Fred loved it, and it terrified her. But right now she loved, *loved* being terrified this way. Loved feeling more than lonely or angry, even though those feelings hadn't disappeared, just been swamped by the joy and shock.
Home. Or her dream world. Didn't matter which. She could be crazy or dead, and that would be just fine, as long as it didn't go away like it did before. Vampires were real here, and she hadn't expected that. So were demons like the ones in Pylea, although the Host was awfully nice compared to most of them. So maybe this wasn't the same place she'd left; or the place she'd imagined she'd left.
But maybe she *had* done the math right, and caused it all herself; maybe the interdimensional portals had opened with the frequency and predictability that she'd calculated. Maybe reality had rules and boundaries and sense again, like she'd imagined it once did. Or maybe the world which had been torturing her forever had decided to give it a rest and let her be happy for a just a little while. If it was, there were people who'd missed her, maybe, a life studying physics that she might get to go back to... but it was way too early to be sure all of this was really real, yet. But that didn't matter. She leaned her head against the window frame and smiled up at the moon, content for the first time she could remember in a very long, long time. Deliberately not thinking about when it all might be over again.
"Fred? You in here?"
She glanced toward the doorway of the room and tugged the robe tighter over her nightdress, smoothing her wet hair. "Uh-hunh. Come on in."
Gunn nudged the door open with his foot, his hands full of paper bags and a tray of drinks, then cocked his head at her when he saw her curled up in the window seat. "How you doin'? You up for some food? I got tacos."
The smell from the bags propelled her across the room like a shove in the back. "Oh, yes please, thank you, you bet am I ever!"
He laughed and handed her one of the bags, following her over to the window seat as she tore into it before she even sat down. They'd fed her at the castle, but it had been boring food, better than she was used to, but still, Pylean all over: bread with some kind of sticky paste, and little nuggets that she couldn't like even though she'd wolfed down a plate of them. But that was hours ago, and the spicy hot smell of the food in the bags had her mouth watering so bad she was afraid she'd drool all over herself before she took one bite.
"What were you doing sitting here in the dark? Something wrong, or were you just trying to get to sleep? I can leave if you want---"
"No no no, don't go. I was just thinkin', looking at the city again." Fred took a huge bite of one of the unwrapped tacos, and patted the window seat next to her before reaching for one of the soft drinks he'd set down. "Plmph sm humph," she added, then swallowed before repeating, "Please stay here. I just want someone to talk to, if you don't have somewhere you have to be or something you have to do, and you don't mind? I'm not used to being around people again, and you know... holding a real, uh, conversation. But I'm not ready to stop again, if that's okay, it's just been so long...." She hadn't been like this before, she was pretty sure. Well, not this bad. She thought she remembered her mom always said she could talk to just about anyone, but more than a few years without anyone to talk back had kinda rusted her people skills. She slurped the drink until she choked on it, gasped, and then giggled. "Diet Coke!"
"Yeah, that's what Cordy likes, but I've got regular here if you want it---"
"I want all of it. But I can share. Here, eat. Eat!" She handed some of the taco chips to Gunn as he sat down, surprising him into a smile even as he shook his head in bemusement. That was okay. It was better than okay, it was great: someone who wasn't trying to kill her, or calling her a cow, ranting about religion or looking at her like she was a ... specimen? Maybe she meant a bug. She remembered bugs better than she remembered specimens. There were bugs in the other place, too, only no one had microscopes for them. She'd better find out if microscopes were real again, before she started thinking about them too much. Or talking about them. Didn't want to get stared at like she was any crazier than she really was, right?
Bliss. Tacos were even better than she'd imagined. How could she have forgotten jalapenos?
"So, you settling in okay? Found the shower and towels all right?"
"Yup, yup. Cordelia showed me where everything was. They let me take a bath at the castle, but this was so much better. *Hot* water. Lots of hot water. And she loaned me her shampoo!" Fred returned Gunn's smile with a wide one of her own, pushing up her glasses before she added, "And conditioner. And body bath soap. And lotion. She offered me the hair dryer too, but I forgot how long that takes, and I gave up after a while. My hair didn't used to be this long, you see. It grew. Which, well, you know, hair does." She blinked at him, taking in his bald head. "Right?"
"Uh-hunh." Gunn shot her a dubious look, but she didn't care, just grinned back at him and stuffed another handful of taco chips in her face. "Glad to hear Cordy's got you set up with the whole spa experience. There anything else you think you'll need real soon?" She shook her head violently while taking another slurp of her soda. "Good. That's good. She'll probably take you shopping tomorrow for some clothes, but otherwise, there's not gonna be much goin' on here for the next couple days. Sorry about that, but...." He sighed. "Angel and the others are gonna have a lot on their minds for a while."
"That's okay. I'm just glad to be here. Wherever here is." Fred swallowed the last bite of her taco and unwrapped another one. "Who was that girl in the lobby? Is she why Cordelia's all," she gestured with a napkin, trying to find the right word, "---kerflooie? And Angel's so quiet, all of a sudden." Which had scared her, a little, to see all the bounce go out of him like it had after the beast had come out. And it had been an awful long time since she'd cried about anything; watching the strange girl break down had been... uncomfortable. "Cordelia hustled me up here before I could hear anything, or figure out what any of it meant."
"It's a long story, Fred."
"I got time," she said hopefully. "Really. Nothing but. Please? Unless, um, it'll upset you. You don't have to tell me, then. I don't want to upset anyone. 'Cause I remember how *that* feels, and, well...."
Gunn smiled slightly, and reached for one of the soft drinks, fiddling with the straw before popping the lid and taking a sip. "It won't upset me, but you maybe shouldn't ask the others about it. They're taking it pretty hard." He put the drink down, turned to look out the window over the city, at all the lights twinkling and glowing, none of them flickering like the torches of the other world; but it didn't look like Gunn was seeing that. "Short, short version, is a friend of theirs died while we were gone. Short version, is that Angel feels real bad about it, and thinks it's his fault for not being here."
"Ohhh." She licked guacamole off her fingers, then took a bite of one of the fajitas, considering. "Is he right?" That wasn't a polite question, maybe. She wasn't sure. But Angel's feelings mattered more than manners, anyway.
"Not as far as I can tell, but with Angel, that won't make much difference."
She frowned, swallowed, and then picked up her drink again. "Maybe you better tell me the long version. Of, well, everything. You know, like how you guys found me. And why you're all being so nice." Her voice cracked, but she cleared her throat and got it under control before Gunn could do more than shoot her one sharp look.
"Hell, I wouldn't even know where to start. It's not my story. Wesley would tell it better, he knows more of it."
"Then start it like those, those kid's stories." All those stories, Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast and Hansel and Gretel, and they'd been real for years, but no one was telling those stories. Just living them. If they were stories than anyone else knew, and not something she made up in her own head. But they must have; otherwise why didn't they tell her the Evil Priests and Shock Collar stories when she was little, while they were at it? They weren't much worse. "Once upon a time... I did remember that right, didn't I?"
Gunn grinned and rolled his eyes. "Yeah. You got it right." He took another sip of his drink, then leaned back against the wall of the alcove, propping his feet up next to her feast. "Once upon a time, hunh? Let's see...."
"Once upon a time, there was this kid in Ireland. Don't ask me his name, because I don't know it, or if he even remembers it now, it was something like two hundred years ago. The kid wanted to see the world, but he didn't get much past his front door before this vampire found him, name of Darla. You want to be remembering that name, Fred, she might be showing up again later on in this story." Gunn shook his head, something grim flashing across his face, and Fred took a long sip of her drink without looking away from him. "Anyhows, this vamp puts the bite on him, makes him a bloodsucker, and he becomes the biggest badass in Europe, calls himself Angelus. A real monster, through to the bone. You got to see a little of that back in Pylea. Way I hear it though, he was even worse here--- the kinda guy Hannibal Lector and Jeffrey Dahmer would've avoided on the street, he was that scary. None of that leading him off with a bag of blood thing, girl; this was the guy who liked making a person hurt, make 'em crazy with pain, before he killed them. Or worse. Real nasty piece of work. This goes on for a long time."
Gunn put his drink down, his voice getting more reflective as he went on, still looking out the window, and Fred didn't move, afraid to interrupt his concentration. "But one day, he chomps the wrong chick, and her family decide to get back at him. Only they're witches, see, Gypsy witches, and they don't think rain of toads or purple warts or turnin' him into a frog is bad enough. They give this Angelus guy his soul back--- bam, boom, flash of light, and he knows righteousness again, like something out of the Old Testament. And he knows what he did." Another sip of his drink, and he shook his head. "Tore him up inside, 'cause he remembers it like it was him, like he was the monster who killed all those people."
"That's not very fair," Fred objected in mid-munch, poking the lettuce back into her mouth when it wanted to fall out.
"Life ain't fair, or you wouldn't've been called a cow for the last five years, am I right?"
"Definitely not." Gunn picked up a taco chip, threw it in his mouth, chewed thoughtfully for a second, then went on. "So he's in a dark place for a long time, this vamp. Nobody else like him in the world, and all that guilt with it. This is the part of the story I'm not so sure about --- I've only heard it from English, so if I get it wrong, it's his fault," he cautioned her. "About five or so years ago, a demon--- a good demon, working for the Powers That Be --- he goes up to this vamp, and says, do you wanna make a difference? Do you wanna be one of the good guys, help make up for what you did? Now the vamp, he ain't so sure about that. He's been on his own for a long time, but he's still alive, and he knows what kind of stuff he'll be in for if he signs up with Heroes Inc. But he says, okay, what the hell. Let's try it on.
"He goes to the Hellmouth, where the evil likes to hang out--- place's real name us Sunnydale, about eighty miles up the coast, and if you listen to Cordelia's stories about the place, you'd swear the Big Bad Wolf and the Wicked Witch of the West ran the outlet malls up there--- and he looks to hook up with the Slayer. This Slayer is a Champion, working for the Obi-Wan side of the Force: the one chick in all the world who can kill the vamps and demons and monsters like she's takin' out the trash, slam 'em down, kick their booties, then go shoppin' afterwards. She is also one fine babe. I think you can see where this is goin'."
"He fell in love with her?" Fred guessed, caught up in the story, already able to see it in her head.
"Heyyy. You've heard this before, haven't you?" Gunn grinned at her and she giggled, reaching for a napkin to cover her mouth so she didn't snarf cheese on Cordelia's robe. "Yeah, he fell for her, she fell for him, and together they spent many happy nights fightin' evil. Thing was, though, that curse the Gypsies laid on him? Had a catch: if he was ever *perfectly* happy, his soul would fly away, and Angelus the Baddest of Them All would come back. Bein' in love --- well, you know how it is. You can't *help* being happy, some of the time."
"Oh, no." She swallowed hastily and shook her head in distress, staring at him with wide eyes. "No. Don't tell me. Really, really... Bad Things?"
"Mmm-hmm. Bad bad. Angel went away, Angelus came back, spent some time makin' the Slayer's life hell; then she sent *him* to Hell--- Wes can't ever explain that one right, and Cordy won't even try--- and when the real Angel got back from there, they decided it was better if they didn't spend so much time together."
"Aww." Sighing, Fred took a sip of her drink. "But, but, wasn't there anything they could do? Anything?"
"Funny you should ask that. Now Angel, he figures out of touch, out of danger, and he comes to the City of Angels. Runs into Cordy again, and you saw what she's like --- organize your life with a Daytimer and a whip if you don't run away fast enough." She gurgled into her drink again, and Gunn handed her a napkin so she could wipe her mouth while he grinned. "They've got this buddy Doyle, he gets the visions from the PTB; so they form up Angel Investigations. Help the Hopeless. Fight the Good Fight. Blah blah yah yah, and we got the saving-the-day theme music goin'. Works okay for a while, then Doyle dies, doing the hero thing, and he leaves Cordy the visions."
"So she can be the princess," Fred interrupted, nodding. That had hurt, when Angel had told her that the new girl had been made a princess after only a day in Pylea. But she understood why, now. There always had to be a princess. The Slayer was a Hero, but she wasn't a princess.
"Angel, he'll tell you she always *was* a princess, from way back on the Hellmouth--- but her folks lost the kingdom and the cash, so now she's just like you'n me, workin' for the paycheck. Not a lot of call for out-of-work princesses in L.A., you hear what I'm sayin'?"
"Good. So then Wes joins up--- he was supposed to be this Slayer-chick's back-up man, called a Watcher, in Sunnydale, so he knew Angel from there. Problem was, the Slayer didn't like him, and the first Watcher didn't like him, and then his own people didn't like him, so he got fired. He went solo for a while, then he's here and he's A.I.'s Answer Man. Sorta like the Wizard, or Mr. Wizard, but Wes don't go in for the cool lightshows as much." Gunn picked up his drink again, took a long draft from it, then stole one of her chips. "Me, I've got a crew downtown, we're fighting vamps, dustin' the ones we can grab, and Angel helps me out of a spot, one time. I start hangin' with A.I., and that's about where our story is now. Except for the whole firing all of us and almost goin' crazy riff Angel did back in November, but he's mostly over that."
"Good to know," Fred murmured, nervously shredding the paper around another taco. Bad Things didn't *usually* give this much warning before they happened....
Gunn smiled at her and shook his head reassuringly. "Nah, don't be thinking 'bout that. We're cool now." He took the last taco chip, crunched it, then wiped his hands off on the paper napkins. "So couple days ago, Cordy gets this vision, along with the sledgehammer headache, about this Drakkan demon that came through the portal here into L.A."
"A Drakkan in Los Angeles? That's... very bad. Very, very... because you know, they eat cows. People! I mean people. Us. Humans."
"Uh-hunh. We figured that." Gunn smiled slightly and shook his head at her, but he wasn't laughing at her slip out loud, which was nice of him. "Then Cordy got a vision of you in the library---"
"Me? But I wasn't there, I was in the other world. For a long time. Like, always, it felt like..." Cordy had been the one to know she needed rescuing? After all this time? Well, that kind of made up for the princess thing. And Cordelia *had* been the one who insisted they let her have a bath, back at the castle, and loaned her the robe here.
"Yeah, but that helped us find the book you used to get there. So after she got sucked through another portal, we used the book to go find her. And then we found you, or you found Angel, same thing, and now we're back."
"Back. And we're not going anywhere ever again, right?"
"Not if I got anything to say about it," Gunn agreed.
"But Angel can't walk in the sun here. He said he'd burst into flames. That's no good. Maybe... maybe he *should* go somewhere else...." She didn't want him to go. She liked him, he laughed at her jokes and he was very kind when she knew she wasn't making any sense. But he'd liked the sun--- on the other hand, he *hadn't* liked being that demon that had tried to kill Gunn and the Englishman. But there had to be a world where that wasn't a problem.
"We got an answer for that, actually. Some Shanshu prophecy that Wes dug up, that says someday, maybe, after he's done all his good deeds, the vamp can be a real live dude again. And they can all live happily ever after, Angel and the Slayer and all the world."
"Yay!" She looked at his face, then remembered how the story started. "But, wait... you said.... Someone died...."
"Yeah. That's our unforeseen plot twist." Gunn was quiet for a second, his voice lower when he spoke again. "Something bad went down in the 'Dale while we were in Bizarro-Oz. I wasn't following it all, but the little redhead crying downstairs said the Slayer saved the world again. But she didn't make it back."
"Oh, no." That was just so wrong. "No, but... see, that's just... No." She turned pleading eyes on Gunn, and he gave a slow shrug of regret, his eyes sad and thoughtful.
"I hear you, girl."
Angel was a Hero. Usually the Hero married the princess, but Cordelia wasn't that kind of princess, and anyway, he didn't love her like that. Cordelia had really liked the Grusillag, Fred had seen it. But even if that hadn't been real true love and had only been a really terrific kiss, Cordelia didn't love Angel *that* way either, and you couldn't blame her. In her heart of hearts, Fred knew she wouldn't know what to do with a hero, not in the long-term. Taking care of the Beast and having someone to talk to were one thing, but for the time being it was all she could do to keep her head from flying away. Taking care of a Hero and fighting evil was way, way beyond her right now, no matter how pretty he was.
But Angel deserved *something* for helping free the people, and rescue the princess, as well as Fred; and living Happily Ever After was wonderful, especially if you loved someone already, and they were a Hero too, and had just saved the world. And he'd had a horrible life, and he'd already had to give the Slayer girl up for her own good, and... and.....
"That isn't the way the story's supposed to end," she told Gunn, feeling tears gather in her eyes. "It isn't. I know it, I'd remember if they ended like that."
"Hey, hey. Here, take a napkin."
"Thank you." She wiped her eyes, then sniffled and blew her nose before she pushed up her glasses. "It can't be right. That isn't the end."
"You don't think so?" Gunn looked considering, then sighed softly. "You know, it don't seem like it to me, either. I guess that's proof we ain't livin' in a fairy tale world, hunh?"
Fred shook her head again and took a bite out of her last taco, feeling obstinate and scared. It didn't make sense. Heroes didn't die; princesses weren't supposed to have visions and migraines... and vampires weren't supposed to be real. And neither were interdimensional portals that operated on the quantum laws of physics.
Maybe she really was home, if things were like this. It *was* kind of like she remembered: not perfect, but great. Full of wonderful stuff she'd never take for granted again, but not easy, not like you could wish for anything and it'd come true. Someplace where you could do what you wanted, but that didn't mean you'd always win.
It had to be so hard to be a Hero in the real world. Especially when your true love died before you could live happily ever after.
"Is there anything I can do? To help? I mean.... There has to be something."
Gunn looked at her a second, then smiled real nice, even though he still kinda looked as sad as she felt. "Naw. It's real cool of you to offer, but we're in the middle of downtime anyway, with the funeral coming up and all." She nodded and looked down at the remains of her taco, toying listlessly with one of the tomato bits. Gunn coughed a second, and his voice got stronger. "Tell you what, though; why don't you stay here this week, get used to bein' home again, and maybe answer the phones while the other three are gone. You never know, something might come up, and we'll need to have the office covered if it does."
"Really? I can do that. I think I did that at the library, a lot. People would call in needing books, and I'd get all the information from them.... of course, sometimes we didn't have the books, but, you know, then there were other options, like calling the other branches, and using the ordering service, and..." She took a deep breath. "Thanks. For, you know. Everything." She waved at the food, then the room, then herself, and knew she had to look completely goofy, but couldn't care.
"All part of the A.I. service." He balled up the wrapping papers and stuffed them into the bag. "You take it easy tonight, 'kay? If I know Cordy, she'll be back up to check on you before she goes to bed--- most likely we're all bunking down here tonight. You can figure out what you want to do tomorrow."
"Okay. Good night, Gunn. Sleep tight. Don't let the bed bugs bite. And isn't it great that we don't have bedbugs here? It's gonna be so nice to sleep tonight," she added, just thrilled to still be talking, and remembering, and not crazy. Not alone. Not in Pylea.
Gunn laughed softly and muttered, "Uh-hunh. I believe it. 'Night, wild girl," as he shut the door behind him.
Fred turned back to the window, and looked up at the sky. She could barely see any stars; the lights from the city were blocking them, she knew. Another change from the last few ---five? --- years.
She'd gotten all her wishes at once, thanks to Angel and his friends. Home and people and shelter and food and not being totally crazy and being safe.... There had to be a star out there somewhere, to wish on for him, to make it better and not hurt as much somehow.
She still thought it was a lousy ending to the story. Why, the only time the heroine ever died in the fairy tales she remembered, it was a mistake.
Fred frowned at the horizon as a thought occurred to her, just as she found a star. It was extremely improbable. But so was everything else she'd been through. And after all, Sleeping Beauty had to be based on *something*.
"Star light, star bright... first star I see tonight...."
The Darkest Dawn
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