Date: Monday, June 02, 2003 1:07 PM Friends and Other Disasters Author: Jennifer-Oksana Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Fandom: Angel Website: http://jennyo.imjustsayin.net Rating: R Spoilers: Angel S4.22, Buffy S7.22 Distribution: list sites, standing orders, others by permission. Disclaimer: Joss, not me. Thanks: to my fabulous betas, Kit, Amy, and Loa. They done v.v. good.
Summary: Spike--maybe--returns from the dead to frustrate the increasingly distant Angel and Hart team. But is he just a red herring to distract the team from something far more important?
"Remind me again why you're still here?" Angel asked his de facto second-in-command as they walked to his office one sunny Tuesday morning. "I thought you went directly back to Hell after tempting us into accepting this shiny turn-key operation."
The de facto second-in-command tossed her head back and ignored the insult. Lilah Morgan had learned in the course of recent events that Angel eased his guilty conscience by pretending he hated what he in fact enjoyed, so his endless litany of vitriol? A misdirection to disguise his enjoyment of having a beautiful woman--and in particular, her--as his helpful and pneumatic Girl Friday.
"Because when you came back from getting rejected in Sunnydale, you told me to mobilize a second front against the First if the amulet failed," Lilah answered pleasantly. "And then you kept making requests. And finally, in August, you had me put in the long-term transfer paperwork. If you'll recall."
Angel took a moment to ponder this while Lilah considered just how much hair gel her relatively new boss must have used to coax his hair into shape. It was probably sharp enough to be used as a stake by now.
"Huh," he finally said, finishing his deep thoughts. "Were you having mind-control drugs piped into the office, maybe?"
If that was how long it took him to come up with a half-assed quip, Lilah shuddered to think how he'd react once Wolfram and Hart LA came under actual fire. But then again, that was why she was here, and she knew it.
"You don't breathe, boss," she answered with a vicious edge to her grin. "Then again, neither do I, so the point's moot."
"Did you spike the blood?" he asked. At least this time he'd been faster on the draw, the useless bastard.
"Angel, if you don't want me here, you know how to dial the Senior Partners and get me transferred back to Hell," Lilah said with bemused exasperation as they reached his office. "Wes could do this just as well as I could, and without the bonus snark."
Angel, with what would have been rakish elan had he been Wesley, opened the door for Lilah and let her in first, probably to get a look at her ass. Their working relationship had evolved impressively over the past four months--there hadn't been a choking in six weeks--but Angel retained his tendency to treat Lilah like an unfortunate disease rather than his preferred day-to-day organizer and liaison to the eviler parts of LA.
"He probably could," Angel agreed, sitting down at his desk and looking depressed at the number of vital documents sitting in his inbox.
"You'd have to tell him about the Boy Erasure, of course," Lilah added with another cheerful smile. "And all the fun fallout from that noble, noble decision. Poor Wes would feel so betrayed, and I just can't see why--oh, wait. That's right, because you changed his memory and betrayed him."
As provocations to quality chokings went, that was above and beyond the call of duty, but Angel recognized that Lilah had a point. Perhaps the only thing Angel had learned from four months of working with Lilah on a daily basis was that her particularly nasty comments always had a point.
Never mind that (and he'd never admit it, even under torture) Lilah was better at her job than Wesley could have ever hoped to be. Certainly, she was evil, vain, materialistic, and dangerous, but she knew how to run and manage an operation like Wolfram and Hart LA. Without her, the entire experiment would have ended up a complete wash by the end of the first month. Angel trusted her with the day-to-day decisions because Lilah was competent, efficient, and utterly nonchalant about implementing any decision given to her. As she was so fond of saying, it was just business.
"Shut up and overschedule my life already," he said as he turned on the HDTV to watch the morning talk shows. Ever since Jasmine's death and the closure of the Sunnydale Hellmouth, LA had only gotten weirder. Watching the local talk circuit was Angel's best method of ferreting out what devious schemes were brewing just under the surface of the city.
Last week they'd stopped a group of Mafia-owned and operated Birkthor demons who'd been hell-bent on infecting the city's water supply with a mystical immunosuppressant. Angel had twigged the entire plan from hearing a badly-disguised and overwrought human plant discuss how the human immune system was an overdevelopment caused by the government on local access. It had all led to a nice fight and Birkthor slime everywhere, to say nothing of the enmity of the local Mob, but that was Angel's job, to make the bad guys miserable.
That reminded him. "Also, can you order lunch for the weekly meeting from someplace else? There were complaints."
Lilah looked up from her stack of papers. "Wow," she marveled. "You're becoming quite the corporate executive. Pain, suffering, conspiracies, and you bitch about the catering."
Before Angel could manage a retort, his intercom buzzed loudly. Kaylie, his actual secretary, said very nervously and distinctly: "Mr. Angel, your people are here. They say it's very important."
Angel closed his eyes. Kaylie was an extremely nice redheaded woman who filed and word processed like a pro, and screened his visitors and calls very well, but she tended to be extremely bad with independent decision making.
"Kaylie, remember what I said about that?" he asked, trying not to sound frustrated.
"Always let them in?" Kaylie said.
"That's right," Angel said, noticing Lilah trying very hard to suppress a smirk. "So you can let them in."
Kaylie cleared her throat. "Okay, sir, but you kinda told me when you went by that no one who wasn't Ms. Morgan was supposed to bother you until you said," she said. "So I wasn't sure what you wanted, and so that's why I asked. I'm sorry, Mr. Angel. Should I have asked? Was that wrong?"
"Let them in, Kaylie," Lilah said. "Mr. Angel and I can schedule even with the walking disaster squad milling around."
"Okay, Ms. Morgan," Kaylie said, sounding very relieved. "So, I'm sending them in now."
Before Angel could say anything either way, Lilah was sitting in a corner with files, a calendar, and a pen, doing her best to disappear as Gunn, Fred, and Wesley walked into the office, holding files and looking disgruntled.
"Hey, I thought you told Kaylie to let us in, no crap," Gunn complained.
"She almost cried when we told her we had to see you," Fred agreed. "It was kind of sad."
"Sorry. I gave her conflicting orders," Angel said, noticing that Wesley was looking at Lilah who was looking, very resolutely, at her paperwork. "What's up?"
"We've got news about the closing of the Hellmouth," Wesley answered, still focusing on Lilah. "Our teams finally reached the center of the Sunnydale disturbance and thanks to Fred's new morphogenic energy detectors, we found some fascinating and disturbing evidence on what happened to close the Hellmouth on an atomic level."
Lilah looked up at long last with a steely expression. "Nifty," she said. "So will it stay closed?"
"The evidence is inconclusive," Wesley said, reluctantly looking toward Angel. "According to the prophecies, it will stay sealed."
"Yeah. I mean, we know what happened. Spike's soul, it obliterated the First's army," Fred added, waving her hands around. "And the amulet's energy combined with the physical Hellmouth material and the remnants of Spike's demon, person, and soul. It's like glue. Nothing anyone currently has could open the Hellmouth today. We're not even sure it still exists, that's how solid the barrier is. No Hellmouth energies anywhere."
Gunn, Angel, Fred, and Wesley looked at each other then, and the unspoken thought was clear in the uncomfortable silence: this was much less friendly than it should have been. Something about having their own jobs, their own divisions, and different interests had made them less of a family, and none of them found themselves exactly sad about it.
"That's great," Angel said at last. "You said something about disturbing?"
"When you read the energy, it had an unexpected temporary side effect," Fred said.
"It was freaky-ass," Gunn said. "Scan too long and you started talking or looking like bloody Spike."
Angel blinked and looked at Wes and Fred. Fred put her hands to her cheekbones and sucked inward, which made her look less like Spike and more like a goldfish, but Angel got the point.
"Spike's very essence is embedded there," Wes explained while Gunn gave Fred a lifted-eyebrow, ha-ha-very-funny type of look.
"Yeah," Fred said. "When you scan it, you sorta, um, read bits of Spike and they imprint temporarily. Sometimes it's physical, sometimes memories, or feelings, or things he'd say. And we're not sure what would happen if someone was left there for a long time."
"Are you saying this could become permanent?" Wes asked. "You hadn't mentioned that before."
"I hadn't thought of it, actually," Fred replied, biting her lip. "I'll talk to my biophysics girl and run some tests, but if someone were exposed for a long time, it might happen. Could be wrong, but it's a risk we have to consider."
"Damn right," Gunn agreed. "Good thing the government's keeping the place out of circulation."
"Until some wealthy land developer buys them off," Lilah pointed out. "This is Bush's America, this is California, and Sunnydale is coastal property. We're probably going to have to create an environmental lobbying group and try to 'save the historical Chumash coastline of Sunnydale.' Maybe if there are butterflies. Can we import butterflies?"
"Butterflies?" Gunn asked incredulously.
"Worked for Ellwood Beach," Lilah answered, looking around. "What? I'm trying to help. Sunnydale II will be a reality in five years if we don't stop it, and then boom. Mutant town. Like Smallville but with less kryptonite."
"Yes, well," Wes said with a cough. "I suppose our next move will be to find possible solutions and report back at this week's meeting, Angel."
Angel nodded. "Sounds like a plan," he said vaguely. "Good work."
Again, there was another awkward silence and an awkward set of looks. Everyone was clearly glad the meeting was over, but no one wanted to leave like this.
Gunn finally broke the deadlock.
"Hey, Angel? We were all thinking of going for dinner and a movie later this week. We're all about Matrix Reloaded for the fifth time before it leaves theatres," he said, forcing casualness. "You in?"
"Sure, if I'm free," Angel said.
"Great," Fred said half-heartedly. "Well, I think I need to go make sure Knox hasn't invented another evil Palm Pilot or started a giant D&D game in the dungeon. See y'all at the Matrix. Or the meeting."
"Yeah," Gunn said. Slowly, the two left the office, leaving Wesley to shift awkwardly before going back to doleful Lilah-staring.
"Mr. Pryce?" Lilah asked. "Was there something?"
Wesley glowered, walked over to her chair, and took her firmly by the wrists. "Come outside and talk to me," he ordered. "Angel can watch Good Morning LA and come up with an agenda all by himself. Can't you, Angel?"
"What?" Angel asked, already engrossed in the frizzy-haired female guest who was claiming LA was dealing with a plague of irradiated cats. "Oh, sure, you can borrow her for a minute."
Lilah rolled her eyes and let Wes help her to her feet. "Remember we've got a two o'clock conference call you cannot put off again," she told him as the starfucked lovers escaped Angel's office. "What? Wes, what's going on?"
"You left rather abruptly this morning," Wes murmured, spiriting them around the corner to a quiet part of the firm where Angel didn't have a view. "Is there something wrong?"
"No," she lied. "Angel has a full day today. I was just distracted."
"You worry too much about Angel," he said, putting his hand against her cheek.
"Aren't you the selfish bastard?" Lilah asked. "If Angel decides he doesn't need me, I go back to the not-quite-so-shiny Hell office, Wes. He's my job. And you're--"
He kissed her hard on the mouth, daring any scurrying minion to say a damn word.
"I'm what?" he asked when he pulled away with the faintest belligerence.
"The best disaster that ever happened to me," Lilah concluded. "But you promised me, Wes. If we can't keep it under control, we need to stop this. Now."
"Lilah," he said.
"Don't Lilah me," she snarled, pulling away. "I have work to do. And so do you."
Before he could protest, Lilah was walking away. Her expensive pumps click-clacked against the marble floor, chiding him. Wes thought about following her for a good two minutes. Finally, however, he found himself taking his lover's pragmatic advice.
There was always much to do--and less time to do it in.
Amina Suleri had never intended to go into the private sector. She didn't care about money, prestige, or the declining reputation of research universities. Min believed in pure science above everything else, and had since she was seven years old. She'd maintained that if scientists were allowed free reign, they could solve any problem the crazy, superstitious world could put in the way, and then some.
Her blind faith had been recently shattered by two things: the soul-harrowing process by which new science Ph.D.'s found university jobs, and the advent of Jasmine. While it had taken Min all of twenty minutes after the revelation of Jasmine's true face to realize she'd practiced some potent form of mass hypnosis, it didn't ease the aching doubt, nor did it change the fact that some superstitions were based in more fact than Min had been willing to admit. In fact, if Winifred Burkle hadn't come into her life and offered her a way to handle both by taking the Wolfram and Hart job, Min wasn't sure where she'd be at all.
And oh, Fred was the greatest. She was brilliant, cute, unorthodox, and she was all of these things without being too annoying about it.
(Min privately admitted she crushed on Fred. Then again, so did most of the department, and none of the guys had quite picked up on the part where when Min was crushing on Fred at E-Bar Tuesdays, she was just as sexually interested in Fred as the rest of the nerds.)
"Hey, Suleri!" Knox called when Min walked in that particular Thursday morning. "El jefe wants to see you."
"Really?" Min asked, perking up. Fred wasn't one for private meetings, and the part where she wanted to see Min alone could only be good. "Did she see my research about morphogenesis and temporary traits based off our results with the detectors?"
Knox, who was a pretty good guy (and cute) for an almost-evil genius, grinned. "Duh," he said. "I told you I put it on her desk, and it's genius. Great work. I told you I thought so, and Fred feels the same way."
"Oh," Min said, butterflies churning in her stomach. "So...now?"
"Yeah," Knox replied. "Don't worry. It's just Fred. It's not like you've gotten called into one of the big meetings with Mr. Angel, Ms. Morgan, and Mr. Pryce. That's when you get scared."
"No shit," Min agreed with a little shiver. "I mean, two dead people and Wolverine. How can someone as cool as Fred--well, you know--?"
Knox looked like he knew exactly what she meant, and Min supposed he'd done his share of meetings with the creep squad, after all.
"It's okay," he said. "We'll talk about it later, after bowling. Now, go. Talk to Fred. Get recognized for your genius."
Min smiled hopefully, nodded quickly, and walked toward the simple room where Fred kept her office, assessing projects from the department and all the not-so-interesting bureaucratic garbage Min feared and dread. She took at deep breath when she reached the door, knocked, and held her breath until she heard Fred call out, "come in!"
"Hi," Min said, feigning confidence. "I'm--uh--"
"You're Amina Suleri, right?" Fred asked, looking up with a big smile.
"That's right," Min said. "Dr. Min Suleri, bioinformatics and biophysics."
Fred nodded approvingly. "Sit down, Dr. Suleri," she said, waving to a chair. Min sat down, trying to sooth her heartbeat to acceptable levels. "Don't look so worried. You're here because I need your help with the next stage of the morphogenesis project."
A thousand possibilities raced through Min's head, each one more alarming than the next.
"Are the detectors not working?" she asked. "They were made to spec--we ran two weeks of tests--they should have worked--"
"They worked fine," Fred assured the worried scientist. "The detectors are better than fine. We're just need to prioritize your project, and I want you to head the team and serve as my liaison to other departments. Because me, I'm fine with string theory and p-space, but bio-anything and I flash back to my humiliations in organic chem."
Min almost choked on her surprised dismay. Fred liked her work...enough to put Min closer to the administrative side of things. This was like the time her acceptance to Stanford arrived the same day as her brother's engagement dinner. It was wonderful, and Min was glad, but all the same, she wished circumstances could be a little different.
"That's great," Min said, afraid the smile plastered to her face looked fake. "But I'm not sure I'm qualified to work interdepartmentally. I'm sure Knox or Ben Oliveri or Chris Chan would be a lot better at the chit-chat than me."
Fred looked at her with the slightest disapproval shading her expression. "Min--and I can call you Min, right?" she asked, waiting for Min's hasty nod before continuing. "I did NOT personally recruit you to Wolfram and Hart because I need another researcher who never leaves this floor. You might have noticed I'm up to my ears in D&D-loving, EverQuest-obsessed geeks. You know your field like no one else here. And you're going to go far, if I have to drag you kicking and screaming the entire way."
A very embarrassed Min looked down at the stacks of paper on the floor. Well, shit. It didn't make her want to do the administrative bullshit any more than she had before--Min was in science precisely because she could give a damn about making larger connections--but she wasn't going to screw up now. Not with Fred's sudden declaration of faith in her.
"Okay," Min said, suddenly meeting Fred's eyes fully. "I'm in. What do you need me to do?"
Forty-five minutes later, Min and Fred were on their way to meet with Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, the head of the Ancient Prophecies/Records Department, the sort of thing Min had always classified as bullshit before now. However, Fred assured Min that Wesley would completely understand the simplified presentation they'd prepared for the department heads, and he was really well-read for a non-scientist.
"So you come from Portland," Fred said, having just heard the thumbnail sketch of Min's autobiography. "Your grandparents emigrated from Pakistan, you have an older brother and a younger sister, and you love Joni Mitchell. All very cool. Me, I'm an only child, so I'm kinda jealous. I always wanted a sister. Or a brother. Or both."
Min, who hadn't been aware her siblings were worthy of envy, snickered. "I'll trade you," she said flippantly. "You can have my sister, and in exchange, you can give me a big pitcher of strawberry margaritas."
To Min's surprise, Fred immediately perked up. "You like strawberry margaritas?" she asked excitedly. "I love strawberry 'ritas! Especially when you swirl 'em with lime...but none of the boys do. I used to drink 'em all the time in college...well, before I got sucked into a portal. But Wes and Gunn are beer people and Lorne drinks girlier drinks."
Min suddenly wanted to invite Fred to drink Jungle Coladas at E-Bar or Presidente Margaritas at Chili's. Very, very much. But before she could form the words, an unshaven guy in a disheveled designer suit opened the door to his office and looked at them expectantly. Min, after a moment of wondering why anyone who owned an Armani suit that nice would deliberately rumple it realized they'd reached Wesley's office, and that now was the moment of truth.
"Fred," Wesley said with a cool Brit accent. "And I assume this is Dr. Suleri?"
"Yeah, this is Min," Fred said. "Min Suleri, this is Wesley Wyndam-Pryce."
Wesley stuck out his hand and Min shook it with a confident smile that wasn't faked. She was going to ask Fred out for margaritas sometime. Possibly even in a date-type way, but first as a friend, because there needed to be female scientists who dug strawberry margaritas solidarity.
Fred, as usual, had been right. Not only did Wesley understand Min's presentation, he asked the questions Min herself would have asked about the subject matter. Damn, but Knox was a wuss! Sure, Wesley was scruffy and dating Scary Dead Bitch (who Min knew to be afraid of). But Wes himself? Pretty cool.
"So the next stage of the program proposes to identify the principle that allows this energy to overwrite DNA both temporarily and permanently, correct?" Wesley asked, frowning at a schematic.
"Right. The implications are staggering, of course," Min said modestly. "Once we can manipulate the length of the mutation, we can do so many things. Overwrite cancerous cells; make yourself literally someone or something else for a weekend...or forever. It'll be an ethical challenge to be sure."
Wesley widened his eyes in surprise, which dismayed Min a little. Fred had explained that Wolfram and Hart didn't necessarily have a sterling reputation when it came to ethics, but Min thought a department head should know better than to distrust the science department, who were as nice a group of people as Min had ever met, under Fred's guidance.
"I'm sure you're right," Wesley said. "It's been a pleasure, Dr. Suleri. I believe I'll enjoy working with you very much."
It was at that moment when things got weird. The door to Wesley's office nearly flew open, and in flounced a green demon with red horns and a suit Rod Roddy from The Price is Right would envy.
"Wes, Fred, so glad I caught you," he said. "You won't believe...the weirdest damn thing. Succubitch is calling up the Joint Chiefs for a meeting, but I wanted to give you the heads-up...and hey, who's this gorgeous thing?"
"Lorne, this is Min. She's heading up the morphogenesis project," Fred said quickly. "Min, this is Lorne, head of Entertainment Division. What's going on, Lorne?"
Lorne smiled dazzlingly at Min for a moment before turning back to Wesley and Fred. "Billy Rebel's what's going on," he said, tossing a slender file folder onto Wesley's desk. "Billy Rebel and the Yells of Reno, Nevada. See, I have a drunken talent scout who heard about these guys during his latest gambling binge up north? And apparently, Billy can cover David Bowie and no doubt about it. So he makes contact, gets a demo tape and a glossy. I hear the tape, and meh, he's okay, but he's no Justin Timberlake. But then I get the photo, and cats and kittens?"
He shook his head as Wesley flipped the file open to a black and white headshot of the man Min assumed was Billy Rebel. She didn't get it. He was cute. Great cheekbones, but a little too much sneer for her taste. And what was up with calling yourself Billy Rebel and not bleaching your hair? And covering David Bowie, for Chrissake?
Fred and Wesley, however, were staring at the pictures as if the man was the second coming, and Min found herself wondering what was so important about this guy.
"Do you guys know him?" Min finally asked, unable to hide her curiosity.
All three of them looked over at her. Fred looked dazed, Lorne dismayed, and Wesley downright disturbed. Min was wondering if this guy really was the second coming, or Elvis's (or Angel's) love child. Maybe he was actually Satan. Either way, Min knew she wasn't going to get to talk about this at bowling tonight, and it was going to be hell on her.
"We don't know," Fred finally told her, sounding half-hysterical. "We really just don't know!"
The so-called 'Joint Chiefs' meeting was going even worse than Angel could have possibly imagined. Between the noise, the numerous differing opinions, and the complete lack of anything substantial being said, it was less a meeting and more a scheduled period of chaos. Add in the endless jokes, and Angel was sure it was going to be the day after the end of the world before anything was actually decided.
"Billy Rebel?" Gunn asked with a smirk as he looked at the photograph for the fifth time, perhaps hoping it would change if he stared at it long enough. "That's worse than Guy Incognito, man."
"Guy Incognito? Who's Guy Incognito?" asked Angel, trying to place the inevitable pop culture reference and failing. Everyone else apparently got it, but then again, Angel knew none of them would get his many humorous FDR jokes, either.
"You're clearly not a Simpsons fan," Knox said, nodding at Gunn. "Dude. Guy Incognito. Good one."
Gunn paused, fixed Knox with a semi-glaring look that made the other man shy backward, which made Fred glare at Gunn in support of her most useful department member, which sent Lilah into a dramatic eyeroll, which for some reason made Wesley sigh nostalgically, all of which reminded Angel that something had really been lost between them and he still wasn't missing it.
There really was such a thing as too much togetherness, after all.
"Never mind, yo," Gunn finally said, returning to the slender file folder Kaylie had assembled on Billy Rebel. "Does anyone have any theories...that aren't impossible?"
The resulting silence, a long and prominent silence punctuated by Fred tapping her pencil on the polished surface of the conference table and leaving rubber marks, rather firmly indicated that nobody in the conference room had a single damn plausible theory to share. After a few moments, Lilah returned to going through phone records while text-messaging her underlings to get her more information, Wesley went back to cross-referencing dusty books and scrolls, and Fred continued to stare at the briefing file and look distressed at the very implications of Billy Rebel.
"I was souled before it was cool," Angel muttered about three minutes later. The entire room jumped at the noise, and then looked ashamed about it.
"Angel, that was a whiny thing to say the first time you said it," Lilah said snappishly. "Anyway, until we get our hands on this guy and test him for the morphogenic thing--is it morphogenic or morphogenetic?--has anyone thought about the prophecies in the Scroll of Aberjian?"
"You mean how they're spattered with evil lawyer blood?" Angel asked.
"Again with the not funny," Lilah said. "I was actually thinking about that thing in the prophecy. The sans-shoe thing."
Wes, who was examining similarly obscure prophecies in similarly ambiguous languages, looked up, his glasses slightly smudged. "You mean shanshu," he corrected. "The prophecy that tells us Angel will eventually become human."
"No, as I recall, that's not exactly what it said," Lilah retorted. "Wasn't it the vampire with a soul will fulfill his destiny and shanshu? No use of the name Angel. Just vampire, soul, champion--and unless I'm very mistaken, didn't someone who fit those criteria die just recently saving the world? What was his name again? Spike?"
After everyone got done picking their jaws off the floor, there was a group glare of disapproval in Lilah's general direction. It was particularly intense from the Fred and Wesley section, and rather sympathetic from Knox's, but it remained a glaring nonetheless. Lilah shrugged in response, as it was hardly the first time she'd gotten that reaction for pointing out an unpleasant yet plausible possibility.
"That's--" Fred tried to say, trailing off in disbelief. "Um."
"Oh, you've got to be kidding me," Lilah said incredulously. "Are you telling me that we weren't all sitting here thinking the exact same thing?"
Fred's pencil stopped tapping and abruptly snapped in two, falling back onto the conference table with a small shower of splinters to mourn its passing. Knox and Wesley looked at Fred with some concern, but she waved them off, dusting off her hand quietly and glowering at Lilah further.
"I don't think we did, Lilah," Fred said very slowly and coldly, emphasizing Lilah's name. "Though now that you mention it, it makes a lot of sense except for the part where every time a vampire with a soul gets mentioned in prophecies, it's always referred to Angel up to this point."
Lilah smiled sweetly, one of her infamous, not-so-secretly poisonous smiles. It was rumored among the lower-level functionaries at Wolfram and Hart (and while the rumor had no basis in fact, it was entertaining enough and plausible enough to maintain its currency long after it had been proven false) that Lilah had been wearing an identical smile the day she'd told Angel that having knocked Angelus down a flight of stairs and pushed a bookcase on top of him, she couldn't believe anyone actually feared his dark avenging bullshit, and if she had to listen to 'Mandy' one more time, she'd stake him herself, even if it meant going back to the hell dimension.
The following (entirely fictional) row that followed had supposedly broken Angel's nose, fractured six of Wesley's ribs, and sent Lilah back to the hell dimension--but only to transfer the rest of her wardrobe to LA, disclaiming the whole way that men were idiots.
With this in mind, it made sense that everyone at the table seemed to flinch at Lilah's sudden feline expression, especially Knox.
"Well, Fred," Lilah said, emphasizing the other woman's name just as slowly as Fred had emphasized her own. "Seeing as Spike only got his soul last year? There wasn't any way for those prophecies to refer to anyone else. Now it is. Hence, theory."
"I just think it's more likely that there's another explanation," Fred replied, watching Angel out of the corner of her eye. He'd gone very, very still during Lilah's last tired, and Fred didn't think he was going to seven weeks without a choking. For some reason, that didn't bother Fred one tiny little bit.
Wesley, who was bothered, clearly didn't think so either. He was halfway out of his chair, waiting to leap in and stop the fight before it began, which both Angel and Lilah noticed and were slightly embarrassed by.
"I think you're probably right," Lilah said. "But Gunn did ask for theories, and this is one we have to consider. This Billy Rebel guy--and do we have a real name on him yet?--could be Spike. Or he could be a lounge lizard from Reno. Either way, we have to figure it out."
Angel suddenly nodded. "Except I think it's Spike," he said.
Everyone blinked. "Well, that's...wholly unexpected," Wesley said.
"Angelcakes, let's not overreact," Lorne said comfortingly. "Look, I've got Billy's demo tape. I talked to this joker on the phone. If he is Spike, don't you think I would have gotten a little mystical tingle by now?"
"Yes, Angel, I don't think we should get too excited right away," Wesley agreed, throwing an accusing look at Lilah. "At the very least, we need to do tests, have Lorne read him..."
"First my girlfriend, then the soul, then championhood," Angel grumbled, clearly not listening. "I can't believe Lilah is the only one of you who was willing to point out that Spike's shanshued."
"Maybe shanshued," Fred repeated earnestly. "Let's not forget the maybe, Angel. Maybe we can meet Billy before we jump to any conclusions?"
"Yeah, man, don't fly off the handle--" Gunn started to say.
There was a loud THUMP. Angel stood up, looking at bit wild about the eyes as he stared down the table.
"I don't see why you're having such a hard time with this," he said. "It makes a hell of a lot more sense than morphogenic energy or coincidence. It's Spike. And now we need to find him and figure out what he's up to and--"
Gunn stood up, looked at Angel, and calmly took control of the situation. No one could understand precisely how he did it, but ever since they'd accepted the deal with Wolfram and Hart, Gunn could take a potentially explosive situation and make it stop just by standing up and looking around the room. Not in a scary way, the way that Angel could stop a fight. You simply didn't talk when Gunn didn't want you to talk, even if you were Angel or Lilah on a very bad day.
"I said we're not going to fly off the handle, that's what we're gonna do," Gunn said politely. "Lorne, where can I find this guy?"
Lorne, clearly relieved that someone sane was in charge, pulled out a little black book and started flipping through pages. "He's supposed to be crashing at a Super 8 just east of Fairfax," he said, tapping the entry. "I also have a cell number, but I'm not sure it's good."
"Call him anyway," Gunn replied, turning to the rather embattled-looking Lilah. "You pointed out we don't have a real name on Billy. How long will it take you to get one?"
"Give me four to six hours if he legally exists," Lilah replied. "Two or three days if not. I'm on it."
"What about the Tangiers call?" Angel asked. "Which is in twenty minutes and which I'm not allowed to miss, come hell, high water, or Spike stealing my shanshu?"
Even Knox groaned that time. Lilah merely rubbed her forehead with long-suffering patience, the specifics of the Hell office of Wolfram and Hart held firmly in mind.
"I think you can take it all by yourself. Or make Wes help you," Lilah said diffidently. "My contacts don't talk to the likes of you, and we know this. Remember? Or am I wrong to guess that you want this prioritized?"
"Children," Wesley said. "Gunn is solving your problems for you. Do be polite and save the loaded banter for afterward."
"Thanks, Wes," Gunn said, turning to Fred and Knox. "You said you were working on a new version of the detector. How long before you can make one that can tell if this guy's Spike or not?"
Fred grimaced. "Never," she admitted. "Well, okay, not exactly. We already have one that can tell you if Billy's not Spike. But one that can tell us if he is? Not possible."
Much to Fred and Knox's private amusement, Gunn and Angel looked distinctly disappointed in the miracles of science, which were supposed to solve all their logistical problems.
"Why not?" Angel asked.
"Well, it's complicated," Fred said, gesturing with her fingers. "If Spike's information, which is encoded in the energy, overwrites someone else's, or if this guy, by some freak of nature, coincidence, or nefarious scheme, has the same energy signature as Spike did--and remember, our best readout on Spike came from the Initiative, so we've got a pretty detailed match--it'll be indistinguishable. We won't be able to find the original signals, and thus, zero way of telling on a genetic/energy level. Sorry, y'all."
"Well, crap," Gunn said finally, starting to pace up and down the room.
"It's not all bad," Fred said. "If it's not him, he won't have any of the memories or vocal tics. It's going to be pretty easy to prove he's not Spike."
"Unless he's lying," Angel said, clearly overthinking the subject. "Or what if shanshu means the Powers send you back with a clean slate? Or that the experience causes amnesia, like it did with--well, like it does? When I came back from Hell, there was a definite period of confusion. And we really don't know what shanshu means. We're just guessing."
"True, true, but we can figure out fairly quickly if it's NOT Spike," Knox said with the optimism of a science nerd. "Besides, if this is a mystical event, shouldn't there be portents and weird stuff a-happening? That's like, prophecy fulfillment one oh--"
As if the universe agreed with Knox's statement, the building started to shake violently and Wesley, who had been rather calmly drinking tea to steady his nerves, yelled and threw the cup across the room, revealing that somehow, the tea had decided it would rather be blood.
"One," Angel said when the ground stopped shaking, giving Gunn a look that said everything. "I think we should find Billy and see what other mystical damage a lounge singer from Reno happens to be causing."
Everyone collectively rolled their eyes at Angel attempting sarcasm, which was almost never a good idea, but it was Lorne who got the last word in.
"Or we could call Bowie's people and have them take care of it," he said. "Because if all Billy's up to is trashing the Thin White Duke's music? That's plenty."
That the hamburger is a culinary art form in Southern California, nobody debates. This is, after all, the home of fast-food chains from Del Taco to In-N-Out Burger, and everything in between. But nobody has yet duplicated the perfection of Fatburger, and oddly, nobody in Southern California seems particularly in a hurry to explain the allure to outsiders, those cursed interlopers who clog freeways, gape at overpriced corporate tourist traps, and retire to Park City, Utah.
Perhaps it's the retro attitude. Fatburger prides itself in converting vegetarians as wells as its harsh yellow, red, and white color scheme. Add in the formica and the unapologetic use of grease, as well as the part where Fatburgers are as good as advertised, and you have something doomed to distillation and mediocrity. But not quite yet.
Gunn wasn't at all surprised to see Billy Rebel of Billy Rebel and the Yells hiding out in a Fatburger, gorging on a Fatburger with cheese, onion rings, and a large coke. If the stories about Spike were true, the vamp had been a big fan of heart-attack-inducing snacks. And if this mofo was Spike, it made sense.
And if he wasn't? Homeboy had clearly been in LA long enough or often enough to know where to go for a burger. Gunn respected that. Maybe this wouldn't be as bad as Angel and Wesley expected it to be, after all.
"Hey," Gunn said, sitting down in the seat across from Billy's. "This seat taken?"
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Billy asked before looking up and blanching. "Suppose it ain't."
Gunn gave Billy a disgusted look, counted to ten, and smiled. "What? You scared I'm gonna fuck your shit up if you tell the big scary Black man this seat's taken?" he asked, eyeing the man's lunch.
Billy, who was wearing obvious black eyeliner, looked up defiantly. His short, darkish hair shadowed his face in a way that made him look different than Spike's file photos. The resemblance was all in the build and the cheekbones. Both of 'em were skinny little bastards, and Gunn felt a little bad for threatening the guy.
"I'm not scared. Just not stupid. You want to sit here, go right ahead, but I'm not buying your arse chips or nothing."
"It's all good, man. I can pay for my own," Gunn replied. "Watch my coat."
There was an almost audible stunned silence from Billy as Gunn stood up and went to the counter, ordering himself a Big Fat Deal as Billy tried to stay calm and eat his onion rings.
"This is rather Tarantino-esque of you, bro," Billy said with heavy sarcasm when Gunn sat down with his lunch. "Do you by chance have a wallet that says Bad Muthafucker on it?"
Gunn failed to rise to the bait. "Don't need one," he said. "You're Billy Rebel, right?"
Despite himself, Billy looked flattered to be recognized. "You heard of me?" he asked. "Wait. Wait. You're from Johnny in Reno, ain't you? Tell her I'm good for the fucking money, no problem. No fucking problem, just let me get my advance from these sodding wankers I'm meeting tomorrow, Wolfram and Hart. Then we'll be square. No need to get bloody."
Ever since Gunn's experience in the white room, he'd found people tended to have one of two initial reactions to him--awed silence or blubbering terror. He hadn't expected a shanshued vampire to fit into either category. Maybe it was just Billy worried he was a pipe-wielding goon from Reno. Still, Gunn couldn't help but be disappointed.
"I'm not from Johnny, dumbass," Gunn said after he'd finished about half of his burger. "But what if I told you I could take care of Johnny and all your other problems with only a little help from your sad ass?"
"I'd say you were bloody lying, and then I'd ask you how," Billy said.
Gunn grinned. It was always easier than Angel thought. "All right. So you're gonna have to come with me..."
"...to the stacks?" Lilah asked, sounding skeptical. Wesley closed his eyes. "Sure. Sounds cozy."
Wes opened his eyes and sure enough, there was the smirk. "You're really incorrigible," he scolded, looking over his shoulder for possible interruptions.
Lilah's lips brushed against his earlobe. "But you're so much fun when you squirm," she replied warmly, her fingertips lingering on the shoulder of his rumpled black suit jacket.
Wes coughed as a matter of form, and the two finished their walk into the files room (though sadly, Files and Records had broken during the Beast's attacks, and it would be at least another six months before she'd be ready for redeployment), the world of prophecies, secrets, and lies. It smelled rather distinctly of dust and papers and trapped air, but the place was suitably deserted, cool, and dark.
"Those damn meetings get longer every time," he growled, throwing his jacket atop a dusty filing cabinet, damn the stains, and undoing the first two buttons of his shirt. "Is it an inevitable phenomenon, you think?"
Cool, tapered fingers rubbed against Wesley's neck, teasing and worrying at the skin, sliding up to the stubble on his jaw and finally coming to rest on his shoulders.
"What's inevitable?" Lilah asked, gasping with mock surprise as Wesley took her by the hips and pulled her in for a kiss. "I'm serious!"
"This," he said gently, trying to smooth away the sudden wrinkle in Lilah's forehead.
"This is the result of a series of bad choices, manipulations, and lust," she replied, letting herself relax into a slow kiss that turned into a press of body against body, Wes apparently trying to absorb her into himself. "It's all about choices."
"Choices are never exactly what they seem," he told her, caressing the curve of her breast. "I learned that from Jasmine."
Lilah laughed bitterly, which turned into a strangled moan as Wesley started nibbling on her earlobe. Oh, Wesley didn't know the half of it, and Lilah hated Angel a little more for the lie she told for him.
"Jasmine didn't know what the fuck she was talking about," Lilah protested. "Choices are everything--oh, God, yes--they make us--oh--"
"We have to be sure it's Spike," Fred said firmly. Min and Knox were listening anxiously, their digital recorders catching every word. "I just can't see a way to do it, especially given the information we've brought back from the Sunnydale site. Can either of you?"
The pair of scientists shook their heads in unison.
"You know this as well as we do, Fred," Min said. "Once morphogenesis happens, the host cell's information has imprinted permanently. It would be indistinguishable unless we caught the energy from the reaction, and we still haven't found a way to do that, or what time barriers we would have. And all of this is so theoretical that it'll take us at least four months to find a way to detect the reaction."
Fred pinched the bridge of her nose tiredly. "So if this Billy guy did something deeply stupid like hide out in the crater that used to be a town?"
"We're probably screwed," Knox said. "At least on the molecular level. But if he's not Spike, it'll be easy to figure out. He'll have the wrong memories and talk like he's from Nevada."
"And have documentary evidence to the contrary," Min added. "Besides, how crazy would a guy have to be to hide out in the Sunnydale crater? How likely is it that someone would--"
"A normal person? Pretty unlikely," Lorne announced dramatically. "But our friend Billy Rebel, AKA William Sullivan? Not terribly normal."
"William Sullivan?" Fred asked. "Isn't that--"
"Spike's original name," Lorne said. "And this guy's a mess. Moth-eaten records, records of mental institutionalization, blurry photographs. Billy looked a lot like Spike to begin with, if he's not our guy."
Fred sighed. Min and Knox shared an uncomfortable look. Sure, it was great to have an open and outspoken boss who shared responsibility with the underlings, but damn, did it make for uncomfortable EverQuest Fridays. Lorne made a face, and sat down next to the two young scientists.
"William Sullivan," Fred repeated. "The coincidences are getting kinda staggering, aren't they?"
Lorne shrugged. "I'm still not buying it, Fred," he said. "Will Sullivan? A man with a suspicious lack of a past? Someone's trying to get to Angel, and it's someone who knows how to push our boy's buttons but good."
"Lilah?" Fred asked, sounding hopeful.
"What with the extra-toasty Hell gig if she gets caught?" Lorne asked. "Probably not. But if we can frame her, it'd be cool. She cut my budget again, can you believe it?"
Knox, who always knew when he wasn't needed, winked at Min and stood up. "I think we've outlived our usefulness for today," he said. "Min and I'll get to work on outlining the next generations of morpho-boxes. Won't we, Min?"
Min looked at Fred, and then at her colleague, nodded briefly, and stood. "Of course," she said. "See you tomorrow, Fred."
Lorne watched the biophysicist walk away and shut the door behind her before turning back to Fred with a knowing sparkle in his eye.
"She seems nice," he said. "Tired of the boys?"
"Oh, I like Knox just fine," Fred said cluelessly. "But Min's smart. And there could always be more female scientists."
Lorne grinned. "Of course, sweetpea," he said. "Anyhoo..."
"Anyhoo? What are you saying? Am I being a reverse sexist?" she asked, eyes wide. "I'm trying for the level playing field! There's just--"
Laughing, Lorne shook his head. "It's not that, kitten," he said. "Don't sweat it. First, let's survive the attack of the rebel yell and then I'll tell you why I think Min's funny, okay?"
Fred half-pouted. "If it's because she's evil, I want to know now," she said firmly. Lorne shook his head again. "Lorne! You're driving me crazy!"
"I know," Lorne said mysteriously. "So I guess it's time to go to Angel--"
The phone rang: once, twice, and Fred had the receiver in hand, suspicious expression on her face by ring three. Lorne watched and waited politely as his friend made a few incoherent noises, listened for long periods of time, thanked the caller, and hung up.
"Too late," Fred said, standing up. "Billy Rebel has entered the building."
"Is there a reason this ruddy joint keeping shaking and quaking?" Billy asked as Fred poked him with various pointy metal instruments. "Ouch! That smarts!"
Fred rolled her eyes. "If only," she replied cryptically. "What on earth made you think hiding out in the Sunnydale crater was a good idea?"
Billy tilted his head noncommittally. "Like I told you bloody people the first ten times," he said, "I own money around towns, plural, and nobody sane would sleep in a big sodding hole where a town used to be, would they?"
"That's for damn sure," Min said, deploying the chair restraints. Fred was really starting to like Min. She had a sense of timing, great hair, and she was more than willing to help Fred out with emergency tests on Billy. And it had been way too long since Fred had had a girl friend--not since Cordy had been replaced with the pod person. Plus, there was the bonus of Min being a nerdgirl like Fred, and there'd been a reason, after all, that Willow'd gotten flirty vibes, and it was called-- "Should I start up the juice, boss?"
"Now, now! Gunn didn't say nothing about juice!" Billy protested, sounding a bit scared. "This isn't bloody fair. I'm trying to hide from a vicious mob hit, and now you're turning me into bloody julienne fries."
Min looked over from her vantage point and smiled viciously. "You don't have enough meat on your bones," she replied. "Have you ever considered peddling your diet secrets? You'd probably be a millionaire in a week."
Nice. Fred needed to ask this woman out for margaritas, even if the Apocalypse came tomorrow, and given the disturbing readings Security had been sending their way, that could possibly be true. She smiled at Min, and strolled over to the unobtrusive panel where every last medical device in the bay was controlled. Once upon a time, it had been much flashier, but Fred believed that terror was much more effective when it was domestic and utterly banal.
Besides, the layout of the buttons had been completely asinine and illogical, clearly more suited to a madman's interrogation than proper scientific testing. Knox had concurred rather strenuously, and thus, the hidden panel and clearly labeled buttons. A neat beige one labeled scanner found itself under Fred's searching fingers and then was quietly depressed.
The frantic scream that came from Billy brought a smile to Fred's face. Really, it would be all too easy to give in, some days, to the Wolfram and Hart image. She knew that the test didn't hurt--Min's morphogenic scanner was primarily a laser-based operation, rather like a supermarket checkout device--and that Billy was howling for effect. But the nasty, deeply repressed part of Fred that was deeply envious of the fact that a dead woman and D&D nerds were seeing more action than she was wished that she could give this non-bleached pain in their ass something to howl about.
"I wasn't hiding in the sodding crater!" Billy wailed, squirming under Min and Fred's scornful looks. "Swear to sweet Jesus, I was blitzed on shrooms and seeing sights no man should see! Oh, my beloved's face as she took me to darkness--"
Drama queen. Both women were now trying very hard to repress their laughter at the theatrics, as they were serious scientists, and not supposed to scare the sad bastard out of his wits. Lorne had assured Billy into these tests at the last of it with promises that he'd be the most famous David Bowie cover singer of all time once they were over. All Min and Fred had to do was make sure Billy didn't run away or try to do something stupid.
"How much longer can this take?" Fred asked over the hum of the machinery as Billy wailed, squirmed, and made a general ass of himself.
"It's a full body scan, so it usually takes three minutes," Min replied. "By the way, I was wondering. Um. Do you ever stop working?"
"What?" Fred asked, taken off-guard. "I stop. In fact, I have a whole month of vacation coming up the next time world peace breaks out."
"Oh. So soon," Min replied with a pithy smile. "I was going to ask if you wanted to go out for strawberry margaritas after this. I missed karaoke night, so I need someone to come with to Chevy's or Chili's. And you like margaritas...so I thought I'd ask."
"Huh," Fred said, weighing the proposal. "Well, I'm stuck giving Angel this report, but I think that yes. Yes, I want to get a 'rita with you. And maybe--it's been a while since I went to Chili's, but they still have lots of food there, right? Like the bottomless chips?"
Trapped in the chair, Billy started wailing louder. "Have neither of you mad birds realized I'm trussed up like a Christmas goose? And that the blinking light's been bloody done a good minute now? Let me go!" he yelled. "And can I come for margaritas, too? Cuz that sounds like a plan, and Chili's has the Awesome Blossom, and those are works of art."
If it hadn't been for the strict moral upbringing Fred's parents had instilled in her, Min's sudden fit of giggles, and the knowledge that it wouldn't please Angel at all to discover that Billy Rebel was suddenly bald and smoking in a chair if he didn't get to watch, Fred would have pushed some of the other, far more interesting buttons on her panel. As it was, she restrained herself and turned to the laughing woman with a wicked smile.
"Can you wait about forty-five minutes for me?" Fred asked with a stunning smile. "And then I'll show you why no one's ever bought me dinner more than once."
Min merely lifted an eyebrow and smiled back.
Angel's office resembled a paper mill that had exploded. Lilah was sitting cross-legged and barefoot on the floor in the center of a circle of papers a foot high. She was wearing a pair of hip-hugging jeans, which neither Wesley nor Angel had realized she'd owned, and the blouse she'd worn in that morning, efficiently tied out of her way to hide its Wesley-inflicted damage from the file room. Her hair was pulled up in a ponytail and she managed to look ten years younger as she sorted through ancient parchment and tiny script in ways that made Wesley's stomach ache.
"For the love of God, woman, don't use highlighter!" he pleaded. "Not on the parchment at least!"
"Don't tell me what to do, lover," she replied distractedly, making notes on her PDA before launching into more wanton destruction of priceless documents. "Our friend Billy has the worst timing. The general incidence of magickal energy and magickally-induced chaos in the basin's up 437% in the last four days. Then there's this distracting 10,000% percent upsurge in those energies in the four-mile radius around Wolfram and Hart proper."
"Which is all well and good, but must you savage a priceless medieval document to share that news?" Wes asked sharply.
As a point of fact, Lilah was more than aware of how to handle ancient documents, had taken a course on it in college, and still chose to drive Wesley out of his skull by refusing to use a soft lead pencil on centuries-old bits of animal skin. It was much the same principle that drove her to put ice in good scotch or make sure that any time Angel looked her way, it was into enhanced cleavage.
After all, if Lilah was cursed to play PA for a relentless son of a bitch like Angel, who was clever enough to use the Internet, any number of arcane weapons, speak Latin, and remember the exact layout of a room after being in it ten minutes, and THEN chose to act like he had concrete for brains, she deserved some revenge. Often, and with as much creativity as she could possibly muster without getting sent back to Hell. Given the number of death and sexual torture threats Angel had made against her person even after they'd started working together--to say nothing of the secret she was keeping--it was the least she could do.
"Miss Burkle is here to see you," the night secretary announced over the intercom.
"Good," Angel rumbled, turning off the radio after the intercom went off. Wes and Lilah both gave tiny sighs of gratitude. Someone, and they both suspected either Kaylie or Lorne, had given Angel the heads-up about a nostalgia power ballad station, and late night corporate research sessions had gotten a distinctly AM soundtrack as a result.
Fred, alone for once, walked into the office with a vexed expression on her skinny face. "We finished the tests on Billy," she announced. "They're pretty damn inconclusive."
"Gee, I'm surprised," Lilah said airily, marking up another piece of paper. "So the genetics are a match, the memories aren't, and he swears up and down he's not, but he's not reliable?"
"That's right," Fred answered grimly. "He wants to come out with me and Min to Chili's when I leave here in a few minutes. I told him yes."
"Why?" Angel asked.
"Cuz if he's a plant, once he's good and drunk, he'll trip up, and Min's promised me so many margaritas that we'll have him sobbing into his chips by closing," Fred said with an arch grin. "Besides, some of us have social engagements this evening and we're not getting any younger."
Fred's glare included both Angel and Lilah in the dead and still unfairly pretty club. Lilah glance up, shrugged, and went back to her stacks of paperwork.
"So--world's ending, mystical occurrences are centered on the building, and you've decided it's time to drink?" Wes summed up.
"Have at least two for me, and make Billy pay for his own portion," Wes said companionably. Fred snickered in a distinctly evil manner.
"That was my plan," she said. "Well, see y'all tomorrow. Try to get a little sleep, cuz otherwise, Angel, you're a crankypuss."
With that rejoinder, Fred handed Angel her report and practically skipped out of the room. Wes watched her go with a speculative expression on his face that had little to do with his past sexual interest in Fred and much more to do with Fred's delight at escaping work for drinks, Billy Rebel, and the Suleri woman.
"I'm not a crankypuss," Angel said sourly. "And why is everyone so happy to leave work these days?"
"Sixteen-hour days do get somewhat exhausting for those of us not blessed with preternatural regenerative powers," Wes replied with a yawn. "Or no need of sleep. Especially when all the results are inconclusive and there's no sign the world will end today."
Lilah looked up again and nodded. "You can't work the rest of your people to death, Angel," she said. "They're more useful after a good night's sleep. You know that."
Angel wasn't sure this wasn't a rehearsed conversation, and possibly one Wesley and Lilah were using to escape the office and continue the disturbing sexual encounter they'd started earlier. At the same time, Lilah wasn't asking for her own freedom, just Wesley's. And as she had obliquely referenced Connor with her last comment, Angel knew that she was implying that it was past time for Wesley to go home.
"If Wes wants to go, I'm not forcing him to stay," Angel said. "Or you, for that matter. With all of the weird things going on here, we need everyone to rest up and be at their best."
During Angel's patter, something rather heavy and resembling an epiphany slapped Lilah in the back of her head, and she had to stare down at her PDA and back up at Angel, who was clearly very satisfied with his generosity toward her, to make sure she had it straight.
"Well, then," Wes was saying, though anything he actually said in that tone of voice blurred into, 'get your coat, love, you've pulled' at this hour of night, "perhaps it would be better if Lilah and I--"
"It's a distraction," she said with a tiny smile of satisfaction. Lilah usually didn't put things together. Intuition was so rarely her specialty (it was one of Angel's few gifts that he bothered to use) that it was intensely pleasurable to scoop both of the men in her life.
"What?" Wes asked, sounding a little panicked. That gave Lilah another thrill. Even with the unfortunate death issue, he still had a certain attachment to her, and that made her happy. It would have made her happier had she not been dead, but Lilah knew better than most people that you don't always get what you want.
"Billy Rebel," she said. "Whether he's Spike or not, it doesn't matter. It's a distraction from what's really going on, which is definitely about something--or someone--here."
"Who? What?" Angel asked.
"I don't know," Lilah said, standing up and stretching, making sure she bent back just a bit too far so that her stomach showed and she could almost catch Angel looking. She knew Wesley was watching. Wes liked to watch, and perhaps if he were surer of her head staying on, he'd be doing more. Though not in front of Angel, she supposed. "Ask me tomorrow."
One of the first five important things any new employee worth keeping discovered about Wolfram and Hart Los Angeles, right after discovering there really WAS a dungeon, and right before realizing that there might be a contract rider stating that any firstborn children had to undergo a fifty-point inspection before being accepted as offerings, was that the new management team had a secret meeting room. Not only was it secret, its very location was a mystery, and as for what Angel and his team did in there? The stuff of legend, drunken whispers, private fantasy, and much noisy speculation at E-Bar Tuesdays. The only thing that was certain was its existences, its verboten status, and that the decisions made there could make or break entire dimensions.
Employee speculation about the contents of the mysterious room had quickly reached fever pitch in both levels of interest and absurdity, which was exactly what Lilah had hoped it would. This allowed Angel, or, hell, anyone, to do any number of questionably ethical things in other rooms without anyone questioning or wondering about them. Because, after all, the secret meeting room, locked and private, was always more interesting as the center of the New Wolfram and Hart.
There was also the bonus that if anyone actually stumbled onto the place, they'd never believe it was the lair. First of all, there weren't any ninjas. And anyone who was anyone at all had ninjas. Secondly, everyone KNEW evil overlords (or their not-so-evil non-union equivalents) lived large, paved their fixtures in gold, and absolutely, definitely had ninjas. Possibly monkey butlers.
That was why everyone knew nothing.
"Why are there no Goldfish?" Gunn complained, flopping down on his ratty couch, which everyone knew had stains older than Gunn himself, but that he loved nonetheless. He'd dragged it upstairs himself, claimed it had immense sentimental value, and thus guaranteed that neither Angel nor Lilah would ever sit on it. "There's tea for Wes and crullers and coffee for Fred, but I get no fishy love."
He glared at Lilah, who glared back with the same mock intensity, and then curled up into her enormous basket chair, which dated from her mythical days as an innocent undergraduate. Her hair was disheveled, the clothes were the same as last night's, and her expression dared someone to ask why.
"I'm not touching that one," Fred said. She had the look of someone who had not quite expected how good the margaritas would be. "Why are we here before noon?"
As if to answer her, the building groaned ominously. Angel, holding a pot of coffee, looked up at the ceiling, waiting for plaster to fall. Fred rolled her head back and forth, and sat down next to Gunn on the couch, throwing her left leg over one of its arms to let her bare foot dangle in midair.
"We've got a theory about what's happening," Angel said. Behind him, Wesley, who also looked rather disheveled, rolled his eyes and drank his tea. "It's a distraction."
"From what, Angel?" Lilah asked with mock-innocence, as if the idea hadn't been hers in the first place. "After all, that's so little to go on! Who's distracting us? From what? And why?"
"You're really bad at feigning innocence," Lorne said sourly, swathed in a magnificent bathrobe, the likes of which no boyband in America or Britain could claim the equal of. Which was precisely why Lorne owned the thing in the first place. "Do you have a guess?"
"I do. It's pretty damn obvious, too," Lilah said readily. "This is about Cordelia."
Angel's expression didn't change, but it so rarely did. "What exactly about Cordy?" he asked in a calm voice.
"I haven't figured that out yet," Lilah admitted, looking around for support. "But tell me it doesn't make sense."
Fred, of all people, nodded first. "Cordy is the only one who can't leave the building, angel," she said apologetically. "And we never did figure out what Cordelia could be capable of, um, if...well--"
"But if this is about Cordy, why bother with Billy?" Gunn asked.
"Because there's no one else not named Buffy who could get me distracted from Cordelia in a situation like this," Angel said quietly. Lilah narrowed an eye, and then nodded along with everyone else. She was right, of course. Any mention of something going wrong with Connor, and Angel would forget even Buffy. It said something, maybe, that he was getting better at the lying. "It was a good distraction."
The rest of them, still sleepy-eyed, managed to rouse themselves from their dozing and play along. Angel thought that maybe, turning their extra-secret conference room into what amounted to a grown-up clubhouse, complete with pool table and jukebox, had been a bad idea.
"Plays on our distaste for the detectors and Security Section," Wes said. "And on our fondness for having a mysterious yet familiar party to focus our investigations on."
"Wow, it's like someone knows you," Lilah said, yawning and stretching her arms. "So which old friend's pissed at you this week, Angel? The First? Drusilla? Maybe the Mafia guys you clobbered? Or, hey, and here's a shiny thought--what about Cordy?"
Of course that particular idea went down about as well as home-brewed Pylean ale in the summer sunshine. Lilah found herself, not for the first or last time, the center of yet another five-sided glare.
"How could you even think that?" Fred asked indignantly, pushing stray hairs away from her face. Lilah raised a sardonic eyebrow and lowered her scarf briefly. "Okay, we know why YOU would, but that...that wasn't Cordy!"
"You sure?" Lilah drawled. "I think I've seen her a lot more recently than you have."
Everyone shifted uncomfortably at that, even Angel. He'd gone faithfully, once a day, every day, for the first three weeks. Then it had been every other day. And now it was once a week. Regularly. Scheduled by Kaylie so he wouldn't put it off. Mondays at noon, Angel went to visit Cordelia for an hour or two. He talked to her, he didn't sing to her, he held her hand, which was always perfectly moisturized.
"You have?" Wes asked, sounding puzzled.
"Yeah," Lilah said, examining her fingernails. "Someone has to visit, and I have the time. It's not like I sleep."
Gunn had been pacing the floor since the moment Cordy's name was mentioned, the muscles in his neck and shoulders tensing and untensing in precision time. He paused with the conversation.
"So you're saying that Cordy's trying to wake herself up?" he asked. "That's crazy talk. If she could manipulate this Billy guy into walking into Sunnydale Crater and distracting us, why'd she go to that much trouble? She coulda just gotten one of us to do her unholy bidding."
"Except that would be suspicious," Wesley said with an apologetic smile. "We're all very aware of how--perhaps the best word is distant--we've--"
Gunn laughed and immediately went back to pacing.
"Spit it out, English. We've been avoiding each other like the plague and Wolfram and Hart's a big goddamn building," he said affectionately. "We got our own thing going on, and it doesn't bother us, right?"
"Right," Fred said with the smile of the hung over. "So if one of us got all cozy with Cordy now, we'd be weirded. Which means, I guess, it could be Cordy. Maybe."
Lorne jumped into the game of team figure-it-out. "Except that could just be another distraction, kids," he pointed out. "So let's not count out the possibility that Cordelia's not in an evil coma."
"Thank you," Angel said, preserving his composure. "So it looks like we've got our work cut out for us today, after all of you shower and dress like adults. Gunn, you're obviously looking for whatever this thing. Talk to your contacts. Fred, you're running tests on Cordelia and having your department come up with new security gadgets. Wes, find a prophecy, find a spell, find a big burly Troll with a hammer, but make sure Cordy's safe. Lilah, you and I are going to keep the place running and switch to DefCon3 the second it's necessary. Lorne, find out more about Billy. He might be a distraction, but if we find the distraction-maker, we're one step closer to our guy. And you're not really going to wear that to work today?"
"I'll have you know that everyone who's anyone networks in their jammies these days, dumpling," Lorne said, clutching his bathrobe. "Though I don't think what everyone else is wearing qualifies as jammies so much as they do scrubs."
Fred wrinkled her nose, Gunn didn't even bother to pay attention, Wesley looked vaguely embarrassed, and Lilah did the cleavage adjustment that said louder than words, 'fuck you, greenie, I'm dead and still getting laid more often than you.'
"Darn it, I'm gonna need Min--and I gave her the day off," Fred recalled hazily. "She did the lipstick trick after our fourth margaritas. Speaking of margaritas, should we maybe find Billy and put him in a safe house? He could just be an innocent pawn. A guy from Reno. Who really liked Min's butt."
A devious expression crossed Fred's face. "On second thought, he could be bait. I wouldn't mind a bit."
Cordelia's hospital bed was a marvel of magickal engineering and medical science balancing very carefully in perfect harmony. Though occasionally, as the technicians explained to Lilah on her daily visits, the symphony sounded a sour note and it was five minutes of excitement for a week, two weeks of silent perfection.
Her eyes were open today. Lilah preferred that, actually. It made it seem like she was actually listening.
"So, as usual," Lilah said, sitting down next to the woman whose life she'd effectively overtaken only after Cordelia had taken hers. "You've fucked everything up and left me to take care of things. Thanks so much, Cordelia."
No answer, but there so rarely was.
"It was going all right," Lilah mused. "Wesley and I were making our way toward detente. Nobody but you knows I go over to Wesley's for Scrabble, foreplay, bad movies, and uncomfortable silence. And then he falls asleep and I read reports and fix Angel's mistakes and wonder why I bother. But apparently you were tired of being out of the spotlight, so here we go again."
The air in Cordelia's room was wrong. It wasn't exactly stale; it was fresh, unscented, and precisely the right temperature. But the sterility of it, the absolute lack of smell, of airflow, of anything besides a perfect 72 degrees of clean air always left Lilah feeling somewhat dizzied by her visits.
And she still came. To make sure someone remembered, even if it was only her. Things tended to get forgotten in Wolfram and Hart if they weren't attended to, much like the time that Holland had chained up his previous two bosses in the company wine cellar and promptly lost track of them until the bigwigs from London came for a visit. The stench had been horrendous, and Holland had been without a minion to blame, or hell, names to call the decomposed corpses. London office had not been impressed, to say the least.
"I think Angel's starting to believe his own bullshit," Lilah admitted, picking a stray hair off Cordelia's sheet. "He said that only Spike or Buffy could distract him from you. Guess the kid didn't matter that much to him after all. Or hell, I don't know, maybe Angel goes up to his penthouse every night and cries big shiny tears for losing both of you. Angel's a mystery wrapped in a riddle shrouded in those cotton balls which he calls his brains."
Cordelia had to have been frustrated by Angel's feigned stupidity. How long had he been pulling that act, the not-quite-bright but damn-so-pretty vamp with a soul bit? He never had to lift a finger except to make the decisions, something Lilah envied. She'd always had to work so hard to make it look so effortless. Angel didn't do anything and made it look hard.
Bastard. All of them, really. If Lilah weren't dependent on all of them--and that included Wesley, lovesick teasing son of a bitch--she'd use her shiny new insider info and take every last one of them down and laugh at all the spilled blood. Then she'd go find herself a morbid but tasty celebrity and fuck his brains out.
That was exactly what she'd do, no doubt about it.
Lilah stood up. "If I find out this is you, Cordy, I'm going to personally rip every last tube out of your body," she hissed. "Just so you know."
With that, the walking dead woman turned on her three-inch heels and walked out, leaving the living dead woman to her (dreamless) sleep. The machines cleared the air as she went, and by the time the door to Cordelia's room closed, no one would have ever guessed Lilah had been there.
"He's MISSING?" Angel shouted into the phone. "What the hell do you mean, he's missing? Billy's our only possible link to who's behind this. He can't be missing."
Kaylie put four or five urgent memos and a mug of blood on the desk, trying not to look disgusted that a Williams-Sonoma mug was being put to such bad use. Angel smiled at her, trying to look reassuring, and went back to shouting at Lorne on the phone as Lilah let herself in, looking far more professional than she had at the meeting in one of those classic navy suits she wore so well.
"Billy's gone," Kaylie told Lilah in a whisper. "Mr. Angel's not too happy. Are you all right? Your scarf's sort of--well--"
She made a fluttering gesture with her hands to indicate that the beheading scar was partially visible. Lilah moved to readjust it, but after a moment, shrugged, took the damn thing off, and let it fall to the floor. Kaylie, visibly shaken, blinked repeatedly--Miss Morgan, show off her scar?--and hurried away.
"Hey, boss," Lilah said when Angel finally hung up the phone, still shaking with rage. "Who was that poor bastard?"
"Lorne," Angel said. "Billy's gone."
"I know. I heard," Lilah replied. "Good. He's not important. Call Security Section and tell them to let his ass in if and when he comes looking around for his handout. Then kick his ass."
She was impressed with her little plan, but Angel was apparently not listening to anything besides the voices in his head.
"Do you think it's possible that Cordelia's behind this?" he asked. "Or could it be about Connor? About what really happened?"
Lilah, slightly alarmed, looked around the room. "No, I don't think this has anything to do with Connor," she said, giving him a disgusted look. "And gee, let's talk about someone no one has ever heard of a whole bunch and look extra-suspicious!"
Angel responded with a diffident shrug, confirming Lilah's belief that Angel was more selfish than anyone she'd ever met, including herself. The man never gave a damn about anything or anyone if it didn't affect his immediate situation or emotional state, which was why most of his enemies functioned on the theory that Angel was as dumb as a sack of hammers.
"If it turns out to be a possibility, we'll investigate," Angel said, taking a drink of his blood and scanning the memos.
"Duh," Lilah said sarcastically. "So if we find Billy, collar and bell him?"
"What?" Angel asked, glancing up casually. He had a very slight blood moustache and it turned Lilah's stomach. Thoughtless son of a bitch! He didn't drink blood in front of anyone else, but her? Someone he had fed from who was still sort of alive? No big deal.
"If we find Billy, should we put a collar with a little bell on him so we don't lose him again?" Lilah asked after counting to twenty. Her neck itched. She guessed it was because of the sudden exposure of air it was getting for the first time in a long while. Weird.
Everything in her non-life was weird and only getting weirder.
Angel during this period processed Lilah's joke, found it unfunny, rolled his eyes, and shrugged. "I was thinking something along the lines of a microchip implanted in his shoulder, but Spike always did look good in a collar," he said with an expression that Lilah could only classify as a world of wrong.
Angel. Spike. Collar. Now she needed to wash her brain out with soap and possibly carbolic acid.
"That was a massive overshare, Angel," Lilah told him, turning on her laptop and feigning nonchalance.
"I know," Angel replied with the same brand of nonchalance. "Find out who's behind this, Lilah. And fast."
She smiled at him grimly, finally having no choice but to scratch her neck, which would not stop itching. "Of course, boss," Lilah said almost-cheerfully. "I always do, don't I?"
Wolfram and Hart's science division was having what could only be referred to as a banner day. Like most scientific banner days, it involved noisy gadgets, major theoretical breakthroughs, and a spectacular explosion to close.
All in all, Knox was getting a raise.
"That was nifty!" Fred cried, brushing the debris out of her hair. "Except...why did it blow up at the end, Knox? Is it a design flaw? Bad reaction?"
Knox, who was uniformly chalk-grey from the explosion, coughed, brushed off his safety goggles, and pulled out his Palm Pilot from his inner lab coat pocket.
"It looks like, according to the readings, it just overheated."
"So add more fans and whoosh?" Fred asked, feeling a little giddy. They'd been working on this aspect of the morphogenic project for two months with zero joy, but today when Fred walked into the office holding a tanker-sized mug of coffee and Min's number, Knox had surprised and delighted her by announcing they had had themselves a breakthrough after six hours of illicit EverQuesting on the company LAN.
Granted, now she really was going to have to request the upgrade so the department could properly fit themselves out for late night gaming, but it was a small price to pay for these results.
"Totally," Knox said. "Can you believe it? This SOB's taken forever, but ninja some phat loot from a guild over in Tokyo and suddenly it all comes clear!"
Fred closed her eyes and counted to three. On second thought, she wasn't sure if the increased productivity was worth the geekish slang. "Knox, remember the conversation we had about not advertising that Wolfram and Hart sponsors Evercrack addictions among its scientists?" she asked, trying not to laugh. Ninjaing phat loot. Sometimes she missed Gunn's simple comic book addiction, though she suspected if Gunn knew of the worldly pleasures of EverQuest, he'd be just as addicted as Knox and the boys. Probably Angel and Wes, too.
"Yeah, I totally do," Knox said. "Why?"
"Please, for the sake of our reputation, don't mention phat loot in your project report," she said, losing the battle with the laughter. "Does it really help, running around here on caffeine and RPGs in the middle of the night?"
Knox, who Fred really could almost date if she was currently dating, grinned boyishly, looking around the lab at his similarly sleep-deprived colleagues, and shrugged.
"It's something to do after league bowling night," he said. "So, you're impressed?"
Fred looked at the damage done. "Yeah, I'm impressed," she said. "Ben? Are you okay?"
Ben Oliveri, who was apparently doing things with polymer chemistry that were ten years ahead of MIT thanks to his brains and lack of ethics, was sitting at a small table next to the soda machine, apparently trying to keep his stomach together. He'd been Knox's test subject and had almost ended up stuck in the temporary form Knox had selected, that of Knox's elderly grandmother.
"That was creepy," Ben said, taking another drink of his coffee. "Thanks for not leaving me as your grandma, dude."
"My pleasure, dude," Knox said. "Hey, where the hell is Min? This is her baby! She should be celebrating with us and our ubah glory."
Ben and Knox then looked directly at Fred, which suggested that they knew exactly where Min was, and why. Thus Fred didn't both dignifying their blatant gossip-mongering with a response. It was such a nosy department at the end of the day, which probably explained why everyone came up with so many useful but privacy-dehancing devices. Nice people, smart and friendly as could be; no personal lives outside Wolfram and Hart whatsoever.
"Min's not coming in today," someone else called. "It's on the voice mail. She spent too much time out at Chili's with some guy called Billy and she's already okayed to have the day off for some R&R."
Knox's eyes widened even further, which looked more than a little ridiculous behind his goggles. Fred grinned unabashedly and pretended to ignore his rampant jealousy about Min and Billy and why exactly Fred had given her the day off.
"I want you to get me another prototype by three," Fred said, stifling a yawn. It had been a late night. "One that won't blow up after fifteen minutes of turning Ben into your grandma."
Knox grinned, saluted cheerfully, and turned to the mess of lower-level research assistants who were starting to clean up the mess. "Got it," he said. "One Mark Two TMP on your desk by three, no problem. Is it at all possible to get Min to help?"
"Yes," Fred said. "I'm calling her. Now get to work."
"Aye, aye, captain," Knox yelled after her. "Tell her to come quick; I have an idea that'll knock your socks off if we can get it to work."
Rupert Giles never called with good news. He rarely called with news, but when he did, it was always to herald some sort of imminent disaster heading directly for LA. Wesley was quite certain that the man took an immense, perverse pleasure in that fact.
One day, he'd have to introduce Rupert to Lilah, give his amoral beloved an idea or two, and watch the carnage ensue.
"What makes you certain that Rayne is coming to Wolfram and Hart?" Wesley asked. "He's been free for six months if your source on the military base is correct; why make a move now?"
"Because tonight is the High Holy Feast of Janus the Revealer," Giles replied, his voice crackly and static-heavy. Wesley supposed that if he were calling from a cell phone in Elko, Nevada, he'd be cursed with the same vocal problems. "It's rumored in the mysteries that if a true and devoted worshipper of chaos were to stand in a place of two-sided power and tap into the power of a god, he will ascend and become as Janus."
Wesley groaned. "Not another bloody wannabe divinity," he said. "We've gotten quite sick of those here in LA, Rupert. It's been done to death."
"I'm sorry if rogue chaos mages with delusions of godhood are out of fashion in that sprawling suburb you call a city, Wesley, but I thought you'd want to be warned," Giles said with the faintest trace of sarcasm. "How are things down there, anyway? Has the Hellmouth been giving anyone trouble?"
"We're rather not sure," Wesley replied vaguely as Lilah walked into his office and made a sour face. He covered the receiver with one hand. "What?"
"We need you downstairs," Lilah said urgently. "NOW."
"This is an important call," Wesley replied as Giles began to speak again. "Yes, Rupert, I'm here. What else?"
"We're planning on sending a team to LA shortly," Giles added as Lilah shook her head and stared at Wesley dolefully. "Willow's got a read on what we think might be an awakening Slayer, but she's not quite able to get a lock on the girl. Will you be able to put them up?"
"Of course," Wes said vaguely, looking at Lilah, who looked really put out with him. And where was her scarf? "Rupert, can I call you back? We've got a situation in the office."
"Certainly. Do keep an eye out for Ethan, and if it's at all possible, don't kill him until I've gotten the chance to sock the pillock square in the nose," Giles said.
"Of course, Rupert," Wesley said, hanging up and turning to Lilah. "What? Giles was telling me all about a dangerous chaos mage who is probably our man for the disasters. Ethan Rayne's the name. Not sure you'd know it, but--"
"He waltzed in twenty minutes ago with our friend Billy at his side," Lilah said. "Claimed to be Billy's agent, so they let him right into the lobby. Angel walks down to greet them, takes one look at this agent and laughs. Ethan, in response, blasts two of our guards into dust and put the building on lockdown. No one's getting in or out. So yes, I do know who Ethan Rayne is, Wesley. The question is, do you know what he wants and how to stop him before he gets it?"
"I think I do," Wesley said quietly. "Did he see you? Would he know to stop you?"
"No," Lilah said. "You know Angel. When disaster strikes, I might as well not exist."
"Thank God for that," Wesley said. "I need you to get someone to the science department. Get Fred and those damnably clever little minions of hers to Cordelia's sickroom and tell them to set up shielding and those morphogenic devices they're so fond of. If you can get a hold of Gunn, that would be ideal. Send him to protect the room. Rayne is going to try to drain Cordelia of any remaining traces of power--and I suspect if she doesn't have enough, he'll start draining anything in the area. He wants to become a chaos god, and this is the perfect ground for it."
"Shit," Lilah said softly. "Where are you going?"
"Where are Angel and Ethan?" he asked.
"Last I saw, they were heading for his office," Lilah said. "Be careful, Wes. I'm sort of fond of you, and I'd prefer you stay in one piece."
Before he could say anything, comfort or warning, she leaned over and kissed him, gently and carefully, on the cheek. Pulling away, he could see the worry in her eyes. "Be safe, damn it," she said, and with that, she left, leaving him to find Angel and Ethan, and end this before it got any worse.
Wesley had been trapped in Wolfram and Hart during a lockdown before, but this time it was much less eerie and much more chaotic, what with the number of living, screaming people trying to get the hell out of the building.
"Don't do anything fatal," Wesley warned two employees apparently trying to electrocute themselves. "Not unless you enjoy the zombie life. Security Section says it'll be about twenty minutes for them to input the override."
"Screw you, limey!" one of the minions said.
"Be polite. That's Mr. Pryce," the other said. "No offense, sir, but people like you never end up zombies or shishkabobbed in circumstances like these. We're just considering our own interests."
Wesley considered this and nodded. "True," he said. "Still, I would avoid blatant zombification attempts and not put screwdrivers near electrical outlets."
The two looked at each other, the proximity of the outlet, and discreetly put their screwdrivers away.
"Fair enough," the other minion said. "Have fun saving the day."
"Thanks," Wesley said, hurrying on toward Angel's office. He could say this of Wolfram and Hart--it was never boring. And everyone was terribly ironic and self-aware. He supposed it was having to confront ninjas, dungeons, and all the other literalized corporate metaphors no human being should really need to seriously believe in.
Every curtain in Angel's office was wide-open, the light streaming into the hallway. Kaylie, pale and wide-eyed, was sitting hunched over her desk, looking at Wesley nervously as he approached.
"He's in a meeting and I can't let you in," she said before Wes could even say a word. "On pain of pain."
Wes nodded and leaned over. "Don't worry," he said. "If it comes to that, I'll take the pain for you, all right? Besides, I think Mr. Rayne will want to meet me."
He leaned over and pushed the intercom button. "Angel, might I come in? I've heard so much about Ethan Rayne."
There was a pause of a few seconds, then Angel's voice said with a false cheer, "Wes! Come on in! Ethan's very excited to meet you."
"Wonderful," Wesley said, knowing that he would be hit with some sort of stunning spell and searched before he could pull a single weapon. By this point, his concealed weaponry had to be the stuff of legend in certain communities, and Ethan would have had his ear to the ground before launching a two-man assault. "Be in shortly."
Wes removed two or three of his favorite guns and put them on Kaylie's desk.
"Stow these, would you?" he asked, detaching his wrist holster. "And if you can get a message through to Miss Morgan without being detected, I'd appreciate you telling her that I'm unarmed."
"Yes, sir," Kaylie said with a smile. "Good luck."
As he'd expected, Wes was confronted with a ludicrously overplanned scene when he walked into Angel's office. Ethan was sprawled in Angel's executive chair, smoking a cigar, and Angel looked as if he wanted to hit something and couldn't.
"Wesley Wyndam-Pryce," Ethan said, with an oily smile. "My, my, aren't we the specimen of manhood. No wonder the wicked queen finds you so compelling. And to think, I remember you when you were an asthmatic nancy boy with a lisp!"
Wesley ignored Ethan's florid insult. "I see you've brought your lickspittle along," he replied. "Tell me, how long did it take you to get him to resemble Spike? A terrible waste of time, really, and to such little purpose."
"I'd agree with you if I'd been the one to do it," Ethan drawled, looking Wesley over again. "But the poncy little git came to me as is. Odd, isn't it? I don't believe for a minute he's this Spike character, but one never knows."
Billy looked dazed. "You told me this was a meeting, man," he said. "Why are we here and why are you smoking a cigar?"
Angel glowered. "Do the words tragic farce mean anything to either of you?" he asked. "I'm going to--"
"Sit still?" Ethan asked. "You see, Wesley, if I snap my fingers, all of the windows in this lovely little office will blow out, and I don't think Angel would survive the result."
Wesley made a face. "How utterly banal of you," he said, feigning boredom. "I suppose you're here to complete your ritual and become a god, of course."
Ethan smiled and leaned back in Angel's chair, a look of appreciation and satisfaction on his angular, untrustworthy face. "And clever, too," he murmured. "Have we been talking to Ripper?"
"Who else would be interested in your dreary machinations, Rayne?" Wes asked. "Come, let's end this before it gets painful for you and your boy Billy. We do have to march toward Cordelia's sick room, and Angel would rather die than not come along, so you've lost your advantage. Do let's give up now."
Rather than shrug and accede, Rayne snapped his fingers. Angel crouched, throwing his fashionable summerweight jacket over his head, but no glass shattered. Instead, Wesley found his pockets emptying as he dangled in the air. Ethan's laughter was quite chilling, really, as Wesley found himself without his shotgun, two or three of his favorite knives, and the last of his projectiles.
"You forget that chaos wants me to become a god, young Wesley," Ethan said. "They find order tedious, and you and yours represent order. As long as I am Janus's devoted servant, he will aid me and you? Will do exactly what I say."
Wesley swallowed hard. "Shall we go to Cordelia, then?" he asked, hoping that Lilah had had more luck than he.
"I think that would be lovely," Ethan said.
Fred thought that maybe, time dilated the length of the hallways at Wolfram and Hart in a disaster. She made a note to check into, because it had never taken so long to get from Science to Cordelia's room--and it would be an effective tactic to deter less-than-serious attackers.
"Hell of a day to have a hangover," Min snarled as she, Fred, and Knox charged for the medical wing of Wolfram and Hart. "Couldn't this guy have waited another day? Fucking Billy. Fucking margaritas."
"At least we've got the TMP and the blocking shields," Knox said. "Otherwise, we'd be better off practicing our groveling and other divinity-placating defenses."
Min snorted. "Way to have faith in our new boss, Knox," she said, turning the corner. "So who's going to be our test subject for the mark two?"
"I'll do it," Fred said as Knox gulped nervously. "I knew--I mean, I know Cordelia. And I don't know how to work the TMP if it breaks down. That's all you and Knox, Min."
"Got it," Min said, slightly out of breath. "I think I'm freaked out. Is anyone else freaked out? When I signed up, I didn't think I'd be helping to defeat malevolent gods by tapping into the fried consciousness of comatose champions who may or may not have their own agendas. It's sort of giving me the shivers."
Knox sighed as his shoulders sagged. "Oh, thank God," he said. "Not just me, then."
"Definitely not," Min said.
"Very much not," Fred agreed, opening the doors to medical bay. It was still empty, which creeped her out. "People should be here by now."
"Maybe we're early," Knox said. "Go Team Science."
"We can't cast the shield until everyone's here," Fred said. Min looked confused as she put down her equipment and started plugging it into Cordelia's generators.
"I thought we were just trying to protect Cordelia from this Rayne guy," she said. "This thing's not going to be stable if we're protecting everyone, and I don't know if the TMP will cast outside the shield."
Fred thought about it. "Knox, wait in the outer bay. If Lilah's messenger was right, she and Gunn will be on her way, and God knows when Angel and that group will show up. Min, set a secondary radius of about fifteen feet, just in case we need to have our guinea pig--or an armed warrior--within the barrier."
"Do you really think an axe-wielding dude's going to stop a god from taking Miss Chase's life energy?" Knox asked. "Not that it isn't cool to, um, think about."
Shrugging, Fred bent down and started helping Min create the two circles. "God or no, most people who take an axe to the head get slowed down at least temporarily," she said. "It's worth a shot."
Knox blanched and almost retched. "I'm going to wait out there for Gunn and Lilah," he said. "Good, um, luck."
"Thanks," Min called after him sourly.
All things considered, carrying a loaded gun with the safety off was extremely useful in getting the minions out of her way, Lilah mused as she searched for Gunn. God, she was--they were--almost out of time. The science geeks were probably in position, but of course Mr. I'm The Hunter Who Knows Everything was nowhere to be found in a crisis. Son of a bitch.
"God DAMN it, has anyone seen Gunn?" she asked, gun steady. "Anyone? Hard to miss him. Big Black guy, has a way of standing out in a--"
Proving her point, the sea of people milling about in the hallway parted, and there was Gunn. Lilah smirked sardonically.
"About damn time," she snapped at him. "Know where you're headed?"
"Where we're headed, Evil McBeal," Gunn replied, falling into stride next to her. "You're with me. And that's an order."
"You're fucking kidding me," Lilah said, putting the safety back on her gun and stowing it in her purse. No need to waste a bullet. "Me?"
Gunn nodded tersely. "Nobody likes it, but you're part of the solution," he said. "And it's better than the alternative."
"What do you mean?" Lilah inquired, watching Gunn kick open the door to the emergency stairwell.
"You'll see," Gunn said. "Come on, no time to talk now."
Gunn started to hustle, taking the steps three and four at a time, and Lilah was suddenly quite glad she didn't get out of breath anymore. Because at the pace Gunn had set? She would have lost him long before breaking her ankle and falling to her death when they reached the medical level.
Two kicked doors, several freaked-out guards, and one hellishly long hallway later, Gunn and Lilah had reached the room where Cordelia was kept. Lilah was starting to feel strangely heavy and dizzy as Gunn pushed past Knox and entered the inner sanctum. She followed Gunn, trying to maintain her composure as everything came in and out of focus with shimmering edges.
"I'm glad you're here," Fred said to Gunn, pointedly ignoring Lilah's presence. "We need you, maybe to be our guy, once we get the TMP up and running. Why don't you have a weapon?"
Gunn lifted both eyebrows and grinned wickedly. "I'd prefer not to be our guy, but if you have to, fine," he said, his eyes suddenly bright with the thrill of approaching battle. "And Fred? I am the weapon."
He paused. "They're here. Lilah, get out of the way."
"Can do," she said, smelling the air. "Something's not right."
"We're overloading the magic balance in the air," Min said, looking up from a squat, fat beige box with lots of buttons and what looked like a laser project protruding from its top. "It's bad for the machines, but it can't be helped. And as soon as I get the TMP up..."
With that, the outer doors blew open. Ethan Rayne, who was about eight inches taller and several shades bluer than he'd been when he entered Wolfram and Hart, strode into the room, followed by Billy Rebel, Angel, and Wesley.
"Well, well," Ethan said, looking at the assembled group. "Looks like the gang's all here."
Despite the cheesy old-school villain greeting, Ethan in fact wasted little time with statements of doom, instead setting his plans into action and achieving results. Before Knox could get a word in edgewise, the doors to the inner room had been blown shut, and thanks to the fabulous security of Wolfram and Hart, sealed tight, trapping Knox and Billy Rebel outside. A distressed Min just managed to duck glowing sparks that came from Ethan's fingertips after he'd chanted a whole bunch of Latin or Etruscan or some language Min didn't know.
"This is SO fucking Indiana Jones!" Min called to Fred, grabbing the generator cords and plugging them in. "Crap! I need to reconfigure this--"
Fred nodded, clearly more interested in keeping the TMP working, out of Ethan's view, and safe. "Except if we melt, it's not just a cool special effect," Fred warned, finishing the circle. "Activate it. Now."
"It's not going to protect anything but Cordelia--and we need her to have a source for the TMP," Min protested.
Above them, there were three noisy explosions, and the sound of someone getting hit with four or five bullets.
"Naughty," Ethan said. "And rather uncharacteristic, isn't it? I thought you'd welcome the end of this unpleasant arrangement..."
"Go to hell," Lilah said, sounding a little hoarse. Fred really wanted to see exactly what was going on and what Lilah'd hit with her gun, because if it were Angel or Gunn, they'd be having words later.
"It's a touch humid this time of year," Ethan replied. "But you'd know. Now you--yes, you, Miss Morgan--sit down. And if you get up, that pretty face of yours isn't going to be so pretty. Now, back to the lovely Miss Cordelia--"
There was a sudden glow and Ethan fell back, if only a few inches.
"I rather think," Wesley said, steely-eyed, "that you'd first need to deal with us before getting to Cordy."
"Really, Mr. Pryce," Ethan said disapprovingly. "I should think that true love lies bleeding at your feet and you ought--"
Another gunshot. "Screw you, Rayne," Lilah said. She was looking particularly grey and unhealthy and dead, and when she coughed, she didn't look too pleased about what came up. "Keep going, Wes. I'm fine."
"It's up," Min said urgently. Fred turned her attention to Min and the buzz of the TMP. "Grab her hand, put it on the scanner. Count thirty."
Fred followed Min's orders, though when she took Cordelia's slack hand, she felt a strange ringing in her ears which left her a little dizzy. Evidently, Ethan, the sneaky, cowardly bastard, hadn't waited until his arrival to begin stealing from Cordy.
"I hope you realize you can't stop this," Ethan said, ducking Wesley and backing away from Angel. "I've been slowly absorbing energy from Miss Chase since before I entered the building. My gods are with me. And you don't have her shielded, you see."
"Fred!" Angel yelled. "Can you change that?"
"Twenty-seven," Fred said steadily, and Min could see that her idol was barely keeping it together. "Twenty-eight, twenty-nine, THIRTY."
Min slammed down on the button, which made an ominous clicking noise. Stupid damn prototypes. Why didn't anyone ever let these things get finished before making their attacks? It was so, so very cliche that Min couldn't believe...
There was a sudden hum and Fred noticed that Cordelia's bed, and apparently, only Cordelia's bed, was behind the shields. Min, fingers shivering, looked up and at Fred with a nervous smile. Well, thank God for small miracles.
"Shielded," Fred said with a sigh of relief.
"Even this isn't going to last fifteen minutes," Min said. "Especially if that guy's got his mojo working."
"Well, if Angel can't beat this guy in ten minutes, we're pretty much screwed anyway," Fred admitted. "Let's get the TMP projecting."
"Does Gunn know we're going to zap him?" Min asked. "He didn't sound too happy about the accidents up at Sunnydale."
Gunn turned from the battling with Ethan to nod. "I know what I gotta do. Just make sure Ethan's not directly in the projection radius or some wacky-ass bad shit could happen," he called.
"Lilah, you have to move!" Wesley shouted.
"I can't," Lilah said. "Well, not unless we all want to see bits of me on the floor. Fight around me or something. And here, take the gun."
Min turned to the TMP, brushing Fred away quickly. It was going to be close. Ethan had of course heard Gunn's barked order, and was doing his best to be completely and totally in the way. But because he was apparently a big chicken, every time Angel or Wes feinted toward him with a sword or a spell, he moved out of the way.
Some god-to-be HE was. Min just had to concentrate on Gunn, ignore the thumping in her head, the lump in her throat, the strange nagging insistence that her mother would be appalled to see her lying on the floor like this, and focus on hitting Gunn directly with a concentrated burst of morphogenic energy that belonged to this Cordelia woman.
It was just a matter of timing. Min had timing. And maybe luck. She'd been lucky enough to be interesting to Fred, and to figure out how to create the morphogenic projector. She had enough great stories to tell at E-Bar Tuesdays that the boys would be buying her drinks for the next month. Why not push the luck just a little further?
One. Two. Skip a few. Ninety-nine. NOW.
Min activated the projector and watched as the energy hit Gunn square in the back. He crumpled, fell to the floor, and Ethan took that opportunity to assault the shield surrounding Cordelia's bed. He managed to hit it directly, which made everything a little bit noisier before Angel almost hit Ethan with an axe, forcing Ethan to fall back again.
"Good aim," Fred said breathlessly as Gunn slowly stood up, looking slimmer and more feminine than he had when he fell down.
"I try," Min replied. "Shit. Generator. I gotta fix that--"
She dove back toward the shield generator, heart still thumping like mad. How on earth was this going to work? Min had heard that Cordelia was impressive, but she was still just a girl. What was she going to do?
For a moment, the room fell silent as Cordelia surveyed the friends who hadn't seen her--the real her, in any case--in the flesh for over a year. She fixed them all (particularly Angel) with a glare, which melted into a smile after a moment.
"Hey guys," she said warmly. "I've missed you."
Everyone breathed a sigh of confused relief. She sounded like Cordelia. Mostly.
The glare came back onto Cordelia's face.
"That said, what the HELL were you thinking, putting me in a blue hospital gown? That so does not go with my complexion," she announced.
It was Cordelia, all right. Or at least her accurate projection. Now they just had to hope and pray that she knew what to do next.
Everyone knew on some level or another, that it was actually Gunn, and that the real Cordelia was still in a coma. That Gunn had been temporarily changed, morphed, or whatever the scientific terminology was. However one termed the results where you got hit with a shiny red laser and stood up looking, sounding, and acting just like the woman in the coma. But Angel was having a hard time keeping it in mind. They smelled the same. Gunn smelled like Cordelia and was giving Angel the look Cordelia would give him if she were pissed off about something they'd done.
"Cordy," he said. "Oh, God. Cordy."
"Angel, we don't have time," she (he) said, looking at Ethan with open contempt. "Did you really think you were gonna get away with it? Please. If you're lucky, you might just go home with your ass so kicked that it's in another time zone."
The part where she sounded like the Cordy of days gone by didn't help Angel's head classify her any better. Gunn was as good as Cordy at this moment. Better than the version asleep in poisoned coma-dreams. This was Cordelia the way she used to be, and part of Angel, a very small part, wondered if there wasn't someone (he glanced at the neutralized Lilah) whom they couldn't trade to get her back.
"The game's not over yet," Ethan said, wheezing and expanding. He was still blue and the magic was rippling off him in waves. "I might succeed yet. And if I haven't, the chaos I've caused is pleasing to my Lord Janus and I'll be rewarded in the end. Besides, it's been fun."
Cordelia sneered. "It's been fun," she said. "Yeah, I imagine finding your teeth? A laugh riot."
"You'd be surprised," Ethan said.
"I bet," Cordy said, turning away from Ethan and toward Angel and the main group. "We need to talk."
"I'm listening," Angel said. "But we don't have a lot of time for deep and meaningful--"
Cordelia shot Angel a look that screamed for him to shut up. Angel, surprisingly, didn't say another word. "You're keeping me alive," she said. "And that's...sweet. But I think we have a problem. Do you think Ethan's going to be the last guy who pulls the 'let's tap into Cordy's mystical energy and become higher beings?' trick? What happens when you have a busy month and really do forget about me?"
"Cordy, we didn't mean to--" Fred protested. "I mean, it was--we love you, Cordy."
Wesley looked distressed. "You can't be asking us this," he said. "After all, you're only a projection. Does the actual Cordelia want this?"
"That's a tough question," Cordy answered. "But I do. I really do, Wes."
"We can't know that's true," Angel said, standing up and pacing. "This could be a trick. This could be a manipulation by the powers or the Senior Partners or Gunn or Ethan or--"
Wesley closed his eyes, pointed at the walking, talking Cordelia and said, very softly, "Veralocuto." Fred looked up sharply, her eyes wide.
"Why did you do that?" she asked.
"Cordelia, do you want to die?" he asked. "I'm asking you. No one else."
Behind the Cordelia wearing Gunn's body, the quiescent body of Cordelia Chase contorted, levitated, and fell back to the bed with a gurgle. Lilah, of all people, made a noise of disapproval.
"Wes, that equipment's delicate," she said breathlessly. "Don't be ham-fisted."
Cordelia wearing Gunn's body froze for a moment, shimmered, and looked at Wes as if he'd done something uncouth. Wesley was beginning to regret his pragmatic move.
"I'm sorry if the question's unfair," he said.
"Who wants to die, Wes?" Cordy asked. "But here's the thing. Who wants to be the equivalent of a mystical keg as my chances of coming back whole and hale and hearty slowly but surely decrease? Do I want to sleep here, all my friends forgetting my existence until the next crazy man with a plan remembers that hey, there's that Cordelia chick! I can tap her energy like a faucet!"
"We wouldn't--" Angel protested. "Not after this."
Cordelia shook her head, walking up and down in the strange neutral zone between the shields and Ethan's attempts at an onslaught. Wesley, after another regretful look, went back to counterspelling Ethan, and Min turned back to trying to maintain the shield and strengthen the TMP. That left Angel, Fred, and Lilah watching the former champion glare and flounce.
"I'm thinking of Faith," Cordelia finally said. "Was comatose for a year and woke up alone in a basement. It's not bashing you to say that I'm not expecting better, Angel. The world almost ends a lot."
"Faith woke up, Cordy," Angel said passionately, his face trembling. His axe was sitting on the floor, still waiting for him to pick it up, and he kept shaking his head. "I don't want you to give up hope because of us. You can't do this."
Cordelia stopped, tilted her head back and forth, and shook it firmly when it reached center stop. "I don't need someone who made the choice he did about Connor telling me what choices I can and can't make, Angel," she said in a low growl. "I know what my choices are, and you know, thanks to Wesley's dangerous little spell, that--fuck!"
The air started crackling, and Min, from the other side of the room, was swearing a blue streak in about four different languages, including geek. "You fucking suxor!" they could hear her shout before the shield came back up. Meanwhile, Ethan had taken the opportunity to drop his chanting and make with the energy sucking again. Cordelia and Cordelia-Gunn were both momentarily still, and then Cordelia-Gunn, gasping, turned back to Fred, Angel, and Lilah.
"Fred, go help," Cordy said. "Angel? Listen to me. Are you listening?"
"I'm listening," he said angrily. "You had no right to mention Connor in this setting. You know that the chaos is enough that the change isn't exactly concrete here."
"Oh, damn," Cordelia said. "Angel, I love you. I've loved you for a long time, and wherever I go next, I'll keep loving you, but this one's not your choice. It's mine. And I have a solution."
Lilah, still marveling how much it hurt to be pinned in place by a compulsion, snorted. "About time," she said. "What is it?"
"Details don't matter. All it requires is a hell of a lot of luck, Angel to accept that he can't stop me--" and Cordelia stopped. "Angel?"
"Don't make me accept this, Cordy," Angel said, picking up his axe. "If I stop Ethan, I want you to promise me--"
Cordelia's face got angrier, stiller, and then she closed her eyes, waved her hand, and Angel's defiant posture softened.
"I didn't want to do that," she said. "Angel, go fight Ethan. You're not the third element of this spell, anyway."
Angel took his axe, looking somewhat boggled, and headed toward Ethan.
"You put the whammy on him," Lilah said with faux awe coloring her voice. "That's unethical. I rather liked it."
Cordelia leaned down to where Lilah was sitting on the floor. "Well, believe it or not, I put the whammy on everyone," she said. "I didn't WANT to, but they'd keep bitching until...anyway, don't you want to know what part three of the plan is?"
Lilah laughed. "Flying monkeys?" she asked flippantly.
"Actually," Cordelia said, standing up and raising her voice so that the entire room could hear her. "I was thinking more along the lines of callow, self-indulgent ex-slayers who ditched their duties for a glamorous life as an executive at an evil law firm."
Everyone seemed either not to hear what Cordy had just announced, or maybe they hadn't quite put the pieces together. Lilah, on the other hand, started coughing hard, clearly trying to find some sort of response to Cordelia.
"Wow, you are listening during our one-way late night chats," Lilah finally said. "So what? I'm dead, remember? You're not going to get much out of me besides smart talk and endless boyfriend angst."
Cordelia pursed her lips. "Oh, you're so wrong, dead girl," she said. "See, you are a pain in everyone's ass. Ditching destinies, dying when you needed to live, being a total bitch and waste of space--you've got a lot to answer for. And guess what? It's time for you to pay up."
Magickal engineering, especially magickal medical equipment, was still an iffy proposition at best. The engineering tolerances were so precise that most of the time, it only worked in tightly controlled circumstances, and the mystical energy being flung around was wreaking hell on Cordelia's life support. Lilah could hear it, a slow, dissonant whine needling the base of her skull, almost supersonic in its pitch. Perhaps it was. No one else seemed to be paying it any mind.
The noise was telling Lilah, louder than words, that there wasn't time for this. Not now, not ever.
"We don't have TIME to share old stories, Cordy," Lilah snapped. "Once the shield goes, that's it. Nothing between you and Ethan and our total destruction."
Cordelia--or maybe it was Gunn--snorted. "True," she said. "Still, it's interesting, isn't it? I didn't know you could de-Slayer someone."
Ethan, Wesley, and Angel all looked up and over at Cordelia, apparently surprised at what she'd just said.
"You can't," Wesley said. "At least, not without killing the girl."
"Oh, I think Lilah begs to differ," Cordy said. "Don't you, Lilah?"
Lilah glowered at Cordelia. Well, looked like no matter how little time they had before Ethan absorbed enough of Cordelia's power to finish his metamorphosis, the champion was going to get her word in edgewise. Which, you know, all well and fine, but quips weren't going to win the day this time. Before Cordy had gone off on her little tangent, it seemed she'd been on the way to telling them the only way to win was stopping Cordelia forever, and if Lilah was the only one who saw that, well? It was only fitting Lilah repay Cordelia for the life she'd lost.
"Did you know that during the 1980s, the average lifespan of a called Slayer was sixteen months?" Lilah asked, resisting Ethan's compulsion with intense difficulty and struggling to her feet. She could see Cordelia's bed, and that was enough to keep her pushing through every bit of agony, to say nothing of the skin and muscle, that came off with each step. "And you seem to know so much, Cordy. Tell them how the Watchers found me."
"Newspaper article. Teen girl fractures her father's skull and breaks his neck while fending off physical and sexual assault," Cordy answered, apparently finally noticing the whine (or maybe it was Gunn. Who knew?) and quickening the pace. "I think Ethan might know this story. It caused a lot of chaos in its time."
Ethan, in all of his about-to-ascend glory, looked over at the two unnatural creatures and laughed.
"Oh, I heard that one," he said. "Watchers found and lost a girl. One day she was rippling with Slayerness; the next she wasn't. Thought they'd made a mistake. And that's you? Right lovely woman you grew up to be."
Aware that she looked like a zombie leper, Lilah sneered, hoped her lip didn't fall off, and kept an eye on Angel and Wesley as she continued her walk to the bed and machinery, fascinated by the beeps and blips of the modern marvels maintaining Cordelia's half-life.
"I made a choice," Lilah said. "The way I've made every one since."
"Not this time," Cordelia said, standing directly in front of Lilah. Realizing that Cordelia had Gunn's muscle and ability behind her, Lilah paused, unable to risk the disintegration it would take to turn the machines off.
"So finally, you get to our brilliant solution," Lilah snapped as the shield dimmed, flickered, and grew ever-closer to failure. "Hurry it the fuck up, Cordelia. We've got about two minutes before--"
The words trailed off nervously. Lilah noticed that everyone in the room who wasn't herself or Cordelia-Gunn had gone still and silent in their positions. The dust motes were frozen in the air, giving everything a certain translucent aura. Neat trick, Lilah admitted, but definitely creepy.
"How'd you do that?" Lilah asked.
Cordelia shrugged, looking rather sparkly and ephemeral. Lilah squinted, but she still couldn't see Gunn. "Time doesn't have to work for us the way it does for them," she said. "So I tapped into Gunn's interesting abilities--or maybe Gunn did--and made it change."
As if it were as easy as that. Except it was.
Lilah suddenly remembered how easy impossible things were back when she was fourteen and standing five foot ten in her stocking feet with a black eye, bruises up and down her arms, and blood between her thighs. Listening to the man in the brown suit explain everything about her new life, if she chose to accept it. The life where no one would care what had happened to her father, and her very wealthy Aunt Ruth, who didn't exist, had decided to take poor, unfortunate Lilah in and send her to boarding school in Switzerland. How simple it had seemed. He'd had the contract in his hand and the pen in hers like it was magic. Give up her awful, bad powers, the ones that had made her a murderer and would kill her before her eighteenth birthday, and gain the perfect life in return.
Even knowing there was a catch hadn't made it seem any less obvious.
"It's your choice, Lilah," Lawrence Murphy, Wolfram and Hart, had told her with a smile. "Don't let anyone take that from you."
Twenty years later, and she was still living that illusion. Lilah had made choices. Hadn't she? Even sullied by her calling, Wolfram and Hart's contract, Angel's constant threats, Jasmine's manipulations, it had been her deciding either way. Just because she was a player, just because she'd been played, didn't stop the choices from being the most important things.
Cordelia looked at her comatose body, and then at Lilah, her dark eyes sparkling with some hybrid emotion, rage-acceptance-denial-understanding, all the stages of mourning as the machines beeped and hissed. The choice rhetoric was sounding hollow. But what else did Lilah have? It was better, she thought, to cherish her tiny, bad choices than to cry and wail about being a pawn in a game that made no sense. It was why she helped Angel from time to time even before her death. Better a little choice than nothing at all.
Though Cordelia didn't look like she bought it. Or maybe Cordelia was finally getting it as she looked at her body again.
"It's funny," the girl said, not looking at Lilah as she spoke in rushed, uneasy tones. "One minute I'm good with my choice, with taking the way out. And the next minute I think, how fucked is this? I'm twenty-two years old, and I've been a mom, a champion, a cheerleader, a princess, a heroine, a villain, and now I'm brain-dead in a coma being used as a cosmic keg. This world sucks."
"No disagreement here," said Lilah. "But we're not here to discuss life philosophies and ethics. What's the plan to beat Ethan, Cordy?"
"Accept my life," Cordelia said. "Without reservation, without holding back. I give it to you without condition, without hope, without expectation. Which thus allows it to fulfill the contract nullifying conditions of Section 8, Subsection 16.b, and thus allows Morgan, Lilah, to return from the dead and restored to her previous state, status, and destiny, without further obligation, reservation, or owed labor to Wolfram and Hart, if Morgan, Lilah, accepts the gift."
There was no way Cordelia could have known that was the way out of Lilah's contract. It was too difficult. Everyone always had conditions for giving up their lives on a subconscious level, but a woman like Cordelia, who was dead, whose decisions were being spoken through Gunn, didn't have conditions. Just life. And that would hold up in interdimensional court.
Lilah, not sure of what to say, choked. "How the fuck did you--what the--you couldn't know that!" she protested. "I didn't tell you that. And you're not making new thoughts. Fred said--"
"Not me, Gunn," Cordelia said. "Not much difference at the moment. Do you accept the transfer, Lilah?"
"Angel's going to kill me," Lilah said very quickly, still not able to believe it. Her life back, contract-free. No catch. "You realize this. No matter what anyone says, he sees you dead and me alive, and oops, dog food. Or hell dimension. Or one of Fred's nifty gadgets."
Cordelia laughed and laughed. "Do you accept the transfer, Lilah?"
As if there was any doubt.
"Of course I accept the transfer, without reservation, without holding back, without hope, condition, or expectation," Lilah said fervently. "I'm just saying people are going to want me dead for this."
"If this goes through--take my hand when the shields fail--I think you'll be able to handle all those people," Cordy said as Lilah put herself into position. "Are you ready?"
"Yes," Lilah said. "Are you?"
"No," Cordelia replied. "But I think that's the point."
The world exploded into full sound and color again. Whines had become shrieks had become howling critical mass, and Lilah held onto Cordelia's hand, searing pain tingling through nerve endings, maintaining just enough presence of mind to yell, "Fred, turn that damn thing OFF before Gunn stays Cordelia!" as the shield failed. Min, who was listening, yanked the power supply, and Gunn fell to the floor in a heap. Angel, Wesley, and Ethan, who were completely focused on each other, didn't seem to notice.
Ethan began chanting in a loud voice as Wesley, exhausted and sweaty, started another round of counterspells. Lilah ignored what they said and held on. She accepted the transfer. She did. She didn't care what happened, she just accepted what Cordelia gave.
Angel swung at Ethan with his axe. Ethan, still chanting, knocked him away with one hand. Wesley kept chanting, but nothing seemed to be going on.
"Come on, Cordelia, get to transferring," Lilah hissed to the body. Gunn was still on the floor and Fred was trying to drag him to safety as Min watched. At least, it looked that way to Lilah, but she didn't think she'd qualify as a viable witness by the time Cordelia and Ethan's spells got through with her, to say nothing of Wolfram and Hart. "The energy-suck is still on."
This had to work. Not just for herself, though Lilah wasn't going to lie and say her restored life wasn't the number one reason she'd accepted the transfer. There was a lot riding on this one.
Lilah held on.
Her skin was beginning to look more and more rotted and dead, turning colors that she'd never expected to see her skin turn while she was still inside her own head. Definitely not mold-green, for instance. The machines were screaming, announcing they weren't long for this world, and as a result, Cordelia, who had been almost a goddess, was now a pawn, and who had pissed Lilah off either way, shook. Or maybe it was Lilah shaking.
They'd see. If this worked.
This. This nothing. Holding a living dead woman's hand, clutching it like a frightened child while bits of herself fell off while Angel and Wesley fought against Ethan's onslaughts, the room shaking and howling like this was it, boys, nothing left to do but--
Well, that was...painful.
More than painful. Lilah was fairly sure her entire body was trying to turn itself inside out. Was it Wolfram and Hart trying to keep its property maintained and disciplined? Resurrection? She wasn't sure. Whatever it was, it hurt worse than the night the Beast had sunk its finger into her guts and she'd fallen down after Wesley had abandoned her, lightheaded from blood loss, into the sewer water, hands and knees scraped and filthy, retching blood and the remnants of bad coffee and wishing that she weren't so damn independent.
Something, it seemed, was happening, but Lilah didn't have the ability to concentrate anymore. It hurt, but for some reason she knew she couldn't let go of Cordelia's hand and make it stop even if she'd wanted to.
Lilah, in keeping with her philosophies, managed to have one coherent thought as the entire world turned to agony for her: If this didn't work, she was going to find Cordelia and gut her over and over again, if it was the last thing she ever did.
And for a moment, everything was silent and dark.
The lights came up. Ethan, no longer about to ascend to anything except a new level of pain, shrieked noisily as the spell fell to pieces around him, sounding rather like a big screechy owl as he clutched his head and glared at Cordelia's hospital bed. Fred had apparently managed to pull Gunn to safety and let out a sigh of relief. Min, who'd still been fiddling with her shields, looked about with surprise, her attention suddenly focusing on the sudden wail of the monitors and the spectacle of a living woman clutching a dead woman's hand.
"Well, this is...pants," Ethan finally said, looking at the many very angry and panicked people ignoring him as they rushed toward Cordelia's bed. Lilah, whose restored heartbeat was making her dizzy, was not ignoring Ethan. She let go of Cordelia's hand, stood, and squared her shoulders, pushing past Angel to head for the failed divinity.
"Did anyone tell you that you really look like a weasel?" she asked, crossing the room in barely ten steps and putting a firm hand on Ethan's bony shoulder. "You're just not very god-like, even when you're all-powerful."
"Yes--well--I suppose rather not," Ethan admitted. "But what can you do?"
"This," Lilah said, releasing the squirming Brit and punching him squarely in the eye as hard as she possibly could. "Bastard."
She hadn't expected the part where Ethan flew six feet across the room and hit the wall with a resounding, satisfying thud. Everyone except Angel and Fred, who were desperately, fruitlessly trying to revive Cordelia, turned and gawked at the formerly dead and rotting lawyer. Lilah, in turn, stared at her hands, which were perfect. Not even a broken nail to show for the ordeal.
"God. Damn. It. Cordelia," she said, turning toward the hospital bed and ignoring Wesley's distressed look. "Angel?"
Lilah Morgan had always specialized in taking the quiet way out. She'd been hiding everything important for so many years that she wasn't sure that openness and honesty were good for her. Then again, here she was, alive again and wearing a fashionable black suit without needing a scarf, high-necked collar, or choker. She had her hat and big sunglasses to protect her identity, of course, but Lilah knew Cordelia would have approved of both for an event like this.
An event like this. Cordelia's funeral.
Six days later and every heartbeat felt stolen. Add in the discovery that Lilah remained fully capable of throwing down with Angel whenever she wanted, and Lilah hadn't quite decided if she was grateful for Cordelia's life, or if she was pissed that Cordy had insured someone (Lilah someone) finished the work that Cordelia couldn't.
Because Cordelia was now in a very expensive wooden box awaiting burial in a tastefully expensive plot at Forest Lawn, and Lilah was alive, contract-free, and stuck with a calling she hadn't wanted the first time, and now with a side of Angel caretaking quite possibly expected. The winner of this game remained very much in doubt.
"There you are," Wesley murmured into Lilah's ear, which caused her to jump quite literally a foot into the air from surprise. "My word. You're really...quite...well, there's no doubt that you are, is there?"
"Shh," Lilah said, looking about cagily. "Not here. This is about Cordy, and I think her friends and family don't need to pay attention to the wicked witch who got her life and a nifty bonus prize of superpowers."
Wesley put his hand on the small of her back, which usually calmed Lilah down, but not this time. "Come on," he murmured. "People are starting to look at us oddly for hanging back. And I want you to meet Xander afterwards."
"The one with the--?" Lilah put her hand over her eye.
"Yes," Wes said. "He was Cordelia's high school sweetheart, and he has firsthand experience with the awakening Slayers."
"Oh, wonderful," Lilah muttered sardonically as they reached the larger group. Wes had them positioned between Cordy's Aunt Rosemary (who was also wearing a big hat), and Gunn. Both were listening intently to Fred's eulogy. Min, with whom Fred had spent most of her free time since Cordelia's death, stood just to the right of that cluster, looking sadder for Fred than for herself. Next to her was Billy, looking hung over and a touch confused.
Lilah knew how he felt.
The wake featured enough alcohol to put a Southern liquor cabinet--or Wesley's--to shame. Angel for once was freely indulging, refusing to speak as he drank whisky after whisky. Lilah, holding a Bloody Mary, steered herself out of Angel's line of sight and sat down on the couch, much less interested in her drink than in the celery stick.
She wasn't going to reform, God damn it. Lilah hadn't wanted the Slayer gig the first time around, and no Cordy Chase guilt trip was going to convince her otherwise. If Wes and Angel thought just because she was alive and kicking again, she was going to go all puppy-saving and guilt, they had another thing--
"Excuse me," someone said, breaking her reverie. "You're Lilah, right?"
"The one and only," she said, looking up. "And you're Xander?"
The young man smiled bitterly and sat down beside her. "Guess the pirate look makes me hard to miss," Xander said. "I heard you were there when Cordy--"
"Yeah," Lilah said, taking a hasty drink. "Cordelia gave me her life to stop Ethan Rayne from becoming a god. Which is a good and bad thing."
Xander waggled his eyebrows. "Bad?" he asked. "I don't see the bad in going from dead to alive."
Lilah shrugged. "I wasn't a princess the first time," she said, taking another drink. "I signed up with Wolfram and Hart, perpetual contract and all, because I was afraid of dying like all Slayers die--young. So now? Willow's spell revived all the potential I traded away for my life and I can kick Angel across the lobby if I want."
At least, that's how Lilah understood it. Resurrection equaled being as she once was, which was apparently pre-contract, and despite the Slayer line having moved on, she continued to have that potential, which meant in the post-spell world, that she had the power. Willow and Giles were apparently as floored as Wesley that it worked, but there it was.
"Can I watch next time you do?" Xander asked, taking a slurp of his coke. At least, Lilah was pretty sure it was nothing more than coke. Damn Sunnydaliens. They were always so wholesome. Lorne, on the other hand, was on his fourth seabreeze, talking to Billy about what to sing in honor of Poor Dead Cordelia.
"Sure," Lilah said. "But just so you know? I didn't want Cordelia's life. I was okay with being dead. Well, not okay. But I earned it. And I didn't like Cordelia, but she deserved better."
There was a brief, awkward silence, as Xander looked down at his coke and the coffee table.
"Sounds like," he finally said. "Look, I didn't know this Cordy. She was a different girl when she left Sunnydale. So I hear all these people--and Angel--talk about Cordelia Chase, Champion, and I feel like I'm at a stranger's funeral. Maybe if you tell me about this Cordy, I can get why you're so upset about getting her life."
Fucking hell. Lilah stared at her glass, watching the light play against the tomato juice caked on the inside of it.
"I stopped her from killing a human being," Lilah said. "Did you know I was her first human kill? Anyway. I tricked Angel into freeing this guy, Billy Blim, from Hell. Fabulous guy. Turned men into violent misogynists with his very presence."
Xander shook his head. "And you wanted this guy free?" he said. "No wonder you weren't Cordelia's--or anyone's--favorite person."
"Fair enough," Lilah said. "So of course it backfired and I got beaten up by a coworker. I go home, drink hard, and cry. And there's Cordelia fucking Chase, facing me down. She tells me this is all my fault--which it is--and if I'm as vicious a bitch as advertised, it's my duty to do something. Of course, that was after we bantered about fashion."
This earned a small chuckle from Xander. "Well, I recognize that part of Cordy," he said. "So you killed the guy?"
"Yeah," Lilah said. "She was right. It was my mess. I cleaned it up."
Before Xander could get a comment in about that, the wake was hit with the distorted squeal of a microphone being plugged in, reminding both Xander and Lilah of the presence of one Will "Billy Rebel" Sullivan and his ongoing mystery.
"He really looks just like Spike," Xander said. "Is he for real?"
"We have no idea," Lilah muttered. "Distracting son of a bitch, isn't he? Might be Spike, might be a drugged-out cover singer from Reno, or might be a nefarious scheme to make Angel crazy--er. I ignore him, because I have enough drama in my life."
Another laugh from Xander. "Yeah, I guess being a newly revived Slayer slash ex-evil-overlord with a massive guilt complex is drama," he said. "At least you can hurt Angel."
"Guilt?" Lilah snorted, setting her glass down on the table firmly. "I don't have guilt. Guilt's for Angel. I'm completely guilt-free, thank you very much!"
"And that's why you've disclaimed to everyone that you didn't want Cordelia's life," Wesley said, materializing behind Lilah. "More than once. At her funeral."
"Who the hell are you, my therapist?" Lilah snapped, feeling ambushed. "I didn't want this. Not the superpowers, not the shiny new life, and if you expect me to sing a happy tune and love the world, you're very mistaken."
"And I think that's my cue to exit, stage left," Xander said, taking his glass and discreetly fleeing the scene. Wesley sat down despite Lilah's fierce glare and took her glass away.
"I don't think you're handling this turn of events well," Wesley said quietly. "You haven't been in control of your life--no matter what you say--for twenty years, and now everything's rather fallen into your lap."
Lilah's eyes narrowed. "Or maybe I'm just not looking forward to the lectures where everyone assumes now that I'm not a damned soul, I should be a good girl," she growled. "Maybe I do want to reassess. But I'm not going to reform just because Cordelia did this. And I really don't need you expecting anything from me. I am who I am, Wes. And that's never been enough for you."
"That's unfair," Wesley said darkly. "I've stood behind you--"
"You have," Lilah said. "Trying to save my soul the whole way. And now, guess what? I don't need you to save me." She stood up, a distinct cracking sound coming from the sofa. "I've never needed you to save me."
The dark-haired woman stalked out of the room, leaving most of the rest of the group to stare at Wesley, who looked into his hands as if they held some sort of answer.
"Bloody hell," Billy said, watching Lilah go. "Why's she leaving?" He looked at his captive audience. "We haven't even started yet."
"Can you swing a sack of doorknobs?" "Can I!" --The Simpsons
If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to Jennifer-Oksana
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