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In This Fateful Hour

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It is to be like this, forever and always. Lilah would live and die and suffer in small moments, trapped in sticky amber memories and the white flash of realization. The Senior Partners, those old allies of Lilah’s, they watched her writhe with all the amusement of 15-34 year old males catching a glimpse of a new reality series before going back to whatever they were doing besides worrying advertisers.

Advertisers, who were in fact, more hellish than the Partners, pandering endlessly for demographics that didn’t matter. They would say the loop of Lilah’s most unspeakable moments were stale, that they were in danger of losing male teens and the urban audience. Could she perhaps get jiggy with something? Or adopt a sassy best friend?

Lilah suspected that maybe, just maybe, the moments of lucid, adult identity were meant to be their own torture, a stream of non sequiturs meant to distract from the inevitable knowledge of what was coming.

Death had restored so much of Lilah’s memories, of the way things had truly been from beginning to end. But just when she was on the verge of making connections, of thinking more than thoughts about advertisers and subliminal product placement, she would fall under. Deep under, in the world that would have been if she hadn’t wished it away, where she was fourteen and trapped. Never and always, amen.

Always Dad standing there, teasing. “Mr. Tibbles is in grave peril,” he said, holding the stuffed puppy over the railing. “His life is in my hand, Lil. You have to be nice to me or he’ll fall.”

(Lil? Who’s Lil? Why does she feel like me?)

“Give him back!” she shrieked, embarrassed. He wasn’t supposed to come home and see her hugging Mr. Tibbles. And she was so awkward anyway, in her Wonder Woman t-shirt and short shorts and rainbow belt. Beauty was two awkward-as-hell years away, years that never came. “Give him back NOW!”

He grinned, and dangled it just over her head. “Try to get him,” Dad teased. They’d only been playing. Lilah didn’t want Mr. Tibbles to fall, and besides, she had a good jump. Maybe she’d try out for basketball instead of trying to be a cheerleader like Mom wanted.

{Where are we? Why does this seem so familiar? I’ve had this dream before.)

Mid-jump, Lilah felt this rush of energy, like she’d suddenly been turbocharged. And she panicked, overcontrolled, and hit Dad anyway. Fell into him hard and he didn’t catch her. They were both knocked back, wood railing splintering and falling around them.

She lived an entire life in one point seven-five seconds.

(Oh God oh shit oh shit oh shit oh god my god no, I’m so scared, Dad be okay, please don’t be dead.)

Lilah felt the breath whoosh out of her. “Dad?” she asked, looking down at her father, whose eyes were unfocused and not blinking. “That hurt. Are you okay?”

(Be okay. Who are you? Why are you always in my dreams? Why am I so afraid for you?)

“Dad, can you hear me?” she said, sounding confused as she scrambled off him. He was breathing. Maybe he had a concussion. Of course. Anyone would, from falling like that. “Dad? I’m going to call 911.”

They were very unhelpful. She knew not to move him. It had been in an Afterschool Special. Or something on TV; Lilah forgot. They would be there shortly. Lilah told them she didn’t need to keep talking to them, because she wasn’t hysterical.

“I should watch my dad,” she said flatly. “Please come fast.”

She was clumsy all the time. It hadn’t knocked the railing out before. Hadn’t killed anyone before. But before, she hadn’t been Wonder Woman. Lilah very calmly walked over to the coffee table, thinking about the time Jimmy Tenura had said girls couldn’t be martial arts fighters. She took a deep breath, lifted up her fist, and brought it down as hard as she could into the coffee table.

(I remember this…it felt just like this. Having this new power. I’m so afraid. Why am I so afraid for her? Why am I so afraid for me?)

The legs collapsed and the veneer was cracked now. Mom would be very pissed off; it was solid oak. Lilah didn’t care. Curiosity satisfied, she sat next to Dad.

“The ambulance is coming,” she said, folding her arms around her knees. “You must have absorbed the shock from the fall. The doctors will fix you. I’m so sorry, Dad.”

(Something bad is happening. Something bad is about to happen.)

Watching the breathing get shallower and shallower, Lilah buried her head in her hands, trying not to cry. “Oh, God,” she whispered. “Let this not have happened. Oh, God, let this be taken away from me.”

It never is. (Let it stop, oh please, let it stop, I don’t want to see her cry a…)

In Rome, Buffy sat up in a cold sweat. “Oh God,” she said, shivering. “Let this not have happened.”

Moonlight fell across the bed, and the sheets were rumpled and twisted from Buffy’s more-than-nightmare. She got up on bare feet, and padded into the bathroom. Andrew was snoring on the couch, holding his plush Master Shake doll close, and Buffy closed the door on him. How she’d ended up with Andrew as a permanent housemate was beyond her. Giles needed to trade Dawn back soon. Buffy knew her sister seemed to have the best bond with Dana, and that she’d managed to interpret some of the quasi-prophetic ranting Dana did at odd intervals, but Andrew was damned annoying.

Especially now that he was straight and Dawn was questioning. That was also like some kind of impossible opposite-verse where up was down and Johnny Depp was ugly. Buffy sighed, got herself a glass of water, and looked in the mirror. That had been the third time she’d had the same weird dream, and it just got sadder and creepier. That sad, dark-haired girl, the fall, the whole weird of the accident. And then the way she sat there next to him, like Buffy had with her mom. Waiting. Hoping.

The phone rang before Buffy could go back to bed, and before Buffy could get the phone, Andrew had answered it. “Ciao,” he said in his best suave Italian voice. “Oh my God, Kennedy! Hi!”

Only Andrew could be such a Valley Girl. Buffy took the phone from Andrew with an annoyed grunt. “Kennedy, it’s like, three thirty in the morning in Rome,” she said. “What’s going on?”

“Who the hell is that Slayer, Buffy?” Kennedy asked. “Willow’s going crazy, trying to figure it out. Every Slayer in South America is having these dreams. One of the girls is so uptight about it that we’re taking her off duty for a month.”

Buffy sighed. “I don’t know, Kennedy,” she said. “Willow doesn’t have any way of identifying her? She’s from North America, obviously. I’m guessing western US. Send a team up there.”

“Oh, yes, let’s send Slayers to the war zone,” Kennedy said dryly. “Assuming we can get them across the US border and into California anyway, where your big stupid ex refuses to deal with us because it’s his war.”

“Like you said, Kennedy,” Buffy snarled. “She’s making people crazy. We kind of sort of have to find her, or it’ll be worse than being stuck in a terror-war-zone.”

Kennedy paused. “Sorry, Buffy,” she said. “They’re freaking me out. I’m scared something bad is happening to her.”

Buffy realized her free arm was wrapped around herself, and she was still sweating. “I dig,” she said. “I’m scared for her and for us, too.”

Anne’s arm was comfortable and comforting where it was, thrown over Gunn’s waist possessively. The sun blaring in their eyes let her know that it was about noon; time for them to get up. Most people had been awake since just before dawn, because there was no use in going out after dark anymore unless one was suicidal.

They were the last protection against the darkness, literal and physical. And Anne wasn’t sure that protection was holding out. Gunn had been so wounded that Angel had taken him off active duty as long as he could, despite his own crippling losses.

That had been four days.

“Time to wake up, isn’t it?” Gunn asked quietly. She hadn’t realized he had been awake.

“Afraid so,” Anne said. “Let me see the bandages.”

Gunn groaned, struggling into a sitting position. “If I’d known getting hurt meant I had to be poked and prodded by you every morning, Annie, I wouldn’t have gone and done it,” he said.

Anne chuckled, pulling out her squeaky metal box of medicine. “Now you know,” she said. “So don’t get hurt again.”

She changed the dressings, putting the old ones in the sack to be washed; they didn’t have any to waste. So many people had been hurt and killed in the original attack on the city, and the President had declared Los Angeles a disaster area, maybe even a complete write-off. Anne wasn’t sure; they were filtering the radio broadcasts that got into the city. Also, she was trying hard not to make waves by knowing how exactly the world had taken Angel’s last stand.

If she did, she’d just end up arguing with Charles, and she didn’t feel like doing that. Times were too hard to waste friends over philosophical differences, especially when they were only getting worse.

“No problem,” Gunn said, squeezing her shoulder. “I appreciate that you stayed.”

Anne tried to smile at him, but it fell flat. Where was she going to go, exactly? She’d gotten the kids out; there had been enough Concerned Americans to do that much. But nobody had much use for a shelter owner with no past, no name, and a background check away from complete humiliation. Charles would watch her back and she’d change his bandages. They’d pretend that the world wasn’t going straight to Hell, and that all their hopes and dreams hadn’t been steamrollered in the name of Making A Stand, oh no.

“I appreciate that you come back,” Anne said, and Gunn looked down.

“I know it’s bad, Annie,” he said, staring at his hands, such big hands. Anne suddenly remembered that Gunn had lost his friend, the English guy. Wesley, the one who’d been shot before. How did you handle loss like that? How had any of them not gone crazy? How had they not all gone crazy? “I don’t know what else to do, you know? Angel always was the guy. He had the mojo. He knew what to do.”

“And now, I guess not,” Anne said.

“We fucked up,” Gunn said, still staring at his hands. “We got obsessed with big pictures and big symbols and it was a mistake. And I swear, Annie, if I’d known…well, if I’d known a lot of things, I wouldn’t have joined in. Don’t think Angel would have, either.”

Anne pressed her mouth against Gunn’s shoulder, holding on tight. “I know, Charles,” she said softly. “I know.”

Watcherworld Central couldn’t have been more different than the old Watchers’ Headquarters. It was a garishly new, modern building, glass and steel and light, nestled unremarkably in the suburbs of London. There were elaborate security systems, magical scanners, a sanctuary spell in place, and dozens of young Slayers and Watchers buzzing around, training, whichever Scooby who was in town assuring anxious parents…in short, it was cheerful, effective, and to Dawn’s mind, boring.

She had two major duties in London; one was to baby-sit Dana, who’d fallen off the wagon recently when it came to the crazy, and the other was to work on her prophecy knowledge. Giles had proudly said that she was the next generation of translator and interpreter for the world, and Dawn actually liked that future. She’d liked it even better once Giles and Roger Wyndam-Pryce had had their fight (or row, as they’d call it) and she’d been allowed access to the manuscripts. Manuscripts smelled wonderful, and Dawn could almost feel the magic humming in the inked words.

Today, she had important stuff to do. Buffy was freaked about these dreams she was having of a Slayer who was apparently off the radar somewhere and sending out a mystical distress signal. Problem was, Willow had done every locator on her known to man and demon, and nothing doing. They couldn’t find her, like she didn’t exist on this plane. Hence, Dawn’s job was to see if there was anything prophetic while Giles calmed nervous parents and scared Slayers about their off-the-radar Slayer.

Hinklemann stopped her and almost patted her down for pens, though Dawn had since recognized that this wasn’t unique to the Watchers, or an old man being mean to a young girl. The freak-o woman at the Huntington had repeated fifteen times that pens and manuscripts didn’t mix, and Dawn had become resigned to pencils and PDAs to do research.

Two hours later, she’d gone over Widstoe’s Miscellany five times, with the net effect of finding very little on a missing Slayer, and the most interesting person she’d never heard of. Someone who went by the title Calamity.

“Come to undo all things,” Dawn read, still not sure what to make of the woman in question.

Her phone went off, and Dawn answered it. “Hello?” she asked quietly.

“Dawn?” Giles asked. “How is your research going?”

“Weirdly,” Dawn said, tapping her stylus against the edge of her Palm rapidly. “Have you ever heard of Calamity? Supposed to undo all things, starting with her destiny. It’s not much of a lead, but it’s what I’ve got.”

Giles paused. “It sounds almost familiar,” he said. “We need you back at the dorms. Dana’s had another seizure and she’s babbling about Hell and night and you’re the best at getting her to explain things.”

“I know,” Dawn said. “Are you going to recall Andrew? Buffy seems a little pissed with him hogging the couch. She and her boyfriend can’t do so much making out with him around.”

“Which is precisely why…but yes, Andrew will be back in London this evening, and tomorrow, Willow and Faith will be coming in,” Giles said in that stuffy tone that alarmed Dawn.

“Things are bad, aren’t they?” she asked.

“Quite disturbing, yes,” Giles said. “If you’ve found a lead in this Calamity person, it’s better than we’ve done lately. See you in about twenty minutes?”

“I’ll be there,” Dawn agreed.

They were making Wesley watch. Lilah wasn’t sure what was more horrible — knowing that it hurt him terribly, or the embarrassment she felt about the misunderstanding. If she could just explain this had never been possible: it had all been a fever dream bred out of septic sewer wounds, a regurgitation of her id’s worst nightmares.

“You have to push,” the white-hatted nurse who looked like Darla said, sinking her fingernails into Lilah’s wrist.

“Screw that,” Lilah said, and was punished with fingernails drawing blood, burning like fire in a moment that was already pain. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re trying to do.”

“If you play along, it’ll hurt less,” Dr. Angel said, gloves on and a smirk on his face. “Push.”

“Go to…Heaven,” Lilah growled, slapping at Darla as another contraction wracked her. “This is all a construction based on my pathological fears. Motherhood, abandonment, pain, humiliation. For all I know, it’s not really We–”

Nurse Darla sank a rusty hypodermic into Lilah’s arm, depressing the plunger of noxious green ‘medicine’ with sadistic glee. “We need you to cooperate,” she said. “Now, I know you know how to open those legs, and aren’t you ready to be a mommy?”

“God, no,” Lilah said hazily, feeling very heavy suddenly and cold. It didn’t hurt, but the knot in her stomach reminded her that it was never good when you were drugged in Hell. “Resistance…it’s not so futile, is it?”

Dr. Angel ran a blue-latex-gloved finger up and down Lilah’s arm with a lascivious smirk. “We have ways of making it useless,” he said. “The sooner you give up, the easier it will be. You’ll just be one of them, and it won’t hurt so much.”

“Liar,” Lilah said, trying to pretend the haze wasn’t overpowering. If she was supposed to fight it…she wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. Instead, she’d sink, let them try again. Vary her tactics until she could get to Wesley with what she knew.

This place was going to burn.

“True,” Dr. Angel said. “But you won’t remember that you were ever anyone. That there was ever anything except the pain you so richly and fully deserve.”

“It’ll be agony, beginning to end,” Nurse Darla said chirpily. “And for you…selfish, opportunistic individualist you are…to know that once you might have had a name? Will keep you awake those two minutes you could sleep in a month.”

“Mmm,” Lilah said, the answer coming to her in a gentle wave of dangerous sleepiness. Of course. This place ran on pain, and she was willing to bet the individualized pain that came out of breaking the masses was worth a hundred of those drones’ collective. Otherwise, why not just wipe everyone’s memories and set ’em on fire? More cost-effective that way. “You’re making me sleepy.”

“Are you sleepy, dear?” Nurse Darla asked, stroking Lilah’s hair. “You ought to sleep, and then you’ll have a perfect little baby waiting when you wake up.”

Lilah smiled, a dopey-looking smile. Perfect, huh? It would probably eat her head, or she’d have bled to death on the floor by the time she was supposed to wake up, the final memory being that dreadful squall. “I think I will,” she said. “I have a dream to dream.”

Dana screamed. Big sister always screamed now, because they were trying to drown her. They were trying to make the spark in her go away. Hide the truth. A needle in her arm. Once she had a name, and he’s watching now. He’s watching and it’s worse because she could deal with her own problems. She asked for this; she traded it away.

He didn’t. He didn’t and it was her fault he was here.

“The baby’s coming,” Dana said to Dawn. Glowing Dawn, something more than nothing. “His head is big. Big like Big-Head Angel. She can’t scream. They took away her vocal cords.”

“Where is she?” Dawn asked.

“Hell,” Dana said. They kept asking where she was. Big sister thought they were all fucking stupid. So stupid that if she could, she’d kill them all for stupidity. “The real Hell, not just the metaphor.”

“Does she talk to you now?”

“Not talking,” Dana said, pacing back and forth. “I just know, and she knows you. Useless Watchers. Worse than fucking Angel. The baby’s coming, the baby’s coming, it’s not real. Wesley, don’t watch!”

Dawn, who had been resigned to another session of Dana screaming out an interior monologue to some pretty scary nightmares, froze. “Wesley?” she asked. “Wesley Wyndam-Pryce?”

“Who else? Do I know any other Wesleys? I wasn’t going to have a baby. I was bleeding to death. It was a hallucination. Wesley, please don’t cry,” Dana moaned. “I have a fever. I’m burning up.”

Tentatively, Dawn tapped Dana’s forehead with her hand and snatched it back before the schizophrenic Slayer could bite. Dana was right; she had a fever. “I’m going to get Giles,” she said comfortingly. “He’ll take care of you.”

Their imprisoned (former) Slayer had known Wesley. Had slept with Wesley. Regularly enough that pregnancy had been an option. Except Wesley was dead now. Dawn thought about that. Wesley was dead. He couldn’t be watching…unless Dana was right.

Giles was going to be pleased to hear about this. Well, not pleased, but excited. They had leads. They had all sorts of leads.

“I can’t do this much longer,” Dana pleaded. “Please help me. I can stop them. Please. Please. Please.”

They couldn’t do. It was part of the contract that bound Heaven, Earth, and Hell in order and relative workability. They couldn’t change things, because that wasn’t the way it worked. She could see everything, understand it in a second, and put things together that wouldn’t have been possible during her life.

It was really pissing her off. She glowered at her partner, whose ethereal blondeness was another irritation on her less-than-heavenly spirit. “Don’t you ever get annoyed by this? It’s like, totally unfair,” she said.

The blonde angel shrugged. “Free will,” she said laconically. “I’d always found it superfluous, myself, but that’s the rules for you.”

“But they don’t have all the facts,” she said, frustrated. “It’s important that someone helps Lilah, for example. And while that’s a phrase I never expected to hear myself say? It’s important. Fate of the universe important. And what do we have between ourselves and darkness?”

“A crazy girl, the Slayer’s younger sister, and a couple that’s not yet a couple?” came the answer. “Don’t worry. I’ve seen worse odds.”

“But…Angel!” she said, glowering at the images she’d seen. “There’s the problem. What are we going to do about Angel?”

A moment of silence. A grimace. “That, I don’t know,” the blonde admitted. “I’ll tell you when I can see an answer.”