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Challenge #10 -- "Evil Genius"

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  • Challenge #10 -- "Evil Genius"

    Meh. I will just go for it.

    Disclaimer: All characters are property of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. This work of fiction is for entertainment purposes only and is certainly not making me a single red cent.

    Setting: Angel S5, alternate outcome of "A Hole In the World"/"Shells".

    Characters: Ensemble (no Eve, but just about all the other regulars); vamp!Fred

    Rating/warning: PG (a few mild innuendoes, some tear-jerking; character death, obviously)

    Word Count: 5650

    Synopsis: When Illyria begins losing control of her powers in "Time Bomb", she accidentally loses someone in the past. But it's no big's only Harmony, after all. What difference could one ditzy vampire make?

    Three weeks ago

    It was going to be a good day. Fred had her laboratory, she had interesting things to study, and she had important work to do. Like curing cancer--if she couldn't get Wolfram & Hart to let it go, well, she knew plenty of unconventional ways to slip things past "the man". She flipped her phone shut and walked--

    The lab was deserted, papers and electronic gizmos flung about. A bloody handprint was smeared across one of the workstations. "Oh god. Michelle? Anders? Knox?" She wasn't really set up for this--maybe she had better call Angel This was no time to panic, and if it was some creature the team had been secretly studying, or maybe something that'd burst out of the sarcophagus that'd shown up unexpectedly this morning, Angel and Gunn weren't necessarily going to handle it any better than she could. She rounded the workstation.

    "Knox!" He was sprawled atop an overturned chair, unmoving. Fred crouched beside him, immediately recognizing the wounds on his neck: vampire attack. But any unauthorized vampire would've been tracked, and--

    "Don't even start." Something struck the back of Fred's neck; she sagged to her knees, fighting to stay awake. Her assailant loomed over her, clad in something her blurred vision registered only by color, a pretty pastel blue. "He's not worth crying over."

    "H-Harmony?" Sure, she was a vampire, but Fred couldn't have imagined this--she seemed pretty darn content taking phone calls and dictating messages. Why go berserk now? Had someone spiked her blood again already? "Wh-what're..."

    Harmony crouched down beside her. "You're gonna thank me. I promise." Fred didn't think that was a very probable outcome, but before she could object there were fangs sinking into her neck. Left side. Huh....who'd have gues....

    Illyria was being bitchy again. Even when she was calm, Harmony hated being around her--she just had that really really obnoxiously superior attitude, like she was the head cheerleader and you were some lowly geek on the chess team. But every now and then she'd fly off the handle, ranting about cars or closed-in spaces or how useless humans were (as if Harmony were human. So not!)

    "I have done this before," Her Royal Blueness snapped. "Events are precisely the same as they were, and will be again."

    Harmony rolled her eyes. "It's called deja vu. You know, in Spanish? It happens to everyone. Get used to it." She reached into the drawer for a piece of bubble gum--it helped calm the cravings, sometimes.

    Illyria grabbed her by the wrist. "To everyone? You experience this--this repetition?"

    Her token effort to jerk her arm loose went unnoticed. "Duh!"

    Not-Fred cocked her head to the side, thinking. "No. No, I comprehend deja vu. Something else is--aughh!" Okay, whatever it was that could make the supergoddess clutch her stomach like that--not deja vu. But--

    Illyria released her wrist and began to look around. "This is...before. I do not...I should not be in this moment." Her eyes were just a flicker wider than Harmony thought they usually looked.

    "Um, is there a moment when I understand what you're talking about?"

    "No," Illyria said simply, beginning to turn away. Mid-turn, she vanished in a flash of light.

    Harmony squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head. Today was turning out to be just a little much, even for Wolfram & Hart.

    The phone rang an inter-office pager tone. "Harmony!" Naturally Angel didn't care what she was going through. "I need those papers on my desk!"

    "Coming, boss!" Only the papers she thought he was talking about weren't even there. This was stuff from nearly a month ago! Okay, who was trying to sabotage her with the boss this time?

    "Who was that?" Harmony looked up to see Illyria striding towards her again, this time wearing her phony Fred outfit.

    "Um--you?" Illyria seemed really determined to wear her out. "Your royal godliness, scourge of the, the primal scream? Those don't work, by the way. I tried."

    "Harmony, are you on something?" Now she was pretending to be concerned. "Because we can get help, but I don't think Angel would want you coming into work--" She lowered her voice. "--high. Now who was that demon girl in the skintight armor?"

    "Uh--gotta run!" Harmony grabbed the sheets of paper--she could just say she got mixed up--and ducked into Angel's office.

    "--mow them down," Angel finished, sounding agitated. He took the sheaf from her, not looking at it. "Cavemen wouldn't last five seconds, Spike. Now could you just go away and let me work!?"

    When did Spike show up? Harmony looked back and forth between them. Cavemen? Oh. Oh no.... "Harm," Spike asked, maybe just a little concerned, "you all right?"

    "Astronauts," she said absently. "This time the astronauts win." She dashed out the door.

    Behind her, Angel grumped, "Not doing me any favors, Harm."
    "--lifted me up when I couldn't reach--"

    Lorne clapped his hands over his ears as she stumbled a bit over the high notes. "Whoa, whoa, Threnody, that's enough! I believe you."

    "You do? Because I swear I'd never have hit you on the head, tied you up, and locked you in a closet again." Not like it had worked out that well the last time. "But I didn't know what else to do, except this."

    "Well, my aura-reading skills have been just a teeny-weeny bit off lately, but you are radiating some serious doom-and-gloom vibes. Just the echoes make me wanna panic." Lorne gave his left horn a scratch. "Trouble is, I'm not entirely sure what's Fred, and what's you."

    "Lorne, if I hadn't done this," she said, checking her watch frantically, "right now Fred'd be coughing up blood all over Wesley's suit. She dies, and..."

    "Harm, sweets...she's dead now." Lorne's voice sounded strained, like he had a frog in his throat or something. "And I know that you think she's coming back, but, and I cannot stress the metaphysics enough, it's not gonna be her!" Okay, maybe he was just angry.

    Harmony swallowed hard. "Because of her soul, I know. It's not like everyone doesn't remind me of that, like, every freaking day." Lorne nodded impatiently. "But it's not just...gone. And it would've been." She squeezed her eyes tight. How had they put it? "'Fred's soul was consumed,' would've been, I mean, because it wasn't this time, 'in the fires of reincarnation.' You wouldn't happen to know how that works, would you? I mean, bright light, and back in another body, or is there something else between, or--?"

    Wesley coughed behind her. "That's 'fires of resurrection'," he stated flatly, waving one of his stupid books around. She turned to see him, Angel, Spike, and Gunn standing behind her, stone-faced. Harmony whirled back to see Lorne tip up his office phone to point at the speakerphone light.

    "Sorry, Cacophony, but the second you said you killed Fred...well, you're lucky I didn't come at you with a stake. Not that I'd've expected to win, which, kinda explaining why I didn't."

    "I found Illyria in Wolfram & Hart's records. If what you've said is true," Wesley began.

    "I swear," Harmony squeaked. "You tried everything, you called Willow, not that she would help, Angel and Spike flew off to England to some place called the Deeper Well and it didn't help, you--" She hesitated, grabbing a quick breath. "You tried everything you'd ever think of, and that's all you'd have done again. And she'd still be gone. She's the only--" Harm brushed something wet from her face; this was no time to start ruining her makeup over a human. "She treated me like I mattered."

    "So you did something we'd...never think of," Angel said slowly, prompting a sharp look from Spike. "Will it work?" Angel asked Wesley.

    "I..." Wesley paused thoughtfully. "I can't be certain the infection isn't still active. This is no natural illness we're discussing; it's a manifestation of a primal force. But if Illyria hasn't awoken by the time Fred does, I don't believe it ever will."

    "It ain't gonna be Fred," Gunn insisted. Every time he glanced Harm's way she saw him staking her.

    "Maybe I can speak to Willow," Spike suggested. "She'll listen to me...we can fix this right up."

    "An' if she doesn't? I mean, the little bloodsucker here's all we've got to say she won't, but I doubt she's brainy enough to lie just about that one thing when the rest's true."

    "I believe, if it comes to that, Gunn, I can do it." Wesley didn't sound very confident--except that he was definitely going to try. "I don't look forward to it, but I don't believe the spell itself can require any great power. It was...the implementation we needed help with before."

    "I hate to be a wet blanket," Angel said. Harmony almost giggled; Angel was always a wet blanket. "But I think we'd better wait until we're certain Illyria's not going to rise. Otherwise...."

    "If we put Fred's soul back, and that thing eats it," Gunn cut in unhappily, "it'll...all this'll have been for nothing."

    "That means waiting for Fred to wake up," Lorne pointed out. "And she's not going to be our nice little Freddikins when she does." Spike nodded in agreement; after a moment, so did Angel.

    Wesley sighed. "I'm certainly not going to enjoy seeing her that way. But I believe we can be certain of one thing: Fred can do her worst, and I don't think for one instant she'll be nearly as dangerous as a genuine Old One."

    The gang started filing out of the office, not saying a word to her. Spike looked appreciative--maybe, Angel a little freaked out. Gunn still looked like he was going to snarl and cut her head off, but he gave her a curt nod and hurried out the door.

    "Harmony," Wesley said harshly, "what you did...I have difficulty imagining a more monstrous act than the turning of a human being. It was utterly, completely wrong, and I expect that you will never so much as dream of doing this again, for any reason, or I will destroy you where you stand." Without the slightest warning, he threw his arms around her and squeezed until she couldn't speak. "Thank you."

    He left, and she turned to look at Lorne. Lorne flapped his hands at the door. "A-hem-hem. My office."

    "Oh. Right."
    She didn't belong here in the lab. Especially not at 2 AM; she needed her beauty rest. The last thing she wanted was to go permanently wrinkly early. But Spikey had insisted. She wasn't the only one watching Fred lie there in the cage; there were cameras for that. "I want you to look at her," Spike had said. "I don't expect you'll feel guilt; I know you can't. But I want you to look at her lyin' there. You say you cared about her, you were friends. Well, you killed her. No matter what you were tryin' to do, that's what you did. An' I think you can...regret it. Know I could. So try."

    Not that it made a lot of sense to Harmony. Sure, Fred was dead right now, but she was coming back. It was different. Everything was. And it wasn't like she knew her body was slumped on a hard cot. Still....

    She tried to imagine Fred drinking nasty pig's blood. Wanting more, and being mad at herself, the way Angel always was, for wanting it. Or Fred, snarling and angry at the world, wanting to kill, and how she'd feel later when she remembered it even though of course she wasn't going to get loose and hurt anyone.

    For a moment she felt...something. Fred was going to be upset, and Harm didn't like the idea of Fred being upset. They were...well, sort of friends. Fred had cared enough to set her up with someone. Then a picture of Illyria being bitchy and world-conquery got in the way, and Wes crying, and Gunn with a stab wound, and Fred...nowhere. Wasn't that worse? Harmony made an effort to figure it all up, but she'd never been any good with math.

    Fred made a little groaning noise, and as sudden as that sat up on the cot. Harmony watched, interested in the way Fred started out looking all stiff, then seemed to remember what her joints did. Harm didn't remember that part very well; it was all jumbly. Fred's eyes fixed on her, a vicious glare.

    "I see they only put you in a--" she spat, then glanced to her sides. " put me in a cage?"

    Harm took a deep breath. "They put you in a cage."

    "What? No, they'd nev--" Fred's hands leaped up to feel her lumpies and fangs. "Oh. Oh god. This is a joke, right? Knox's idea of a really sick joke?"

    "No," Harmony said. She pulled her compact out, opened it, and turned the useless mirror side to face Fred. "And Knox is dead. Like, really dead, not undead."

    "And they didn't put you in here with me?" Fred seemed genuinely shocked...not to mention outraged. Harm felt her stomach lurch. "I've got to be strong enough to kick your hinie, at least."

    "Uh...kinda your sire, remember?" Harmony knew it didn't always work out with the sire being stronger--there were some really ugly memories there--but it was normal, especially after a few years. She thought. "Anyway...I had good reasons. Like you getting erased reasons." She pointed at the sarcophagus, which had been left lying around once Wes had busted the opener-gizmo. "Wesley thanked me."

    "Erased? Killed, you mean, like the mob'd say in 'The Godfather' or something?"

    Harm shook her head. "Worse. There was an all-powerful demon-god-thing in there, and you let it out. It was going to eat your soul and hollow your body out and wear you like a shell so Knox could worship it. Even Angel thinks this is better. Maybe even Gunn...I think." He still hadn't said a word to her since it happened.

    "Oh." Fred sat down hard on the cot. "Wait. How'd you know that? In time to do anything about it, I mean. Because Wesley, he'd have figured out some way to stop it. Megayears before your little stegosaurus brain would have. Whole geologic eras."

    "He didn't. Nobody ever did." Harm watched the wheels turning behind Fred's eyes. "Illyria took over your body and walked around the offices for weeks hassling everybody 'cause her army was already dead and she didn't feel like doing anything but whining about it. She could time travel, and she accidentally left me in the past right after you got infected, and...I stopped it. Before it could happen."

    Fred rubbed her temples, then looked around. "I guess the universe is still here, not that you'd know anything at all about temporal paradoxes. She could travel in time? Seriously?"

    "And control it," Harm added, nodding vigorously. "It was like being in 'The Matrix', or maybe like she was on fast forward. And I think maybe she could talk to plants."

    "And she spent the whole time she was here complaining about her army? What the hell'd somebody like that need with an army?"

    Harmony thought about saying that Illyria seemed to actually care that they were dead--sort of, anyway--then thought better of it. There was something seriously off about Fred's attitude. Well, duh, of course there was. "Wesley broke a crystal off her sarcophagus. The one that opened it. Angel used it to turn off her time powers somehow." Maybe it was about time to go tell someone Fred was up. They must not have been paying attention to the cameras; it was pretty late.

    "Just turn them off?"

    "I dunno...something about it being connected to her, and him being connected to it once he got blood on it. Wes took a crowbar and started whanging on the coffin--something about the markings and having a concussion at intervals--and a piece broke off. That's all I got. Angel never even had to use it again after the first time."

    Fred peered past Harmony at the big coffin thing across the lab. "Right...I don't know the language, but math is math." She pointed at a set of itty-bitty hash marks in the carving--at least, Harmony thought that was what she meant. "Concussive intervals. I get it. And all the crystal did was turn off her powers?"

    Harmony fidgeted with her hair. "I think so. Wes said it was a focal point, whatever that is. He broke it off the coffin right away this time, so if she's back in there no one can accidentally let her out again."

    "Uh-huh." Fred made a few scribbling motions with her finger in the air. "I have the munchies something awful."

    "Follow your nose. Cooler's on the other side of the cot. I brought you some otter." It was a little old, but not really gone bad yet, and she'd figured Fred might need some cheering up.

    Fred sniffed experimentally. "Wow. That's...maybe I should run some tests on the acuity of vampire olfactory senses." She gave Harmony a conspiratorial wink and went to crouch over the cooler. "So this focal point...can I see it?"

    "Wes put it in an airtight sample's in one of the drawers." Fred pulled a thermos out of the cooler, frowned at it a moment, and took an experimental sip. "I guess it can't hurt," Harmony added.

    "Tangy," Fred said as Harm rooted around looking for the right drawer. For a moment one of them resisted--oops, broken lock!--and then popped open, revealing the container.

    "This won't go to my hips, will it?" Fred gestured with the thermos as Harm turned around carrying the bit of sarcophagus bling.

    "Nope," Harmony said, though privately she didn't think it would've hurt Fred's stick of a figure. Anyway, everyone knew otter went to your thighs, not your hips. While she was momentarily distracted, Fred's hand whipped out through the bars and grabbed the sample case from her. "Hey, I really don't think--"

    "You said all it did was turn her powers off, right? Harmless. No big deal." Fred broke the case open, carelessly cutting her hand on the edge. "Oopsie. I mean, that's how you cover up bad stuff all the time, right? Just made a mistake, not your fault there's blood all over the keyboard."

    "Wha-?" She was having trouble following. That thing with the computer really had been an accident!

    One of the bars began to vibrate. Harm could see Fred's hand on it, moving back and forth so fast it blurred. "Oh, you know," Fred said. "Just doing a little experiment on harmonic vibration. You know how, if an army walks across a bridge in step, they can collapse it. Well, not really, and anyway you haven't got a clue what I'm talking about, do you?" The bar began to make a painfully high-pitched twanging noise--then, with a sproing!, snapped loose from the cage. "You never do."

    "Hey! I figured out how to save your butt, missy, and--" Fred climbed out of the cage through the missing bar's space. Okay, not good, not good at all. Maybe everyone was asleep...she should sound the alarm.

    "That's right, you did." Fred was suddenly right up in her face. "For that, you get this." Mmph! Girl spit! Fred had her tongue in Harm's mouth, ew! Fred pulled away with a wink. "Good girl. And for letting them cage me up, not to mention clubbing me in the first place..." The bar came round so fast Harm could swear her skull went CRACK, and--
    Gunn rubbed his eyes. He'd been used to late nights not that long ago, but working at a law firm during the'd sorta thrown him off.

    "Look, mate," Spike started again, "I think she's a sweet girl, and I'm sure as hell not letting anything happen to her on my watch. Go get some shut-eye."

    He'd started to trust Spike a little. That kinda scared him. He turned to look at the vampire. "I get it, Spike. I just...I want to be here. I need to see when she...when..." He wasn't about to bring up what he'd found out about the sarcophagus while Wes was hunting through ancient records. How all of this was his own fault. "When she w--" A siren interrupted him. He hadn't been sure how he was going to finish that anyway. Alarm lights were flashing in the picture of the lab on the security screen. "What the hell?"

    "Security lockdown," the guard muttered. "I didn't see what happened exactly--screen went blurry for a second there--but it's an internal."

    "Harm locked it down?" Spike leaned closer to the monitor. "Oh, bugger." He pointed at a prone figure half-hidden behind a lab table. "That's Harm."

    A blurred figure zoomed past the camera. "Then that must be Illyria," Gunn groaned.
    Harmony's eyes creaked open. That was so totally not fair! There were flashing lights going on and off and a really horribly high-pitched siren shrieking in her ears.

    "Don't bother going for help," Fred said, rushing by with her hands full of bits of wire and stuff. "The lab's on containment lockdown. Nothing gets in or out. And even if you broke the windows...well, just take a look."

    Harmony raised herself up on her elbows. Angel and Spike were standing outside the door--no, they were charging at the door, except they weren't moving at all. A little further back--yeah, there were Wes and Gunn and Lorne not-running after them.

    "I don't know how smart Illyria was," said Fred, "a lot smarter than me, for all I know. But it sounds like she had your imagination, Harm. An army? This one lab's better than any army. I've got biotoxins, satellite death rays--heck, I could build nukes here given a little time. And time? Got plenty. The focal point of Illyria's power, and all Angel could think to do with it was shut her down. By the time they even get to that door, let alone through it, I'll be about ready to...oh, take over the world. For starters."

    "Fred," Harmony tried, getting unsteadily to her hands and knees. That bar'd packed a whallop. "You, um, you don't want to do this..."

    Fred burst into a fit of snorts and giggles. "Hell, Harmony, when have I ever not wanted to do this? I've known since I was five that I had the brains to run things better than 99.99 percent of the politicians on the planet. The only thing I didn't have was the guts. Like I said before I hit you...thanks."

    "And what about the Senior Partners? They won't let you get away with this." Harmony's head was clearing now. She stayed on her knees, though. Looking helpless was good, especially when you were.

    "Them?" Fred waved expansively. "They're outside, just like everyone else. The campaign's gone epic-level, Harm. By the time they know what hit 'em, they'll be shrimp food."

    Harm sprang, leaping from the floor at Fred's throat. She never made it, coming to a halt in mid-air. She stared wide-eyed around at the walls, which still looked like they were rushing past her even though Fred wasn't getting any closer at all.

    "Seriously, Harm. Did somebody drop you on your head when you were a baby? Hmmm." Fred stepped a little closer and put a hand on her chin, pointy finger at the corner of her mouth. Her voice echoed, distorted. "You know, they say vampires don't age. But we get wrinkly. I wonder. Maybe if I made you a million years old--or a billion--you'd just crumble up and blow away. Not to mention, that's a long, looong time to go without eating someone." She took another step, still somehow out of reach. The walls began to move backward now. "Or maybe I can make you younger. I haven't tried running time backwards. You want to be human again? Or I could even just...unmake you, maybe. Say, that'd balance things out, wouldn't it, if you were never born? It'd be just like you stopped Illyria from doing to me. You'd be, well...nothing."

    There was a crash and patter of breaking glass as Angel hurled himself through the door. "Nice distrac--" Spike shouted, before suddenly freezing again in mid-leap. But Harmony was flying forward again; she slammed into Fred as if she'd never stopped moving, and the gem bounced away across the floor. "--tion, Harm!"

    Distraction? She hadn't meant it as a distraction. "Thanks, Blondie-Bear! That jewel! Grab it!" She made a fist. "Um, sorry, Fred." The warning took too long; Fred kicked her off, hard enough that Harmony felt her back hit the ceiling. Gunn, Wesley, and Lorne were all gone; what was up with that?

    "This thing?" Angel asked, holding up the focal stone as she landed near the lab door. "What's it do?" He frowned at it, but nothing at all happened. Maybe it was used up.

    "Nothing," Fred said, snickering, and kicked it out of his hand while his attention was focused on using it. "If you're not connected to it." Crap! Harmony'd forgotten that part. Fred snatched the gem out of midair. Angel lunged at her, but she suddenly wasn't there any more. "You know, I always preferred pointing a crossbow, or a gun or something--or building a machine if I had time." Her fists blurred into motion, pounding at Spike's chest a dozen times or more as he charged; he flew backwards into the wall. "Never realized using your hands could be so much fun."

    Harmony was about to say something--something distracting, she hoped--when a hand closed on her shirt and yanked her backwards. Off-balance, she toppled out the door. Lorne put a finger over his mouth and held up a note: "Wes wants you next door." The demon turned and scurried away in the other direction.
    "Barry Allen," Gunn mumbled. Maybe it was Illyria. Or maybe not. He could've sworn Harmony had said Illyria was blue.

    It didn't matter. See, one thing he remembered from the comics: not even the Flash could move faster than light. Maybe an Old One could break that rule, but he didn't think so. Or at least maybe she wouldn't think to try.

    Lorne poked his head through the door. "Move your butt," Gunn told him. "This thing's not made for one guy to use."

    "Well, I would sure as Tarkna hope not," Lorne said. "And speaking of things Pylean--that's Fred. I'm sure of it. Well--as much as a vampire Fred is Fred. No sign of a tall, blue, and bitchy goddess-thing in her aura."

    It didn't matter. "It's not Fred," Gunn said, examining the controls. He glanced through the window into the next lab; "Fred" was pummeling Angel with kicks from what seemed like three or four angles at once. She didn't seem to be looking his way, not that he'd be able to tell if she stopped the fight in mid-punch and looked around.

    "Wes's working on that," Lorne pointed out.

    "Yeah," he said. "Only maybe he's not in time. Or he can't do it. Or her soul won't fit through the time warps, or something."

    "'re not seriously going to--?"

    "I'm gonna do whatever I have to do. I hope Wes hurries. Now help me target this thing."
    Harmony ducked into Knox's old office, where Wes was arranging candles. He gazed up at her, his eyes tight. "Get over here," he said, gesturing with the hand that held a crystal orb.

    "Wes," she protested, "I can't help with this witchcraft stuff. I'm not magical at--"

    "Of course not," he interrupted her. "Walking corpses have a purely scientific explanation." Ouch! Burn! Okay, maybe he had a point there. "A vampire is a conduit between life and death, Harmony, between this world and the next. Just hold the orb; I believe it will help." She took it, reluctantly. "I assure you--I have no intention of wasting the spell on you." That had an ominous sound.

    Nervously, clearly struggling not to stammer any of the words, Wesley began to chant.
    "Oi!" Spike tried to dodge as Fred drove punches toward his midsection with the speed of a jackhammer. "It's not that bad, luv, a soul. Just hold off a second."

    She picked him up, spun, and slammed him bodily into Angel; they went down in a tangle of limbs. "You sure a moment of perfect happiness won't do anything for you?"

    "Sorry, Fred." Angel picked himself up first this time. "That would be me. Not that Angelus would think of cooperating with you any longer than it took to get your trust." He wrenched a desk loose from the floor and hurled it in her direction; by the time it reached her position, naturally, she'd vanished behind the electron microscope.

    Fred pouted at him mockingly. "Well, the two of you could at least try staying tangled on the floor like that a while. I'd watch, I promise."

    "Swore I'd never get that drunk again, not after Kiev," Spike said from atop a bookcase. Just as Fred decided he was about to leap at her, he sprang backwards, knocking the shelves forward at her.

    She twitched a finger at him from across the room. "Seriously, you two! 'Fess up! Inquiring minds want to know! Not to mention, if you don't quit knocking things around, you're going to hit a beaker full of flesh-eating bacteria or something. That would be bad for business."

    "Fred," Angel said patiently, "even with that gem you can't keep this up forever. It's got to have a limit. I promise I'm not going to let you hide in a hotel room for fifty years, or go off and live in a sewer. Don't make us dust you."

    "Hell," Spike said, "I only stayed in a basement a couple weeks. Angel's just a ponce, that's all. We'll walk you through it."

    Fred studied him. "You're right." She pulled the focus jewel from the pocket she'd placed it in. "This thing must have a limit. Let's find out what it is." The room shuddered, rippled. "'s all the same thing." The walls began to groan.

    At the center of the room a point of light emerged, spherical ripples surrounding it. Flickered...went out...but the ripples remained, drawing individually closer to something now cloaked in shadow, while the formation itself swelled out across the room. Dust and broken fragments of wood and glass rose into the air, falling toward the center.

    "What in bloody buggering hell?" Spike's feet began to lift off the floor; he seized hold of a bolted table and hung on. Angel, too, was rising, being pulled by the...the phenomenon, whatever it was. Fred remained in place, anchored by the gem and the power it focused.

    "Good guess, Spike! Hell. Where I hear Pavayne said you were headed, right? I think it's time the two of you found out what dimension vampires go to when they die." Fred gestured proudly at the portal. "Enjoy your future."

    ...And her head jerked sideways, toward the wall, as if she'd heard something. Now that she wasn't talking, Spike and Angel could hear Wes shout something a second time. The portal collapsed in on itself. Fred gave a little wail and sagged, knees buckling, dropping her to the floor. The gemstone slipped from her hand; Angel began to dash forward after it. "Fred, don't--" At this moment, she might well use it on herself.

    Something like a bolt of lightning burst through the ceiling, followed by an immense thunderclap. The bolt struck Fred full on; there was a secondary flash, like a burst of fire.

    Ashes sifted out of the air. As suddenly as she'd returned, Winifred Burkle was gone.

    Angel tried to inhale. He needed to speak. There were words for this. There had to be. Somewhere across the room he heard Spike make a noise somewhere between a gasp and a sob.

    Gunn staggered into the room, eyes red. "Never thought I'd use that microwave death laser thing. I didn't...he wasn't fast enough, was he? She was going to--"

    Angel's yellow-eyed glare fixed on him. "Wesley was fast enough," he snarled, and for a moment Spike started to move between the two of them. But Angel didn't move. Gunn stood there another second or two and then collapsed against the wall next to the door.

    No one moved. Another minute or two passed before Wesley and Lorne entered, holding a struggling Harmony with difficulty. "I tried," she moaned. "I just tried to help, I didn't want..."

    Gunn leapt to his feet, holding a piece of broken desk. "She's dust." To his astonishment, Wesley placed himself squarely between his makeshift stake and the vampire. "You lost your mind, Wes?"

    "No," Wesley said bleakly. "She speaks the truth....she was trying to help. And we did, at least, succeed in saving Fred's soul. There is that much. We...we won't kill her."

    "We won't?" Angel questioned, his voice raspy with tears.

    She didn't understand.

    She didn't understand why she was here. It didn't make sense, not at all. She didn't belong in this place, not with these people, no way.

    But the pain was fading quickly, now.

    Harmony peered at the shelves, searching. It wasn't here.

    After a few moments, the demon sighed irritably, pulled a light bulb from a higher shelf, and placed it in her hand.

    Maybe it did make sense.

    "I found it, hon! I'll be right up!"

    She did live in California, after all.
    DeadWar: Burden of Proof
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