"So let me get this straight," Gunn said, running through the passages she'd read out. "LA's fate is to become a hell dimension that's some kind of temple to despair?"
"Well, I think the translation is 'ashes', or 'dust'... my Latin's not exactly fluent. But the references to despair, desolation... they're pretty clear throughout the passage. This is a Hell, a literal one, and if this ritual gets completed it's going to materialize in our dimension. Right here on the ground where this city stands."
"I'm so sure that should surprise me more than it does." Determination tightened his jaw. "We have to find whoever took this thing it and stop them. Any of your books say how we stop them?"
"They're not my books," Fred near snapped at him. "They're Angel's. And Wesley's."
Even so, she was already flicking through pages marked with little yellow stick-it labels that would've had Wes in apoplexy at the thought of damaging the ancient paper, and Gunn swallowed comment on her sharpness. It wasn't anything new that she was resenting feeling helpless over the research role she feared she couldn't fulfil.
The minutes ticked past as he watched her, his thoughts tightening his chest. His legs felt heavy as he crossed to the phone, lifted the receiver. He listened to the ringing a long time before putting it down.
Fred was hunched over the books another half hour before she glanced up again. Gunn was alarmed to see damp streaks on her face.
"Fred?" He was half risen from his chair when her next words stopped him in his tracks.
"I don't think I can do this," she said. "I can't - I won't be able to perform the rites to neutralise or reverse the effects of this thing. This is heavy mojo, real magic stuff. Maybe Wesley could, but... I can't do this. It'd be like a kid playing with matches. You know, matches and fire and burning and explosions. Anything could happen-"
"And 'anything' could be worse than a demon hell dimension swallowing LA?"
She gulped back the rest of her tirade to consider a moment. "Probably not that." She sighed. "I'm all right, I'm just... never mind. I know we have to try."
Next instant she'd jumped to her feet and was pressed against him, fingers gripping his arms with a strength desperation must've stretched her slim body to its limits to exert. His gaze touched hers and he knew what she was going to say.
The panic flowed out of her like blood. "We should go, Charles. We should warn people and go, it's the most we can do. The best thing we can do. Get the city evacuated, if we can make them listen. If people thought there was going to be a major earthquake - a deadly epidemic - something, anything we could make them believe. We do that and we go, get out of here. Together."
"Fred." His voice didn't sound right. "You know the folks at the top in this city aren't about to do a full scale evacuation on the doom-crying of some two-bit PI agency-"
She rolled right on, deaf to him. "The destruction - well, not actual destruction in the destructive sense, I mean nothing's gonna be destroyed, not like with a big explosion or anything, it's just gonna be gone, but never mind that - it's only localised. We can get away, to... we can go to my parents!" A brilliant, terrible smile took over her face, then died again the next instant. "We can't do this alone," she whispered. "We'll fail, and we'll die. This isn't fighting monsters. It's dark, dark magic. I don't even know enough to know how dark, but nothing that requires the spell components of this ritual can be happy, fluffy magic. We need Angel, and Cordelia, and Wesley, and they're not here. We're just the backup team, Charles."
She must have seen his answer in his face. Her eyes were brimming.
"No," he said. "No. Exactly what we can't do is leave. You're right - Angel and Cordy, they aren't here. And, damn it, I went and called Wesley, and he's not picking up. But we're here, and maybe the only ones in a position to even try stop this happening. So we have to try."
Her head hung, hiding her face, and he couldn't read her silence. He was unnerved - this wasn't his Fred. It wasn't like her.
"Fred, it's what we do. And we're not the backup team now, we're the main team. The main team can't slink off before the match."
She buried her face against his chest and after a moment his T-shirt was dampening but he could feel her nodding into his breastbone. "I know. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have suggested doing that - the running and hiding. It's just we have so much to live for now, and we've had so little time. It hasn't been enough, and I don't want us to die."
Gunn pulled her closer and almost wished he could change his answer. His fight had had casualties before had he'd be a damn fool to think it wouldn't have them again. He didn't want to get her killed, not the girl he planned to live a long life with. But the words were out now, no backing off, and he knew they were the right words. Everybody else had gone, lost the mission and disappeared. They weren't going to.
He wanted, though - wanted to send her away on the bus to her folks. Needed her too much to do it. Whatever small skills she'd learned in research and spells were a lot greater than he would ever have at his fingertips.
Anyway, he was willing to bet she wouldn't be any more likely to leave without him than he'd be to abandon her.
"We're not going to die," he said. "We're gonna kick evil's ass. Just like we've always done."
He kissed the top of her head. "Maybe we'll get there in time not to even have to do the mojo. Slay the bad guy, business as usual."
Fred nodded again. Breaking the embrace, she returned to pouring over the books on the floor.
"It wouldn't be us, anyway, if we ran," she said, her hair falling forward covering her face from view. "We'd be some other folks, who looked like us and maybe talked and acted like us, a bit, but we wouldn't be us. And we'd have such a hard time trying to find ourselves again, maybe we never would."
"It's a remarkable feat. I would have said impossible. To blanket-glamour near every source in existence that mentions the true nature of an object-"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Sprawled out luxuriously in the back of the limousine, Lilah waved a hand in limp dismissal. There was only so much enthusing over this esoteric shit a girl could take. "It was done over a century ago. They could do mass blood-sacrifices back then without the rest of the world noticing and taking exception. I guess, in a sense, modern times are a real pain in the ass for you mystical types, right?"
He looked up from the photocopied scrolls to glare at her.
"Of course," she added, flicking the edge of the papers in his hands with a perfect nail, "The downside of that is the fact none of our people could actually remember all the details. Releasing the glamour entire could mean trouble, later."
"From the writings I came across about the artefact, anyone with any mystical inclination who sees those passages is probably joining your more nervous colleagues clearing out of LA as we speak," Wesley said. "But this does rather beg the question, how does whoever stole it know what to do with it?"
She nodded. "Could be that whoever they are, they're old enough to have been looking a very long time."
"That wouldn't seem to bode well." His tone was bored; perverse bastard. His gaze returned to the scrolls and the limousine slunk around a corner, making him snatch for them as they slid from his knees. Irritably, he said, "Could you possibly have found us some transportation that was, say, a little more ungainly and conspicuous?"
"It's a Limo in LA, Wesley."
"I suspect this isn't an area that sees many limousines, nevertheless."
"It's hardly my fault you seem to have a map to all the crummiest places in this city tattooed onto the inside of your big old brain."
He shrugged. "The ritual concerned with the activation of the Naminore requires a 'hot spot' - a location with natural stored potential for dimensional transference. I know of three in the LA area. I apologise if they fail to have the decency to be in places you condescend to frequent." He squinted out of the window and tapped on the glass to the driver's compartment, to no avail. Looking pained, he began to search for a way to lower the barricade.
Lilah rolled her eyes and pressed the intercom. "Round about here will do." She glanced at Wesley.
He nodded grudgingly.
"Don't worry, I won't let on to any of our colleagues how out of place you feel with the high life."
"Because it would damage my fragile ego so much?" he said with sarcasm. "My family, if you recall, were not what you might call destitute. They just weren't so-" he gestured around him disdainfully "-so damned dramatic about it."
"No," she agreed. "Old money, right? Not like us upstart colonials. Polite dinners and courtesy and afternoon tea. Rules and belts and cupboards and a whole different world of repression. Forgive me if I wouldn't wanna trade."
Contrary to expectations, he just looked sour and didn't ask how she knew.
Well, that was one question answered, anyway - the psych reports on his reactions were nothing but obsolete waste paper. If they survived, she'd have to commission new ones. Couldn't let things fall behind.
The limousine had drawn to a halt but neither of them made a move to get out. When she was bored enough to break the silence, Lilah said, "Your father was an asshole. You know that, right? And, knowing who I work for, you must know I know assholes."
"I'll thank you to refrain from insulting my family, please," Wesley said tightly. He reached for the door.
"You need some serious therapy." Her disgust froze his grasp on the handle.
"This is not news." Wesley's fingers jerked down and a warm breeze sidled in through the door to stroke her knees. "I suppose you have your own analysts as well."
He got out and Lilah joined him. "Actually, no, we outside-contract those." She smoothed her skirt down. "But only the very best. We're very discerning."
He snorted, rolled up the papers and stuck them inside his jacket.
The street was dry and dusty, and she followed him along the sidewalk to a door in the side of a shaky-looking building. He pushed it open. Inside was dark and a faint tang of charcoal and some form of accelerant caught in her nose. She let Wesley go first down the staircase and returned to the limousine for a flashlight.
Cursing the debris underfoot as it stuck in her heels, she caught up with him at the bottom of the steps. He was standing, hands in pockets, in the midst of a large room with structures that might have been a bar and a stage before the damage reduced them to largely matchsticks. Place looked like it'd been nuked.
"Welcome to Caritas," Wesley said, his voice light and his face grim.
"The demon karaoke bar?" She'd heard of it. She couldn't imagine it was drawing many customers of late.
He didn't respond. He walked across to the stage and ran his finger through the dust on it, straightened up and shot a wry smile back at her. "Nobody's been here. On to the next-"
When they drew to a halt outside Los Angeles Public Library, Lilah pouted and said, "Don't we have enough books?"
Wesley was accustomed by now to the way she felt obliged to sniff and offer disparaging comment for every situation. He slid out of the limo and walked up to the main doors without so much as a glance in her direction.
They were blocked off by barricades and tape, with a sign reading 'closed - building maintenance in progress'. He peered through the glass panels, but couldn't see anything within, untoward or otherwise. Listened out for the sounds of hammering and machinery.
Foreboding filled him and the fear that had been distantly hovering finally thudded home. His lungs struggled to find oxygen and his heart sped up. Feeling surprised him. A lot of the time lately, he'd felt as though a thick veil stretched between himself and the rest of the world.
He pressed his lips into a thin line and stalked back to Lilah. "Call your team."
Crisis transformed her to all business. She pulled out her cell and dialled without debate. "Reyner," she purred when a tinny voice responded. "I need you here, like yesterday. We've found it. The Public Library. Yeah? Five minutes? I'll give you three."
She put the phone away and flicked her hair back; smiled at Wesley. There was something very false about her smile.
He recognised it in the next instant. She was afraid. Something of a revelation - Lilah Morgan who worked for Evil Incorporated, pitted herself against Angelus and placed herself in the path of countless demons and Billy Blim, also lacked for the brand of easy gung-ho physical courage that seemed to have surrounded him so prevalently since he came to California.
Wesley laughed, and she narrowed her eyes at him.
"Come here," he said, surrendering to the urge to find out what she tasted like while in the throes of a bout of humanity.
"Wesley, this would be a really bad time to be arrested for public indecency," she said, muffled as he grabbed her and buried their collective fear in lust.
He had her pinned against the hood of the limo, her tongue gouging the back of his throat, when his experiment was interrupted by someone tapping his spine with an object that was hard and smooth and felt alarmingly familiar.
Lilah made a choked noise, her eyes focused behind him, her hands fluttering against his shoulders.
They untangled, and he turned to face the half-dozen armed men who'd emerged from a badly-parked black van stretched diagonally across the sidewalk. In addition to the automatic rifles they carried, they were strapped with knives and stakes, their belts strung with ammunition. Oddly, while passers-by were staring, it was mostly at the two people who'd been sharing a kiss on the verge of being a public act of sex on the hood of a limousine.
The tall, shaven-haired man removed the end of his rifle from where it had nestled in Wesley's scar, mouth twitching in faint apology. He accorded Lilah a respectful "Ma'am" but lurking at the back of his eyes was a sarcastic, slightly apprehensive 'so good to see you're taking this life and death situation seriously'.
"Reyner." Lilah straightened her clothes and hair, visibly setting her composure back into place, and shot a glare at Wesley as though she suspected he'd deliberately planned to humiliate her before her subordinates. He filed it in his brain for future reference as another way to make her squirm.
She ran her glare around the troops and wordlessly pointed to the library, her posture full of command.
"Maybe not a good idea to burst in through the front door," Reyner said dryly. "There's only so much slack that the public's apathy and the inconspicuousness spells can take up, after all. Sewer access? Service doors?" He turned to his men. "Check it out."
While the troops marched off smartly to obey, Reyner waited with Wesley and Lilah in uneasy silence. Wesley took the case Wolfram and Hart, through Lilah, had provided from the back of the limousine and made the most of the excuse it provided, resting it on the car roof and checking through its contents thoroughly again. Five minutes later, one of Reyner's team returned to report sewer access.
The last thing Wesley had expected to be doing with his afternoon was following a group of heavily armed Wolfram and Hart thugs through the sewers to break into Los Angeles Public Library in order to save a city. But given the other options were drinking himself into a useless stupor in order to avoid thinking about the project of finding gainful employment for an ex-watcher, ex-demon-hunter, ex-fighter-for-the-forces-of-good that did not include demonic law firms, he failed to consider the turn of events to be anything very terrible.
In the darkness of the tunnels, he accidentally brushed against Lilah; felt her shudder through the layers of his clothing and her own. Closed his mouth on a snide remark about fear of the dark.
"Can't believe they just left. Walked out, left all that shit behind. Didn't even set the alarms." Charles' hands weren't on the wheel of his truck and his eyes weren't on the road. She nodded and said nothing, pointed at the oncoming minivan and hoped he'd remedy the situation. "Aw, man."
The truck swerved.
"Is it just me, or are there a lot of folks heading out of town for this time of day? Tell me there's not this many people in LA connected with the freaky and mystical who could've gotten the heads-up on this to do the mass exodus."
"I - I couldn't say. Maybe it's just normal traffic, and our brains are playing tricks 'cause we know."
The magic store where they'd gone to pick up the gear for the spell had been hurriedly closed. After a brief debate about the distance of the next nearest and the importance of not wasting any more time, Gunn forced the door. They'd left an anonymous IOU. Fred hoped the store didn't get looted, what with them having broken the lock and all. But maybe they had insurance.
Did insurers pay out for business premises being sucked into a hell dimension?
Charles was keyed up in a really bad way. His driving was scary.
"Where are we gonna get a human heart?" she asked again worriedly. He'd kept evading the question, and it wasn't making her any happier. "It doesn't say it has to be fresh. I mean, we could stop by the morgue, or - or even the graveyard."
"No time." He glanced at her and she didn't like what was behind his eyes, but she pointed back to the road and they at least returned to facing forward. "'Sides," he said reluctantly, "Odds are good that whoever's performing this crazy demon-dimension ritual has one of their own to spare. We can hope. We can hope all the more that we don't have to cast this spell."
Fred gulped and stared at the road ahead. Forced her attention back down to the books.
"Where we headed?" Gunn asked.
"Yeah. Well, logically, this kind of thing would work best at a spot where the borders between our reality and others were already thin. I can't translate all the information, but it makes sense that the Naminore should be activated on one of these hot-spots. And of those we know of in LA, the library is the one other folks are most likely to know about, and the one most possible to use discreetly for a major ritual of this kind. Also," she admitted, "I kind of really don't wanna go there so I know, you see, I know it's that one. Because last time I was there I got sucked into a hell dimension for five whole years and I guess I really wouldn't want that to happen again."
"If it helps," Gunn said, "I ain't too keen, either. So it's gut instinct, then?"
"I guess you could call it that." She reflected upon his naiveté in the face of nature's basic laws.
The truck glided around a long bend and the weapons made their familiar din rolling around under the tarp at back. The plastic shopping bag at her feet spilled out some of its contents and she toed them back inside, biting her lip in disgust.
Maybe she should've told Charles all of what the spell would do. But... no. It was better that he didn't know. She could at least save him any part of the decision whether to go ahead or not, knowing...
She studied him, his eyes narrowed in concentration as he negotiated them through sharper corners and darker streets. Even the sun had gone behind rare thick cloud and the bad light made it harder to trace his features. She resented the traitorous sun, wanting to mark his face into her brain, in case... just in case.
She loved him; of that she was sure. Big, scary, obliterating love. Movie style epic love.
And yet, she couldn't help but wonder how much of their crazy devotion could be chalked up to desperation. The friend they'd lost at least in part by setting out upon this love... having paid a price like that, there had to be a real good reason, didn't there? It had to be fate. Powerful, brilliant, until-death love, because anything less would be unbearable.
She hated that tiny core of doubt, but how could she tell how real they were, when all this guilt got in the way?
If they died side-by-side fighting the good fight, would that make it all alright?
They turned onto the street leading to the library. Fred could've sworn her heart trembled inside her chest at the sight of the big building. She looked at her knees.
Charles whistled a high, sarcastic note as he drew them to a halt. "Well, look what we've got here. Why am I not surprised to see who's throwing this party?"
Fred followed his gaze - to the black limousine and van parked over the other side of the road.