(Part 2 of 3)
I awoke, slumped across the familiar awkward contours of a couple of pushed-together chairs in my office, to the sounds of arguing and the glare of the sun blazing in through the blinds to penetrate my eyelids. I shifted, raising an arm to cover my face, turning over. A number of aches I'd forgotten about announced their presence.
In many ways, waking up to the music of an argument was something of a relief. Home comforts, if you will. Because I'd been having the strangest dream, and part of me had been expecting to wake up somewhere... not much resembling Kansas at all.
"...to go, Wesley. I mean, what were you thinking of? The one lead we have from this screwed-up business and you have to take him out and vanish for the rest of the evening? Did you even stop to consider that some of us might be waiting back here for you to show up?!"
On the other hand, my very considerable hangover was not finding the volume of the debate any relief at all. "Faith-" I groaned.
She predictably ignored me. "And if that wasn't bad enough, you finally turn up drunk out of your doofus wits and crawl up the steps so that Bat-Doyle here can pass out in the doorway."
I creased my forehead in puzzlement at Faith's uncommonly mild vocabulary, as Wesley protested weakly, "You said all of this last night, Co-"
"And like you were in any fit state to listen? Or remember? I'm gonna keep saying it until it goes in-"
"Faith!" I snapped, sitting up. My jacket, which had been draped over me, slid into an untidy heap on the floor, and the move did a lot less for my head than the shouting, on the whole. The sunlight shone directly into my eyes, dazzling me, and I blinked in the glare for a moment-
-before focusing, with a jolt of alarm, on a woman I'd only seen before in a dream, who emphatically wasn't Faith.
"And you! Doyle... uh... whatever your name is... Doyle," Cordelia snapped, swinging around on me as I leaned on the wall and swayed to my feet, groaning.
My head spun. Finding a sink definitely felt like being the first order of the day.
"I do know exactly whose fault all this was!" she continued mercilessly. "'Cause I know Wesley, and if you know Wesley, even if you don't know Wesley, then you should know he doesn't do this. Right? He doesn't do the broody drinking 'getting-my-sorrows-utterly-wasted' thing. Unlike you, who I also know... kind of.... You just called me Faith... Well suffice to say I know you encouraged him!" She finally paused for a breath and choked on it as full realisation dawned. "You just called me Faith?!"
All this wasn't improving the state of my hangover. I cast a pleading glance at Wesley, who looked as grey as I felt and was trying to sneak out of the office while Cordelia's back was turned.
That woman must've had eyes in the back of her head. Her arm shot out behind her, an accusatory pointing finger on its end. "Don't you dare sneak off! We need you. You're research guy."
Wesley sagged into one of the client chairs lined up neatly beside the door and Cordelia continued ranting at me as though the interruption had never occurred.
"What the hell did you think you were doing? He's on medication - you know that, right? Part of the whole 'being tortured for hours by Psycho-Slayer-Girl' thing. You want to land him in the hospital?"
"Cordelia, I assure you I'm fine-" Wesley attempted to interject, looking slightly freaked out.
She rolled right on over him. "Not to mention the worry. You have no idea how much Angel and I have been trying to make like all sensitive-"
"-not that I don't appreciate your concern-" Wesley said, beginning to look mildly pissy, hangover or no hangover.
"-And you go take him out to get drunk!" Cordelia finished on a screech. "And I'll ask again, did you just call me FAITH!"
Her voice reverberated unpleasantly inside my head, starting up a wrestling match with the residue of last night's binge that was sloshing around in there. That girl was scaring me. I was starting to have very strong suspicions that I'd gotten the calmer, saner, softer deal with 'Psycho Slayer Girl'.
"Uh... sorry?" I tried distractedly. I was going to need that sink very, very soon.
"Cordelia," Wesley said firmly. "Will you please listen?"
He and I both cringed at his volume, but to my surprise, Cordelia turned around, her lips pursed, and in profile the leap of her throat was visible as she swallowed whatever she'd been about to say next.
"Thank you," he sighed. "Doyle is all right. I am all right. Last night, I believe... cleared the air somewhat, in more ways than one. I am very aware that we should at the very least have phoned in to let you and Angel know everything was all right, and I apologise for any concern we caused you. Now, I think..." He frowned at me. "You are all right, aren't you?"
Shaking my head frantically, I bolted out of the door.
Angel was still moaning while pulling on his clean shirt as we got out of the elevator. "I mean, this is sixty-percent silk. Do you know how long it takes to get stains out?"
"Are you like this because of the soul thing?" I snapped back. Hungover and all, I didn't much feel like playing nice with the cuddly vampire. "Because I never met a prissy vamp before and, y'know, if this is part of what makes you 'special', I think I prefer the bloodsucking variety."
He looked taken aback, then offended, then defensive. "Well, actually, Angelus-"
I tuned out the rest. We were approaching reception, and I could hear Cordelia and Wesley in the middle of another full-fledged round of name-calling that was descending into truly schoolyard-esque territory. My head started thudding anew, and I longed for Wesley and Faith's friendly debates, even with the possibility of violence that tended to skirt around them. I couldn't actually envision Cordelia picking Wesley up and hurling him through a window if he pushed her that little bit too far.
"... and it's such a pity that it's demons we investigate and not the exhaustive variety of badly-applied highlights available cheap in LA," Wesley griped, "Because then maybe you'd actually contribute more to this agency than bad coffee and indecipherable filing."
Then again, you never knew. I didn't particularly like the way Cordelia's eyes had narrowed.
"Kids," Angel said, still sounding pissy about the shirt as he tucked the new one into his waistband. "We have a case." He pointed at me without looking my way.
"What side of the coffin did you get out of this morning?" Cordelia shot back.
"Well, excuse me, but it's difficult to stay cheerful after being projectile vomited on by a half-demon trying to break the land-speed record on the stairs." He glared around at the three of us, then a very particular irritation settled across his face and he returned to Cordelia, "And can we lose the coffin jokes?"
She was too busy smirking to pay much attention. "Ah. More sufferage of the Dark Avenger wardrobe," she said sagely, and stage-whispered to me. "Would you credit it? And this is a guy who can't actually see his own reflection."
"It's the Soul Thing, right?" I asked.
She scrunched up her face. "I think it's the Angel Thing. Hey, have you seen his car?"
Angel slammed a file down on the desk, making Cordelia and Wesley jump and my hangover do acrobatics. "Case. Doyle. Faith. Wolfram and Hart. Some aspects of which might be urgent. Guys?"
With that, all possibility for the joking around vanished. Cordelia's expression took on a seriousness I wouldn't have thought possible, and Wesley sagged into a chair and frowned intently at the pages of an open book. Of course, at the mention of Faith, my reaction wasn't much different. She could be in danger, and here I was joking around with vamp-man, his cheerleader secretary and an amnesiac, beat-up Wes.
"Right. First we need to know everything you remember from the spell that transported you to when we met you yesterday," Angel said. He picked up a notebook and pen from the desk, but handed them to Cordelia, who looked annoyed.
"Wrong. First we need to get to Faith and warn her," I said. Damn it, she could have been in danger last night, and I'd gone out and gotten drunk with Wesley. This screwed-up universe was doing a weird job on my priorities. "In fact, they could have got to her by now and we wouldn't know." In alarm, I started towards the door.
Angel's hand gripped my arm. Painfully. "We have these nifty things here in this universe. They're called 'telephones'. Maybe you have them in yours?"
Cordelia muttered something about that being a pearl beyond price from a man who couldn't answer his cellphone.
I nodded. "You call."
The first number he tried, nobody was picking up, and he frowned and rang the prison direct. After about half an hour of red tape he got onto someone who was prepared to answer his questions and take seriously his warning that one of their inmates might be in danger from a contract taken out on her life.
By that time, Cordelia was pacing the office, having dumped the notebook and pen in front of Wesley, who in turn was dozing across the table with his head rested on his arms.
Angel was still talking when Cordelia suddenly stopped. "Oh my God," she said, squinting through the glass to the hallway outside the office.
"I think there's somebody standing out there." Her voice was hushed with awed amazement. "I think that's... oh, my God. I think we've got a client."
"Client, huh?" I said, impressed. "I vaguely remember we had those, once or twice."
"And you know what that means? Head-splitting-vision free client... we get to charge."
She was already bouncing her way to the door to snag whoever the poor soul outside was before they wised up and left.
Cordelia's exuberance didn't last long - in fact, when she shepherded the client back inside her face was so sombre her previous cheer might never have existed. It didn't take much figuring out why.
The woman would normally have been pretty, but someone or something had given her a real working over. Bruises and an intricate network of small cuts marred her visible skin. A couple of spots of blood on her clothing hinted at who-knew how much more damage underneath.
"Guys." Cordelia had a sensitive-voice. The revelation could've floored me, except the next instant I saw her fashionably-clad foot connect, hard and surreptitiously, with Wesley's ankle. Wes snorted awake with an exclamation and Angel set down the phone as Cordelia continued, meaningfully, "This is Miriam. She's come to us for help."
"Miriam Welsh," the woman supplied, looking nervous and jittery. "I've heard you handle unusual cases - things that maybe most people wouldn't believe?"
Angel's expression went through a variety of contortions in its attempts to avoid looking cross, and eventually settled into something vaguely neutral. His eyes flickered around myself, Wesley and Cordelia.
"That's right," he said finally, his decision evidently falling on the side of not telling a severely beat-up woman clearly in dire need of aid to come back later when it was more convenient. He quickly stood and surrendered his chair, guided her into it with astonishing gentleness, sliding the loose jacket she was wearing from her shoulders.
"Of course." Wesley was already rising to his feet. He exited, in shambling, difficult steps. A moment later, coffee-making sounds were emanating from the next room.
Cordelia sat down in his place and leaned across the desk to place her hand sympathetically on Miriam's. "Don't worry," she said. "We're here now to help. Whoever it is that's after you, we'll sort them out."
Since Cordelia had put the machine on not long ago, it was only a minute or two before Wesley returned carrying a tray somewhat shakily.
A faint guilty look flickered across Angel's face and he quickly took the tray. I remembered Wesley complaining about Faith making various incisions in his right arm with a piece of broken glass and winced. Cordelia caught on a second later and leaped up out of the chair to allow Wesley to sit down again. He made a few faint protests but gave in when her expression turned from compassionate to irritated.
Miriam looked at Wesley with wide, shock-glazed eyes. The two of them exchanged sympathetic winces. They did kind of have a look of bookends about them, battered figures framing Angel's desk.
"You work here?" she asked him hesitantly, sipping the coffee Angel placed in her hand. "I mean, when I walked in - I thought you were here as a client." She suppressed a laugh.
"No, no... our last case got a little rough," Wesley reassured evasively.
"See. Angel Investigations, you can rely on us for dedication," Cordelia said chirpily. "Right down to the actual-physical-wounding and the migraines-from-hell." Everyone gave her odd looks and she rolled her eyes. "Okay, well. This is Wesley. That's Angel, the boss. I'm Cordelia. Oh, and that's Doyle - and he is a client. Sort of. But he used to work here - sort of - so it's totally okay to talk in front of him."
Angel cleared his throat and cut in. "Miss Welsh. I realise this might not be easy for you to talk about, but you must tell us what happened so that we can help you. Who did this to you?"
She blushed and averted her gaze. "It's - it's Mrs Welsh. Well, not really. I still use Mrs, but my husband, Jeremy - he's dead. He's been dead four years. And - he did this to me." She spread out her arms with all their cuts and bruises, gazing at them as though it was the first time she'd seen them. And she burst into tears.
Cordelia was on her knees next to her chair, offering physical support with the air of someone who'd done this before, her abrasive personality set aside, and Wesley was predictably extending a pressed, clean handkerchief. Angel was sitting on the edge of the desk, looking a little lost but nonetheless determined to help.
I kept back out of the way. It wouldn't help to crowd the poor gal, and I was intrigued, watching them work together, figuring out the dynamics between them.
"It wasn't long after his death," she said in between sobs, "that I began to have this feeling - this sense that someone was watching over me. It was wonderful and comforting, to think that he wasn't gone completely. I thought maybe I could-" She broke off a moment. "If things had stayed that way, it would have been fine. But I can't make a life for myself with a ghost. It's taken me years to try to move on, to commit to another relationship and a man that means anything to me again - a couple of flings in the meantime that went nowhere, there was some unrest about those. I could tell he wasn't happy, didn't want me to move on from him. But it was nothing like this time...
"We were having dinner at his apartment. He's called Ben. Benjamin. He runs a cafeteria. He's such a sweet man."
She broke down again, and it took her longer, this time, to recover and go on. "The windows in his apartment, they just shattered inwards. There was flying glass everywhere, and other things were hurled around the room - hurled at us both. He's in intensive care. They said there's a good chance he'll be all right."
"Oh, my God," said Cordelia breathlessly. "I'm so sorry."
Miriam showed her a cellphone, and I realised she'd been gripping it since she walked through the door. "I'm waiting for a call. I should be at his side, but - what's the use in him getting better, if it's going to happen again? He's in danger so long as I'm near him. I have to stop it now. I hoped - I realise it's a strange request, but I hoped you'd be able to do something."
"We can do something," Cordelia said firmly. "We can completely do something. We've handled ghosts before."
"Right." Angel was nodding, but there was still a trace of indecision in his eyes. He looked at me and Wesley. "If you could stay with Cordelia a moment, there's something I need to discuss with my associates. Please excuse us."
"All right," she said, nodding hollowly. Looking a little afraid. Well... that was definitely understandable.
Angel drew us outside into the hallway, where Wesley leaned on the window, looking pasty and ill in the little sunlight that was filtering through and Angel lurked at the side of the window in the darkest corner. I sat on the top step.
"Guys," the vampire said. "I know... we have other stuff at the moment. I don't want to... can't turn her away. But I can't make this decision. You both have a say in this too. Faith's all right for now, and we've warned the prison authorities. I'm not sure there's much else we can do there. There are visiting hours this evening. Maybe we'll be finished in time to go, or at least some of us could go."
"I'm not sure why you're asking me," Wesley said. "I should think I have very little bearing on Faith's welfare."
"You were her Watcher. You should have a say."
Wesley's eyes narrowed and he looked like he'd swallowed a mouthful of bees, but I could tell that Angel really was trying to be considerate. He fluttered a hand dismissively. "I agree with you. Ms Welsh's case should take precedence." He slumped back against the window, practically asleep on his feet.
Angel looked at me. I gulped. This wasn't easy.
"We shouldn't be standin' here jawin'," I said sharply, turning my face so he couldn't read it. "Not when we've got a jealous ghost to exorcise."
"You don't have to do anything. This isn't your world, you don't belong here. You haven't had a vision. You've no obligation to help Miriam Welsh. And Faith-"
I stood up, angrily rounding on him. I'd made my decision, and the last thing I needed was Mr-Soulful-Vamp talking me out of it when I was trying to be selfless. Faith could die. But so could Miriam, and...
"This doll's dead boyfriend's on the verge of killin' her," I snapped. "Faith at least can defend herself. This gal has no chance except us - you. You aren't the only one who helps people. I have my own investment in this 'Helping the Helpless' gig."
I glared at Angel. I was expecting - if not argument, some rebuke for my temper. Instead, he reached out and set a hand on my shoulder.
The kind of gesture you'd only get between two friends who'd lived and lost and fought side by side.
"Doyle," he said, and nothing else. It was an affirmation.
And he smiled. A brilliant, real smile that lit up his sombre face, a smile that went right down to the soul.
Me, I resisted the impulse to squirm out from under his hand, and tried to quash any giveaway signs of how his touch made my skin crawl.
We emerged from the hallway in an awkward procession, heralded by Cordelia's brilliant smile and the words, "We've decided to take your case. Cash or account?"
Ms Welsh looked relieved to concentrate on something as mundane as payment. "Cash, if that's all right."
Cordelia's grin threatened to remove her head, but Angel stepped hastily in before the words "hourly rate" could cross her lips. "Cordelia, Doyle, if you'd get the equipment from downstairs? Wes, can you dig up a ritual format?"
Cordelia looked decidedly sullen. I couldn't blame her. If Angel's firm ran anything like mine, a client willing to pay cash was of far more excitement and interest than any run-of-the-mill magic spell.
But somewhat to my surprise, she swallowed the blistering response that was obviously brewing in her eyes, and grabbed my arm, ignoring the buzz of static that seemed to flare up every time we touched. Admittedly, her nails were drawing blood as she pulled me after her down the stairs, and I could swear my supernaturally sensitive ears were picking up the sound of her teeth grinding, but the thought was there.
Thankfully she let go of my arm midway down, apparently deciding that there was no chance of my getting lost in a simple stairwell (the fact that I walked up and down its alternate-reality sibling ten times a day notwithstanding).
Back down in my - in Angel's apartment she stalked across the living room and into the bedroom. I followed cautiously, taking the time to observe fully the changes the vampire had made.
No, ‘changes' was the wrong word, wasn't it? I had never lived in this place, never slumped with Faith on the couch to watch wrestling on a TV that wasn't there, never shared a pot of tea with Wesley while sitting at a table that was now across the room, or fought Spike on the floor now covered with an expensive rug.
Sure, some other version of me had probably lounged on Angel's chairs, chatted to him, raided his fridge for any fluids that weren't blood, but not me.
I shook off the chill that seemed to have crept up my spine without my noticing, and followed Cordelia into Angel's bedroom. She was over by his closet, pulling out clothing and boxes with the abandon of someone who has absolutely no intention of cleaning after herself. I glanced inside. Angel's wardrobe choices were not unexpected. Black featured heavily, though the surprise appearance of a pair of leather pants left me longing frantically for a less vivid imagination.
"Gotcha!" The pants were flung to one side, as Cordelia hunkered down and dragged out a largish cardboard box, filled with foul-smelling herbs and bottles that didn't look anywhere near as pleasant as the ones with which I normally associated.
I stared dubiously at the over-filled box and wrinkled my nose in disgust. "Do this often, do you?"
Cordelia shrugged. "We still have some leftovers from the last cleansing spell we did. You - uh, the other you got it from one of your dodgy demon buddies or something."
That would be Rick Stanz, I figured. Unless Rick was his bizarre double or something, and had become a small-town preacher in Nowhere, Iowa. Knowing Rick, I felt that unlikely.
But then again, I thought I knew Faith.
Hastily squashing that particular train of thought, I picked up the box, bringing all those nasty smells even closer to my suffering nose. "So what'd you cleanse that time?"
I couldn't resist it. "Couldn't you just invest in a hoover or somethin'?"
Predictably, Cordelia was unamused. "Ha-ha. I was hoping that, being Bizarro Doyle and all, you'd actually have grown a sense of humour. So sad I was wrong."
She headed back up the stairs at speed, without much respect for my own over-burdened gait. Crabwise, I half-climbed, half-staggered after her, trying not to spill foul-smelling ritual liquids all over my shirt. "So how'd that work out for you, anyways? Get rid of your ghost?"
"Actually, no," she called over her shoulder. "He's my roommate."
I nearly dropped the box on my feet.
By the time I crawled up the stairs, Angel and Wes were deep in some discussion on rituals, and Cordy was over by Miriam Welsh. She flashed me a "what took you so long?" look.
I tried to respond with a "well, I was climbing up a flight of stairs in the dark carrying a huge box and being guided by a crazy woman who lives with a dead person!" look. Unfortunately, I don't really think all the subtleties came across correctly.
"Doyle," Angel said, with too much warmth for my comfort. "We were waiting on you. Wes and I have worked out a ritual, and we're good to go." He turned to our - their client. "Ms Welsh. We're ready to go when you are."
Something began to niggle at the back of my mind.
Mrs Welsch nodded in a vague way. "You won't hurt him, will you? He was always very gentle and kind to me...you know, before, when we were...he was - "
"Don't worry," Wesley assured her. "An exorcism may seem extreme, but it isn't really. It's just a way of...easing the spirit on to wherever it's going. A bit like a birth, really. A lot of noise and stress, but everyone's the better for it. It was the blasted film that gave everything such a terrible reputation."
"Actually, I thought it was quite realis - " Everybody looked at Angel, who turned the rest of the sentence into a cough. From a man who didn't breathe. Yeah, real convincing. "So let's go, shall we?"
The three of them began to herd Mrs Welsh towards the door. I started to clear my throat.
"Doyle!" Cordy snapped. "Move your heinie!"
"Where to?" I retorted.
She frowned. "To Miriam's apartment, nitwit. Haven't you been listening to anything we've been saying?"
"Oh, really. To Miriam's apartment, huh? Why exactly are we goin' there, when she was attacked at the boyfriend's place?"
There was a quiet moment. "No," Cordy said. "She was attacked at her - "
"No, she wasn't," Angel cut her off, glancing sheepishly at the pad of notes.
Everyone looked at Miriam, who nodded. "We were having dinner at Ben's."
"An' didn't you say you'd felt his presence around you a lot?" I asked. "Before you even met Ben. So why exactly would the ghost be hauntin' his apartment?"
"I-I don't know," Miriam said, looking somewhat confused.
I glanced at the flushed figures standing beside her (except, of course, for Angel, who was still pretty damn pale.) "Jeez. An' you call yourselves detectives," I said, not without a trace of smugness.
"All right," Wesley said. "So it's a haunting located around a person, not a location. Around Miriam. That doesn't change the ritual to any great degree - "
" - except that we have to make it manifest somehow," Angel said, those already-oversized brows of his furrowing. "We need the spirit fully present here for the spell to work."
"So how are we gonna get it here?" Cordy asked. "Send a Spirit-O-Gram?"
"Piece of cake."
They all looked dubiously at me. "It is?" Angel asked.
I smirked. "Uh-huh. This ghost's basically just your average over-protective husband, right? Well, I know what'd piss me off royally if I had a wife who looked as pretty as Miriam..."
"Oh, come on," Cordelia pleaded. "Don't be so immature about this."
"She's really cute..."
Cordy changed tack. "Angel, she's a poor, innocent woman being tormented by her dead husband! She needs this."
"Angeeeel. She's willing to pay cash."
"Cordelia, I said no," Angel ground out. "I am not going to make out with our client so the ghost of her husband will appear and try to kill me. It's not happening." His eyes flicked over to Miriam, who was sitting in embarrassed silence in her seat at the far corner of the office, while the four of us clustered at the other end. We'd been trying to keep it quiet, but that last remark had obviously come out louder than he had intended.
That route was obviously closed, so Cordelia locked onto another target. Unfortunately, it was me.
I had difficulty breathing, trapped in the merciless spotlight of her eyes. "Are you crazy? Faith would kill me!"
She rolled her eyes. "Doyle, she's in another dimension or something. She'd never know."
"You think I want to take the risk?" I said, trying to keep it light. "Especially now I've heard what she's capable of?"
And that was the wrong thing to say. Everybody looked at Wesley, who looked out of the window.
For my part, I wasn't really sure why I'd said it. It certainly wasn't a serious comment, but there was nevertheless no chance on earth I was betraying Faith. It didn't matter that she might never know, that she routinely flirted with men in front of me at clubs and parties, or practically tore their clothes off them on the dance floor if I was too tired to dance with her. That's just her way. Faith will be...Faith, I guess.
And I'm me. And Allan Francis Doyle never cheats on his lady. No matter what.
I gradually became aware that Cordelia's sympathetic gaze at Wesley had become distinctly more...speculative.
Miriam appeared surprisingly unconcerned about the whole thing. She sat demurely at the desk we had converted into a dinner table, poking at the weeks-old microwave dinner Angel had dug up from the last time he'd had guests - a long time ago, by the smell.
By contrast, Wesley looked about ready to die. Seated opposite her, he was sweating with a fervour that suggested the candles Cordelia had scrounged were considerably warmer than might appear. His voice, when he spoke, was thin and strained like a man who couldn't breathe properly.
If that was how he was on real dates, I wasn't surprised the man never got any.
We kept a safe distance from our little staged romance, in an attempt to try to make it less awkward than it absolutely had to be. Evidently, we had failed.
Wesley and Angel had decided on a Shamanic variant of exorcism, so as to get around Angel's crucifix issues. As a result, Angel was hunched over a messy-looking array of pastes and herbs, smearing sacred symbols onto his forehead with the logical hesitancy of a man who can't see his own reflection.
Cordy and I sat near him, ostensibly helping. Instead, we kibitzed about nothing in particular and Cordelia gave Angel occasional tips about how she usually applied makeup. They didn't go down well.
"So, about this spectral roomie of yours," I said. "How's that workin' out for you?"
Cordelia smiled warmly. "Oh, Dennis and I get along great. He takes care of all the house-cleaning and stuff, and I just hang around and...you know, live there."
It sounded to me like she'd found herself live-in help for free. That's pretty impressive in Los Angeles, even if the live-in help isn't technically alive.
"Must save on food bills," I commented.
"Well, yeah, though Dennis doesn't exactly pay rent. I was wondering if I could find a way to write him off to the IRS as a dependent, since that would really - "
The sound of breaking glass interrupted her, and we both tensed, turning to face the table again.
"S-sorry," Wesley apologised guiltily, indicating the broken wine glass on the floor with an ineffectual wave of his hand.
Cordy rolled her eyes. "God, that man is so wet."
"I don't know..." I said thoughtfully. "Is it just me, or is Mrs Welsh enjoyin' herself a little bit more than you'd expect?"
She stared intently at the couple. Sure enough, Miriam was smiling at Wesley as she helped him to pick up the broken shards, warmly dismissing his apologies. "Wow. You know, I think you could be onto something there..."
I shrugged. "I don't get it. I mean, what is attractive about that?"
That was Wesley forgetting this was just a staged meal and taking a bite of his prehistoric microwave dinner, then gagging and fumbling desperately for Miriam's wine glass, which he knocked over too.
"I guess every girl wants a guy with class," Cordelia said. "And Wesley does ooze that. Even if he also oozes poor, desperate and boring. Heck, I had a crush on him once."
That little tidbit gave me some pause. "You? What happened?"
She laughed. "He's a terrible kisser. I mean, really, really apocalyptically bad."
"Ah," I said, filing that away for potential use when I got back home. Then something else gave me pause. "So you've kissed Wesley. And you kissed the other me. Any other co-workers you've been smooching?"
Both our gazes shifted inexorably to Angel, who looked up, his face smeared with garish green-and-purple paste. "What?" he asked.
"...God, no." Cordelia shuddered. The sound of breaking glass dragged us both back from that Dark Mental Cave. "Wesley, do we have to buy Styrofoam cu - "
"Cordelia," I cut her off. Both Wesley and Miriam stared at us, their faces frightened and pale. On Cordelia's desk, a good ten metres away, a vase had shattered on the floor.
Angel's eyes searched the room behind their mask of grease. "Anybody see anything?"
"How can we see anything?" Cordelia retorted. "It's a ghost."
"It could just have been a breeze," Wesley offered.
"Only one way to find out," I suggested. "Let's turn up the heat. Uh, metaphorically speakin'."
"Angel?" Wes said plaintively.
Wesley leaned towards Miriam, who shifted uncomfortably in her seat, and pecked her on the cheek. He hastily retreated as if her skin had burned him, and we all scanned the room again. Everything was still. Angel rose to his feet, holding the sheet of paper with the incantation on it. "Try again."
Wes swallowed and smiled weakly at Miriam. "Once more unto the breach, yes?"
She smiled nervously back, and Wesley leaned in for another peck. I wasn't sure if Wesley veered off-course, or if she turned her head at the last minute, but the ensuing kiss was no peck. It was long and enthusiastic.
Angel and I both averted our eyes. Cordelia stared critically ahead. "He's been practicing," she observed.
Wesley and Miriam finally broke it off. "Did you feel that, too?" he said breathlessly.
"I guess the Earth moved," I said wryly.
He flushed, and started to respond, when the entire table shifted in front of him, spilling what was left of the cutlery as it began to tremble violently. "Angel..."
Angel took his cue, starting to speak. It sounded like meaningless gibberish to me, and evidently the ghost felt much the same way, since the table just began to shake more furiously. With a crash, one of the filing cabinets leapt forward and fell to the floor. Miriam flinched at the loud noise, her eyes misting with tears. "Jeremy..." she whispered. "Please don't be angry...Jeremy!"
The name became a scream as the door to the office swung open so violently that the glass in its window cracked. The entire office was shaking now, papers spinning off desks into the air as cold wind tore through the rooms.
Angel continued to chant, the papers forming a funnel around him as the wind raged on and the lights swung from the ceiling. The wind's voice seemed to rise to challenge the vampire's own as he screamed the final words of the spell.
And nothing happened. The wind tore the incantation from his hand and shredded it. Angel stood there, dumbfounded.
"Angel..." Wesley repeated nervously, barely audible above the raging wind. "What's - " The rest of the sentence was choked from him as the wind seemed to lose interest in Angel and swept towards him, carrying with it most of Angel Investigations' case files. "Angel!" he shouted, squinting in the wind as papers spun about him, slapping against his head and shoulders. He appeared to be struggling to get out of the chair, but something held him firmly. Miriam's fork leapt from the table stabbed down at the seat of his chair, thudding into the wood between his legs.
"Angel!" The cry was considerably higher and more panicked now. Angel began to struggle towards Wesley, the wind slamming into him, impeding his progress.
"Stay here!" I snarled at Cordelia, my jacket flailing about me as I staggered towards Wesley as well. The wind stung my skin and smashed my torso like a flurry of punches.
"Doyle!" she yelled, her voice cracking with fear. "Wait!"
I glanced back at her, and saw her staring in horror at the desk we had been sitting on. A loud rattling was coming from it as if something was trying to tear itself loose. "What?"
"We - we keep some spare weapons in there. Stakes...knives."
I frowned. The roaring wind was a distraction, making it hard to think. "Huh?"
"Doyle - it's not locked."
I spun around and screamed at Angel. "We need to get the hell outta here!"
He nodded, almost at Wesley's private tornado of paper, and then bobbed his head to the side. I caught his meaning. Miriam was on her hands and knees, trying desperately to crawl towards the door, sobbing and screaming as the wind ripped through her long hair, effectively blinding her with the long locks.
I turned and grabbed Cordelia by the arm. "Come on!" Pulling her after me, and gritting my teeth against the weird static buzz which was the least of our problems at the moment, I staggered through the hurricane that the office had become.
One step. Two steps. I was literally bent into the wind, straining with every muscle to advance. Three steps.
A fourth. I was at Miriam now, and I pulled her to her feet. "Jeremy...Jeremy, please forgive..." she whispered, her voice hoarse from screaming. Dragging both Cordelia and Miriam after me, I lurched forward, reached the open door. Shoved them out into the calm and quiet of the passageway beyond.
I turned back, clinging to the doorframe, as Angel and Wesley struggled towards me. The vampire was practically carrying Wes, shielding him from the rage of the storm with his own body. Despite that, something struck Wes's head hard and he lolled against Angel's shoulder. I stretched out a hand towards them. Angel looked up - and stopped, his eyes wide.
"Come on," I snarled, standing in the doorway as wind whipped around me. "Come on, damn you!"
Then I felt the warmth of the sun on my back, and understood.
Angel took another step towards me, his skin starting to smoke. "Take Wesley!" he yelled. "I'll be all right!"
I stared at the vampire's face, screwed up in pain, as he took another step towards the deadly, sun-lit exit. My enemy, by his nature. My friend, by the actions of another me.
As my old adversary Spike might say, bugger this for a lark.
I stepped away from the doorway. Uncomprehending, Angel offered Wesley to me, but I pushed past both of them into the centre of the room.
The first thought I had, as I hit the full force of the storm, of the worst Jeremy Welsh had to give, was grudgingly admiring: How the hell did that bastard carry Wesley through this?
And then there was no more room for thought. A pot plant flung itself at me, smashing itself into my face, and I crashed to the ground in demon form. The uncompromising way the wind pushed down on me let me know I wasn't getting up again. So I crawled. I crawled, inch by inch, as the wind screamed and spun around me, along the floor of office. Towards the coat hooks at the far end.
In my world, it might hold one of my worn jackets, one of Wesley's neatly-pressed blazers or one of Faith's shiny leather numbers. Here, now, it held the only thing that could keep Angel alive.
A long, dark coat.
I managed to grab onto the tail of the coat, which, like everything else in the room, was flailing around crazily. Using it as a support, I pulled myself to my feet and leaned against the wall.
I remained there for a moment, looking across the room at Angel, Wesley still cradled in his arms. I looked into his eyes and saw trust there. Absolute trust in his dead friend Doyle, that Doyle would make it through everything with a smile and ready joke.
At that point, the entire matter of what I thought of Angel became pretty much irrelevant. There was no way I was going to let the memory of this poor, dead version of me down. It didn't matter if he really was as heroic as they had painted him to be (and knowing myself, I was pretty damn sure he wasn't), I was the next best thing.
And I wasn't going to die at the invisible hands of some jilted, dead lover of some woman I hardly knew. Because I was needed at home, in my real home, and because these people would break like glass if they saw their friend die a second time.
I still don't remember crossing the room to get to the door. I think I blacked out (either that, or Angel's coat just wrapped itself around my head), but the next thing I knew, I was at the door, flinging myself into Angel and throwing the coat over both him and Wesley as we crashed down into the sunlight.
We huddled into the shelter of the stairwell, four warm bodies and one cold one pressed awkwardly into the small space, and struggled to regain control of our breathing while objects thudded against the door that a coat-wrapped Angel and myself strove to hold closed. An irritated breeze raced around the hallway and slapped at us but, lacking any loose objects to hurl, it wasn't so much of a problem.
Gradually, it died down.
"That went well," I ventured sarcastically when things had subsided enough for speech. Apparently nobody deemed the comment deserving of an answer.
"Everyone okay? How's Wesley?" asked Angel's muffled voice from beneath the coat.
Cordelia, tucked in a corner beside the unconscious watcher, raised her head. "I think he'll be all right. I can't see any marks, so I guess he just fainted." She looked like she bit off a joke; instead she cast a thoroughly wasted glare at Angel, who in his current circumstances stood not the slightest chance of actually seeing it. "Great job with putting the walking hospital case in the line of fire, Mr. 'I couldn't possibly smooch up with a woman who's not blonde'."
Miriam stirred, moving to grasp Wesley's face in her hands. She gently tried to slap him awake, attempting - impossibly - to avoid bruises. "Hey, guy?" she encouraged. "Wes?" She looked at the rest of us for confirmation on her shortening of his name, and I saw the guilt in her face.
Wesley groaned. "I don't want to go to school..." He blinked fully awake. "Ah. Um..."
"Jeeze, Wesley," Cordelia said. "You're having just the most suck week, huh?"
"I shouldn't have let you take the risk." The coat shifted frustratedly, then slumped back, restrained by the sun. "It's my fault. I should have done it. I let you get hurt - again."
"Oh, do shut up," Wesley said, weakly but with a discernable snap. "I'm perfectly capable of making my own decisions, Angel. Please do me the courtesy of acknowledging that."
I couldn't decipher the answering mumble that came from the depths of the black leather.
Cordelia tottered up on her heels, prodded at the door, and doubtfully enquired of the world in general, "You think it's safe to go back in?"
I seemed the obvious choice to make the cautious foray. A few pieces of furniture rattled irately, but the actual danger seemed to have passed. Leaving the weapons as they were, blades jammed deep into the office side of the door, we helped each other back inside and settled in the office to contemplate our bruises. Cordelia made coffee, compounding the misery of the little scene.
"Okay, so it didn't work," Angel said presently. "So, how come? Why didn't it work?"
Sagged in his seat looking grey, Wesley nonetheless managed to muster his customary spiel of academia. "Clearly Miriam herself is not the centre of the haunting as previously deduced. We need to find the real centre, wherever it might be, and perform the ritual over it for it to take effect."
"But, where? As we've seen, wherever the centre is, the spirit's not bound to it in the manner we might normally anticipate. How can we tell?" Angel looked to be sinking into a fairly practised state of gloom.
Cordelia agreed with him, albeit with a roll of her eyes. "Yeah. How many goes is it gonna take to get this right? Are we going to have to get old Jeremy riled enough to be putting serious effort into killing us dead in order to perform the ritual every time we try?"
"I very much fear so." Wesley sagged even further into the chair. "Luckily - if that's the right word - I did make another copy of the ritual." He flapped his hand towards a piece of paper Angel picked up and frowned sourly at.
"Uh, maybe I could-" I started, figuring that, Wesley having been nearly killed once already, Faith would understand. Probably.
"No," Angel said quickly. "If anyone's taking on the role of a target for this spirit's rage again, it's going to be me."
Cordelia made a disgusted "pffft" sound.
"Vampire. Immortal. Supernatural healing," Angel insisted.
"Yeah. Apart from the fact all Jerry has to do is shove you out into the sunlight and you're flames and dust."
Angel's expression, however, brooked no argument. He stuffed the paper into a pocket of his jacket.
Miriam had been watching the proceedings with quiet guilt, and now she spoke up, almost in tears. "I don't understand it. Jeremy - he was a good man, a good person. He was never violent, wouldn't ever hurt anyone. Why would he be doing this?"
Rearranging his limbs with leaden effort, Wesley leaned forward, returning to some semblance of life. He extended a hand he stopped just shy of resting on her knee in a gesture of comfort, at least until Miriam moved her knee to complete the contact. Wesley swallowed but managed not to withdraw his hand. "The spirit may not understand too much of what's happening. It may only be the smallest remnant of your husband, trapped on this plane, reacting by instinct and habit. Habit is a powerful force, Ms. Welsh."
He patted her knee, smiled tightly, and moved to beat a polite retreat.
The cup of congealing coffee he'd rested on the floor next to his feet exploded, peppering shards of glass and splashing lukewarm liquid to the furthest corners of the room.
"Oh, hell," said Cordelia.
"We have to get out of here." Angel was on his feet, reaching again for the black coat. "We need to perform that ritual properly and get rid of this spirit before someone dies. Wes, the spirit's centre - place of death?"
He nodded. "It's a strong possibility."
"Then we're going. Cordelia-" Angel threw something across to her, and when she snatched it from the air with an "eep!" of excitement I saw it was a set of car keys. "Go get the engine started." An unbroken window rattled ominously. "Run."
She left, at warp speed or thereabouts. The grin on her face and the enthusiasm with which her fist clutched around those keys suggested it wasn't entirely the impending danger that powered her haste.
The rest of us followed, progress impeded by Wesley and Miriam's weakened states and Angel's bundled state. Which left me as the one fending off hurled objects and bolstering the others up against the occasional especially vicious blast of supernatural ire.
Outside, the engine was running and the hood was up. We piled into the car, me slipping in the front next to a Cordelia grinning maniacally behind the wheel, Wesley and Miriam on either side of Angel in the back, shielding him as best they could.
The car looked decidedly familiar. Given the various rather more critical distractions, it didn't seem the time to devote too much thought to that. But I couldn't resist musing aloud about the wisdom of a vampire driving a convertible.
"Go figure," Cordelia said.
The convertible shot forward under her guiding hands, and she nearly sent us straight up onto the pavement and through the side of a nearby building as the windscreen wipers went haywire like they were trying to beat through the glass to get to us.
I was abruptly very, very afraid - and the ghost had little to do with it.
I couldn't help but notice how the mood of our little party deteriorated as the journey progressed, the distraction of Cordelia's dismal driving aside. She and Angel were the major culprits, grimness settling around both their shoulders in a manner even I, having known her just over a day, could tell was unusual for the former. There was something about their depression that was subtly different to Wesley's battered worry and Miriam's guilt, and it intensified as we drove further into the docklands district, with its derelict buildings and dingy, near-empty streets where warehouses shadowed out the sun.
Cordelia, tight-lipped and pale behind the wheel, must've noticed my confusion, and gave me a rather freaked glance-over before saying, "It was close to here that you... that..."
"Where Doyle died," Angel supplied from the back.
It was the most peculiar of feelings that struck me as those words registered, like I was walking over my own grave and echoing hollow, loud footsteps through the topsoil.
I suppose it should've been a comfort to know that at least an alternate version of me had had people who cared this much over his passing. But mostly it freaked me out, just as much as it did Cordelia to have me here, now, with them.
I thought about Wesley and Faith again. About arguing with them the last time... I looked in the rear-view mirror at the bruised guy sitting in back next to the space that was Angel, crumpled suit and sagged depression. Getting fired seemed to have knocked all the starch out of him. My eyes on mirror-Wes, I found myself missing the starch, wishing for the straightened back, puffed out chest and stuffy comment.
I was becoming positively unhinged.
"Doyle... died?" Miriam, I saw in the mirror, looked understandably confused.
"It's complicated," Angel's voice said from the space.
"It's another parallel-universe Star Trek deal," Cordelia said caustically. I craned my neck around in time to catch the vampire's glare of disapproval on the back of her head she remained oblivious to.
Miriam blinked, her attention wide-eyed on me. "Another?" she picked up weakly.
"We deal with a wide variety of paranormal and otherworldly phenomena," Wesley said. "It's probably best not to worry too much beyond 'more things on Heaven and Earth'. We should concern ourselves with your own case at this time."
The scattering of paraphernalia on the dashboard clattered and jumped without aid of either a bump or corner to make them do so, as though in agreement.
I eyed the activity. There hadn't been a peep out of the spirit for about quarter of an hour, and right now, Miriam wasn't even looking at Wesley. She was staring instead out of the window at the broad shady street as she mumbled an agreeing, "Y-yes. Thank you."
"Here," she said then, voice abruptly much stronger. "Stop here."
"What?" Cordelia demanded as she pulled us to a screeching halt that had my nerves trying to crawl down into the dark little space under the seat for safety.
"This is the place," Miriam said.
I snatched at a pen on the dashboard as it leaped up, aiming for either Wesley or Angel, cursed as it fought my grasp, and wondered why the activity was suddenly-
Something clicked in my head at the same time as Wesley voiced a faint, "Oh, dear."
"It was a hit and run," Angel said slowly. He glanced up and down the street which, while not exactly busy, wasn't empty either. A group of kids played, further down. A couple of winos lounged with brown paper bags I was in just the right mood to envy at the mouth of an alley across the way. Scattered people walked about their business. Sporadic traffic crawled by.
Angel looked un-thrilled. "We've got to perform an exorcism in the middle of the street?"
It was just about cloudy and dim enough now that Angel could walk around outside the car unprotected, though we left all the doors open on the convertible, parked up half on the sidewalk, wildly askew despite Cordelia's insistences it was perfectly fine.
Angel stood in the middle of the road with paint all over his face looking nervously at the open car and the long, shifting shadows that flickered with the motion of sun and cloud.
Angel looked nervously at Miriam.
Passers-by looked curiously at Angel.
Cordelia and Wesley, leaning on a low wall together, a conspiratorial duo more at ease together than I'd seen them so far (they weren't arguing for about the first time that day, for a start) looked expectantly at Angel.
Miriam looked expectantly at Angel.
I looked deliberately away and tried not to smirk. Didn't work on either account. Half-covering my face with my hands in the pretence of rubbing my forehead, I turned back, unable not to watch.
Angel cleared his throat, swallowed, and very politely leaned down to touch his lips to Miriam's.
That was it - they didn't get any further. The air around exploded, and dust and splinters of rock and wrappers and debris caught up from the street whirl-winded itself around them.
Angel, prepared this time, wrapped Miriam tight in his grasp and in his leather coat, and read quickly from the paper gripped in his hand.
Standing in the midst of all that he somehow made it through the ritual, keeping Miriam safe, shooting the occasional glance over to Cordy and Wes where they hovered worriedly looking on, as though in spite of their own mortality they'd like to rush in to help their undead boss.
Hell, there were a couple of bad moments I was tempted to rush in to help. Must be nice to have that brand of Dark-Avenging-Hero charisma.
He finished off with determination, shouting out the last few lines to the wind and the street and the gaping onlookers. With a special pissy glare reserved just for the gaping onlookers.
Nothing happened - except that a few of the passers-by tossed coins. Cordelia dived forward, but fell back when she realised it was the smallest of small change. People in these parts didn't have too much money.
"It didn't work," Wesley said tightly.
"No kidding, Sherlock," Cordelia retorted. My hangover, which I'd briefly managed to forget, stabbed a fierce revenge. Angel shouted something from his mini-tornado but we couldn't hear a word. "This is not good. It was supposed to work here!"
Wesley swallowed. "I suppose it couldn't, after all, be the victim's home? The place the spirit felt most drawn back to?"
"It's got to be the next choice," I said. "And maybe if we get away from this spot the activity will die down again, like it did before."
"Right." Cordy eyed the sky. "And hurry. 'Cause unless I'm mistaken, I'm raising that by a 'move now or Angel's about to become Melba Toast'."
All three of us contemplated the whirlwind of pissed-off spectral power Angel had told us at length and with emphasis to keep our distance from. I didn't even bother wasting time assessing Cordelia and Wesley and their comparative chances. I pulled on the demon - wincing at the number of interested bystanders who 'oohh-ed', but then again if they thought the rest was a show, a guy in a spiny mask wasn't going to burst their bubble of happy normality - and waded in.
It was pretty much like I'd always imagined it must feel like to be in one of those acceleration generators astronauts get trained in. Plastered against Angel by the G-force, I tried to unpeel his rigid grasp on Miriam and yell into his ear.
"We have to go inside! Angel, you gotta let got of her, she's the only one who can let us into her house so we can try perform the ritual again!"
He let go of Miriam and she crushed herself into my arms instead, which made it even more difficult to breathe. I couldn't move from the spot for a moment, then I felt Angel's large hand plant itself in the centre of my back and shove. Then I was staggering out into clear air.
I let the demon dissolve away before Miriam saw it.
Behind me Angel, freed from the necessity of protecting Miriam, fought his way out of the funnel. His exposed skin was raw, patched with grazes torn by rock pieces and dust, and I was taken aback to see him vamped-out. Hard to believe, but I'd almost forgotten.
That mask melted away as well when he saw my instinctive fear-reaction. I bit my tongue on an urge to apologise at the dejection in his face.
I shifted my hold on Miriam, who was sagging in my grasp and visibly on the verge of tears, and herded her towards the row of converted flat units some way down the street that her mumbling had indicated.
"Wait," Angel said, fending off a coke can that came close to scoring on his caveman brow.
"Jeeze, Angel," Cordy began.
"No. We shouldn't go inside. There'd only be more... ammunition there, and besides, we don't even know if this would work. It's already failed twice. That should tell us something. I'm beginning to think we're going about this the wrong way."
Wesley looked thoughtful, then shook his head. "I really don't see any other option, Angel. We have to try this. It's the next logical step. If there's no success here, then clearly we must reassess, but..."
Angel ignored him, turning to snag Miriam out of my arms again. He held her shoulders while I stood close at her back to shield her from the remnant of the spirit's anger.
"Miriam," he said, compassionate but stern. I had to remind myself again, hey, vampire. "Can you tell us any more about the circumstances of your husband's death?" A bottle flew at her with frightening speed and he plucked it out of the air by its neck almost casually and held onto it. "Anything you can think of, however irrelevant it seems, however much it might hurt, however much you don't want to. We need to know. Something isn't right here. You know we can't solve this without all the details."
"Oh my God." Miriam gulped and the tears she'd been holding back burst the banks. "We were so happy, and I... I didn't deserve him, I didn't deserve to be happy. You'd think if I loved him that much I could have been faithful, right? You'd think that would follow naturally, and I didn't mean it... I don't even know why I cheated, it just happened, but I never even understood why I went with those other men, because I loved him... only him. Jeremy."
"Miriam." Angel leaned forward as though to tighten the embrace and then apparently thought better of it.
"It was my fault," she said. "My fault. I didn't love him enough and he was taken away. The hit and run driver killed him but he died because of me. I'm sure he would have hated me. He wouldn't have wanted me to be happy. I didn't mean to fall in love again. That's why this is happening. I killed him and I don't deserve-"
"No, no, no!" Cordy burst out, at Miriam's side in a second despite the remaining activity, unceremoniously shoving Angel out of the way in the process. "You had affairs, sure. Pfft. Who doesn't?" I blinked. "But that doesn't mean you're guilty of anything but, uh, a really over-active libido. You're not a killer and you don't deserve this. And your fiance certainly didn't."
Wesley appeared at her other side, cautiously taking hold of the distraught woman's arm. "Miriam," he said softly. "You said yourself your husband was a good man. While I'm sure your dalliances would have hurt him, I'm equally sure that he wouldn't begrudge your chances of moving on from him now, four years on. And I'm certain he wouldn't want to harm you, or your paramour. All of this is really rather obsessive, wouldn't you say?"
"Obvious much, Wes?" Cordelia said.
He didn't even bother to hush her, his attention solely upon Miriam, his gaze intent, and I knew that expression on Wesley. It came fairly often right before a cry of 'eureka!'. "Miriam... do you think that perhaps you are the one who thinks you need to be punished?"
She gulped a massive sob, and the last of the activity disappeared.
Cordelia and I blinked around and exchanged bemused looks, then she was joining Wesley with Miriam. Feeling out of my depth comforting an hysterical woman with, apparently, a massively destructive psychic power, I looked around for Angel.
The vampire had retreated to a corner of shade, as patchy sun had begun to break through onto the street. He was looking intently at a car parked down the road. Following his gaze to the vehicle, I realised that not only did it look familiar, but a figure leaned against its far side, watching us over the top.
I squinted. "Wasn't that car outside the office when we left?"
Angel nodded slowly.
I shifted position slightly, turning my head as if to glance back at Wes and our erstwhile client. "Impressive. I've been doin' this a while, an' I never got my own stalker."
"It's nice to have fans," Angel murmured.
With exaggerated casualness, I fumbled for a packet of cigarettes in my coat, and extracted one. "Okay, let's just play this nice and cool, and maybe we can surprise him. Just don't let on that we..." I realised I was addressing an empty space.
"Saw him," I said belatedly, as Angel dashed towards the figure, vampire speed closing the distance between them effortlessly.
Although, predictably, at the vampire's first twitch, the figure spun around and sprinted down the nearest alley.
I gave my cigarette a longing glance, then cast it aside as I moved after the vampire.
Angel's coat was already disappearing around the alley corner as I reached the parked car. As I slid over the bonnet, I tossed a quick glance inside: a couple of coffee cups, a fast food wrapper...our "fan" had been watching us for a while.
He wasn't at all slow on his feet, either - as I rounded the corner I could see him well ahead of Angel. A duffel bag slung around one shoulder obscured most of his form, bobbing furiously with every step.
Angel was faster, but the vampire was hindered by having to stick to the shadows. I winced involuntarily as he flung himself across a short patch of sunlight with a sizzle like burning bacon.
Hell, the vamp was tough. He could take it.
But there was no way he was going to catch the guy, not while having to avoid bursting into flames.
There was no way I was going to get him, either, as far behind as I was.
Unless I got creative.
I spun around and dashed back to our shadow's abandoned car, ignoring Wes and Cordy's confused stares. A quick elbow to a window got me inside, and I scrabbled at the sun visor. A bunch of keys tumbled into my lap.
I gunned the engine and the car screamed down the road with a reckless disregard for safety or speed limits, scattering our last few spectators as they shouted and swore.
Figures. Conduct ancient magical rituals in front of folks, and they throw money. Slap the accelerator a little hard and they act like it's the end of the freaking world.
I spun the wheel, dragging the car through a turn that was slightly too close for comfort. This wasn't one of my usual haunts, but years of patrolling still made street maps unnecessary.
That alley leads on about a block or so...assume they didn't turn off into one of the buildings, then they come out...
I spun the wheel again, veering onto the correct street. There weren't many cars on the roads, but those that were there expressed their displeasure with horns and raised middle fingers.
I was too busy to care.
I stomped on the brakes, and the car jerked to a halt, effectively sealing the mouth of the alley. Glancing to the side, I saw our buddy pull up sharply about ten meters or so away. The sun was behind him, but I caught an impression of a slight frame, taut with surprise and adrenalin.
I flashed an ironic wave as I shoved open the door and started towards him. The figure flung a look over its shoulder at Angel also bearing down on him, coat raised high around his shoulders to ward off the sun.
I could picture the expression on our mutual target's face, and suppressed a grin.
I half-expected him to give up right then and there, but instead he ran at the nearest door in the alley, what looked like the side entrance to an apartment block. His leg came up and kicked the door open in a single, practiced motion.
The figure dove inside, slamming the door shut in Angel's face. With considerably less grace, the vampire smashed straight through it. He didn't even break his stride.
I rushed through the splintered entrance after them. In the passage ahead of me, apartment doors slammed shut with the terrified haste of residents who had encountered Angel going full-tilt. The vamp in question bounded up a flight of stairs at the end of the corridor, shaking wood chips from his clothes.
I ran like hell in a futile attempt to catch up.
We went up three flights without so much as a pause, and I could feel my smoker's lungs protesting indignantly as we reached the fourth and final floor.
I was just trying to keep my legs moving at that point, and I nearly ran into Angel before I realised he'd stopped. I peered over his shoulder, my breath rasping like someone was scraping a cheesegrater up and down my throat. Unsurprisingly, Angel wasn't even breathing hard, or indeed at all, and he glanced at me irritably as if I was going to scare all the bad guys away.
"What the... hell... was that... back there? I thought vampires... supposed to be... sneaky!" I gasped.
Angel shrugged, scanning the corridor before us. "I thought private investigators were supposed to be fit. We all have these little misconceptions."
I wanted to kill him quite a lot just then, and it had absolutely nothing to do with him being a vampire.
I bit down on my retort. "Where'd he go?"
Angel shrugged again. "I lost him turning around that last flight - by the time I got up here, he was gone."
"Roof?" I asked, pointing down the length of the passage towards a big black door right at the far end.
Angel shook his head, pointing at the shiny padlock on the big black door.
"You think he lives here?" I asked as we edged our way cautiously down the passage, glancing into crisscrossing passages.
"No. The way he dove in here after you blocked him off - looked like a random choice. Nice move with the car, by the way," he offered, smiling slightly.
"Thanks." I caught myself about to smile back, and rooted for a cigarette instead. Finding one at last, I gripped it between my lips and fumbled for my lighter. It was only then that I remembered that my lighter was in another reality, and that I'd picked the cigarettes up at a convenience store last night. A convenience store at which I had forgotten to buy matches.
"Damn," I muttered to no one in particular.
Angel half-turned. "Huh?"
And then the door nearest to us, door 408, burst open. I know it was door 408, because it swung straight into my face and I got a very close and painful view of the plaque.
As I tumbled into Angel, our target shot from the room. I caught a confused glimpse of strangely familiar features, as he leapt over us and sprinted down a side passage.
Angel rose from the floor in a single predatory bound, moving in pursuit.
Unfortunately, my own personal type of predator was one which currently had difficultly distinguishing between the floor and the ceiling, and I slumped back, my nose throbbing enthusiastically.
I heard a flurry of footsteps and then a loud crash. Pulling myself to my feet, I glanced in the direction the two had fled, expecting to see Angel clutching my attacker by the collar.
Instead I saw him standing helplessly, fists clenched in frustration, in front of an open fire escape door. A door through which bright sunshine streamed.
"I'm on it," I responded, pushing past him as I gathered the demon to me. The sun shone warm on my skin as I flung myself through the doorway, grabbed onto the rail directly ahead of me, and vaulted it effortlessly.
I've done a lot of stupid things in my life.
"Jumping from the Fourth Storey of an Apartment Building to Reach the Bottom Before the Person Climbing Down the Fire Escape Did" made the top five easily, just below "Challenging Faith to a Drinking Contest."
If it wasn't for the relatively soft landing below, it could all have ended pretty painfully. It may seem humorous, even ironic, to be saved by a huge pile of refuse, but I really wasn't in any mood to appreciate it as I plunged feet-first into an open dumpster.
I spent an unpleasant second or two there, the urge to vomit vying with the sensation that my stomach was in fact no longer within my body, but instead four storeys above it.
Then I burst from the dumpster in a snarling ball of spines and fury...to land in an empty alley.
I glanced around for a second, before I realised that my plan had in fact succeeded a little too well. I looked up and saw a duffel bag descending towards me at speed.
The duffel bag, and a second later, its owner slammed me to the concrete. There was a brief, confused flurry of arms and legs, and then the figure was off, leaving me spread-eagled on the floor.
With a growl, I gave chase. I was tired of playing Wiley E. Coyote to this jerk's Roadrunner - he was going down if I had to pursue him into the next state.
We dashed across a street, dodging cars and shrieking pedestrians. It took my adrenalin-fuddled brain a moment to realise why they were shrieking, and I hastily retracted my spines and hoped desperately no one had a camera.
Narrowly avoiding being flattened by a taxi, I half-ran, half-limped into the next alley.
Abandoned newspapers danced around my trembling legs, as I glared up and down the full length of the alley. Big warehouses on either side formed intimidating walls, like an urban version of a hedge maze.
Gulping air, I took a few steps further in, scanning my surroundings. I caught a flash of colour through the grimy windows of the warehouse to my left. The warehouse that had a sliding door, slightly ajar.
It took all my willpower to keep my head turning as if I hadn't noticed anything, as I took another step into the alley. I shifted my feet slightly, getting my balance, glanced around one more time, and moved.
A shoulder charge took me through the doorway and bowled over the person behind it. The duffel bag went skidding away and I rolled frantically, trying to land on top of my opponent. We spun through one last dizzying turn and then I pinned his hands to the hard wooden floor.
Grey eyes met my own, alight with recognition, and I made two important discoveries in quick succession.
"Kate!" I said in surprised delight, sitting back on my haunches. "What are you doin' h - "
Something cold pressed against my belly, and I heard a hammer cock.
Great. Just great.
I stood up cautiously, hands in the air, Kate's gun following my every move. She rose, equally cautiously. The gun didn't so much as waver.
I tried a smile. "Hi?"
Kate's expression didn't twitch, but her pistol shifted aim to my forehead. I ran the facts through my mind, somewhat distracted by the thought of Kate running a bullet through it instead.
Good vampires. Faith in jail. And Kate pointing a gun at me. I always thought those Star Trek parallel world episodes were lame. Well, lamer than the rest of Star Trek anyway.
"Sorry about the tackle," I said awkwardly. "Heat of the moment, and all that. But, hey what's one tiny error between friends? You remember the part where we're friends - right?"
Kate's eyes narrowed. That would be a 'no', then, from the lady with the gun and the itchy trigger finger. I prayed that my alternate self had never done anything to piss her off. "Doyle's dead. I don't know who the hell you are, demon, but you aren't him."
"Well, that's somethin' of perspective, really. I'm Doyle...just not the Doyle." This argument didn't seem to be winning her over. "You a big Star Trek fan?"
"Yeah, well as I remember, Doyle wasn't a demon," she said curtly. "You, on the other hand..."
Seeing her finger tighten on the trigger, I decided to take a different tack. "Hey, I'm workin' with Angel, aren't I? Angel's a good guy, right?"
And that went down like a lead balloon. "Last time I checked, Angel was several hundred dead people short of ‘good guy'."
Several hundred? Angel and I were going to have words about this, I decided. And if he didn't have a damn good explanation, I was going to stake him. Assuming Kate didn't shoot me first, of course.
The lady in question wasn't finished, though. "And what exactly were you and he working on, anyway? Some kind of black magic? Raise a couple of your demon pals in the middle of the street and have yourselves a hellbeast frat party?"
"What, that? Hey, that wasn't what it lo- well, I guess it..." I laughed uneasily, and tried to start afresh. "We were just doin' a spot of exorcism. Like the film, you know, with the priest and the projectile-"
"Oh really? Demonically possessed street corners?"
I had to admit, to the impartial observer, my story seemed to be full of holes. I didn't give a damn about the impartial observer, but the extremely partial Kate Lockley with a handgun wasn't impressed either. And that I did give a damn about.
I started to back away cautiously, hands in the air. "I can see you're not comfortable with that scenario. Okay, new scenario. You shoot me with that gun. I die human, now you've got a body to dispose of. We already roused a few people gettin' here - at least some of them know how to dial 911. The cops are already on their way. They find you standing here, with a gun in your hand, an' a still-warm body on the floor. Even LAPD could solve that one."
"I'm a cop," she said bluntly.
"True, but then you get to explain one dead suspect to the rest of the guys, and hey, that's a whole lot of paperwork hell you're looking at just to fix me. Might even end up with you getting a hearing and losing your badge, if they smell a rat and that 'I was defending myself from a dangerous suspect' plan you're probably cooking up right now doesn't completely convince. Maybe worse."
Kate hesitated, gun still following me as I continued to back up. I could see the indecision in her eyes - assuming this Kate was a cop like the one in my world, she was reviewing the same possibilities I was...and maybe wondering why a demon would know about them...
I glanced to the side. There was a whole mass of packing crates behind me, irregularly piled up by a forklift that now sat derelict near the doorway I'd smashed down.
It wouldn't be great cover, but it sure as hell beat air molecules.
"...an' let's say you run. Then forensics pull the bullet out of me at the morgue, an' they check it against their records. That your service weapon you're wavin' at me?" Kate's eyes flickered slightly. "'Cause if it is, then the boys at Internal Affairs will pick you apart an' leave you for the vultures in the Justice Department to finish off. Ugly way to end a career."
I spread my hands and smiled as disarmingly as I could, watching the nose of the pistol droop slightly as Kate moved to cover me. "Of course, none of this is a problem if you can't hit me."
I dove sideways as she fired.
There's a reason why people talk about "dodging the bullet" on something. It's a feeling quite unlike anything else. I've had a lot of things thrown, fired or - during one memorable battle with a Slaragsh demon - excreted at me, but there's nothing quite like being shot at.
You're moving before the gun fires, but you hear the shot when you're still in motion and there's a microsecond of hesitation. Was I fast enough? Was the shooter anticipating me? After all, real life isn't like the Matrix. You don't see bullets coming. It's just bang, you're dead.
And you're so wired up, so totally focused on that one tiny piece of lead, that when the impact comes it jolts your entire body. And it takes you a moment to release that it's not a bullet, that it's just your body hitting the floor, and there's a sense of sublime relief. You did it. You're still alive.
Of course, the shooter still has the rest of the clip to kill you with.
Which was why I rolled and kept scrambling until I was behind three crates piled in a rough triangle. It wasn't exactly Fort Knox, but as long as I was hunched over I was pretty safe.
Despite that, Kate popped two more rounds over the top of the crates. I wished for a shorter haircut.
Still hunkered down, I skittered backwards and rolled behind a different pile of crates, then slung myself to one side and rolled again. As I ducked down beside the forklift, I was pretty sure I'd managed to confuse Kate enough to buy me some time. Sure enough, peeking through the driver's windshield, I could see her scanning the crates uncertainly.
"I've considered your argument, demon, and come to a decision." she announced. Then turned and pumped three rounds into the windshield. I dropped back, glass pelting my shoulders. "I want you dead. Screw the paperwork."
Shaking glass from my hair, I staggered around to the back of the forklift, hearing her footsteps approach me. "I wouldn't be so hasty. Those Internal Affairs guys are pretty damn nasty. And have you met the lawyers in this town? Now that's malevolent."
Kate kept walking, calmly, methodically. Like an executioner. That's what she was basically gonna do, anyway. An execution. I had no weapon and she had a loaded semi-automatic, and she was going to walk right up to me and put a bullet in my head. My friend, my partner, was about to blow me away and she wouldn't even mourn. I was just another demon to her.
Another dead demon.
She stopped walking. Bad sign. Either she was about to give up, which seemed unlikely, or she'd got close enough that she was confident about her chances to blast me no matter which way I moved.
But fortunately for me, the forklift's driver had left the keys in the ignition. For a moment or two, I toyed with the idea of actually starting the engine and driving towards her, but I abandoned it. The forklift probably had the acceleration rate of a golf cart, and I'd be an easy target. And even if I did hit her, the impact would probably kill her.
And that wasn't an option I wanted to consider.
I snatched the keys from the ignition and flung them left. I heard them jingle as they hit the floor, waited a heartbeat, and dove.
It's a stupid trick, and I knew Kate would be wise to it. Which is why I dove left, following the keys' trajectory, and she spun right, expecting me to use the distraction to go right.
I heard her curse and adjust her aim in time to snap off a quick shot. A shot that came far too close for comfort, whizzing past my right ear, close enough for my eardrums to hurt.
I hit the ground and rolled and kept on rolling, hearing another bullet skip off the floor. I came up behind a single large crate, standing upright. It was pretty high and pretty thick, so I didn't expect any bullets to get through. On the other hand, it was about the size and approximate shape of a coffin. That was hardly comforting.
Scraping sounds...Kate was picking her way towards me. She paused for a second, and I heard the clicking as she extracted the nearly-spent clip from her pistol and slapped in a fresh one. So much for running rings around her ‘till she ran out of bullets. I silently cursed whichever LAPD firearms instructor had taught her good ammunition discipline.
That same discipline had kept me alive so many times...I'd never expected to be cursing that aspect of Kate's personality. Her abrasiveness, yes, her regular flares of temper, yes, her rabid anti-smoking policy...
Kate fired another shot, and my heart skipped a beat as it thudded into the crate. But whatever was inside was obviously pretty dense - the only thing staining my shirt was sweat.
I stood with my back to the coffin-shaped box and listened to her approach. There was no way my earlier trick would work twice on a cop of Kate's calibre. Besides, I had nothing else to throw.
So I waited, feeling dampness collecting in the small of my back.
She was barely meters away now, and I heard her stop and take a deep breath.
I did the same, and let the change come with the air, tightly controlled. The demon's strength flowed through me and I pressed my back against the coffin. My enhanced senses picked up the scent of Kate's perspiration as she took another step.
I pushed backwards and felt the heavy crate toppling. Kate yelped in surprise as it tumbled down at her. She reacted fast, for a human, rolling away from the tumbling wood and trying to regain her balance. Not a bad move, all things considered, and very fast.
For a human.
I bounded over the crate and straight into her, knocking her as flat as the crate would have. Of course, had the crate hit her, I wouldn't have had to worry about her kneeing my stomach. I gasped for air, and heard her gun go skittering away as she lost her grip on it. I tried to grab her wrists, as one might do with a person having hysterics, and she headbutted me for my trouble. My own grunt of pain mingled with hers - the spikes on my face weren't kind to such manoeuvres. But the headbutt stunned me enough for her to get away. Blinking away tears of pain, I snatched at her leg, bringing her down again for a second, but then she slipped free, planting a foot in my face for good measure.
I could see her standing a few metres away, grimfaced and angry, as I staggered to my feet, wheezing. I hadn't exactly figured Kate for a pushover, but even with demon reflexes, I was down several bruises and unpleasantly winded. On the plus side, her hair was pretty mussed.
Some demon I was.
Speaking of, I decided that was an opportune time to winch in the spikes. The gun was gone and maybe if she saw me revert to human she might decide to talk instead of attacking. Unfortunately, she didn't so much as waste a breath on me, instead stooping to draw her backup gun from her ankle holster.
A puzzled expression crossed her face, which darkened to a frown as I held up the little leather holster. Pointedly, I emptied the gun and threw it aside. Okay, so maybe I'd done more than just muss her hair.
I grinned. "I don't suppose we could just give this up? Have coffee or somethin'?"
Kate wasn't buying - she turned and dashed for the door.
"Maybe later, then?" In pain, and still trying to fill my aching lungs, I was happy to let her go. Happy, that is, until she stopped halfway to the door and bent over the duffel bag she'd been carrying. There was the sound of a zipper and then metal flashed.
Kate hefted a fireman's axe and starting walking towards me. "Nah. I had three cups already today."
I started to back up again, retreating behind the fallen coffin-box. "Uh-huh." My voice squeaked embarrassingly into upper registers. "So you're gonna work off all that excess energy by choppin' me into itty-bitty pieces?"
The axe swept round and I dodged hastily to one side. The blade chomped into the coffin-box, and Kate extracted it with a businesslike tug. "Pretty much."
"Ever tried racquetball? Or ping-po-"
I ducked another swipe and managed to snag a broken plank from the floor. Kate was coming dangerously close with that axe of hers - she'd obviously been practicing this Jack Nicholson number for a while now. I shifted the plank to my other hand and tried to get a decent grip on it. At least it had the advantage of reach, although as easy-to-wield weapons go, it ranked somewhere up there with a cement mixer.
I swung it anyway, and Kate stepped to one side and slashed with the axe. With the sound of tearing wood, I lost the advantage of reach.
I shifted my grip on the shortened plank, putting one hand firmly near each end, trying not to wince as the splinters protruding from the severed end dug into my palm.
Kate eyed the half-plank balanced between my hands, judging the wood's thickness. One good swing...
She brought the axe back for an overhead swipe that would destroy my shield and probably most of my face as well...and I smashed the plank down onto my knee.
Picture the scenario. One wooden plank going down...one knee going up...The plank broke in the middle and its two sharp splintered ends both spun upwards, following the upwards angle of my knee...to point directly at Kate's throat.
And abruptly Kate had gone from about to bring a heavy axe down on an unlucky enemy, to having said axe raised uselessly high, while said enemy had two sharp pieces of wood brushing her throat.
I might not have Kate's axe-wielding flair, but after years of killing vamps there's nothing I don't know about pointy pieces of wood.
And now, watching her muscles tremble with the strain of holding the axe upright, watching her eyes stare intently into me as they searched for a way out...it was only a matter of time.
With a disgusted sigh, Kate let the axe fall and stood there, trying not to flinch away from the impromptu stakes at her throat.
"Doyle! No, wait-"
And suddenly Angel was diving between us, knocking myself and Kate both sprawling, sending the sharp ends of wood skittering out of my hands.
I blinked up at him as he rounded on me, and my protest was turned into a choke when he hauled me up by a not-so-friendly grip on the collar of my jacket.
"What the hell did you think you were doing?" he snapped.
I angrily twisted out of his grip, which seemed to surprise him. He wavered, my motion having apparently unsettled his balance, and didn't come after me again as I backed off. Instead, he turned to Kate, who didn't look especially happy to see him. Although, in fact-
My thoughts froze. I frowned at Angel, narrowing my eyes to focus on Broody-Avenger-Vamp. "Wait. You really thought I was going to-?" I looked at Kate again, and thought back over her reactions.
Oh, hell. Angel wasn't the only one. She'd actually thought...
"No," I said. A stupid gulp that was half a giggle escaped my throat, and my voice squeaked as I protested, "You can't honestly have thought that I'd... I *know* her. Kate-"
I moved towards her and she redoubled the efforts she was making to stand. Succeeded and sprang away from me, her feet scuffing on the floor with the clumsiness of fright.
I stared. I could barely believe it.
Angel looked between us and seemed to calm down quite abruptly. He held out both hands, palm down, in a pacifying gesture, and kept his body placed carefully between the two of us. "Okay. Let's all ease things up here. Doyle. Kate. We can sort this out rationally."
Rationally? I was in a crazy alternate universe where my best friend had just been convinced I was about to kill her and I was being told to act rationally by a goddamn vampire cursed with a conscience! But... okay, I guess I could see his point.
Kate didn't look so rational either, to my mind. And, studying her again now, trying to trace something of the woman I knew inside her face - finding so much there the same that it really was hard to credit-
Then her gaze fell upon Angel, and her whole face changed, conflict blazing into being behind her eyes.
I didn't think I could ever remember seeing Kate look quite like that. There was such a cold, all-encompassing fury residing there now, drowning out much else of what I had recognised. And, mixed all up within that, something else entirely...
Shit. Whatever the rest was about - and there sure as hell was something nasty lying between them - she really had it bad for the vamp, too.
"Angel," she said. She spoke his name like a curse. "I'm here to stop you making a mistake. You think he's your friend. I get that. But you're wrong. Your friend's dead. He's just a demon. I saw him change-"
"He was always a demon, Kate," Angel said, curtailing her.
She was left standing with her mouth half-open. I could see her weight shifting on legs planted firmly and a measured distance apart, fight-or-flight posture.
"But he died. You told me."
"It's complicated, Kate."
So was the way those two were fixed on each other, enough almost to make me feel like I should just slink out of the room and leave them to it.
"Doyle... was a demon," she repeated slowly. She shot a glance over at me again, but I got the distinct impression that my presence had become incidental. "A dead demon." Her eyes narrowed to slits. "I guess, that's a back-from-the-dead demon."
"More or less. He isn't a danger. But let me guess who dropped the idea on you that he was. That whole deal with the stalking game today? Some old friend from a certain law firm been paying you visits again?"
"I only listen to *them* because they're telling me the *truth* and you're breaking the *law*. Harbouring murderers, last time. I've yet to hear you explain that one away."
"I was trying to give her a chance."
"Did you tell that to your colleague Wyndham-Pryce?" Kate nodded with satisfaction as Angel's jaw closed and bunched. "Yeah. We got his fingerprints on record - he was picked up some months back in Texas on some minor charge, sleeping rough or suchlike. I know who was in that apartment with her. The one who did the bleeding. Pretty big damn mess we had to pick through, after. I think I'd want to see anyone who did that to me or to one of my friends pay for their crimes."
"She's paying. And... he's chosen not to press charges," Angel began, seeming a little off-balance still at Kate's approach, although it did seem the current Wesley Situation was something that had him a fair bit off-balance in general.
Kate shook her head and apparently dismissed the tack in an instant. "What about Cordelia?" I didn't like hearing that trace of a sneer in her voice. I'd never known Kate to be so petty, and could only conclude it an illustration of how significantly this weird relationship with Angel screwed with her head. "Does she sprout horns and a tail at will, as well? Or would that mess up her hair?"
"Cordelia's human." Angel said sharply. "Kate, you need to let this go. I didn't kill your father. I'd have saved him if I could. You can't let what's between us allow Wolfram and Hart to get their claws into you. They've manipulated you before, and yeah, so you've got your doubts about me, and maybe some of them are justified - but you *know* they're evil."
"Go to hell." Kate spun on her heel, bent down in a swift move to retrieve her gun from the floor (I realised then that she'd been slowly working her way around closer to it throughout the exchange) and then she'd bolted through the nearest exit, just pausing to pick up the second gun on her way out.
Vampire reflexes considered, Angel could probably have caught her in an instant, but he didn't move at all, just watched after her.
He looked at me, his body language distinctly uncomfortable and almost at a loss.
I looked back at him.
Neither of us said anything at all.
We made an apathetic, bruised, scratched and in Angel's case faintly scorched duo as we worked our way back to where we'd left Cordelia, Wesley and Miriam.
Along the way, Angel related in brief, subdued bursts how he'd come to meet, fall in, and fall out with Kate, and I listened with churning insides to the twisted history of my best friend in a universe a step removed from my own.
There were parts of it that hit a little too close to home, sending painful hitches through my circulatory system.
At one point, Angel slowed his steps and all but stopped on a largely empty street passed innocuously mid-chase, staring across the expanse of a wasteland of docks to an empty berth and a dilapidated series of warehouse blocks. A distant expression on his face, as he lingered, before he caught my arm and with a sudden determination that brooked no argument moved us on.
I really didn't want to ask. So I didn't.
Instead, having been intrigued by the story of the sexually transmitted demon and the whack-job lawyers helping Angel and Kate get in touch with their warm and fuzzy sides, I cajoled out of Angel a few more tales of his fighting of the Good Fight in LA.
Funny thing, once you talked your way past the stick up his ass, the vampire turned out to have an enthusiasm that was almost funny when it came to spinning out a yarn. I got fights hand-puppeted blow-by-blow and everything.
It took about half an hour to make our way back - that had been some serious sprinting for an out of shape half-demon on too much injury time, too little sleep, and a regular diet of beer, cigarettes and pizza even when it wasn't reduced to the last few days' irregular fare.
My faint worries about having left Cordy and Wes to manage the Miriam situation without any fighting muscle ready on hand quickly evaporated when we arrived back in the street where we'd left them. Angel doubtfully picked out the house he remembered her giving the address of and somehow turned out right. We tapped on the door to be shouted inside - where we found the three of them sitting drinking hot chocolate on worn but expansively comfy chairs that made my whole body sigh and go limp just looking at them.
Both chairs, unfortunately, were taken, and Miriam was sprawled out so as to leave no room on the couch.
"I see you've been having a tough time of it," I observed sarcastically, leaning on the door jamb and trying not to fall over. Now that we were in more or less safe surroundings, my energy seemed to have left me and I felt the weight of my battered body, redoubled from the chase and the fight, once again.
Wesley smiled smugly with a mouth smudged at the edges with chocolate drink only barely discernable from the smudges of his bruises. "Indeed."
"Yup," Cordelia said. "Oh, hey - we'd make you some, but we used the last. Sorry." Angel huffed and she gave him a funny look. "Like you'd count anyway, Mr O-pos."
Wesley's smile disappeared into seriousness again as quickly, pushed down by the furrows in his brow. He cast a contemplative, worried glance at Miriam, curled up with her mug and a nervously shifting, guilty expression, her eyes trolling the room with no particular direction. I supposed I'd be pretty spaced too, in her situation. I wondered what she was thinking, now - about the guy it turned out she was responsible for all but killing. Wesley stood up.
He drew Angel and myself aside and, leaving the women with a surreptitious nod toward Cordelia (Cordelia quenched the put-out flicker that darted over her face with admirable speed and efficiency), herded us into a small but tidy kitchen.
I leaned on the table. Wesley sagged against the wall. Angel stood in the middle of the room still smelling faintly of ozone and fidgeted like he didn't know what to do with his hands.
Wesley said, "Ms Welsh clearly possesses what has, until recently, been a deeply buried suppressed psychic ability, and now that it is unleashed and attached to a distinct and dangerous trigger, she very clearly needs to learn to control it. I've given her some numbers - a few mystical contacts far more familiar with this sort of phenomenon than I, who should be able to help."
His eyes flickered back through the open door to the woman curled on the couch, and he shifted uncomfortably. He rubbed a hand across the bridge of his nose, almost ousting his glasses, wincing as he hit a bruise. "I... er, I've also recommended an excellent therapist, and strongly suggested she seek counselling." He reddened slightly.
Angel's eyebrows shot up, and the line of his lips seemed to dance a faint jug as he tried to keep a straight face.
"Oookaaay," I said, drawing out the vowels of the word, frowning.
Through the open door I could see a Miriam distraught but on the road to solving her problems, and no longer in immediate danger of her life. Several other pressing concerns that had been battering at the back of my mind for hours had abruptly returned to the fore.
"Guys?" I said somewhat pleadingly. "I believe our work here is done?"
In the following brief silence, I heard the sound of Miriam's cellphone ringing from the other room.
Claustrophobia has never been one of my problems, but when I followed Angel past that prison gate, and it closed behind us, I was starting to understand it really well.
This place, massive and cold, couldn't have anything to do with Faith. She was like a dancing fire that no lamp could hold, and damn me for missing her enough to come up with something as giddy as that. I was getting as sentimental as Cordelia and Angel.
She could never survive being caged.
Not my Faith, anyway.
Angel went in first. He started to explain to me about the "one visitor at a time" rule, but I already knew. So I waited, like I'd been waiting ever since I first woke up in this world, and my hands kept getting colder.
Wesley was looking everywhere except at me.
When Angel came out, he was shaking his head a little. "I warned her, but she doesn't seem to be taking it very seriously. I told her that you were the one who heard Rayne and Mercer."
I stood motionless, until Angel gestured sharply. "Go on in."
And then I was through the door, into that room where there was only a transparent barrier between me and the girl who looked like Faith.
She looked up, and straight on past me, looking over my shoulder to see who else was coming in. When I made my way over to her, and sat down opposite, she looked startled for a moment, and then vaguely amused, as she picked up the phone.
"So, you're Angel's dead friend?"
She met my eyes for a moment, then shrugged indifferently. "You don't look like I expected. So, what did you hear?"
I fumbled out a few words of explanation. She nodded a momentary acknowledgement at Lee Mercer's name, but that was about it. I couldn't think of anything that I could tell her about why I'd been brought in as a hostage for her, as well as Angel, so I just left out that part, and by the time I edited out anything that might suggest that I was expected to mean something to her, there wasn't much left to say.
When my voice ran down into silence, she made no attempt to break it. Bored, she scratched the back of her neck idly and then stared at her fingers, as though checking for something.
Maybe nothing was there, but on this side of the partition, I could feel something creeping at the back of my own neck. But it wasn't anything living.
"Well, ah, I'll go then. Wesley wants to see you."
That one got her attention. Her head swung around, and she scowled. "Why the fuck does Wesley want to see me?"
Watching the way her face came alive then, with guilt chasing anger, I couldn't stand it any more. I got up abruptly, putting down the phone, and backed away, almost bumping into someone.
"I'll send Wesley in," I muttered. The last I saw of her before I took off, she was frowning fiercely in my general direction, but I knew perfectly well that she wasn't looking at me.
She wasn't really seeing me at all.
I didn't wait for Wes and Angel. I took the visitors' bus from the prison back into the city. That way, I didn't have to talk to anyone.
I picked up a bottle on my way back to the office. If this were my world, then with Faith and Wesley gone, I would have had all the silence I wanted, and time enough to see my way down to the bottom of it. But when I arrived, Cordelia was there.
"Hey," I echoed dully. "What are you doing here?"
"Waiting for you."
The way that she was gazing at me made me look away. I knew where the glasses were kept in this version of the office by now, and I headed briskly off in that direction. But she followed me.
I put the bottle down on the counter, feeling her coming up behind me. She put her hand over mine, and as her fingers closed over my own, that weird sensation returned.
"I wish you wouldn't do that," I muttered.
"Well, I wish you wouldn't do that," she retorted, pointing at the bottle with her free hand. "Come on, sit down. Tell me about it."
"I don't think so, Cordelia." I looked longingly at the bottle, but I let her lead me over to the couch, anyway. She kept her fingers entwined in mine until it made the hair rise and the back of my neck ache with the buzzing, but right now, there just wasn't enough left in me to argue.
"You know, I've seen that look on your face before, right in this room," she said quietly. "It was when Harry was here."
It took me a moment to come up with the energy to answer. "Whatever it is that you're remembering, that wasn't me. You already know that."
"Yeah, well, part of me does. But part of me doesn't, you know? I think you get what I mean."
"Maybe I do."
She leaned toward me, a lot closer than I wanted anyone to be right now. I couldn't really find the words to explain it, but as Cordelia's hand slid up my arm, her eyes searching mine, it was like looking in a mirror. She was still trying to find her Doyle there, just like I'd been looking for my Faith.
Neither one of us was having any luck today.
I had looked at that familiar face, blank with unrecognition. I had seen a figure in a prison uniform, looking so much like the body that had warmed me in another place, and I knew that I was seeing a stranger, just as she was.
She might look like my Faith, but my Faith wasn't here. My Faith had never been here.
Maybe I've been dense, maybe I've just been stubborn, but I couldn't see a world without her in it.
In that moment when I'd seen the person who wore her face, I knew that I was in that world.
And I knew that I didn't want to be here.
Gently, I detached Cordelia's hand from my arm, and placed it firmly on the couch, away from me. That odd, prickly feeling faded as the contact ended. "You still feel that?" I asked, changing the subject.
"The buzz? Well, duh. Yeah."
"My best guess is, we're feelin' that because we're not supposed to be both here at the same time. Well, at least not with the visions."
"Makes sense, I guess. They're your visions, after all. I only got them from Other-You by kiss-of-death-o'-gram. You're the one who was supposed to help Angel, not me."
"Maybe you just happened to be in the right place at the right time, then."
"Or in the wrong one," she retorted. "Do you have any idea how hard it was to get to sleep after ... ?" She looked at me, and then relented. "No, I take that back. You don't have a clue what I'm talking about, do you? You weren't there. You weren't the one who did it."
"No. I wasn't."
She looked at me quizzically for a moment, then spoke slowly, and more thoughtfully than seemed usual for her. "There were about a million things that I wanted to tell him, starting off with just how rude and inconsiderate he was to up and die like that, and how dare he? But there was more, you know? There was more."
I shook my head bemusedly. "I'm not your Doyle, Cordelia. Never was, but I guess I can't blame you for trying."
"It's hard to give up on that, when you look just the same. You were ... I mean, he was ... " She shook her head a little. "It's hard to let go," she admitted softly.
"So, I think maybe you get why I had to see Faith for myself."
"That's different," Cordelia objected. "It's not like you just walked away one day and disappeared, or something. I know what happened to you - the other you. I saw you die."
My face must have shown something, because she stopped then.
"Oh. I'm sorry. I keep forgetting that where you come from, you saw her die."
She reached out to touch me again - like she just couldn't keep her hands off me - and for a moment, just for that one moment, I let myself consider the possibility of someone who loved a version of me, even if the so-called hero she remembered wasn't me at all.
I started to feel that tingle again as her fingers brushed gently against my skin, and then the office door banged open.
"Who died?" a familiar voice demanded.
Cordelia and I both turned, and she groaned. "Oh no, not again!"
I couldn't speak. I couldn't move. I could only stare.
It wasn't possible.
It couldn't be.
It was Harry.