," Wesley murmured.
Fred broke Gunn's embrace and sank down on her knees. Her fingers drew symbols and numbers in the dust, among swirls and lines and stick figures that couldn't be a part of any sane equation. Under her breath, a tirade of mutterings too quiet to hear. Abruptly her fingers paused and she said, distinctly, "The demon... this dimension... the whole 'manifestation of despair' thing. The - the things we experienced. We're in the mind of a demon."
Wesley grimaced. "Thank you, Fred, for phrasing that in perhaps the most terrifying manner possible."
"She's right, though, isn't she?" Lilah stood back, folding her arms across her chest. "It doesn't live in this dimension. It is this dimension."
He rubbed his neck, which itched where her nails had travelled.
"After a fashion, yes, although I'd probably not dramatise it in precisely those words. But the scrolls - the copies - suggest the entity and the place to be intrinsically linked. I fear this also means that the demon itself is probably the key."
"Key?" Gunn asked. Having to rely on the enemy for explanation was drawing his face into mean lines normally reserved for the vampires he fought.
"The key, the key..." Fred mused. Then, as her hands dashed through the pictures she'd drawn, eradicating them before they could fade, she concluded, "Of course! The key to get home. This place... you said it yourself, we've been walking around for years... hours... well, however long we've been walking around, we've seen enough of this dimension to know there's no variation. I think... I think we'd never find anything more here than we've already seen, however long we looked. It's... it's just backdrop. It's not real. It's not important. Concepts like time and space and distance, they don't apply. This isn't our reality. Our brains only process it in terms anything like familiar because it's the only way they can process it at all."
"The mind of a demon," Lilah echoed.
"Yes! Other than ourselves, the demon is the only thing here that's really real. If there is a way back, the answer can only lie with the demon itself."
"Alright, so I understood maybe a coupla words in there somewhere," Gunn said. "Now can someone explain how this helps us get home?"
"Maybe it doesn't," Lilah said. "Maybe you get to die horribly knowing you sent all of us including your little girlfriend to Hell, and this dimension gets to eat your soul. And then at least there'll be one part of this that makes for a happy ending." She glanced nastily at Fred. "Two parts."
"Stop it, Lilah," Wesley said. "It's not hopeless. I think there could be a way."
"Then spill. Now."
"We've each already resisted this place's principal power; we all now have some measure of immunity. It may be that our transferral to this dimension has granted us more strength here than we would have if the ritual had succeeded and this reality was transplanted into ours. I don't for a moment imagine we could've had the escapes we've had if things were running as intended. We're an anomaly, don't you see? We were never meant to come to this place. We aren't powerless here."
He dragged his foot violently through the dust; a mockery of Fred's daubs.
"We've felt it affect us - what if it goes both ways? It's very likely that we are affecting this place in return. Our presence could be throwing off some crucial balance, and if that's the case our presence is a problem this dimension's controlling intelligence must address. We've already proven it can't do that with the hallucinations, certainly not in the short-term, and who knows how long it could last? As far as I've been able to determine, so long as we're here we have no need for sleep or sustenance. We could exist for a long, long time before we succumbed."
"The status quo can't hold," Fred said. She chewed at her finger, then sank it into the dust again. Four stick figures appeared in its trail.
"Our presence here long-term could cause untold damage," Wesley added. He narrowed his eyes at the horizon, the shifting dust.
"We're like a butterfly." Fred raked jagged lines through the stick figures. "Chaos."
"Mort would be delighted," Lilah snarked.
Dust shifted meaninglessly between Wesley and the horizon. He let out the breath he hadn't registered holding and glanced down to the ground as it wiped away Fred's equations.
He looked up again when he heard Gunn's choked exclamation.
"Wesley?" An ironic grin bent Lilah's swollen lips out of shape. "Whatever this entity is that occupies this dimension - I think you gave it ideas."
He bit down hard on his own smile as he turned around.
Lilah watched the dust collect, blackening as it thickened in the air, its eddies and swirls resolving into a shape made larger and more distinct as further material gathered into it. For a moment before it coalesced, she thought she saw something spherical, shimmering and black at the centre of the maelstrom. Then the entity of air and dust reached a state resembling solidity, though little gales continued to rage across the surface of its form.
She tore her eyes from it long enough to rub the life back into her cricking neck and gauge the reactions of her happy band of enemies.
Charles Gunn's face was grim and his knuckles white, a warrior anticipating hell of a fight on his hands (God, these action-hero types, she really could just drop them all off the nearest cliff). The Texan girl was doing an applaudable impression of a goldfish. Wesley was looking sour and focused and there, at least, things were pretty much as normal.
"Damn," Gunn said, drawing the word out into two long syllables, as the demon loomed and stretched. "It's no wonder you don't manifest that ugly face until you really have to."
An abrasive hiss of wind-blown particles answered the remark.
"Gunn," Wesley said warningly.
The Texan, Fred, had produced a knife from somewhere and Gunn was hefting his axe with intent, although both of them looked somewhat dubious about the weapons' effectiveness against a dust demon.
Lilah stepped forward, waving them aside with a sneer. "Let me handle this."
"What you gonna do, negotiate with it?" Gunn asked.
"Negotiation is always possible." She halted several cautious feet from the demon and tried to look businesslike and respectful in place of pissed, hurting and scared out of her mind. "Lilah Morgan, Wolfram and Hart. You'll have heard of us." She hesitated, then uttered the firm's other name, sneaking an assessing glance around the outsiders present. They were staring at her, Wesley sharply. Well, she hadn't really expected him not to know.
The huge, featureless head shifted angle. In the tornadoes of its eyes there was no alteration in colour or spark of reflected light to signal the focus of its glare, but she knew it was looking at her, and had to suppress a shiver, trying not to wonder how deep below the skin it saw.
//Can it be the day has finally come?// Its voice was the hiss of wind-blown dust, the crack of trees being felled, and bypassed her ears to go direct to her brain, burning its path through in a psychic invasion that felt as much a violation as Gavin's Billy-influenced touch. //The day I walk among men and devour their souls?//
"Ah - sorry, no. False alarm," Lilah supplied. "But, hey, not long now. Keep that chin up."
A spike through her brain affirmed the truth behind the flippancy. The demon's anger reverberated in her thoughts and shook ground and pillars and sky.
She swallowed; regarded the sky with edgy suspicion. "A mistake was made. The Gate was taken, by interlopers intending to use it contrary to prophecy. Our task was to reclaim it and return it to its correct place until the proper time. Its opening was accidental."
//I had not thought your people tolerant of accidents.//
She grimaced. "I'm sure they'll demonstrate their displeasure adequately when I return. Which brings me rather to my point - we must return to our dimension to preserve the integrity of the Gate until the time for its opening. I appeal to you to facilitate our passage."
A hissing of sifting sand, grains abrading grains. Pinpricks of fear all over her skin.
"The lady's right." A dark, quick voice from beside her. She felt the warmth of his body across the inches of air separating them. "It would seem in your favour to help us return. The Naminore - the Gate - should to be taken back to those who would use it correctly. Or it could be lost again, and it could be many more years before you'd be summoned to the world."
//Events will unfold as prophecy dictates. Your return will not alter that. It is a long time since I was able to inflict torment on mortal souls. You will succumb, once separated, once injured. In this form, you will not evade my power.//
Lilah wasn't sure who'd moved, maybe they both had, but she was abruptly aware she and Wesley were pressed close against each other.
"Hey, if it's souls you want, you can have them," she said. She pointed to Gunn and Fred. "I don't include them in my petition. In fact, consider them a gift from Wolfram and Hart, a little advance taster."
The swift commotion behind her made her smile.
"Lilah," Wesley snapped.
She narrowed her eyes and stepped away from him. "And, you know what? Strictly speaking, I'm not petitioning for him, either. He's not part of the firm yet, his soul's for the taking. If you know anything about my people, you know mine was signed away years ago."
"It's true," Wesley muttered with nasty sarcasm. "Wolfram and Hart keep it locked in a box in the basement."
Standing stiffly between Wesley's anger and the demon's amusement, she challenged, "Well?" and was infuriated when the query shivered on her lips.
//The quality of your despair is too delicious, even in a used soul, to let slip from my grasp. I will keep it and drink it.//
"Hey! No. We're on the same side-" Lilah broke off, shaking as she felt the demon focus on her. She closed her eyes, but still knew who was standing before her even as she knew they weren't; recognised the sound of her breathing, the scent of the cheap perfume she'd worn, back when she was younger and disapproved and remembered.
Hands clamped on her shoulders and shook her, not gently. A hard voice next to her ear said, "Leave her alone," though she could tell Wesley really didn't want to be defending her.
She forced her eyes open again. The demon's influence had departed. It's attention was on Wesley. Lilah elbowed him hard as he swayed and, despite all evidence to the impossibility of such, the demon managed to look put out.
//Clever morsel, I barely scratch your surface. So much darkness, nobody and nothing in your life you didn't betray.//
She had an instant in which to disbelieve she'd actually heard that, before a scatter of angry particles burst from the demon's body to surge out in a blast of wind and vertigo that had her turning in the air then slamming down in an impact cushioned by another body that groaned under her.
She dizzily heard Charles Gunn's voice, from about half a mile away. "Y'know, dog, I guess you and me are gonna get along a whole lot better than I thought. 'Cause, damn, I've been wanting to do that all day."
Blinking dust from her eyes, she caught a hazy upside-down view of Gunn standing like some vampire-hunter action figure before the now-reconstituted demon.
"Lilah." Wesley shifted beneath her weight.
She gripped her arms 'round him, keeping him down. "Let Gung-ho over there handle things a minute. It's his turn."
He curled his fingers around her wrists. This place had left no strength behind his grip, though there was plenty in his glare.
She tried to smile. "Oh, about all that? Sorry, but... well, you know what I am."
"I know," he rasped. He shoved her clear. Her face hit ground, she jerked back up spluttering dust and fury. Turned on him angrily.
On hands and knees in the dust, face smeared with the black of bruises and grime, he'd torn the scrolls from his jacket again, and leafed through them now with oblivious trembling hands that rent the paper in his haste. "I've seen it," he said, raising his head to meet her stare. "The key... I know what it is... now we just need to get to it."
"Wes?" she said uncertainly, hollowness inside her as she wondered if this dimension had driven him as mad as it had Fred Burkle.
"We need to get to it." The desperate force in his voice did nothing to ease her fears. "In the ritual... at the core of the ritual, is a spell to make despair - this demon - physically manifest. Of course, it's intended to be performed in our reality and to quite different purpose. But here, with a few adjustments... it may just give us a chance to fight our way out of this."
"So you've got your own hell dimension," Gunn said. "Can't say you've decorated to my taste but, hey, must be cool."
He twirled the axe. This thing wasn't going to take him down easily as it had Wes and lawyer-bitch. He grimaced at the sight of them huddled together where they'd been thrown, either too damaged to get back up and fight or just happy to leave it to him.
He knew Fred was a few steps behind him to the right, her knife in her hand, habitually giving him space to wield his axe. They'd had to fight together way too much since everyone else vanished. Not that there was anyone in the world he trusted as much with his back, not anymore, but the last thing he wanted was for her to get killed for having his back. And fighting this thing - well, there was a good chance they were both going to get killed.
It wasn't new, the knowledge that after getting out of this alive, getting killed was the next best option. He had no illusions what would happen to them if they were trapped. No illusions either that he'd have to make sure Fred died cleanly.
Gunn flinched back from the memory of killing Alonna to save her but, yeah, he'd done it before, he would do it again, no matter how the act exacerbated wounds already scratched open and raw by this place.
//You taint my realm with the stink of love.// The demon's voice in his head exuded disgust, and Gunn couldn't rein in his bark of laughter.
Love. Affirmation out of the mouth of a damn demon. Love.
With a lump in his throat, an electric spark in his chest, and a rushing, giddy cascade through his head, he almost missed the quick motion of Wesley's hand trying to catch his attention. With recognition of the gesture came another jolt, one less pleasant than the last.
Distraction, it meant, in a code he hadn't seen in a while because Fred wasn't yet enough into the physical side of fighting to share it, and Angel had never needed an equal partner to rely upon in tag-teaming a demon to defeat.
He looked hard at Wesley; at the papers spread out around him, at Lilah by his side and craning over his shoulder.
"That really sucks for you, huh?" He tucked Fred under one arm in an exaggerated embrace, feeling her nervous amusement through their contact as he taunted the demon. "So if Fred and me start smooching, is your ugly ass gonna vanish in a puff of smoke?"
A feral hiss of dust and a pause like thinking. He shouted out a curse and almost dropped the axe as he felt the contents of his head rifled, memories picked over and discarded. //But I see a price, a darkness, another treachery. A fine circle of traitors you all make.//
Gunn bit his lip so hard his teeth almost connected through it.
"Sometimes things can't be helped. Sometimes you can't not..." he began defensively. Realised he was explaining himself to a damn demon and, worse, to Wesley listening on, and anger dashed guilt aside.
Beyond the demon, he became aware of Wesley repeating the previous signal, more urgently than before.
Well, if a distraction was what he wanted-
Gunn hurled the axe at the demon's head, ducked and rolled, taking Fred down with him, narrowly avoiding another attack the likes of the one that'd downed Lilah and Wesley. He was aware as he moved that a voice had risen above the noise of shifting dust and his own blood loud in his ears. More chanting, a lot like the ritual's chants although he couldn't say he knew the stuff well enough to pin it for sure. Gunn seized up his axe - it'd passed right through the demon, dust reforming ranks again after it - as he came to a halt and rolled back onto his feet to face the creature.
"Hey, ugly - pay attention, damn it, or I swear I'll be back here with a dustbuster to hoover your ass."
Trouble with trying to fight psychic scary-ass hell demons, it was helluva job to trick the fuckers.
"Protect Wesley!" he shouted across to Fred, with dismay at hearing those words leave his lips. He ran to join her blocking off the demon's path to Wes, who clutched papers to himself amid his own personal tornado, and they took on the brunt of the dust storm to shield their former comrade. He snaked his arm through Fred's to keep her on her feet, and raised the useless axe.
Wesley shouted a final syllable as they were scattered to the winds.
Something changed as he was lying dazed, trying to scrape together a thought. The noise of the shifting dust, ever-present since they'd arrived in this place, had vanished leaving uncanny silence in its wake. Gunn raised his head and fought dizziness to watch whatever Wesley had done take effect on the demon.
The dust that formed its body mass was solidifying, the eddies of its skin sluggish and slowing ever more. It threw back its head and howled, and it's agony tore through Gunn's mind. He saw the others wince and fall back in the midst of picking themselves up.
"It's physical now." Wesley's spell seemed to have wrung dry the last of his reserves, but he managed to raise his eyes to Gunn's. "You can fight it."
He didn't need telling twice. He forced his reluctant body into action, surging to his feet, coming up from the side to hack at the demon's neck. It was like trying to hack into stone, though at least it marked, rocky splinters spraying out, the 'flesh' more crumbly beneath the tough skin.
The demon, still a long way from helpless, dragged a claw down his arm when it swung in retaliation, and then Fred was darting in on its other side, embedding her knife into the joint of an elbow in a carefully placed two-handed stab. She'd put so much strength behind the blade it sank to the hilt and she lost her grip on it and fell when the demon drew its arm back.
But the limb sagged and Gunn was learning it a lot, lately, that winning wasn't always about how strong or how quick.
Not that those things didn't also help.
"Fred!" A clumsy lunge with the axe only just kept the claws at bay. Weapon raised defensively, eyes upon the demon, Gunn leaned down and snatched Fred up.
"You all right?" He couldn't afford to look at her.
"I'm good." A concerned touch trailed down his cut shoulder. "But you're bleeding."
"It's nothing." That wasn't entirely true. The cut smarted enough to distract, and bled enough that it'd be slowing him down before long. The fact it wasn't a serious wound didn't mean it wouldn't kill him. "I'm good too, baby."
Gunn plunged back in. The demon deflected the axe harmlessly, and delivered back at him a swipe that might've knocked his head clean off his shoulders had it connected. The back-swing caught him in the ribs hard enough to knock his breath away. Weaponless, Fred darted in and snatched its arm, clinging onto the handle of the knife still embedded there. Her expression sick but determined, she twisted. The demon plucked her off and tossed her aside. Gunn's heart ceased to function, but then he heard a shrill, angry yelp and risked a glance that confirmed she'd landed safely - on Lilah.
But he'd been bought enough time to recover, and the demon was thrashing, distracted and in pain. Gunn chose his target and hurled the axe hard as he could. The blade sank in, half-severing its leg, and he ran forward, retrieving the axe and striking to finish the job even as the demon toppled.
"No! You mustn't destroy the heart-"
Wesley. Staggering, half-falling on hands and knees, lurching up again, sagging down. Blood over half his face from the cut on his cheek and what looked like the granddaddy of all nosebleeds.
His lunge knocked Gunn sprawling and dragged short the axe blow, though the blade still cut deep enough to spill blood black like oil from a gaping hole in the demon's chest. It twitched, not dead, not dying, and what in the hell did Wes think he was-
Wesley plunged his red-stained hand into the wound. Words exploded from his lips as his fingers reached deep... deep enough to connect with the demon's heart. His other hand, flailing, snapped up Lilah's wrist. He yelled, "Fred! Gunn!"
Something like desperation in his roughened voice.
A familiar darkness was beginning to spiral out from the demon's chest.
"Shit." Gunn grabbed for Fred's extended hand, saw her in turn reach out to Lilah.
Who laughed and pulled away.
The world was fast being enveloped in a spiral of darkness. He thought he still had Fred's hand fast in his, but amid the confusion it was hard to tell. Nerve messages weren't clear, vision was screwy, and he could hear Wesley-
Shouting. And Fred, sounding almost as angry as he.
The tiles of the floor rose up to greet her. Hard.
A skinny warm body thudded on top of her an instant later and Lilah rolled side, shoving, swearing and wrenching her wrist loose from the smaller woman's death-grip. The little red marks from her nails were almost invisible among the rest of the bruises, but made up for their physical inconsequentiality in irritation.
But she was in the library, she was back in her own world, she was out of that place, and suddenly a lot of the rest of her problems were looking considerably smaller than she'd ever imagined they could.
She got one foot under her, heel see-sawing with her legs' unsteadiness; the other foot then and she was standing, after a fashion. Her hand shot out to the nearest shelf to prevent her falling.
Wesley was several feet away. He'd got as far as hands and knees but now crouched, pale and shaking, his breathing audible. The look he was aiming at her wouldn't seem to indicate him eager to accept her help. She turned-
Behind her, an arching, glowing rent grinned out of the air. Several yards across and four feet off the level of the library floor, cutting just above Chaney's makeshift altar, its curled up ends mocking. Underneath it, Charles Gunn and Winifred Burkle were helping each other up and backing away, heads ducked to avoid the tear in reality.
"What the hell?" Gunn said, emerging into safety, pulling Fred the rest of the way after him and into a protective embrace. "We did that?"
He looked accusingly to Lilah and Wesley when he said it, but it was his little girlfriend who answered. "I think we did. It can't be good. I'm pretty sure that's not supposed to happen."
"No." Wesley stood leaning on a small work table, which creaked and threatened to buckle. "But hopefully it isn't immediately dangerous. It will still need to be closed as soon as possible, however."
Lilah nodded. "Plus, a cleanup team to get rid of the bodies, slime, and illegal weaponry. Yeah, I'll call my people." She patted down her suit, looking for the phone that wasn't there. Bent to search the bodies of Chaney's men, fighting dizziness, until she retrieved an only slightly blood-dashed cellphone that responded when she poked the keys.
"Hold it a damn minute," Gunn said, narrow-eyed.
"What? You're going to threaten me again? With what? You left your big shiny axe in the hell dimension."
"How 'bout my fist?"
"Been there. Done that." She pushed in the number and waited, bored, while it rang. Wondered idly how many people were staffing the offices and how many had cleared out of the city while she risked her neck.
Wesley said sharply, "She's doing exactly what needs to be done. We don't have the resources left to close the rift ourselves, but somebody must. We can hardly leave it there for the public to gawp over."
"He's right." Fred restrained her man of action with her small hand on his arm, and her fragile fingers halted him as though she possessed the strength of a Slayer. "I... We can't leave it as it is to let other people get sucked into that place."
Somebody finally picked up her call and she informed them of the situation and told them to dig up Linwood if he was still in the country, then tossed the phone aside. Wondered, irritably, whether it was worth searching for her own or admit the likelihood the demon would be occupying itself playing with the thing for the next few years it waited to make its big debut.
Looking among the disarray on the floor, she spotted instead the ornate carved box that had acted as a container for the Naminore. She picked it up and examined it for damage. It seemed unharmed, and she glanced at Wesley, who grimaced understanding and pulled off his jacket. He gingerly moved to wrap the garment around the orb.
Gunn's head snapped up. His gaze could've reduced them both to ashes. "Whoa, now. Tell me you're not just gonna return that thing to Wolfram and Hart?"
Wesley raised his eyes, shadowed to dark holes in his face. Lilah flinched back, for an instant genuinely fearing the air between the two men would combust.
But this... this was a supremely promising development.
"I beg to differ." Wesley's hands tightened on the Naminore as he picked it up, and her blood sang with the sweetness of success. "That's rather what I was paid to do."
That's rather what I was paid to do. Gunn heard it, but he didn't quite believe it, in spite of everything. He knew a guy was capable of doing bad things out of anger - hell, he knew it too well. Knew that Wesley had been angry and maybe he'd had the right of that, just a little, because it was true enough he'd betrayed them but they'd still handled it badly. That, he understood, like he understood that the feelings he had for his former friend were more complex than the simple hatred and betrayal he'd been trying to box them into.
What he didn't understand was Wesley standing there telling them he was ready to betray the mission to Wolfram and Hart for money.
"You can't mean that." Fred said, before he could.
Let the bitch smile - she hadn't seen what he had. He backed away, keeping the movement low-key, unthreatening; bent down to the crossbow Fred must've lost in the earlier fight; slipped the discarded bolt into place and sprang up, pointing the loaded weapon-
No... Hellish visions surged through his brain, memories of what he'd done in that place, what he was capable of. He switched his aim to Lilah, hoping the move appeared smoother than it felt, hoping they hadn't seen him flinch. His voice came out hard. "You care about whether this bitch gets some pretty damn fatal acupuncture, you'll hand over the bauble."
He felt Fred's eyes on him. There was no accusation there, only resignation. They couldn't allow a powerful magical artefact to fall into the hands of Wolfram and Hart, and he could hardly forget his recent discovery of how far Fred too was willing to go for the mission.
Wesley stared back at him, his expression flat. Gunn knew that feeling, felt its reflection in himself. It sucked his energy, a draining sensation he tried to resist.
They'd fought too often side by side. The mental leap necessary to comprehend fighting each other took a lot out of them both.
Wesley said, "She is a human being, Charles. Living. Breathing. Somewhere, she has a soul. Does that cease to matter because she works for the opposition?"
Gunn noticed how pale Lilah had become. Hadn't realised he was that damn convincing. A voice in his head sneered, way to go, Charles. Terrorising unarmed, beat-up women. But he remembered Angel's empty horror, relating how she'd ordered her people to kill Connor. Cordy, mutilated by killer visions. Angel tricked to feed on the blood of his own son. And he realised he was more than ready to carry through on his threat.
"Compassion, bro? She's not worth it. Wesley, you know what she's done. Some of it to you. Hell, you know whose fault Billy was-"
"Gunn. Don't." Wesley had gone very still.
And it struck Gunn how differently things might've gone without that incident, thinking of the stuff Cordelia had said, slightly tipsy one of those grim evenings after she got back to find everything had come crashing down in her absence. Wesley, and Fred, before he got infected by Billy's blood... Wes had almost asked her, long before Gunn had started to feel these things.
He might never have had her at all... Maybe he'd only ever known what he'd found with Fred because of that incident. He had known only at his friend's expense, and there was anger there too, that it had had to be that way, too easily dragged up by the damn demon. "I don't understand why you care. Even if we're not working together anymore. Lilah Morgan? How can you sink that low?"
"She was all there was. I was alone, and the only one to come to me in anything resembling geniality was the enemy. It wasn't much of a choice - nothing, or her."
The Naminore clutched in his hands, he stepped in front of Lilah, and there could be no mistake, this time, that the move was deliberate. The crossbow in Gunn's grasp lowered, bypassing his brain's permission. He couldn't make his arm raise it again.
Fred left his side to take a cautious few steps closer to Wesley, faint damp streaks on her face glistening when they caught the light.
"I know I messed up when I came to the hospital," she said, her voice a whisper. Gunn blinked. Hospital? "Those things I said, they were the truth, but there were other truths too. Things I didn't say and should have, that you probably needed to hear more than accusations. Like how worried we were, and how long we searched. I needed to see you, but then when I did... I was just so angry.
"But that's not what matters now. You can't give that thing to Wolfram and Hart. There's a prophecy. They'll use it to destroy LA."
"I know." Wesley's face was distant. He cast a furrowed frown at the dimensional breach.
"Actually," Lilah butted in, "The prophecy only says it will be used. It doesn't give any details. We figured it might as well be by us as not. Comes in useful to know you can hold an entire city hostage if things get rough."
Fred ignored her. "Wesley. Please. She isn't all you've got. You still have your soul, and that's important."
"Hmm?" He pulled out of his distraction. His smile was a long way from nice. "I thought you'd already given up on that."
"Please, Wesley," Fred implored. "We can't fight you. Please give us the Naminore. Maybe we can use it for good. I swear we'll try."
Wesley hefted the dark globe. The jacket shifted against it's smooth surface and his grip failed. He recovered it with a flicker of alarm, and shot a glance at Lilah. She started to cross to him, holding the box ready to receive the Naminore.
"I already know what I have to do," he said, and the pitch in his voice and the grin on his face weren't overly indicative of sanity.
He moved. Away from Lilah. Towards the rift. The bundle in his hands braced in a familiar fashion.
Apparently Lilah watched basketball too, because her cry of "No!" rang out even as the connection clicked in his own mind, voiced as a doubtful, "Wes...?"
"Don't," Lilah said. "Wesley, they'll crucify me. You know that."
Gunn, discovering he didn't have too much of a problem, shut up and watched the show.
"I'm sorry." Wes sounded almost like he meant it, though more likely too tired and beat up to muster the appropriate sarcasm. He advanced a further step to the rift.
"You know what power that device has," Lilah snapped. "You've heard the old rumours... well, they're not rumours, Wesley. Don't do this. That power, it could be yours. We could make it part of your permanent contract. Or - or entrust it to your care as an independent agent. Think of it, damn it. You could be a real power. Show them all. The Watchers Council, Angel, your father... Don't throw that away."
Gunn didn't think Lilah would miss the spark of temptation amid the manipulated-and-fully-aware-of-it anger in Wesley's eyes. He thought of this scary new pissed-off Wesley as some kind of super-mage and shuddered.
He wasn't expecting the mingled fear and excitement in the set of Fred's face and the lines of her slim body as she crossed to Wes, pausing a fraction beyond arm's reach. Wesley responded by backing off a step. He flinched as the rip in reality flared up with the Naminore's proximity and for a long moment all that could be seen of Fred was her silhouette against its backdrop. Gunn heard her voice over the furious, almost electrical static of the rift. "She's right. You could use it. You could use it for good! Think of the people you'd be able to help."
Wesley laughed, a cracked sound that didn't contain much mirth. "I never had any overwhelming ambition to be a warlock. No, Fred. You really cannot think that this device, in my hands, could ever be used for good?"
"Yes." Her faith flowed out with the single word, a bridge extended between them.
Wesley crumbled it with a look.
Fred's shoulders slumped, but she wasn't defeated. "Then, let us take it. We never had enough muscle behind us, even with Angel. It was always a case of trying against all hope, expecting to die. You - you worked without him last year, I know you know what it's like. These past weeks with just us... Gunn and me, we don't have the kind of power to keep up the fight alone for long. I... I set out today to die, because I thought it was the only way I could fix this thing right. Worse than die, even." She held out her hands, fingertips falling short of contact with his sleeves. "Wesley. I - I know things aren't right between us, but you know us. What we do. You know we - I - I'll use it well."
Wesley tipped his head to one side, and looked, finally, at Gunn. Gunn bit his lip, nothing to say. He didn't know what Wesley saw in his face that made his decision, but the next instant, the bundle had left his hands.
The rift swallowed it in a blaze of light.
Fred stumbled back, arms dangling helplessly at her sides, her mouth hanging open as she gazed after the Naminore's path.
Lilah screamed and dived for the tear even as it began to dwindle.
"You stupid bitch!"
Gunn blinked, having trouble processing the fact that snarl had come from Wesley.
Wesley grabbed her trailing hand the last moment before she was consumed entirely, planted his feet and fought against whatever mystical forces tried to drag her the rest of the way. Lilah seemed to be fighting his efforts, too.
It was hard to imagine what she thought her employers would do to her that would make it worth going back to that place. Gunn stood, watching, unable to turn away or move to help.
The sharp recollection that Wolfram and Hart were on their way snapped him out of it. He and Fred were likely to be disposed of in short order if they were still there when the evil law firm's forces arrived.
He caught Fred's arm and pulled her away with him.
Exiting, he spared a glance back to see the dark man and the angry woman, dragged clear of the last remnant of the rift, collapsing together in a heap on the floor.
"Sorry." She smoothed a hand down his arm in apology, planted a light kiss as near the wound as she dared. "Better now?"
"Much. But take it easy there, huh?"
The laugh that was normally so easy in Charles' voice was strained. Fred sighed, lightly so he wouldn't hear, and returned to dressing the cut the demon had drawn along his upper arm.
They were semi-clad in fluffy towels stained here and there with blood, damp from showering, which they'd done together, supporting each other in their exhaustion. They'd exclaimed on each other's bruises, hers more visible, ugly on her paler skin, but his more severe. They'd towelled each other dry, and now they sprawled on the bed amid a sea of bandages and medical supplies, Charles full-length on his belly and she, cross-legged, finishing tying off the white bandage on his arm that was already beginning to soak through with tiny pinpricks of red.
"Maybe you need to go to the hospital for stitches," she said, frowning at the dots.
"Naw. I'm good. I've had worse."
"All finished now?" He rolled over onto his back at her affirmation, and she let herself relax, curling up against his side.
When they'd emerged from the library it had been night, almost morning. Now the dawn was beginning to seep through the window of the room she and Charles used when he was staying with her at the Hyperion. They had not been away very long (she remembered being struck by panicked thoughts that perhaps they would come back to find days, weeks, years had passed, while they were in that place) although the hours they'd been away had been very long indeed.
Wisps of madness clung to her thoughts still, but they were fading, and in any case she did not fear them. She had beaten them back before, and Gunn loved her, mad or sane.
"You've got to promise you won't hide those things from me in future," he said, harder than he usually spoke to her out of work hours, surprising her with the suddenness of his change in mood. His head rolled round, his eyes pinning hers. "What happened today, that's not got to happen again. I couldn't deal with that, knowing you were keeping things from me, that some of this magic you're doing might be dangerous and you'd never tell me the danger. I can't spend my life wondering if you're setting yourself up to die. We need to share this stuff. 'Cause we know what happens when folks go all Lone Ranger."
"I'm sorry." She reached for his hand. He folded her fingers in his. "Secrets are bad. I know I should've told you, but at the same time... I didn't want to make you choose. The mission, or me. I didn't want you to stop me."
"'Cause you got the mission too, girl." He drew her hand to his lips and kissed her fingers.
"You said once-"
"-that I'd choose you over the mission. I know."
She studied his face. "You're not sure any more if that's true."
"I..." He surrendered her hand and reached around her to pull the whole of her close instead. She snuggled, waited. "Fred, you know you're the most important thing in the world to me. What I said then, I meant it, but-"
"-we're changing. I know. These past weeks, the two of us, without anyone else to shoulder the burden..."
"It gets harder," he said, speaking slow, pausing often, "to separate. You. Me. The mission. It all feels the same. It-"
"It's us," she breathed. "Angel's gone. Cordy's gone. Wesley's... lost. And this... this is what we're supposed to be doing."
"Yeah." His hand travelled up her back and tangled in her damp hair. "This feels right."
"But we almost died today."
Like everything, there was a reverse side.
"But we didn't."
"I meant what I said to Wesley, Charles. I'm not sure how long we can last. After all, we're only human. Angel and Cordy were champions of good. What happens if they never come back?"
"Then we hold the fort. As long as it stands. No surrender."
She smiled. Wriggling, she discarded her towel and untangled his, flicking them off the bed onto the floor. He reached down and pulled the light covers up to their waists.
"We could've used the Naminore," Fred said.
"Doesn't matter. Wolfram and Hart didn't get it. LA didn't get blown to ashes. That's what's important."
"It wasn't us who stopped those things."
"You think Wesley would've acted as he did if we hadn't been there?"
His cynicism stung her eyes, mostly because she feared him right. Wesley had turned into someone she didn't recognise.
Tiredness was beginning to creep through her limbs, sleep almost ready to claim her. She sagged against his chest, her head upon his ribcage, listening through it to the heartbeat and the breathing already slowing. He flinched as her weight touched a bruise spread over his lower ribs, and she shifted to accommodate, whispered an apology.
She thought he was asleep - she was on the verge of it - when he spoke, grimness showing through the exhaustion in his voice. "Sometimes the world makes hell of a lot of no sense. Today... today Wesley and Lilah saved millions of lives. For who knows what selfish reasons, but they did a good thing. And we... I almost did a bad thing, Fred. For good reasons, yeah. But I almost killed him. I was that close."
"Intention - intention is important," Fred said. Wanting to push back the hollowness in his voice. To replace it again with hope. Not sure she knew how.
She felt him nod. "We made a mistake."
She breathed in, falling down into a restful abyss. Breathed out in words.
"We're not the first."
It was midday when he opened the door to find her outside it, although he knew it only from the blurry clock on the wall of his darkened room. What windows there were in his small apartment had their blinds drawn tightly down.
"Lilah," he said blankly. Surprised, and trying not to feel relief.
"What, no hug, no emotional reunion?" she drawled. She smiled like a predator. He realised her bruises and contusions were gone as though they'd never existed, and squinted. No make-up job could have hidden... She caught his gaze. "I told you my job had benefits. Well, sometimes. You, on the other hand, look like shit. You could at least have changed. Not to mention showered."
She wrinkled her nose.
Wesley, who'd at 4am that morning made an uneasy escape from the squad of Wolfram and Hart agents infesting the library, had returned to his apartment, staggered to the bed and collapsed into sleep on top of the covers, where he'd remained until disturbed by her knocking. He scowled.
He tried to think of a way to say, I didn't think I'd see you again that wouldn't come out sounding even remotely needy or recalcitrant. He settled for twisting his voice into a roughened growl to ask, "Why are you here?"
Her cheerful polish vanished. Her hand slammed down to pin his where it rested on the doorframe holding up much of his weight. Her other hand tangled in the collar of his bloodied shirt and she stepped inside his space, pushing her face into his so their noses all but touched. Unlike most women, she was barely shorter than he, especially in heels, and just because it wasn't her habit to be physically domineering didn't mean she couldn't be. She was stronger than he was right now.
Her hand ground his into the wood.
"That was my way back in, you bastard. My chance to make up for this year's fiascos and you screwed me over." He felt her spittle dash his face.
He curled his free hand around her waist and bent to touch his forehead sardonically to hers.
"I'm glad you're not dead," he breathed, meeting the glare of her eyes.
She melted against him with a raucous laugh. Her fingers pushed through the gaps between his and though she continued her attempts to break his hand, the action became oddly affectionate. No. That was the wrong word. Sexual. Her nails dug in his palm. As if he needed any more skin broken or blood drawn.
"You bastard," she said again. She ran her tongue over his bottom lip. Lingered over the split, tasting his blood.
And Wesley reflected that Lilah worked for Wolfram and Hart who, while they did not forgive traitors, certainly expected and understood them. Even valued, since they appeared to have once promoted Lindsey McDonald for possessing the qualities of a turncoat.
In any case, their relationship was hardly based on trust, or like, or anything that would be damaged by betrayal.
"So, why aren't you dead?" he asked, pulling his head back to free his tongue.
"Huh. Given that I just saved the butts of most of the senior staff, they seem to be in a forgiving mood about the part where I didn't actually recover the Naminore. Who'd have thought?"
"Certainly not me."
She gave him a hard look, abruptly fragmented by a smile. She stopped crushing his hand and slipped out from the circle of his arm. He wavered a moment without the support of her body. "What the hell. Seriously? Better gone than in the hands of the opposition, or used at the wrong time. And as someone who happens to live in this city, I'm inclined to think it one weapon plain better gone."
"Indeed. Though it's a great pity I had to throw it away. A magical artefact of that sort of power and historical significance..." Wesley tried to shake the feeling back into his fingers.
"Didn't for a moment imagine that you enjoyed that little act of occult vandalism, Mr Research-Obsessed. We can blame your little friends for that, anyway. I know what you'd have done if they hadn't been there to screw with your head."
He raised his eyebrows; said nothing.
"Incidentally, you do know, don't you, that even without the soul clause that was some rather dark magic you performed yesterday?"
He tipped his head to one side; just looked at her.
"And the Naminore itself - that you effectively destroyed - wasn't actually a tool of evil. More like a balancing power."
Lilah laughed. "Indubitably. Although, did you wonder if it might not even be more suited to the purposes of good? Not that, when you think about it, there's anything here in LA that it would benefit the Powers to have obliterated."
"Yes, and it would only cost several million innocent lives."
She waved a hand. "You of all people know that lives are hardly the real issue when you're fighting an eternal war." She shrugged, dismissing it with an arrogant tip of one shoulder and a toss of glossy hair. "Well. I only wondered if you realised. About the part where you destroyed something which that have aided your... former... side. Though there is still that prophecy to consider, even if it does appear you've screwed over any obvious means of its coming to pass."
Wesley felt the smile stretch his face, tugging at the cuts and bruises, and he turned away so she wouldn't see. Walked back inside the room, leaving the way clear for her to enter. Heard the door close.
"I should have known you'd get a kick out of that one," Lilah said, a grin in her voice, a spring in the clicks of her stilettoed steps. "You want to take a look at those for us, by the way? We can offer a very generous fee."
"Lilah. Let me think... No."
Her laugh, like cheerful shards of glass. Her fingers, brushing the back of his neck. Her not-entirely-genuine sucked-in sympathetic breath as she found a bruise there. Her voice, silk against his ear.
"Come on, now. Let me help you lick those wounds."