Oh, and when will our heartbeats fall into line
And the click-clack of our boot heels beat out the same time
Oh, and when will your hand find itself in mine?
Oh, and when will your hand find itself in mine?
(Noah and the Whale, ‘Second Lover’)
Back when he first met her, Gunn thought Fred was kind of creepy. Itty bitty little girl wearing a potato sack and holding up a handful of blood; ‘creepy’ wasn’t a stretch. For the first couple of hours after she joined their ranks in Pylea, he (and he is taking this to the grave) actually thought she was, like, some kind of elf. Big eyes, cute nose, sweet face, movements so quick and shy they made him think of bunny rabbits -- the girl was a little bit Keebler, and seeing as how they were trapped in another damn dimension, it didn’t seem so crazy.
Then he realized that she was Fred, library Fred, Help Me, I’m Helpless Fred. 100% human. Just a girl, no Tolkien skills involved, surviving hell for five years. And that was definitely way more impressive than Elf.
If the girl’s a little twitchy back in the real world, Gunn figures she’s earned it. But she can also talk for like five minutes straight without taking a breath, and she laughs at everybody’s jokes even when she doesn’t get ‘em, and the first time he watches her eat a whole breakfast burrito in the time it takes him to down like a third of his cup of coffee, that’s it. He’s doomed. A good kind of doomed, for a change.
She’s got this smile. It does great, stupid things to him. He knows what it’s like, to have living mean fighting every day of your life. He’s been there, done that. For a long time all he was was that. And that’s her too. And they can still bust a gut laughing at stupid in-jokes, and polish off two tubs of popcorn at an action movie, and try to get hotel hide-and-seek to catch on. (Angel, Cordy, and Wes still aren’t going for it. Lorne’s on the fence.) In a way, he’s never felt more triumphant than when he’s just goofing off with Fred. Life isn’t all blood. This, all this laughter, is what they’ve both been fighting for.
And yeah, he sees the way Wes looks at her sometimes: all moony and quiet, the look he usually gets around big old dusty-ass tomes full of gruesome demon pictures. It’s hard to be okay with that look when it’s not some book that’s on the receiving end of it. But when you stop to think it doesn’t make much sense, him being into Fred. From what Gunn’s heard and seen, Wes likes the rich girls. There was Virginia last year, and Angel tells stories sometimes about Wes and Cordelia having a fling when Wes was a Watcher in Sunnydale and Cordy was high school royalty. (It’s one of the only things that’s guaranteed to make Angel smile – and guaranteed to make Wes and Cordy shut up fast.) Gunn’s heard some stories about high school Cordelia: a fashionista bitch queen who could probably out-scary most demonic forces. Virginia wasn’t like that, but you could still tell that she’d bleed blue if you cut her. She’d say stuff sometimes, cheerful thoughtlessly offensive stuff, that made it way too clear Daddy was a gazillionaire and she’d grown up never doubting the world was at her feet. It’s always made sense to Gunn, that this is Wes’s type. It’s the whole computer-geek-moguls-dating-supermodels thing. You put together two computer geeks (one demons geek, one physics geek; whatever), it’s just gonna be way too much geek.
Fred’s adorable. Wes is a dude with eyes. Gunn figures that’s it, that’s all. Wes’ll get over it.
When she was in Pylea Fred never would have imagined forgiving monsters.
But then Angel came, and he was good and kind and he saved her, and so what if his face went green and pointy sometimes, if he went so wild he could’ve made a rabid dog blush? He made Fred remember something about the world: you forgave humans. And Angel was human. Or human enough, at least. Human enough for her.
So after the incident with Billy’s blood, when Wesley disappears, she knows what she needs to do. She calls him over and over again, makes sure to sound chipper and nice. She babbles all over the poor guy’s answering machine, because that’s kind of a problem she has, the babbling. She knows he won’t mind – he’s her friend, he’s her friend – but still in her head she pictures him sittin’ there in the dark, his face slack and cold, staring at that answering machine like he wants to bash it to pieces. Her voice spilling out, nervous and tryin’ and so girlish. She cringes, thinking of the times she giggled just because she couldn’t think of a word to fill the silence. He’ll hate that. Women, like children, ought to be seen and not heard (she thinks he would tell her if they were still alone, if he were still chasing her) and ought to be touched and not seen if you can possibly swing it. Now, now. There’s a bright idea.
That’s not Wesley, of course. Wesley is good and kind. Wesley’s just the type she’d usually wind up with a big old crush on; he could’ve been any lab TA at school, handsome and smart but dorky enough that she wouldn’t have to worry about one of her braver friends snatching him up.
Wesley doesn’t mind if she wears tanktops in the hotel lobby. If she licks ketchup or soy sauce off her fingers at dinner because she still has trouble remembering about napkins. Wesley is her friend, just like Angel.
But Wesley didn’t go all green and pointy. Wesley kept his own face. When she has nightmares, the monster is wearing Wesley’s face.
(And she was supposed to be home here, she was supposed to be safe here, not running scared like some small, stupid animal, not fighting just to keep on being, always, always, always fighting. She thinks of Caritas, Charles’s old friends taking them hostage, Wesley holding her close. Keeping her safe. Did he notice the scent of her shampoo, or the soap on her skin? Did it bug him, then, that her shoulders were bare and she didn’t even consider it, didn’t even imagine what it might do to him to have her nestled right up in his crooks and angles? Do you want to hear my theory, Fred? It’s about how stupid you are.)
She keeps expecting him to walk in the front door. She’s preparing herself for it. Reminding herself to smile, to treat him nice, to promise she knows that he would never hurt her.
But he never comes.
“Poor Wes,” Cordelia sighs.
Cordelia knows Wesley better than anyone, Fred reasons. And Cordy’s got no patience for monsters.
And so Fred goes to Wesley’s apartment all by herself, and for the first time since she’s been back the city doesn’t seem so bad. The lights and the voices and the rush. She feels like she could lose herself in it. Just become one more body. Not a target, or a cow, or a little slut who should’ve known what she was asking for.
She wears long sleeves. She touches the bruises on his face and tells him it’s okay. He looks so miserable.
For a couple days afterward she walks the hotel hallways slow. Every time that urge to run shocks through her, she fights it down. She looks in all the dark corners, and calls the creaks creaks instead of footsteps. The monsters don’t come back.
Lilah runs through the hotel halls, Angelus on her heels, and it’s all so The Shining she could puke. She’s lurching, pitiful, the wound in her side busting open all over again.
A hand grabs her. Cordelia’s. Oh, thank God, Lilah thinks, and the thank God splinters into two parts, which are:
1. Pure, dumb relief. Someone else.
2. Here’s someone else for big bad Angelus to bite, and if the choice is between an enemy who’s steadily pissed Angel off with lots of big nasty evil over the past couple years and the girl who’s taught him how to live and love and smile and stop and smell the goddamn flowers again, well, Lilah sure knows who she’d go for if she was in Mr. Soulless’s shoes. Besides, Lilah can run fast given the proper motivation, even when her insides are trying their damndest to become her outsides. So. Sorry, vision girl. Lilah is coming down Team Lilah for this one.
And there’s another splinter off that string of thought, a tiny unignorable crack: Wesley will be pissed about his friend.
“He’s gonna kill us,” Lilah gasps to Cordelia, the ‘us’ twisting into an optimistic ‘you’ in her brain, and hell, it’s not like he’ll be able to blame her for being the one who lives (“I know,” says Cordelia) and who knows, maybe he’ll even be relieved, maybe this time he’ll realize that he
When Wesley kisses her in his old office, Fred kisses him back because he looks good tortured -- eyes dark, all scars and five o'clock shadow -- and because he doesn't do it gallantly and because when she decided to kill Professor Seidel he drove her there and didn't say a word. The world's gone crazy, everything backwards, and so it makes a kind of sense that suddenly Wesley is the one who can see her and Charles is the one who's sure she needs saving. Maybe Wesley's is the kind of love a girl ought to look for: hard and strange and distant and reverent and unkillable. She wonders how far she'd need to go, to make his love stop. Maybe she was stupid to fall into a love based on flimsy things like laughter and extra maple syrup and warm arms around you at night and butterflies in your stomach. She's usually more practical than that, and there's not much point in being starry-eyed during the apocalypse.
“What is it about her, anyway?” Lilah asks. Her curiosity sounds almost genuine.
He imagines Fred. Bent over a book, dark hair loose, glasses slipping down her nose. He wonders what she’s thinking of right now. Certainly not him, not wondering what he’s doing. He is, for the record, on the floor, slumped against the living room sofa, Lilah curled up on his chest in some parody of affection. Her hair is still in braids.
“She’s sweet,” he says. His eyes drift to the glasses folded inoffensively on the end table. “And forgiving, and kind. She sees the best in people. She doesn’t know much about the dark.”
This is not the Fred that came to him about her professor, but it is the Fred he knows. Everyone slips into darkness sometimes. That doesn’t mean it defines them.
“Wow,” Lilah breathes, “that sounds so …” She leans in close, drops the word into his ear like poison: “Boring.”
“It’s not always about breaking furniture,” he says, sounding more world-weary than he means to. Lilah doesn’t quite bother to roll her eyes, but conveys the sentiment just the same. He tugs on one of her braids. “You owe me a coffeetable, by the way.”
The current one is, as of ten minutes ago, missing a leg. There’s not much to be said for modern craftsmanship.
“Sure. I’ll pick it out special, just for you.” There it is, that mocking grin that he’s grown too fond of.
“I’m sure you will,” he says, laughing shortly.
She’s quiet, circling the buttons of his shirt with a fingertip. She unbuttons one, then buttons it again. Her hands are very nearly gentle.
“You could come with me,” she says. Teasing him, he thinks at first, but there’s not much of her usual edge. For a moment he is seized by a profoundly stupid mental image, the pair of them walking hand-in-hand through a furniture store like newlyweds in search of the perfect couch.
“You’re not serious,” he says.
She exhales. It’s a small sound, but he can feel her breath on his neck. Then she looks up at him and smiles, an absolutely Lilah smile. “Busted.”
She kisses him, then stands, stretches, heads for the bathroom. As she walks she pulls the bands from her hair and runs her fingers through it, smoothing it back into being hers. He listens to the shower start.
“Charles heard what Angelus said,” Fred tells him, smiling. Sweeter in her nervousness. “The stuff about—”
“How I feel about you.”
She stares at him. Nods at last, barely. “Yes. Which is very sweet, there’s nothing wrong with it—”
“Yes, there is.”
And he kisses her hard and she kisses right back. This is her mouth on his, and it is not like he’d imagined; it’s realer, somehow, more unremarkably solid, not so different from kissing anyone else. His hands are on her shoulders, pulling her into him, and her fingertips press against his face. She makes noise as she kisses him, a sigh or a squeak, a wordless no or maybe yes. She baffles him, this close.
Well, champ, says a voice in his skull, sounding like Lilah, how’s living the dream?
Fred pulls away from him before he has an answer.
He stares down at her dead body with an axe in his hand. They’re in the dark. It’s not unusual for them. He suspects she is still in there somewhere, playing a trick on him. He wants to grab her wrist hard, to force her to give up the game, but he knows that the sight of her arm flopping dully back down will kill him. Even imagining the thud turns his stomach. He is convinced, for several seconds, that he cannot live without her. That he has forgotten how. This is absurd. He hadn’t seen her in days and days. His thoughts have been full of Fred.
It’s right, in its way. That her body should be left to him like this. Who’s loved it, used it better than he has? His fingers twitch with their knowledge of her. His memory turns to mundanity instead of sex, something she would have mocked him for. His legs tangling with hers while they slept. Her feet in his lap as she argued, successfully, for a foot rub. The unsurprising fact of her red toenails, the slight curve of the second-to-last toe on her right foot. It was the only time she ever complained about her shoes; it made him laugh. That had been just before he’d lost the bet, consigned that dollar bill to its odd, laughable fate in his wallet. Now it strikes him as one of the happier times in his life. He’s not thinking clearly. It’s only natural. Grief will do that.
Angelus bit her right where a knife slid, once upon a time, across Wesley’s neck. If she’d survived they’d have had matching scars, his and hers.
Lilah, for all her loathsome facets, makes an interesting study. It does not take long after meeting her for Wesley to come to this conclusion. She keeps falling back into his bed, and he can’t help being observant. For example:
There is a spot on his neck she likes, just below the jawline on the right side. A brief instance of plain, unmarred sinew and skin. Justine started from the left when she slit his throat. Lilah’s mouth has a habit of drifting to that spot. He isn’t quite sure what to make of it. Is she squeamish? She doesn’t seem the type. It’s more likely that she’s mocking him. Claiming the last unruined bits of him, like a dog pissing on its favourite tree.
“Loved one?” Gunn repeats.
“Figure of speech,” Wesley says to his desk.
He dreams that he can’t breathe because there is a pillow shoved over his face. As far as asphyxiation scenarios go it’s rather unromantic. Drowning, choking on poison, anything would be more impressive. Then again, there is Othello. You’re dead, you’re dead, Angel swears.
He wakes up with a jerk. His heart is pounding hard. Lilah is staring at him, interested. It’s not the fingertip-drumming, manipulative interest that begs for an evil laugh or, at the least, a solid smirk. It’s simple and open. She has disconcertingly earnest eyes. Her mouth is his favourite of her features, for practical reasons, but he is struck here and now by her eyes.
“Nightmare?” she says.
Yes, he almost says. He catches himself in time. “I thought you’d left.”
She shrugs. “Guess I didn’t get around to it.”
He doesn’t want her here.
“What were you dreaming about?” she asks.
He looks at her. She changes underneath the look. The corner of her mouth darts up, cruelly and prettily. “No, wait, let me guess: your best buddy Angel trying to smother the life out of you.”
He stays quiet.
“Did I get it right?” She clambers, mock-sweet, into his arms, voice higher and lashes fluttering. “Oh, did I, did I?”
“Funny,” he says, “I like you so much less when you’re talking.”
She smiles. “You like me, huh?”
“Not right now,” he answers, her hair taut in his fingers.
Her hands wander under the sheets.
“How ‘bout now?” she asks.
“Getting warmer,” he says.
“How ‘bout now?” comes Charles’ voice in her ear. It’s like there are two of him: cell phone Charles, so close she can hear his breathing, and the distant promise of real Charles, his voice faint but getting louder as he comes down the hall. She’s squeezed inside a broom closet; the hotel’s got loads of them and they come in handy during impromptu hide and seek games. Fred’s still good at small dark spaces, but this time it’s all happy tingles at the thought of being found.
“Getting warmer,” she whispers into her phone, smiling.
She hears him pause right on the other side of the door. She imagines him there, smiling and handsome and hers, and there are days where this would all feel like a dream, except for certain ifs. If he didn’t make her laugh so much. If he didn’t make her feel so calm in her own head, her own skin.
The closet door swings open, and there he is. It sends a happy jolt through her even though she saw him twenty minutes ago. She laughs and snaps her phone shut.
“I win,” he announces, grinning at her.
“You win,” she agrees, stepping out. He slings an arm around her shoulders and she snuggles into him.
“It’s not always about holding hands,” Wesley tells her, old and sad and wise. A little condescending – like it’s sweet how young she is, how quaint she and Charles were, how much she doesn’t know and couldn’t imagine. Fred wonders what she looks like through his eyes.
I went through hell, she wants to tell him. You had a bad six months. I had five years.
She doesn’t understand why you’d torture yourself if you had a choice.
“You liked her,” she tests. This is what she does: finds the logic, the truth, the click. She’s not content to be told she can’t understand and then just sit quiet. And besides, she hopes it’s true, this hypothesis, for his sake. (Maybe even for Lilah’s. Lilah had probably earned having her throat torn out, her corpse shrouded in plastic, her head hacked off by her old boyfriend. But it’s one thing to know that, and it’s another thing to watch it happen.)
“Back to work, Fred,” he says to the book in front of him.
She decides she’ll let him keep his secrets. She wonders if he’ll ever try to kiss her again. It seems unlikely.