"So somebody broke in and stole this device - the... Naminore, you say? - from Wolfram and Hart? I'm aghast at such a disgraceful flouting of the law. And that they should target such an undeserving victim, obviously."
Lying flat on his back on the couch, Wesley raised his book to cover his face and returned to Dante and Beatrice.
"That's very funny. Except, the purpose for which they're going to use the artefact involves the tedious side effect of the destruction of this city and everything that happens to be in it. Think you'll still find it funny when you, me, and everything else within a fifty mile radius ceases to exist?"
"I hadn't any plans," he responded, and turned the page.
"Goddamn it, Wesley, this is serious. Listen to me. We're talking massive chaos and destruction, a loss of life measured in seven figures. You. Me. Your little ex-friends. My oh-so-charming co-workers. Everything gone."
"I'm sorry, Lilah, I think you mistake us for people who care. Even if you're telling the truth, I have no interest in helping either Wolfram and Hart or Angel Investigations. Now, if you don't mind, I'm busy." He turned the page.
"I wish you'd stop reading that book." She leaned over and dashed it out of his grasp. "You aren't Judas and it's not like Dante understood his damn theology that well anyway and you cannot want to die." She paused, breathing hard. He watched with interest as the real Lilah Morgan broke through the surface of her normally perfectly-maintained facade, and realised that her panic... wasn't faked.
"I do know that," he said, picking up the book and dusting it off. Resting it carefully down on the coffee-table and feeling his brow crease as he tried to absorb that the city might actually be in danger; to figure out whether it was surprise that was responsible for his lack of emotive response. "What precisely do you expect me to do? I'm sorry your firm has been screwed over in a manner that spells destruction for the whole of LA. Shouldn't you be booking your ticket out of here?"
"I'm not running."
"You astonish me. Could it be those depths we spoke of earlier surfacing to prove me wrong?"
"Do I look like Lindsey McDonald? I start things, I finish them. I don't get all whiny and back out. I worked hard to get this far. If I run, I'll have nothing. I'm not going to build everything from scratch all over again. It took too long and too much the first time."
"Ah, the self-serving impulse continues to rule after all. But I still don't see what you can possibly expect me to do."
"I expect you to help me stop it before it's too late."
Wesley managed to change his coughing fit into a grunt. "And Wolfram and Hart approve?"
"Hell, yes. Do you know how badly an apocalyptic event on this scale right now would screw with our schedule?"
"Ah." He quenched a smile. "But let's pretend for a moment that you're part of a powerful mystical firm entrenched in dark magics with a vast array of its own resources, internal and external. Why would you approach a... an independent like me?"
"Because most of the 'resources' who know their business at all are clearing out of LA as we speak," Lilah snapped. "I've a team on stand-by to help us if we need them. There are a dozen more teams tearing this city apart after whoever stole the thing, but if they've already invoked the artefact by the time they're found... we won't have much time before we're all going to hell in a handbasket pretty fucking literally. You've probably got more practical experience in stopping this shit than anyone else we have to call on right now. If any of the mystical types dumb enough to stick around have any chance at all-"
"You think I do," he finished. "Come on, now, Lilah? With my track record of late?"
She regarded him in silence. He rolled his eyes, breaking the contact.
"I don't understand. If you have this artefact, you must have a purpose for it. You've probably been intending to use it yourselves. So - why the panic?"
"Time and place, Wesley. It's been foretold in half a dozen different prophetic writings we have in our possession that the activation of the Naminore is a crucial portent of the next apocalypse, due in - well, not yet. It doesn't say for which side it will be a weapon. We want to be sure it's ours, at the time we choose. It's about control. Can't stop something from happening - see that it happens at your convenience. Basic rule of business, isn't it?
"Besides, we have over a century's lead on this thing. We had a reservation, damn it. Let some thief swipe it now?" She made a noise of disgust. "We need to recover the artefact and fast, before its power's wasted by some hack cultist or amateur collector who doesn't know the potential of what they're dealing with. The fact it would destroy Los Angeles is a small concern by comparison. Though I personally find it a fairly distracting one."
She paced a few times, some of the tension draining away. Maybe she sensed she had him. Maybe there was a limit to how much tension her tough, sensuous body could hold. Her mask had returned to its norm and he found himself mourning the refreshing honesty of the face underneath.
"You'll be paid, of course," she said, mistaking his silence for the last vestiges of doubt.
Wesley laughed. "Outside contracting for Wolfram and Hart to save over three million lives... It has a certain poetic perversity. My little ex-friends would have a fit. Still, I don't really see what I can do."
"Your performance hasn't let me down yet." Lilah smirked.
He rolled his head to one side, looked up at her crookedly.
"Well, then. Perhaps I could give it a try, at that."
Fred didn't need the force with which the door crashed inwards from Charles' shove to know that Charles was pretty darned angry. He had been since not long after he got off the phone and told her someone had stolen an object from Wolfram and Hart that was going to destroy Los Angeles. And that was fine and understandable as something to get angry about, but she'd suspected the anger had another source even before he finally vocalised it.
"This should've been Angel's deal. He's apocalypse-guy. Seen a handful of 'em, by all accounts, including some he tried to bring about himself. Damn it, if he hadn't run out and left us-"
"Don't," Fred said, and her voice cracked. "Don't say it. Please. We don't know what happened. For all we know he could be dead... dust... or imprisoned somewhere and he can't get back to us. We don't know that he left us on purpose. I won't - we shouldn't condemn him for it until we know."
Gunn turned, his fury crumbling. "I'm sorry, baby." He folded her in his arms. She indulged in the embrace for a second before wriggling out.
"I know we haven't talked about it much. Maybe we should have. But I think... we've other things to be doing now. It isn't a good time."
"It'll never be a good time."
"I... I know. But you get what I mean, right, what with the impending doom all impending. We should research this thing. What did your contact say, again?"
"It's called the Naminore. Somebody stole it from Wolfram and Hart. It's meant to be a portent in calling down the apocalypse. Something about it opening up a gateway to a hell dimension."
She frowned. "That doesn't seem a lot to go on."
"It's all he said, minus the asides of whimpering, the 'we're-all-gonna-die', and a generous slice of 'end-of-the-world-is-nigh'. Damn, for all I know he could've read it in some tea leaves. For all I know the guy's full of shit. Except... the fear was real, nobody could've faked that. He sure as hell believed what he was saying."
Charles perched on the desk that had been Cordelia's next to a whole pile of books that'd been Angel's and Wesley's. He picked up a book, opened the pages.
An instant later, slammed it down again. "God damn." He swung off the desk and paced angrily, back and forth over the same few feet of floor, until he jerked to a halt wearing an expression like thunder.
"What is it?"
"Fucking Latin is what it is. Or Aramaic... Etruscan... some other long dead or demonic language you and I have no chance of understanding."
Fred sighed, nodded. "I'll start looking at the English and Latin ones I can read." Necessity overrode her lack of enthusiasm for Wesley's former role. "You-"
"I'll try the internet. Then I'll try some more of Angel's and... Angel's old freaky magic contacts. See if I can't hire some research help in."
"For apocalypse type stuff, I guess we can stretch the expenses."
She tried to smile. He didn't laugh.
It wasn't the first time their lack of research-muscle had been an issue, only the first time in a case that could be serious. Many of the things they'd dealt with in their weeks running the business alone had been run-of-the-mill, the sorts of cases Angel and Wesley might've handed to the two of them as a matter of course. Others had not. She'd performed magical charms (mostly simple ones, and the one that had gone wrong hadn't done too much damage to the foyer); one exorcism of unfriendly spirits; had countless times sat up all night digesting heaps of books that threatened to turn her brains to kaplooey all over again. Charles had taken on demons that would've fazed Angel, and it was a wonder they'd only ended up having to go to the hospital that once.
Gunn set to work at Cordelia's computer and Fred stretched out the books on the floor and squatted cross-legged amongst the piles. Wesley would've known precisely where to look first, probably could've quoted several passages off the top of his head without the need for books at all. Fred had nightmares of that being her someday. She was just beginning to absorb facts like how the Books of Atnarjan were little use for accurate facts about the magical or demon world but excellent references when trying to track the mundane history of an object (it had only taken two instances of puzzling over descriptions of imaginatively wrought demonic species to work it out). And there were still so many of the books she lacked the linguistic skills to even read.
She wished more of these magical scribes had understood the value of indices.
Gunn's fingers tap-tap-tapped on the computer.
She looked up from the book she was working through, watched him bent intently in front of the screen.
"Maybe you're right," she confessed with a sigh. "Maybe he did leave us. And maybe we should talk about it. Admit that it's a possibility. He and Cordelia - maybe they went away on purpose, and they aren't coming back. You know how they were together, just before."
He turned his head; his eyes had taken on a hollow cast. "I know."
"And maybe we can't blame them," she said in a rush. "They've been fighting for so long, and they went through so much before I even got here - some before you did, too - and maybe they deserve some rest. Some happiness-"
"'Cept for the part where Angel turns evil when he gets some."
"Oh." Fred's hands flew to her mouth. "I... you really think-? He couldn't, surely, knowing what might happen..."
"He better hadn't." Charles' lips were set in a grim line. "But for what it's worth, I don't think that happened. You're right, though, we should be prepared. We should have talked about this before now, because we need to be ready. It could be what happened, whatever we want to believe. We never imagined that Wes-" He choked on the name. He hardly ever said it. But he picked up again determinedly, "that Wes would betray us. So we gotta be ready, up here-" he tapped his hairless skull "-just in case.
"'Cause we both know what we'd have to do, then."
"A hell dimension." Wesley was sitting on the edge of the couch now, fingers interlaced and rested under his chin, and his eyes were beginning to light with that fever of interest of those who actually got enthusiastic about such things for the sake of academia alone. "Overlapping LA? How extraordinary. I can't believe I've never come across this before. With something so akin to Sunnydale's Hellmouth, you'd think I'd have heard. I was provided extensive information on the Hellmouth, after all, in my training to be a Watcher..."
Lilah rolled her eyes. She paced, restless, feet aching inside her five-hundred-dollar shoes. The pulse of fear at the back of her mind had subsided, and she kept it under control. Reminded herself that, his penchant for fumbling aside, Wesley Wyndham-Pryce had been the brains of Angel's organisation.
Although right now she'd like to know what the hell had happened to Angel. The one time she could actually use the undead bastard of a Champion of Good, and he vanished without trace, leaving her to dig in the kooky-sidekick reject bin.
"It's not like the Hellmouth," she said irritably. "It's not even really there. It's just... potentially there, until the Naminore comes into play. Then we're all entering a whole new shiny definition of 'screwed'."
"Yes. I did grasp that point." Wesley flexed his arched fingers. "Naminore... It didn't register to me at first - your pronunciation really isn't terribly accurate, Lilah - but I think I may have come across the name before. It's of Eastern origins, isn't it? It came up for auction in Persia towards the end of the last century, after having long been thought lost, and swiftly vanished into obscurity again when acquired by an unknown - not so unknown anymore, I suppose - buyer. I never heard of any specific mystical purpose ascribed to it, though, it was more generally thought of as an ancient curio. A few rumours surrounding it which might reasonably be referred to as... well, as insane, to be quite honest. But I don't think even those mentioned anything about it being the key to a hell dimension, more along the lines of 'power beyond the dreams of mortal men'."
"Yeah? That would be because steps were taken not to advertise the fact. You know, your lot always underestimate the influence of my firm." She grinned at him. "Even you and your big old library of a photographic memory."
"Not eidetic, just exceptionally thoroughly trained." He stood and stalked to a bookcase; started pulling ancient bound volumes off it. The movement put his face in shadow.
Lilah pursed her lips. Ah, yes. She remembered now that Wyndham-Pryce senior had by all accounts particularly rigorous methods of teaching his offspring. In his defence, they seemed to have worked. She bit off a quip about how files and records could use him. So far repetitions of her job offer had resulted in a truly Arctic cold shoulder and an invitation to leave, and she couldn't handle a ten-degrees-below, pissy Wesley on top of the rest of the morning's shit. She contemplated the line of his back as he reached up to pull down books. It was rigid, tense. When wasn't it?
Oh. Right, yeah.
She wondered if Wesley suspected how much she knew about him, how far Wolfram and Hart's information on Angel's group of hangers-on stretched, how many of his weaknesses were catalogued in her current favourite bedtime reading; a big ring-bound file of prime Wyndham-Pryce screw-ups.
Lilah wasn't entirely sure this new incarnation would even care. How much of the information was defunct now?
"I have to make a phone call," she said. "You find some passages about the Naminore."
He turned and frowned at her, one brow lifting slightly.
"Research won't do you any good unless I call." She smiled. "Wait and see."
She lifted her cell phone to her ear, prodding the keypad. Linwood's tinny voice answered after two rings. "We're going ahead," she said. "Told you I could convince him. I'll need it lifted."
Linwood's response was pretty much as expected from their earlier debate. She pouted at him through the digital connection.
"We talked about this. If I could get him to agree, you'd contact them about removing the glamour. With respect, sir, it's not like it's serving any purpose at the moment. Whoever took the Naminore clearly knows exactly what they're doing already, and if we don't have all the information we can hardly go ahead-"
She rolled her eyes at the reluctance still dragging his grudging response.
"And the other thing, too," she said, before he rung off. "As soon as possible."
Wesley was staring at her from behind a pile of books. "Dare I ask?"
"Give it ten minutes, and there's a birthday surprise coming your way. Oh, and the scrolls we have that are connected with the artefact should be delivered by courier anytime now."
"Well, photocopies of them. The originals were, sadly, also stolen."
"Photocopies?" Wesley looked - the only word for it was 'scandalised'.
"Yeah." She replaced the cell phone inside her jacket. "Is there a problem?"
He shook his head. It was more wondering than affirmative. "You are aware, aren't you, that you redefine the term 'heathen'?"
Lilah was lifting the edges of her mouth to grace him with her most sumptuous smile when the tap on the door sounded. She went to answer it, ignoring Wesley's grunt of protest.
"Thanks," she said, taking the folder from the black-robed figure outside. She dug in her purse and passed across several notes. "Keep the change."
A noise of acknowledgement came from beneath the hood, where a blue-white chin was all that could be seen of a face. The figure dissolved away and she closed the door on its fading features.
Turned around to find Wesley directly behind her, arms folded, looking halfway between cross and bemused.
"Come on, darling." She salvaged dignity from her involuntary jump of surprise by standing on her toes to touch her lips to his, pressing the folder into his grasp. "Catastrophes to avert, lives to save. Does all this bring back memories yet?"
Two hours of thoroughly racked nerves later, Gunn had moved on from the scant online sources to the telephone and Angel's contact book, with its names and numbers scratched out in straight rows in the vampire's neat hand.
"...Persia, 1898...yadda, yadda... never seen again..." Fred read out between calls. "Guess that's how long Wolfram and Hart have had this thing. I could quote its history backwards by now. It'd be kinda nice to find something new. I mean, there's nothing here - no mystical purposes, no doom and will-lay-waste-to-large-chunks-of-Southern-California warnings. And yet, up until the early 1900's there're references to people obsessively searching for it, and it seemed to be some sort of coveted artefact."
"Why covet if the thing didn't have some sort of power?" Gunn summarised.
Out of five mojo guys so far, two hadn't answered, one hadn't even recognised the name, and the other two had informed him with gentle humour that the object had no known power and someone was clearly playing him false with their tip-off's.
He was beginning to think they were right.
"What if it lost its power," Fred said, "and somehow, now, it's been returned?" She groaned and put her hands to her head in severe research-pain. Gunn winced in sympathy. Fred didn't like being research-gal. "But if that happened, surely there should be a reference somewhere to it happening!"
She stretched out flat on her back among the mess of books with a 'huff'. Only the seriousness of their task held back Gunn's smile.
"Well, we know it ain't because the info's in the books we can't read. Two of these guys I rung are listed as expert in a dozen crazy old languages, and they don't know any more than you've found." He tossed the phone aside. "I'm with the book guys. I reckon someone's yanking our chain."
"I - I don't know." Fred raised herself onto her elbows. "I got a feeling - you know. Something's not right here. I think maybe we should try call-"
"Don't say it. Do not say it." He heard the threat in his voice and tried to rein in the anger.
"But, Charles, this is serious. The whole city could be in danger. Millions of lives at stake, and we want to get stuck on personal grievances? I just think-" She broke off with a small gasp.
Gunn felt it too. A split second where the air was charged and seemed to hum with... something. Didn't feel electrical. Felt more like when Wes had banished that Thesulac thing, here in the lobby, back nearly two years now.
He wished he hadn't thought of that. "What the hell?"
Fred was climbing shakily to her feet. "That was mojo. Someone's working mojo. We might be too late-" She stopped, still as a statue, halfway up off her knees, staring down.
At the opened pages of one of the books.
"Oh, my." She swallowed a few times, pushed her glasses further up on her nose, picked up the book and bent her head to it. Gunn was already on his feet, moving to join her.
"What is it?"
"This... wasn't here before. There're whole passages in here that've just appeared. Just now. I swear they weren't here before. I looked. I couldn't have missed them-"
Her voice disappeared and she was reading, chin almost touching the pages, eyes huge behind her spectacles, and for all that this was Fred and he'd have said there wasn't anything could make her look other than pretty, he didn't like the expression on her face at all, nor the horror in it that grew every moment.
"This is bad," she said, finally raising her head, light glinting off her lenses. "Very bad."
"How bad? I mean, what-?"
"Well, it's kinda wrapped up in a lot of big old mystical words, but basically we're talking bad in the sense of 'LA's reality being written over by that of a pocket-dimension foretold as the manifestation of despair upon the Earth' bad," Fred said matter-of-factly.
She snapped the book shut, rounding off the speech with terrified smile of accomplishment.