Written for the Angel Book of Days Summer Challenge, for Princess Twilite, who wanted Lilah/Fred.
Many thanks to Yindagger for kindly beta reading this fic and making many helpful suggestions.
The heat was inescapable. The defeated city let it pour down into every crevice, lap around every building; a sweltering sea of record breaking red. The artificially chilled air inside shops and homes became as unbearable as the heat, rasping away harshly at sweat slicked skin with dry fingers; a variant of the torture, not a cessation.
Fred felt her mind hibernate, her senses dull as the endless days of summer rolled over her, pressing her further down into despair. The hotel had cool spots, yes, natural havens of still air untouched by sun, but they were dark and small. Charles hated her retreating to them, seeing it as a sign that she was disturbed, reverting to the cracked and crazed woman he had brought back through the portal. He might even have been right.
Languid, lethargic lassitude...an ‘l’on earth...Fred found herself cataloguing the alphabet into hot and cold letters, dwelling pleasurably on words that sent a frisson of coolness over her. Icicle, snow, frost, glacial. Except that last one meant ‘slow’ as well and there she was, back with the languor.
‘Lovemaking’ was an ‘l’ word and truthfully that was getting to be torture, too. Their room had cool air and fans but their bodies stuck together, embraces suffocatingly tight until she gasped and pushed away at a body too big, too smothering; panicking that she couldn’t breathe when his mouth brushed insistently against hers.
Gunn’s love was warm, like a bath, a down comforter, a thick, soft sweater. Fred found herself wanting to strip bare and let a fresh breeze whip her body cool instead.
They both missed Wesley, but he would never admit it, even when they were alone, even when Connor wasn’t there, a visible reminder of the consequences of Wesley’s actions. She didn’t hate Wesley for his betrayal; that had been understandable, even vaguely heroic in its stupidity. She just hated that he had left her with no one to turn to if Charles stopped wanting her. Fred had been alone for too long to view that with anything but horror.
Sometimes, when she was alone and could think without wondering what showed on her face when she did, she wondered if Wesley would have stroked the darkness that writhed within her, made it arch and cry out in recognition. Charles closed his eyes to it, forcing her into a role that she had outgrown, giggling and simpering to placate and reassure, girlishly tittering when she wanted to laugh in a knowing, ripe chuckle.
Wesley had frightened her though. He had become unpredictable and to the scientist in her there was nothing more terrifying. So maybe it was as well that he headed the list of those absent.
Four gone, three remaining and one of those was a sullen, scared boy, relentlessly searching for the second father to leave him bereft.
She woke one morning with a dream slipping away from her, too familiar to need chasing down. It was the dream where she was in a bookstore filled with every volume she’d ever wanted, needed, there for the taking; the dream where she was filled with a deep conviction that this time, this time, it was real. Fred woke feeling restless.
“I have to go out,” she announced over breakfast, peeking at Gunn through her lashes, smoothing down the thin, short cotton dress she wore.
He smiled. “Want company?”
She shook her head. “No, you should stay here in case someone comes in. Besides, I’m not going anywhere interesting.”
He waited and then asked the inevitable question. “Where are you going?”
“A bookstore. I haven’t been there for years, not since before I – not even sure if it’s still there. It’s in the phone book but that doesn’t mean anything. Sometimes they pay in advance to be in it and it’s not like they rip out the pages when someone goes out of business. I mean; how could they? So you look it up and you ring and there’s no answer but you don’t know for sure that they’re not there. They could be out to lunch, unless it’s morning and then –”
Gunn reached out and gently touched her bottom lip with a finger, drying up her babble. “Shh, baby,” he said. “You go look at books. Have fun. Get me one, why don’t you?”
“You?” It came out as an incredulous squeak, sounding meaner than she meant it to be, and she watched the hurt flicker over his face.
“Not much to do when I was with the gang. No T.V, remember, and you can’t be fighting all the time. Did some reading. Not much, but some. I can read, you know.”
Penitent guilt, lemon sour, twisted her lips in an apologetic smile. “Of course you can, silly. I just never - W-what kinds of books do you like? Mysteries? Or maybe –”
“War.” His voice was definite. “Tactics, strategies, that sort of thing. Kind of interesting, you know? Seeing how those big- ass generals pushed people around.”
“Did it help much with your vampire hunting?” Fred asked a little dubiously.
“Not half as much as a sharp stake,” Gunn said with a grin. “Vamps aren’t known for forming armies. No; just something I was into back then. A hobby.”
She smiled. “I’ll keep my eyes open,” she promised. “I want to see if they’ve got anything that might be useful for us.” Her voice faltered a little and her eyes dropped, staring blindly at a spill of coffee on the table. “Wes took – I mean, we don’t have all the standard books we should have any more. Some are –”
Gunn’s hand covered hers. “I know. You go. Guess we can afford a few books, but don’t you go going wild on the spending like you did that one time when we had to get a taxi back, you’d bought so many.”
“Charles!” she protested, laughing obligingly at his teasing. “I _needed_ those books. There weren’t that many either; they were just heavy.”
“No need to tell me that. I’m the one who carried them two blocks, remember?”
He grinned again and left her surrounded by the debris of their meal, her laughter evaporating.
The bookshop was still there and blessedly cool without being frigid. Fred let the silence soak into her as she realised with delight that the hum of an air conditioner was missing. This made her suspicious a moment later, until her eyes saw the faint glimmer of protection spells high in the corners. Of course; the books needed to be in a cool, dry environment. The benefit to the customers was, she was fairly sure, serendipitous rather than planned. The shop owner was one of those who regarded the books as his own library. Selling them wasn’t a priority. The shop was open at odd hours, books were filed according to a mysterious, incomprehensible system, and the owner was as unhelpful as he could be without being openly rude. Fred liked him.
The aisles between the long rows of shelving were narrow and the lighting was dim. Fred, driven still by guilt, decided to start with looking for a present for Gunn. She found a promising section and began to peer at faded bindings, running her finger along the dark wood of the long shelves, crouching down to reach for a copy of ‘The Art of War’. Charles must have read that but there was nothing like owning a book...this one looked old, though. Maybe a paperback edition from the bargain book shop in the mall would be better. She pulled it out anyway and stood up with it in her hand, tilting the flyleaf to the light to catch the price.
As she turned, she collided with another customer trying to edge past her and the book was jostled out of her hands. It fell, spinning wildly, hitting the threadbare carpet with a distressing crack as the binding split and the pages spilled out. At the same time the customer – a woman – automatically reached for it, trying to catch it and succeeding only in knocking her head sharply against the protruding corner of a shelf. Fred gasped and the woman exclaimed in pain. Reaching out, she picked up the book, shuffling the pages back in and closing it. High up, the intricate symbols flashed brightly for a moment then faded, shimmering from silver to grey. The woman looked at the book, now restored to its original state and smiled ruefully. “Guess I needn’t have bothered.” She laid it down on a shelf and turned to Fred, her smile widening.
“You!” Fred said, looking at Lilah Morgan and recoiling instinctively. “What are you doing here?”
The tranquility produced by being surrounded by books fled and Fred felt angry panic rush in to fill the gap. Lilah was so close...she took a step backward and then another before she ran out of space. The wall was gritty and rough against her palms and Lilah was blocking out the light, trapping her...Fred felt her head swim dizzily as Lilah’s perfume, surprisingly light and floral, replaced the comforting smell of old paper and ink.
“Hello? I’m standing in a shop selling books. Why don’t you take a leap in the dark and guess?”
“You’re not ... following me or anything?” Fred asked, narrowing her eyes at Lilah’s supercilious smile.
“Now why would I be doing that?” Lilah asked. “You’re not even on my radar these days.” Her eyes flickered over Fred and the smile slashed deeper. “Though if you turned sideways, we’d probably lose you anyway.”
Fred stared at the polished perfection of Lilah’s expensively clad body, refusing to let inadequacy rob her of speech. “Fine. So if you’ll just move your tits out the way, I’ll be leaving.”
Lilah’s eyebrows lifted in pretend shock at her crudity, a spark of interest beginning to burn in her eyes. “Don’t you want to have a little girl to girl talk? Not curious about whom I’m running errands for?” She waved a piece of paper in the air and Fred felt her throat close as she recognised Wesley’s angular, clear writing.
“Wesley? You’re trying to trick me! He’d never have anything to do with you.”
“Oh? And if I’d asked you a few months ago, you’d have sworn he’d never have had anything to do with Holtz, wouldn’t you? Maybe you don’t know Wes as well as you think you do.”
“I know him better than you,” Fred said, her voice low and shaking.
Lilah smirked. “Want to know what he sounds like when he’s coming? Or get some vital statistics? Because I’m thinking in the truly Biblical sense of the word, you don’t know him at all.”
Fred attacked with oblique accuracy. “The first time I saw you, you were squirming under Angel like a two bit –”
She didn’t see Lilah move, but suddenly there was a finger against her lips, as cool and light as a snowflake. “You’re going to call me a whore and I’m going to have to teach you a lesson on principle. Don’t.”
The finger moved away, leaving a spot of freshness behind. Fred’s tongue flicked out to wipe it away – or taste it - and Lilah’s eyes sparked again.
“He loved you, you know,” she said in a conversational voice. “I think he’s still quite taken by your girlish charms.” She laughed. “I can’t imagine what he sees in you, if you’ll forgive the cliché.”
“Likewise,” Fred snapped. The faint hint of jealousy in Lilah’s voice did more to convince her that she was telling the truth than the words themselves.
Lilah smiled again, seemingly untroubled by Fred’s attempts to ruffle her composure. “Oh, he sees what he wants to with me. I make sure of that. And I’m afraid if you ever do get your bird-like claws into him you’ll find he’s a little too...sophisticated in his tastes for you to handle.” She let her eyes go dreamy and sighed, oozing patently false emotion as her lashes fluttered. “What a man...what a twisted, depraved ...oh, I’m sorry. Are those illusions shattering along with your heart?”
“Wes is a good man,” Fred said fiercely, clinging to that belief.
“Good at lots of things,” Lilah agreed. “Sure you don’t want me to tell you about them?”
“Bitch!” said Fred. “You took advantage of him, you –”
“Are you _trying_ to be funny here? Guess not. You turned your back on him, remember? When I do that, it’s so he can get at my ass with his tongue.”
Fred’s hand came up and cracked across Lilah’s face. “You’ve got a dirty mouth,” she said. “Your momma should’ve washed it out with soap more often.”
Lilah’s hand came up and rested on the scarlet handprint Fred had left on her cheek. “Wonder if seeing this will turn him on, knowing it’s from you?” Fred shuddered suddenly, her palm burning coldly where it had lain against Lilah’s face. Lilah moved in closer, forcing her against the wall without touching her. “I think it will. Want to pass on any other messages? I’m sure he’d like a kiss.”
Fred’s eyes opened wide and then Lilah’s mouth was brushing hers, full lips, smooth with lipstick, red and cool as a strawberry popsicle. Her eyes closed as the kiss deepened, her lips parting just enough to let Lilah’s tongue slide along them, leaving them tingling like her hand. Lilah pulled back, looking at her with satisfaction. “Oh, he’ll love kissing me after that,” she murmured.
Fred’s hand came up and she scrubbed at her mouth violently, trying to hide the fact that the kiss had been as refreshing as rain, as light as petals drifting down from a blossoming tree to brush against her lips. Lilah reached up and captured her wrist. “Don’t do that. The last person I kissed was Wesley; it’s like he’s right here with us, isn’t it?”
Fred shook her head, the image of Wesley’s mouth on Lilah impossible to escape. “Leave me alone,” she said, shivering in Lilah’s grip, her body starting to flush with sudden, unexpected warmth. What was the matter with her, she thought as the heat mounted. Feverish, so hot...was she sick?
Lilah’s lips thinned. “Shouldn’t have hit me if you wanted that.”
Her fingers closed over Fred’s left nipple, capturing it and pinching it to hardness. Fred felt the tingle again, felt the coldness spreading. She’d wanted to be cool, wanted this, but not like this, not from Lilah. The fingers brushed over the small breast and then splayed out, hovering above it. Fred waited for them to clamp down, for the pain to blossom as the sharp nails dug in but the hand was still. Fred realised what Lilah was waiting for and gave it to her, arching her back, pushing her breast into the curved palm, craving the chill that spread through her, knowing that she was motivated by more than a desire to escape a love that held her too close, even if only for a short time. Magic. It had to be a spell...Fred tried to think but all her body wanted was to be cool again.
“You really want this...” Lilah whispered, her voice surprised, almost shocked.
“Hot, everything’s so hot...want to be cold like him,” Fred said, her voice a thin thread of sound. “You’re both so cold...I need that. God – what’s the matter with me?”
Lilah’s hand dropped away and Fred whimpered in protest as the heat rushed back in a sticky, prickling flame. What was Lilah doing to her?
“You think Wes is cold? Not so stupid after all.” Fred swayed before leaning back against the wall, digging her shoulders into it for the fleeting sensation of stone on skin. Lilah studied her for a moment and then flicked out a slim phone, stabbing at it with icicle-sharp nails. “Clear me for the next few hours. Mark it up to sundries. I’m sorry? If the next words out of your mouth aren’t ‘Yes, Ms. Morgan’ then I’ll – better. Much better.”
The phone vanished and Fred watched Lilah walk away from her before pausing and turning back. “Well?"
Fred looked at her. An invitation, not a command, but it made no difference. She needed Lilah.
As they passed the owner he caught at Lilah’s sleeve. “One hour. Thank you for trying.”
She frowned at him and then shrugged in impatient dismissal but Fred felt the words sizzle into her brain, brand her flesh. She turned her head back. He looked at her, reproachful and gleeful all at once, and she wondered how she could ever have thought that she liked him as the pieces fell into place.
Lilah’s apartment was echoing and empty, parading the unused space as the most expensive accessory a room could have. Fred’s eyes wandered around it, blinking at the brightness of white, sun splashed walls. Lilah’s hand had rested against hers on the ride back, moving away for split seconds as she changed gear or steered around a corner, keeping her cool. Now she stood a few feet away and Fred began to burn up like a vampire caught out at dawn.
Lilah pursed her lips with a puzzled smile. “This is going to be fun,” she murmured, “but I have to say I’m still a little surprised.”
“It’s a spell,” said Fred, her voice dull but with a flicker of impatience running through it.
Fred drifted towards her, stopping inches away. “The shop had protection spells to keep the books safe. I dropped one, you got hurt trying to catch it...now I’m hot and you’re cold. Something was triggered. Something that will last for an hour.”
Lilah smiled. “That doesn’t make any sense, you know, but fine. It’s a spell. I can let you think that if you want.”
Fred stared at her, eyes glittering. “If it weren’t a spell, I wouldn’t be here.”
Lilah’s eyebrows came together. “I don’t get it. You think it’s a spell but you still came here? Why aren’t you running off home, hitting the books with the gallant Gunn, looking for a cure?”
Fred reached out a wavering hand, watching it glow in the golden light spilling through the half closed blinds. “It’s only an hour. Less now. What would be the point?” Besides, I want to know, she thought, want to see you, see what Wesley sees, know why he chose you.
“So, what, this is you being punished for dropping that book? That’s what he meant?” Lilah’s face was a picture of incredulity but her body was starting to get tense.
Fred nodded slowly, her eyes watchful. Lilah was still so far away...still not touching her...
Lilah shook her head dubiously. “I don’t know,” she demurred. “Magic, spells. Could be risky. Suppose it’s catching. Wouldn’t want to pass on any little nasties to Wesley, now would we?”
Fred’s eyes were glazed now. “Don’t...care,” she panted.
Lilah’s eyebrows went up and she pursed her lips. “Really? You sound so needy. I like that.”
She walked over to Fred and gently brushed the heavy fall of hair off her face. Fred gazed at her, pleading, plaintive. Lilah smiled, lips closed, and wound Fred’s hair into a rope, wrapping it around her hand and tugging at it, just this side of pain.
“You’re scared I’m going to hurt you, make you beg, aren’t you?”
Fred nodded, her eyes never leaving Lilah’s lips, remembering how they felt like frozen berries, the sweetness trapped behind a crackle-thin layer of ice.
Lilah’s finger traced the outline of Fred’s mouth, once, twice, painting it with coolness before resting it against the upper lip for a second. Fred tipped her head back just enough and the finger slid into her mouth. She ran her tongue over it, lapping eagerly, but Lilah pulled it out swiftly.
“Talk to me. Tell me how you’re feeling, what you need.”
The words were abrupt, almost clinical and confusion tangled Fred’s words as Lilah dropped the pretence of seduction. “You want me to talk dirty?”
Lilah laughed, the sound slapping against Fred, making her flinch. “Trust me; you don’t have the right voice for phone sex. Just tell me.”
Fred closed her eyes. “I’m hot, as if I’ve got sunburn all over. When you touch me it leaves this...tingle of coolness behind and it stops it in that one place. Like when you lay a wet cloth against your head if it’s aching and there’s that second of it where it almost hurts it’s such a contrast, but it feels good. When you touch me, that second goes on and on...but you’re not touching me now and it’s starting to...hurt. It’s getting bad.”
Her eyes opened and she saw Lilah’s face soften for a second. “All that for dropping a book?” she murmured. She looked at Fred with a frown and then shrugged, spreading her hands wide. “Well. Let’s play doctor then and make you better. Stay still, don’t move.”
She walked behind Fred and rested one hand on her shoulder. “Does that help?”
“Not as much, not through the dress. Not now.”
Fred’s voice was breathy with pain. Lilah nodded, hooked one hand in the scooped-out back of the thin, cotton dress and unzipped it in a swift whisper, pushing the dress off Fred’s shoulders so that it fell to her feet. She wore nothing under it but plain white cotton panties. Lilah’s lips twitched. “Victoria really is a secret, hmm?” She hesitated and then stepped back. “You do it.”
Fred heard the sounds of clothes being removed as she wriggled out of her panties and kicked off her sandals and forced down the urge to scream at Lilah to hurry. She stared ahead, certain that if she looked down at her body she would see the skin scarlet, lobster red. Searing, sizzling, broiling...Fred wondered, in an insane moment if her body could double as a barbecue and felt a giggle bubble up inside her. Something told her that if she let it escape, she’d lose the tenuous finger- tip hold on sanity and she bit her lip hard. She found that she was spreading her fingers and toes, holding her arms away from her sides, leaning her head back so that her hair hung clear of her back, trying to let the air cool her down...it was like drying the ocean with a Kleenex.
One more moment and I’ll start to scream, she thought silently. Not this second, not now, not right now, no, one second, just one more – and then the scream was ripped from her, not by pain, not quite, as Lilah’s arms slid around her and her back, from shoulders to waist, was plunged into ice water, drenched in snow melt, frozen numb. The contrast was so great that she felt her senses overload, felt the inky, spangled blackness of unconsciousness wash up against her feet. Before it could rise, Lilah had moved in front of her and the wave turned to frozen spray as Lilah hugged her close.
Lilah whispered, “Can you walk to the bedroom?”
Fred stumbled there instead, Lilah’s arms wrapped around her, supporting her, touching her.
The bed was a smooth expanse of violet cotton, a rich, delicate shade like the sky at twilight and the blinds were closed, striping it with shadow. Fred lay on it and felt Lilah push her onto her side, moving behind her, spooning her so that the back of her legs were soothed. They lay like that for long moments and then Fred said quietly, “It’s helping but there’s so much of me you haven’t touched.”
“Tell me where.”
“My feet,” Fred whispered. “Feels like they’re cinders and ash.”
Lilah sat up and Fred cried out as her back was engulfed in heat. “What? I thought once I’d touched you, it felt better.”
“It’s getting worse! Oh, God, please don’t move away.”
“I have to do something, call work, Wesley –”
Lilah began to slide off the bed and Fred grabbed her. “No!”
Lilah turned back and sighed. “Come here.” She pushed the pillows up and lay propped up against them. Opening her arms, she said again, “Come to me. Curl up small.”
They lay together, Lilah’s hands moving in steady, slow circles, pressing lightly against flesh that to her felt warm, to Fred incandescent. Her fingers slid between Fred’s, ran through her hair to reach her scalp, probed gently behind her ears, exploring her face as a blind person would. Fred guided her so that as the fire in one area was quenched, she could move to another. They didn’t speak beyond that. Lilah’s hands moved over her breasts, stroked between her legs, making no attempt to do anything but soothe and heal.
Eventually a precarious balance was achieved, a moment where Fred was free enough of pain to be conscious of more than her own body. She shifted to look at Lilah’s face, intent and concentrated, faintly shadowed with stress. This close, Lilah was still beautiful but she looked older; less perfect, more human. Lilah felt her gaze and her eyes met Fred’s, questioning, concerned. Somewhere, a mystical clock ticked off the last second and the ordeal ended. Fred cried out softly as the heat fell away and Lilah smiled at her. “It’s over?” she asked.
“Yes,” Fred said.
Lilah’s hand reached out and brushed against Fred’s face. “You’re crying. Does it still hurt?”
Fred shook her head. “No. Guess I’m just so happy to be free of the pain.” She shivered. “I’ve never felt anything like that.”
Lilah moved, an involuntary jerk and Fred gasped and scrambled off her. “You must be so stiff and sore after all this time! I don’t know what to say...”
Lilah’s mouth twisted. “Forget it,” she advised. “Let’s play a nice game of ‘Pretend this never happened’ shall we?”
She rolled off the bed and slipped on a robe then walked out of the room, returning a moment later with Fred’s clothes. “Here. Now you’d better get going. Don’t want your boyfriend sending out search parties. I’m guessing he doesn’t like letting you out of his sight much after what happened to the others.”
She turned away to let Fred dress and Fred reached for her clothes before hesitating. “Lilah?”
“I don’t understand. You were willing to have me come here so we could...but then once you realised what was happening you switched off, didn’t ...I don’t understand.”
Lilah spun around, her face alive with anger. “You thought me capable of rape? Gee, let me remember to say ‘thanks’ for that one day.”
“You’ve done worse,” said Fred quietly.
Lilah glared at her and then sighed. “Yes, I have and I will do again. My choice; but that’s work. This isn’t on the clock, remember? So get dressed, get out and keep your mouth shut about it or I’ll kill you myself. Don’t mind doing that.”
Fred slid off the bed, still naked, and walked over to Lilah. “I don’t know if it was the spell or not, but I wanted to come here, be with you, after you kissed me. And it would have been wrong and a big mistake so you’re not the one who should be saying, ‘thank you’; I am.”
As Lilah stood frozen with surprise, Fred wound her arms around her and kissed her. Their lips met briefly, both warm now, and then Fred pulled back enough to murmur, “Thank you,” before stepping away, not looking at Lilah’s face.
As she dressed, Lilah said abruptly. “I won’t tell Wesley.”
“Tell him what? Oh...”
“Tell him anything.” Lilah said. “About today, about you loving him...”
“I don’t! I love Charles!”
“Try and remember that, hmm? Wes is spoken for.”
Fred glared at her, the fragile truce shattered. “You deserve each other,” she said bitterly. “You’re both cold and dead inside. You helped me today and that was kind but you’re still so cold...”
She ran down the stairs, fumbling with the door, eager to leave, go home. Outside the sky had darkened and thunder began to speak, promising rain.
The door slammed behind her with a cool finality and Lilah sighed. “Hurts less that way.”
Fred left, going back to the comforting warmth of Gunn as the heavy raindrops began to fall from the sky, silver bullets slaying the heat. Lilah watched her walk away from a window and then made a phone call. “There’s a bookstore over on Aspen...yes, that one. I heard the owner met with a tragic accident. When? Oh, tonight will do.” She started to ring off and then said, “But don’t hurt the books. Just him. And be creative. Knock yourself out.”
She hummed to herself as she began to get ready to see Wesley. She’d never be able to face him if he knew she’d let the books be destroyed.
He loved books.
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