Lorne heard the noise and the voices first, and not for the first time Fred wondered if there was more to his demonic powers than the reading of auras. Without a word they both grabbed some weapons and made their way up the stairs towards the disturbance, secretly hoping it was the exhaustion causing them to act a bit paranoid, and not that there was an actual intruder in the hotel. They had been in worse situations, Fred told herself while she loaded an arrow in her crossbow, fingers shaking slightly.
Once they were on the upper floor the noise became louder – a small commotion like someone having an argument –, and Fred’s heart beat wildly in her chest, stomach tightening in a knot. Yet she smiled at Lorne when their eyes met, as if trying to reassure him despite her own panic. Lorne returned the gesture and somehow it helped, even though it was entirely illogical, because they both weren’t fighters and if there was a creature in there – and now it sounded like there were two – they would be no match.
Through the door Fred heard muffled talk of roots and numbers and she frowned, the voice suddenly familiar. She angled her head towards the door, listening in, eyes on the cracks in the doorframe as she ignored Lorne’s puzzling look. Her mind pictured the woman the voice seemingly belonged to, a short brunette she hadn’t thought about in a very long time.
Truth was, Fred hadn’t remembered Sam when she first came back from Pylea; the memories of her buried deep under years of slavery and torture. Then Fred had met Gunn, and the strange mixture of roughness and gentleness when they made love had brought back the souvenir of Sam, of that girl she had given her heart to before she had fallen into Hell. For months afterwards, every time she would see a short brunette she would think of Sam, picturing her at the corner of every street and wondering what had happened to her. If she thought of Fred sometimes, and imagined her standing on the other side of the street, waiting there like no time had passed.
For all those daydreaming moments, it was the first time Fred really remembered Sam’s voice, although this one sounded older, harsher. She blamed the confusion on her exhaustion and settled on it being a trick from her mind, readjusting her grip on her crossbow as she slowly turned the doorknob.
“Will you shut up about this for two minutes?” Fred heard as she opened the door, followed by a deafening silence.
She was met with her own large surprised eyes staring back at her, and the opened mouth of someone who looked like a perfect copy of Sam. Fred blinked several times, feeling Lorne doing the same beside her until instincts kicked in and she aimed her weapon at Sam, noticing Lorne’s axe rising to threaten her own doppelganger. In front of her Sam appeared surprised, yet her eyes fell on Fred alone and not on the green demon at her side – Fred wondered if that was a good or a bad sign.
It took a few seconds of silence before someone dared to speak.
“Kind of early for Halloween,” the Fred look-alike stated, and Fred thought that hearing her own voice coming from another body, the tone low and cynical, was so very strange.
“And who are you supposed to be?” Lorne asked angrily. Not that he wasn’t used to that reaction from most humans, but he wasn’t entirely convinced that this wasn’t a shifter’s trick, although the pose, the clothes, the expression were all wrong if that creature wanted to pretend being Fred.
The Sam look-alike stepped forward, ignoring the crossbow aimed at her heart. “Fred?” Sam winced slightly when she said the name, and Fred’s heartbeats went wild, the muscle almost hurting under the strain and for a moment she wondered if she was going to faint. Despite her better judgment she let the crossbow fall between them, loosely hanging from her arm, all but forgotten.
“S-Sam?” the name was almost painful to say, and Fred flinched. “Is it really you?”
Fred didn’t wait for an answer; she came to crash into Sam, holding onto her like she had feared she was dead, and felt one of Sam’s warm hands coming to rest at the end of her back. Somehow, after all these years, it seemed like Sam smelled exactly the same, although Fred knew the scent was probably a fabrication of her mind and not an actual fact. Suddenly Sam’s body felt too hot against hers, rigid even, and when Fred pulled apart she noticed Sam sending a glance to the side at the other woman in the room. That look sent an electric bolt to Fred’s stomach and she turned, lifting her crossbow towards her look-alike.
“Who is that?” she asked in a low voice, staying close to Sam even though her stare was directed elsewhere. She studied the tall brunette standing there; her pale complexion, her sad eyes; physically it was Fred, but it wasn’t her, and it didn’t look like she was pretending to be Fred either. “That isn’t me, you know?”
Sam frowned, but before either of them could say anything the woman spoke. “Oh, so you always had a thing for mental patients, Shaw?”
The voice came out smug and rude and yet Fred could see worry – or was it hurt? – behind the words.
“Root,” Sam stepped forward, and it seemed like a warning. “Really not the time.”
The confusion took over the small comfort Fred had found in Sam’s embrace, and Fred felt panic slipping in once again. “What’s going on?” she asked, worried. Her eyes gazed from Sam to Root, questioning like she had just remembered they were intruders. “What are you doing here?”
Fred took two steps back, returning to Lorne’s side as if threatened. She noticed a gun in Sam’s hand and wondered if it had been there since she had opened the door – worried she simply hadn’t noticed it before, like she had forgotten for a second that years had went by, and that Sam wasn’t a pre-med student anymore.
“You’re in danger,” Sam told her with a cold, detached voice, and it sounded so different from the grumpy Sam who helped her carry her books and bought her coffee.
Quiet so far, Lorne spared Fred a glance. “Friends of yours?”
“I don’t know,” she frowned, her heart tightening in her chest every time her eyes met Sam’s. “What do you mean I’m in danger?”
“Someone’s planning on killing you, but obviously you are aware of that,” Root replied with a detached voice, eyes on the crossbow. “Or do you always welcome people with medieval weapons?”
Fred ignored the banter, used to the weirdness of her life now. “What are you, some kind of shapeshifter?”
Root rolled her eyes. “Shaw, your taste in women is really doubtful, you know that?”
Sam ignored her; “she just looks like you, Fred.” Her voice was reassuring, yet Fred didn’t know that she could believe her – this older version of Sam that responded to another name.
Fred made a choice, then. She aimed her crossbow at Root’s head, clenching her jaw as she gathered the courage to pull the trigger, if need be. “Sing.”
Root laughed, not at all intimidated. “Excuse me, what?”
“Sing,” Fred repeated louder before she shot Lorne a glance, her voice suddenly lowered and hesitant. “Y-you could read her, right?”
Lorne nodded, his hands gripped on the axe Fred knew he didn’t want to use.
“Is this a joke?” Root asked, blinking until she turned to Sam. “Shaw, say something.”
Sam turned to Root then, barely taking her eyes off Fred. Still, in the short look they shared, they seemed to communicate something, and Fred felt her stomach tightening again at the sight, a slight burning in her throat.
“I said you have to sing,” Fred insisted, her voice crackling under the strain of stress and Root took a step back.
“Alright, alright,” Root frowned, swallowing hard before she took a deep breath. “Hush little baby don’t say a word, Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird,” the voice, shaking and hesitant, so unlike it had been before, made Fred squirm, “and if that mockingbird don’t sing, Mama’s gonna buy you a diamond ring.”
Lorne flinched, bringing one hand to his head. Fred kept her crossbow up but placed a comforting hand on Lorne’s shoulder; “are you alright?”
“Yes, I was just... not expecting,” he stopped himself, looking up to Root. She stared back at him awkwardly, like she was worried of what he was going to say next. “Not expecting this,” he finished, clearing his throat and sending a little smile towards Fred. “The lady doesn’t like you very much,” he continued, suddenly exhausted, “but she’s got honest intentions.”
“Well no one ever said that about me before,” Root smirked, walking up to Fred, her confidence and smugness back. “So maybe you can toss the toys aside,” she mocked, placing a finger on Fred’s arrow and pushing it down. “And take off the make-up,” she judged Lorne up and down before she snaked between the both of them, going further down the corridor and into the hotel, as if she owned the place.
Fred spared Sam a glance, but Sam just shook her head.
“What’s up with green man here?” Sam asked, pointing at Lorne.
“He’s an empath demon,” Fred shrugged before she followed Root.
In the empty hotel room, Sam frowned, sharing a look with Lorne.
“Oh, I’m not evil, if that’s what you’re afraid of,” Lorne smiled gently.
“I’m not scared,” Sam smirked, her hang tightening around her gun, and indicating for Lorne to walk in front of her as they followed Root and Fred. “But maybe you should be.”
Fred cleaned out the filter of the coffee machine with Sam’s eyes boring into her, digging holes in her back as she prepared a new carafe. Angel’s office had seemed like a good place to hide for a moment, but she hadn’t counted on Sam following her in, and somehow it felt like it was smaller than it used to be, almost making it impossible to breathe. She tried to focus on the quiet conversation she could hear from the other room, Root and Lorne’s hushed voices providing a soothing background to Sam’s weighted silence.
As she pressed the last button to start the machine, Fred desperately ignored the pain in her chest at the thought of turning around and looking at Sam again. For years she had pictured her everywhere, but now that she was there, just a few steps away, it seemed to Fred like her best option was to run away, to disappear. She wished she had never seen her again.
It wasn’t like the shock she had felt when she had been reunited with her parents; she knew now that Pylea was real, that all those years of slavery and torture had really happened to her; there was no denying it. No, what bothered her was the scars she had now, some wounds that would never fully heal. She wasn’t the Fred Sam had known then; wasn’t even sure that Sam had ever loved that dear old Winifred.
When Fred finally turned around Sam only stood there, still and silent like a soldier, and Fred noticed the difference in her traits – not only older, but more severe, like she had gone to hell and back. It made Fred wonder what had happened in Sam’s life since Fred had disappeared, and if Sam could really see the disparities between who Fred was then, and who she had become.
Under Sam’s curious stare Fred raised a hand to her neck unconsciously, mind suddenly filled with thoughts of explosive collars, blood, and pain.
“Where did you go?” Sam finally asked, almost in a whisper. Through the hole in the wall of Angel’s office, Fred could see Root talking to Lorne, her lips moving even though her cold eyes stared back at Fred. “You disappeared.”
Fred wondered for a moment if Sam meant to ask about her falling into a portal all those years back or if she was asking about Fred’s spacing out just now. Her cheeks reddened as she quietly pondered the stories she had never told, not even to Gunn or Wesley because they wouldn’t understand, they wouldn’t know, and those words she had promised herself she would never speak came back to her now. Memories she had buried deep that threatened to flow out of her, all under Sam’s worried gaze and Fred wondered if Sam could read them on her skin.
“Would you believe me if I said I fell through a portal to Hell?” Fred almost laughed it off, comforted by the familiar noise of the coffee machine, behind her. Hiding her hands into her jeans’ pocket she tried to smile. “I know it sounds crazy.”
Sam sighed, lifting her eyebrows. “It really does.”
There wasn’t anything Fred could add to convince Sam that she wasn’t lying or insane. No matter how much she wanted Sam to look at Lorne and somehow understand everything, things just weren’t that simple.
“What are you doing here?” Fred whispered, so very exhausted all of a sudden.
“It’s complicated,” Sam answered, averting her eyes for a moment. Fred bit the inside of her cheek nervously.
“You say my life’s in danger,” she repeated, voice weak and hesitant. “The life I have Sam... I’m always in danger.”
Sam frowned, evidently not pleased with that statement. “Fred, I don’t know what’s going on with you, but this?” she gestured as if to indicate the hotel and Lorne and all the crazy that had entered Fred’s life since she had been sent to Pylea, “this is insane.”
It reminded Fred of a time when she had thought of leaving Angel Investigations to return home with her parents, of another time when she had dreamed of going back to the world of physics, only to uncover the truth. With lead in her stomach and the constant burning in her throat, Fred shook her head. This insanity, as Sam called it, it was her life now, and she gladly claimed it hers; besides, Fred wasn’t Sam’s anymore, no matter how much she wanted to be hers again.
“It’s my life,” Fred stared at her defiantly, feeling another rush of blood flushing her cheeks. “I know you don’t understand, I know you have questions, but you’re in my home now, in the middle of my life, so don’t think you know better than me, Sam. You don’t.”
Her voice had turned cold, and Fred expected Sam to flinch or to be hurt, but instead Sam only smirked, as if she found this new version of Fred interesting, attractive even.
“Still got some kick in you, uh?” Sam moved from the wall, winking before she sat on one of the couches. “That’s good.”
Fred’s heart melted then, and she wondered if she was ever going to learn.
“So you’re a demon,” Root stated for the third time, eyes unfocused.
Lorne tried not to sigh in annoyance, and failed. “Yes.”
“And you can read people’s minds when they sing,” she didn’t sound convinced.
“Well, not exactly sweetheart; I read auras,” Lorne corrected.
Root made a face. “Don’t call me sweetheart,” she glared, then averted her eyes. “So that’s a thing?”
Lorne breathed out loudly, impatient and tired. “Yes it’s a thing, dear.”
“And don’t call me dear.”
“And you are certain someone is going to try to murder me?” Fred asked again, surprised. She sipped her coffee – too hot – and ignored how close she was to Sam. The proximity unnerved her, but at least when she was sitting on the couch Root couldn’t stare at her, and that offered Fred some comfort.
“Either that or you’re planning to kill someone,” Sam replied, her eyes still on her mug, seemingly drowning in the black liquid. “Do you have any enemies?”
Sam’s question sounded like it was day-to-day business to her, and maybe it was; Fred still hadn’t understood what Sam was doing here exactly. It bothered her less than the idea that she knew nothing of what had happened to Sam since they had been together, all those years back.
Under the insistence of Sam’s gaze, Fred shrugged. “Angel has enemies, not me.”
“Who’s Angel?” Sam asked, and the name sounded wrong in her mouth, like it didn’t signify the same thing as when Fred said it, like it didn’t belong there. Fred tried to push it aside; that thought that Sam didn’t belong in her life anymore, that they both had no idea of who they were anymore.
“A friend,” Fred replied vaguely.
For a second she thought she saw jealousy flash on Sam’s face and it sent another bolt of electricity through her stomach.
“Maybe someone is trying to get to them by threatening you,” Sam pondered aloud before she sipped her coffee.
“Why does she call you Shaw?” Fred asked all of a sudden, and chuckled at the way Sam almost spurted her coffee. Sam glared at her for laughing, but her eyes were warm and inviting, and Fred bit on her lip, her breath catching in her throat.
Sam smiled. “It’s my name,” she offered.
“Sam Shaw,” Fred tried, and it rolled strangely on her tongue.
“Sameen, actually,” Sam corrected, and Fred swallowed hard, remembering how she had loved that name. But Sam didn’t like being called Sameen then and she had complied, because she knew all too well how she hated being called Winifred. It was something they both agreed on, something on which they had both instantly agreed, and to have it gone was strange and oddly enticing. She noticed Sam’s eyes falling on her lips and she licked them absently.
Fred leaned in then, her lips warm against Sam’s, who kissed her back almost gently, her breath running down Fred’s skin. Moving in closer, Fred relaxed only when Sam’s hand came to cup her cheek, a thumb grazing just under her eyes. Her tongue boldly licked Sam’s lower lip before Sam pulled apart.
“I’m not good at these things,” she whispered with her hand still holding Fred close, her forehead resting against Fred’s, “but I think I’m not supposed to do this.” Sam sighed, gesturing in the air between the two of them.
“Because of her?” Fred questioned, moving away slightly. “You’re with Root?”
The thought twisted her stomach, making her feel odd and itchy, like she wasn’t in the right skin; like none of this should be happening.
Sam averted her eyes. “Not exactly,” she replied. “It’s complicated.”
There was a moment of silence before Fred stated the obvious.
“She looks like me,” and Fred cringed at the sound of her voice, so very tired and sad.
Sam looked up to her then, studying her traits with a warm curiosity. “Kind of,” she whispered like a confession.
Fred’s heart beat wildly in her chest as she stared back, eyes into Sam’s as if trying to detect a lie. She took a few seconds to gather her courage before she questioned; “is that why you like her?”
She couldn’t say love; it was too painful to think that Sam, who could not love her, could fall for someone else, someone who looked exactly like her but wasn’t Fred.
“No,” Sam cleared her throat, and just like that Fred knew she had no right to ask another question; that Sam was done answering.
“Wolfram and Hart?” Root repeated after Lorne, waving her gun. “And should we be expecting...?”
“People like me?” Lorne suggested with a smirk. “For little Winifred? I doubt it, but with them you never know.”
Root sighed. “We should leave now,” she stood up, convinced. “This place isn’t safe, too many angles to cover.”
Lorne laughed. “You’re kind of restless now that you can’t keep eyes on your girl, huh?”
“Fred’s not her style,” Root took out her handgun’s clip, checked to ensure it was full and cocked it back into place for the fourth time.
“She was,” Lorne took a serious voice. “And look at you sugar; I think it’s obvious she still is.”
Root put her gun behind her back, jamming it between her shirt and her belt. “Don’t call me sugar.”
“Shaw?” Root’s voice didn’t waver, but still Fred could hear the worry in her tone. She flinched when she noticed Sam’s gun back in her hand, a cold expression on her face.
“Stay here,” she ordered, and Fred recognised that hard look; it wasn’t unlike the serious glare the boys sent her when trouble was around, and as it did with Angel, Gunn and Wesley, it annoyed her more than anything else.
She moved closer to the door, listening in. “She says there’s a van parked right outside,” Fred watched as Root pointed towards the front door. Root seemed to be listening to something as her eyes unfocused, and then she turned to Sam. “They’re six.”
Sam frowned. “My rifle’s upstairs.”
Root pulled out her gun shrugging. “I’ll run interference.”
From where Fred was, she couldn’t see Sam’s expression very well, but she seemed worried. Then again, Fred’s palms were sweaty and she was starting to feel her heart beating wild again, for less enticing reasons. She spared a look to Lorne, coming to hide in the office with her, and then noticed Sam at the foot of the stairs.
“You keep an eye on those two?” she asked, and Fred wondered what they all had, always thinking she was in need of protection when she obviously could hold her own. She grabbed the crossbow she had left on Angel’s bureau as she heard Root’s voice.
“Sure, I’ll babysit,” she mocked. As soon as Sam disappeared upstairs, Root moved to hide behind the only furniture in the lobby. “Alright kids, things are gonna get interesting.”
Root started shooting as soon as the front door opened, and even though Fred flinched every time Root fired she kept her eyes open, constantly moving from Root to her targets. She watched as one fell to the ground, another hiding behind the opened door, moving in when Root stopped to reload. He received a bullet to the side before he could reach the stairs, and Fred looked up to see a head rising above the balustrade.
“Would you stop firing like you’ve got endless ammo?” Fred heard Sam complained, and a grin appeared on Root’s face.
The four other men sent by Wolfram and Hart entered at the same time in a rush, three of them running up the stairs as one walked a straight line towards Root, shooting relentlessly. Root ducked behind the furniture until he got too close and then stood up rapidly, firing two shots at him. He fell to the ground then and she moved quickly, taking away his gun.
Bullets came raining down on her and Root ran to take cover in Angel’s office, not bothering to fire back at them. She nearly crashed into Fred on the way in.
“Where’s Sam?” Fred asked immediately, ignoring Root’s annoyance with her. Before Root could answer, the phone on Angel’s desk rang, and Fred instinctively moved to answer it.
“You have to get out of there now,” Angel’s voice came through the line immediately, panicked and rushed, and Fred blinked. “They sent people to kill you.”
She spared Lorne a look, still ducked behind Angel’s desk. “I know,” she answered, hearing gunshots in the lobby.
“Fred, get out of there now,” the urgency in his voice wasn’t new, but this time Fred felt strangely distant and unresponsive; like she didn’t care much what happened to her. She thought of Sam upstairs just as the firing stopped. She dropped the phone then, barely hearing Angel’s protests as she walked up to Root.
“Where’s Shaw?” Root asked, and Fred had the distinct feeling she wasn’t talking to her. Root ran a hand through her hair and pulled out a second gun from an ankle holster. “Stay down,” she ordered Fred before she moved towards the door, but Fred pulled on her arm, forcing her to turn around.
“If Sam’s hurt I’m going with you,” Fred insisted, glancing at Lorne as he was hanging up the phone. She guessed he had reassured Angel in some way, but at the moment she didn’t care much about that. Her heartbeats somehow slowed almost to a stop as she waited for Root’s answer.
Root sighed. “Fine,” she took the crossbow out of Fred’s hand and threw it aside on the couch before offering her a gun. “You know how to use this?”
Fred nodded, feeling the heat of Root’s palm lingering on the hard metal of the revolver.
“Don’t shoot at me,” Root ordered. “Or at Shaw,” she added before she spared a glance towards Lorne, back to his safety spot behind the desk. “I don’t care whether or not you shoot him.” Lorne made a face and Root smirked, yet somehow Fred felt a bit reassured at the banter, as if it was a promise that everything would be okay in the end.
Fred dutifully followed Root into the lobby, the both of them sticking close to the wall as they moved slowly towards the stairs.
“She says she doesn’t have eyes on Shaw, but there’s one guy just above us,” Root whispered to Fred, shoving her arm into her ribs when Fred didn’t stop. “Wait.”
Root seemed to count up to ten in her head before she pounced forward, getting at the foot of the staircase in three steps and firing two shots rapidly. She then gestured to Fred to follow before climbing up the stairs and Fred obeyed, speechless.
As soon as they reached top they found the man Root had shot, whining on the floor, holding onto his leg and trying to stop the bleeding. Root didn’t spare him a look, going straight for Sam’s unconscious body a little further ahead down the corridor. Fred felt nauseous at the sight and ran behind Root, kneeling beside Sam with a lump in her throat. She gazed from Sam to Root as Root searched for a pulse, only breathing again when Root’s cold expression warmed up slightly.
“She says others are coming,” Root breathed out, eyes glancing to the side. She found a second unconscious man beside Sam, but no doubt Sam’s assailant was still on the same story somewhere.
“Who’s she?” Fred asked, staring as Root returned to her feet. Her worry only increased when Root’s eyes unfocused again.
Root turned around quickly and fired two more rounds before she threw her empty gun aside; Fred looked in time to see another stranger falling on the floor, crying out in pain. Root kneeled again, hands kneading Sam’s body until she found a hidden revolver in one pocket. “You stay with her,” Root told Fred in a rush before she ran downstairs. Fred heard a few more gunshots, and when it quieted down she moved towards the balustrade, head rising to look over the parapet.
“Root?” she asked, knowing it would betray her position, but unable to stop the worry in her gut. She noticed Lorne gazing up to her from Angel’s office, and shrugging like he didn’t know what was going on. “Root?” she called again, almost frantically.
“Would you shut up for a moment?” Root complained then, walking up the stairs like there was nothing to worry about. “I’m trying to listen.”
“Listen to what?” Fred asked, but by her side Sam slowly regained consciousness, and that grabbed all her attention.
Fred barely noticed that Root had already reached her side, and she was startled when Root whispered fondly, “hey sleepyhead.” With one hand resting on Sam’s leg, she extended an open palm towards Fred. “My gun please?”
“You gave her a gun?” Sam groaned, bringing a hand to the back of her head and finding blood where she had been hit.
“She insisted,” Root shrugged.
Sam rolled her eyes. “What’s the situation?”
Root grinned. “Under control.” She raised her gun and aimed it at Fred’s head, firing a round just beside Fred’s ear, effectively shooting down a guy coming down the corridor. Fred felt the heat of the bullet as the explosion hurt her eardrum violently, making her flinch.
“Well, for the most part,” Root smirked.