The tiles of the floor rose up to greet her. Hard.
A skinny warm body thudded on top of her an instant later and Lilah rolled side, shoving, swearing and wrenching her wrist loose from the smaller woman's death-grip. The little red marks from her nails were almost invisible among the rest of the bruises, but made up for their physical inconsequentiality in irritation.
But she was in the library, she was back in her own world, she was out of that place, and suddenly a lot of the rest of her problems were looking considerably smaller than she'd ever imagined they could.
She got one foot under her, heel see-sawing with her legs' unsteadiness; the other foot then and she was standing, after a fashion. Her hand shot out to the nearest shelf to prevent her falling.
Wesley was several feet away. He'd got as far as hands and knees but now crouched, pale and shaking, his breathing audible. The look he was aiming at her wouldn't seem to indicate him eager to accept her help. She turned-
Behind her, an arching, glowing rent grinned out of the air. Several yards across and four feet off the level of the library floor, cutting just above Chaney's makeshift altar, its curled up ends mocking. Underneath it, Charles Gunn and Winifred Burkle were helping each other up and backing away, heads ducked to avoid the tear in reality.
"What the hell?" Gunn said, emerging into safety, pulling Fred the rest of the way after him and into a protective embrace. "We did that?"
He looked accusingly to Lilah and Wesley when he said it, but it was his little girlfriend who answered. "I think we did. It can't be good. I'm pretty sure that's not supposed to happen."
"No." Wesley stood leaning on a small work table, which creaked and threatened to buckle. "But hopefully it isn't immediately dangerous. It will still need to be closed as soon as possible, however."
Lilah nodded. "Plus, a cleanup team to get rid of the bodies, slime, and illegal weaponry. Yeah, I'll call my people." She patted down her suit, looking for the phone that wasn't there. Bent to search the bodies of Chaney's men, fighting dizziness, until she retrieved an only slightly blood-dashed cellphone that responded when she poked the keys.
"Hold it a damn minute," Gunn said, narrow-eyed.
"What? You're going to threaten me again? With what? You left your big shiny axe in the hell dimension."
"How 'bout my fist?"
"Been there. Done that." She pushed in the number and waited, bored, while it rang. Wondered idly how many people were staffing the offices and how many had cleared out of the city while she risked her neck.
Wesley said sharply, "She's doing exactly what needs to be done. We don't have the resources left to close the rift ourselves, but somebody must. We can hardly leave it there for the public to gawp over."
"He's right." Fred restrained her man of action with her small hand on his arm, and her fragile fingers halted him as though she possessed the strength of a Slayer. "I... We can't leave it as it is to let other people get sucked into that place."
Somebody finally picked up her call and she informed them of the situation and told them to dig up Linwood if he was still in the country, then tossed the phone aside. Wondered, irritably, whether it was worth searching for her own or admit the likelihood the demon would be occupying itself playing with the thing for the next few years it waited to make its big debut.
Looking among the disarray on the floor, she spotted instead the ornate carved box that had acted as a container for the Naminore. She picked it up and examined it for damage. It seemed unharmed, and she glanced at Wesley, who grimaced understanding and pulled off his jacket. He gingerly moved to wrap the garment around the orb.
Gunn's head snapped up. His gaze could've reduced them both to ashes. "Whoa, now. Tell me you're not just gonna return that thing to Wolfram and Hart?"
Wesley raised his eyes, shadowed to dark holes in his face. Lilah flinched back, for an instant genuinely fearing the air between the two men would combust.
But this... this was a supremely promising development.
"I beg to differ." Wesley's hands tightened on the Naminore as he picked it up, and her blood sang with the sweetness of success. "That's rather what I was paid to do."
That's rather what I was paid to do. Gunn heard it, but he didn't quite believe it, in spite of everything. He knew a guy was capable of doing bad things out of anger - hell, he knew it too well. Knew that Wesley had been angry and maybe he'd had the right of that, just a little, because it was true enough he'd betrayed them but they'd still handled it badly. That, he understood, like he understood that the feelings he had for his former friend were more complex than the simple hatred and betrayal he'd been trying to box them into.
What he didn't understand was Wesley standing there telling them he was ready to betray the mission to Wolfram and Hart for money.
"You can't mean that." Fred said, before he could.
Let the bitch smile - she hadn't seen what he had. He backed away, keeping the movement low-key, unthreatening; bent down to the crossbow Fred must've lost in the earlier fight; slipped the discarded bolt into place and sprang up, pointing the loaded weapon-
No... Hellish visions surged through his brain, memories of what he'd done in that place, what he was capable of. He switched his aim to Lilah, hoping the move appeared smoother than it felt, hoping they hadn't seen him flinch. His voice came out hard. "You care about whether this bitch gets some pretty damn fatal acupuncture, you'll hand over the bauble."
He felt Fred's eyes on him. There was no accusation there, only resignation. They couldn't allow a powerful magical artefact to fall into the hands of Wolfram and Hart, and he could hardly forget his recent discovery of how far Fred too was willing to go for the mission.
Wesley stared back at him, his expression flat. Gunn knew that feeling, felt its reflection in himself. It sucked his energy, a draining sensation he tried to resist.
They'd fought too often side by side. The mental leap necessary to comprehend fighting each other took a lot out of them both.
Wesley said, "She is a human being, Charles. Living. Breathing. Somewhere, she has a soul. Does that cease to matter because she works for the opposition?"
Gunn noticed how pale Lilah had become. Hadn't realised he was that damn convincing. A voice in his head sneered, way to go, Charles. Terrorising unarmed, beat-up women. But he remembered Angel's empty horror, relating how she'd ordered her people to kill Connor. Cordy, mutilated by killer visions. Angel tricked to feed on the blood of his own son. And he realised he was more than ready to carry through on his threat.
"Compassion, bro? She's not worth it. Wesley, you know what she's done. Some of it to you. Hell, you know whose fault Billy was-"
"Gunn. Don't." Wesley had gone very still.
And it struck Gunn how differently things might've gone without that incident, thinking of the stuff Cordelia had said, slightly tipsy one of those grim evenings after she got back to find everything had come crashing down in her absence. Wesley, and Fred, before he got infected by Billy's blood... Wes had almost asked her, long before Gunn had started to feel these things.
He might never have had her at all... Maybe he'd only ever known what he'd found with Fred because of that incident. He had known only at his friend's expense, and there was anger there too, that it had had to be that way, too easily dragged up by the damn demon. "I don't understand why you care. Even if we're not working together anymore. Lilah Morgan? How can you sink that low?"
"She was all there was. I was alone, and the only one to come to me in anything resembling geniality was the enemy. It wasn't much of a choice - nothing, or her."
The Naminore clutched in his hands, he stepped in front of Lilah, and there could be no mistake, this time, that the move was deliberate. The crossbow in Gunn's grasp lowered, bypassing his brain's permission. He couldn't make his arm raise it again.
Fred left his side to take a cautious few steps closer to Wesley, faint damp streaks on her face glistening when they caught the light.
"I know I messed up when I came to the hospital," she said, her voice a whisper. Gunn blinked. Hospital? "Those things I said, they were the truth, but there were other truths too. Things I didn't say and should have, that you probably needed to hear more than accusations. Like how worried we were, and how long we searched. I needed to see you, but then when I did... I was just so angry.
"But that's not what matters now. You can't give that thing to Wolfram and Hart. There's a prophecy. They'll use it to destroy LA."
"I know." Wesley's face was distant. He cast a furrowed frown at the dimensional breach.
"Actually," Lilah butted in, "The prophecy only says it will be used. It doesn't give any details. We figured it might as well be by us as not. Comes in useful to know you can hold an entire city hostage if things get rough."
Fred ignored her. "Wesley. Please. She isn't all you've got. You still have your soul, and that's important."
"Hmm?" He pulled out of his distraction. His smile was a long way from nice. "I thought you'd already given up on that."
"Please, Wesley," Fred implored. "We can't fight you. Please give us the Naminore. Maybe we can use it for good. I swear we'll try."
Wesley hefted the dark globe. The jacket shifted against it's smooth surface and his grip failed. He recovered it with a flicker of alarm, and shot a glance at Lilah. She started to cross to him, holding the box ready to receive the Naminore.
"I already know what I have to do," he said, and the pitch in his voice and the grin on his face weren't overly indicative of sanity.
He moved. Away from Lilah. Towards the rift. The bundle in his hands braced in a familiar fashion.
Apparently Lilah watched basketball too, because her cry of "No!" rang out even as the connection clicked in his own mind, voiced as a doubtful, "Wes...?"
"Don't," Lilah said. "Wesley, they'll crucify me. You know that."
Gunn, discovering he didn't have too much of a problem, shut up and watched the show.
"I'm sorry." Wes sounded almost like he meant it, though more likely too tired and beat up to muster the appropriate sarcasm. He advanced a further step to the rift.
"You know what power that device has," Lilah snapped. "You've heard the old rumours... well, they're not rumours, Wesley. Don't do this. That power, it could be yours. We could make it part of your permanent contract. Or - or entrust it to your care as an independent agent. Think of it, damn it. You could be a real power. Show them all. The Watchers Council, Angel, your father... Don't throw that away."
Gunn didn't think Lilah would miss the spark of temptation amid the manipulated-and-fully-aware-of-it anger in Wesley's eyes. He thought of this scary new pissed-off Wesley as some kind of super-mage and shuddered.
He wasn't expecting the mingled fear and excitement in the set of Fred's face and the lines of her slim body as she crossed to Wes, pausing a fraction beyond arm's reach. Wesley responded by backing off a step. He flinched as the rip in reality flared up with the Naminore's proximity and for a long moment all that could be seen of Fred was her silhouette against its backdrop. Gunn heard her voice over the furious, almost electrical static of the rift. "She's right. You could use it. You could use it for good! Think of the people you'd be able to help."
Wesley laughed, a cracked sound that didn't contain much mirth. "I never had any overwhelming ambition to be a warlock. No, Fred. You really cannot think that this device, in my hands, could ever be used for good?"
"Yes." Her faith flowed out with the single word, a bridge extended between them.
Wesley crumbled it with a look.
Fred's shoulders slumped, but she wasn't defeated. "Then, let us take it. We never had enough muscle behind us, even with Angel. It was always a case of trying against all hope, expecting to die. You - you worked without him last year, I know you know what it's like. These past weeks with just us... Gunn and me, we don't have the kind of power to keep up the fight alone for long. I... I set out today to die, because I thought it was the only way I could fix this thing right. Worse than die, even." She held out her hands, fingertips falling short of contact with his sleeves. "Wesley. I - I know things aren't right between us, but you know us. What we do. You know we - I - I'll use it well."
Wesley tipped his head to one side, and looked, finally, at Gunn. Gunn bit his lip, nothing to say. He didn't know what Wesley saw in his face that made his decision, but the next instant, the bundle had left his hands.
The rift swallowed it in a blaze of light.
Fred stumbled back, arms dangling helplessly at her sides, her mouth hanging open as she gazed after the Naminore's path.
Lilah screamed and dived for the tear even as it began to dwindle.
"You stupid bitch!"
Gunn blinked, having trouble processing the fact that snarl had come from Wesley.
Wesley grabbed her trailing hand the last moment before she was consumed entirely, planted his feet and fought against whatever mystical forces tried to drag her the rest of the way. Lilah seemed to be fighting his efforts, too.
It was hard to imagine what she thought her employers would do to her that would make it worth going back to that place. Gunn stood, watching, unable to turn away or move to help.
The sharp recollection that Wolfram and Hart were on their way snapped him out of it. He and Fred were likely to be disposed of in short order if they were still there when the evil law firm's forces arrived.
He caught Fred's arm and pulled her away with him.
Exiting, he spared a glance back to see the dark man and the angry woman, dragged clear of the last remnant of the rift, collapsing together in a heap on the floor.
"Sorry." She smoothed a hand down his arm in apology, planted a light kiss as near the wound as she dared. "Better now?"
"Much. But take it easy there, huh?"
The laugh that was normally so easy in Charles' voice was strained. Fred sighed, lightly so he wouldn't hear, and returned to dressing the cut the demon had drawn along his upper arm.
They were semi-clad in fluffy towels stained here and there with blood, damp from showering, which they'd done together, supporting each other in their exhaustion. They'd exclaimed on each other's bruises, hers more visible, ugly on her paler skin, but his more severe. They'd towelled each other dry, and now they sprawled on the bed amid a sea of bandages and medical supplies, Charles full-length on his belly and she, cross-legged, finishing tying off the white bandage on his arm that was already beginning to soak through with tiny pinpricks of red.
"Maybe you need to go to the hospital for stitches," she said, frowning at the dots.
"Naw. I'm good. I've had worse."
"All finished now?" He rolled over onto his back at her affirmation, and she let herself relax, curling up against his side.
When they'd emerged from the library it had been night, almost morning. Now the dawn was beginning to seep through the window of the room she and Charles used when he was staying with her at the Hyperion. They had not been away very long (she remembered being struck by panicked thoughts that perhaps they would come back to find days, weeks, years had passed, while they were in that place) although the hours they'd been away had been very long indeed.
Wisps of madness clung to her thoughts still, but they were fading, and in any case she did not fear them. She had beaten them back before, and Gunn loved her, mad or sane.
"You've got to promise you won't hide those things from me in future," he said, harder than he usually spoke to her out of work hours, surprising her with the suddenness of his change in mood. His head rolled round, his eyes pinning hers. "What happened today, that's not got to happen again. I couldn't deal with that, knowing you were keeping things from me, that some of this magic you're doing might be dangerous and you'd never tell me the danger. I can't spend my life wondering if you're setting yourself up to die. We need to share this stuff. 'Cause we know what happens when folks go all Lone Ranger."
"I'm sorry." She reached for his hand. He folded her fingers in his. "Secrets are bad. I know I should've told you, but at the same time... I didn't want to make you choose. The mission, or me. I didn't want you to stop me."
"'Cause you got the mission too, girl." He drew her hand to his lips and kissed her fingers.
"You said once-"
"-that I'd choose you over the mission. I know."
She studied his face. "You're not sure any more if that's true."
"I..." He surrendered her hand and reached around her to pull the whole of her close instead. She snuggled, waited. "Fred, you know you're the most important thing in the world to me. What I said then, I meant it, but-"
"-we're changing. I know. These past weeks, the two of us, without anyone else to shoulder the burden..."
"It gets harder," he said, speaking slow, pausing often, "to separate. You. Me. The mission. It all feels the same. It-"
"It's us," she breathed. "Angel's gone. Cordy's gone. Wesley's... lost. And this... this is what we're supposed to be doing."
"Yeah." His hand travelled up her back and tangled in her damp hair. "This feels right."
"But we almost died today."
Like everything, there was a reverse side.
"But we didn't."
"I meant what I said to Wesley, Charles. I'm not sure how long we can last. After all, we're only human. Angel and Cordy were champions of good. What happens if they never come back?"
"Then we hold the fort. As long as it stands. No surrender."
She smiled. Wriggling, she discarded her towel and untangled his, flicking them off the bed onto the floor. He reached down and pulled the light covers up to their waists.
"We could've used the Naminore," Fred said.
"Doesn't matter. Wolfram and Hart didn't get it. LA didn't get blown to ashes. That's what's important."
"It wasn't us who stopped those things."
"You think Wesley would've acted as he did if we hadn't been there?"
His cynicism stung her eyes, mostly because she feared him right. Wesley had turned into someone she didn't recognise.
Tiredness was beginning to creep through her limbs, sleep almost ready to claim her. She sagged against his chest, her head upon his ribcage, listening through it to the heartbeat and the breathing already slowing. He flinched as her weight touched a bruise spread over his lower ribs, and she shifted to accommodate, whispered an apology.
She thought he was asleep - she was on the verge of it - when he spoke, grimness showing through the exhaustion in his voice. "Sometimes the world makes hell of a lot of no sense. Today... today Wesley and Lilah saved millions of lives. For who knows what selfish reasons, but they did a good thing. And we... I almost did a bad thing, Fred. For good reasons, yeah. But I almost killed him. I was that close."
"Intention - intention is important," Fred said. Wanting to push back the hollowness in his voice. To replace it again with hope. Not sure she knew how.
She felt him nod. "We made a mistake."
She breathed in, falling down into a restful abyss. Breathed out in words.
"We're not the first."
It was midday when he opened the door to find her outside it, although he knew it only from the blurry clock on the wall of his darkened room. What windows there were in his small apartment had their blinds drawn tightly down.
"Lilah," he said blankly. Surprised, and trying not to feel relief.
"What, no hug, no emotional reunion?" she drawled. She smiled like a predator. He realised her bruises and contusions were gone as though they'd never existed, and squinted. No make-up job could have hidden... She caught his gaze. "I told you my job had benefits. Well, sometimes. You, on the other hand, look like shit. You could at least have changed. Not to mention showered."
She wrinkled her nose.
Wesley, who'd at 4am that morning made an uneasy escape from the squad of Wolfram and Hart agents infesting the library, had returned to his apartment, staggered to the bed and collapsed into sleep on top of the covers, where he'd remained until disturbed by her knocking. He scowled.
He tried to think of a way to say, I didn't think I'd see you again that wouldn't come out sounding even remotely needy or recalcitrant. He settled for twisting his voice into a roughened growl to ask, "Why are you here?"
Her cheerful polish vanished. Her hand slammed down to pin his where it rested on the doorframe holding up much of his weight. Her other hand tangled in the collar of his bloodied shirt and she stepped inside his space, pushing her face into his so their noses all but touched. Unlike most women, she was barely shorter than he, especially in heels, and just because it wasn't her habit to be physically domineering didn't mean she couldn't be. She was stronger than he was right now.
Her hand ground his into the wood.
"That was my way back in, you bastard. My chance to make up for this year's fiascos and you screwed me over." He felt her spittle dash his face.
He curled his free hand around her waist and bent to touch his forehead sardonically to hers.
"I'm glad you're not dead," he breathed, meeting the glare of her eyes.
She melted against him with a raucous laugh. Her fingers pushed through the gaps between his and though she continued her attempts to break his hand, the action became oddly affectionate. No. That was the wrong word. Sexual. Her nails dug in his palm. As if he needed any more skin broken or blood drawn.
"You bastard," she said again. She ran her tongue over his bottom lip. Lingered over the split, tasting his blood.
And Wesley reflected that Lilah worked for Wolfram and Hart who, while they did not forgive traitors, certainly expected and understood them. Even valued, since they appeared to have once promoted Lindsey McDonald for possessing the qualities of a turncoat.
In any case, their relationship was hardly based on trust, or like, or anything that would be damaged by betrayal.
"So, why aren't you dead?" he asked, pulling his head back to free his tongue.
"Huh. Given that I just saved the butts of most of the senior staff, they seem to be in a forgiving mood about the part where I didn't actually recover the Naminore. Who'd have thought?"
"Certainly not me."
She gave him a hard look, abruptly fragmented by a smile. She stopped crushing his hand and slipped out from the circle of his arm. He wavered a moment without the support of her body. "What the hell. Seriously? Better gone than in the hands of the opposition, or used at the wrong time. And as someone who happens to live in this city, I'm inclined to think it one weapon plain better gone."
"Indeed. Though it's a great pity I had to throw it away. A magical artefact of that sort of power and historical significance..." Wesley tried to shake the feeling back into his fingers.
"Didn't for a moment imagine that you enjoyed that little act of occult vandalism, Mr Research-Obsessed. We can blame your little friends for that, anyway. I know what you'd have done if they hadn't been there to screw with your head."
He raised his eyebrows; said nothing.
"Incidentally, you do know, don't you, that even without the soul clause that was some rather dark magic you performed yesterday?"
He tipped his head to one side; just looked at her.
"And the Naminore itself - that you effectively destroyed - wasn't actually a tool of evil. More like a balancing power."
Lilah laughed. "Indubitably. Although, did you wonder if it might not even be more suited to the purposes of good? Not that, when you think about it, there's anything here in LA that it would benefit the Powers to have obliterated."
"Yes, and it would only cost several million innocent lives."
She waved a hand. "You of all people know that lives are hardly the real issue when you're fighting an eternal war." She shrugged, dismissing it with an arrogant tip of one shoulder and a toss of glossy hair. "Well. I only wondered if you realised. About the part where you destroyed something which that have aided your... former... side. Though there is still that prophecy to consider, even if it does appear you've screwed over any obvious means of its coming to pass."
Wesley felt the smile stretch his face, tugging at the cuts and bruises, and he turned away so she wouldn't see. Walked back inside the room, leaving the way clear for her to enter. Heard the door close.
"I should have known you'd get a kick out of that one," Lilah said, a grin in her voice, a spring in the clicks of her stilettoed steps. "You want to take a look at those for us, by the way? We can offer a very generous fee."
"Lilah. Let me think... No."
Her laugh, like cheerful shards of glass. Her fingers, brushing the back of his neck. Her not-entirely-genuine sucked-in sympathetic breath as she found a bruise there. Her voice, silk against his ear.
"Come on, now. Let me help you lick those wounds."