(Part 1 of 3)
DISCLAIMER: Angel and BtVS characters and concepts belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, etc. Just borrowing, no profit, yadda, yadda, yadda.
A demon sailed neatly over Faith's shoulder to impact with a satisfying splat against the wall, limbs splayed out like in the cartoons. I would have applauded, except I had other things on my mind just then.
Like an opponent who took advantage of my momentary distraction to aim a blow at my neck that would have killed me if I hadn't desperately thrown up an arm to block.
The arm didn't break, but it felt like a close thing. The whole limb went numb and dropped back to my side, a useless weight dragging down on my shoulder.
I reciprocated with a hard jab to the creature's face using my remaining hand. Took out an eye.
The thing just growled and kept coming, as though the gaping hole in its face didn't bother it at all. I found myself on the defensive again, forced to back off, one arm out of action and starting to get seriously worried this was a fight I was gonna lose.
These guys were definitely tough.
There were four of the creatures; kind of a lizard look about them, big and ugly and mean, and like nothing I'd encountered before. I'd had a vision of them causing a massacre in a bar close by the office, so the three of us had headed over to intercept them in a back street before they could get there.
I was aware, in the background, of Wesley getting the crap beat out of him by another of the things. Faith had dealt with one of her two pretty comprehensively - it lay motionless on the ground underneath the demon-shaped indent it had made in the brick wall of the tall building at our backs - and now she was chipping away at the other's defences.
She seemed to be on top of things. Which was definitely a good, because unless she could finish off quick and get to Wesley's aid and mine, we might very well have a serious problem.
I kicked out at the demon and it dodged lazily, with a mocking ease. This was not good. I tried to keep my eyes on the creature while scanning the ground for the knife I'd lost early on in the fight. It had to be around somewhere.
Wesley, several metres beyond, was getting his arm wrenched behind him almost to the point of dislocation, and his face bashed into the concrete. He'd lost his glasses somewhere. He needed help bad, and if it wasn't forthcoming from Faith-
Shit. Where was that knife? I couldn't see it anywhere.
My numbed arm was recovering some feeling, for all that it quivered as though still reverberating from the force of the blow, and I used it to search my pockets, keeping the other arm free to defend against the creature.
My fingers touched a stake, not quite so useful for demons of the non-vampire persuasion, but better than nothing. I drew it out and almost fumbled switching hands - couldn't deliver a slap with the right one at the moment, let alone drive a length of sharpened wood through several inches of dense flesh.
The demon laughed. "Do I look like a vampire?" it hissed.
Funny, was it? I thought savagely. I feinted at its heart and then stabbed the stake through its neck, where the scales looked more vulnerably soft. Had to reach quite high to get on target; these things were a good bit taller than me.
Mistake. Left me wide open, and the injury wouldn't kill it quick. With my other arm still as good as useless, I couldn't do anything about the demon's instant retaliatory bash.
It sent me sprawling several yards, seeing stars and turning demon-face, and for a long moment I lay where I landed staring up at the night sky and convinced it had powdered something important inside me.
I wrenched myself up onto hands and knees, then immediately fell back, dizzy. I tried again, making it to my knees this time. The world spun in crazy circles.
I stayed demon 'cause if I didn't I thought I was probably gonna end up dead, and for that matter so was Wesley if someone didn't get to him quick.
The creature I'd stabbed was whipping its head around and coughing as though it hoped to dislodge the stake stubbornly stuck in its throat, ends of wood growing out from beneath its jaw and the base of its skull. It hissed in rage as it caught sight of me trying to get up again and started to stagger my way, clearly in its death throes and pretty set upon taking its killer along with it, constantly falling and clawing its way upright again.
I saw Wesley's opponent twine its claws through the Watcher's hair and take a grip on his shoulder - preparatory, I knew, to a twist and snap that would break his neck. Wesley's face was a mask of blood and he looked as though he was only just hanging on to consciousness, barely struggling now.
What was Faith up to? I risked a glance, awkwardly attempting to get my feet under me despite the fact it felt like all the bone in my legs had been switched with rubber, aware of the dying demon trying to reach me.
Faith was still slapping her half-dead opponent around.
"Faith!" I yelled urgently. "Leave off and help Wesley!"
She carried on, oblivious, totally engrossed in what she was doing.
I looked back to Wesley - and spied my knife, then. It was on the ground inches away from where his right hand sprawled limp and unmoving. "Wesley - knife!" I yelled, futilely, knowing he didn't have enough left in him for the advice to do any good. Desperation lent me strength and I finally managed to regain my feet. I lurched unsteadily to his aid.
Didn't get very far.
Should have been concentrating more on lookin' after my own skin. The injured demon had gotten too close. I ducked a swipe of its claws at the last possible moment. In its weak state it overbalanced and fell on me.
I didn't have much in the way of balance just then myself, so I fell too, and the demon landed heavily on top. Crushing me between its weight and the floor, it did more damage by accident than it had yet on purpose. I scrabbled to fight it off, aware with a sick horror that Wesley was probably dead by now.
"Faith!" I yelled, a shout that was strangled off by clawed hands on my throat. From my skewed angle of view I could see all too well what was happening with her.
Unfortunately. While Wesley and I were fighting for our lives, she was all wrapped up in beating her own already well and truly defeated demon into a small, soggy stain on the concrete.
My head was spinning, consciousness threatening to depart. The demon was a lot heavier than I was and I didn't at close quarters stand much of a chance against it. I managed the leverage to get in a decent headbutt, but my opponent was beyond caring about a couple of superficial puncture wounds in the face. It was already dead anyway. I couldn't breathe around its claws on my neck and without a weapon there wasn't a thing I could do to make it die any quicker.
I realised sickly I was about to get dead and Faith was too busy carving her initials on that demon to care.
Everything disappeared into fuzzy dark.
I couldn't have been out for more than an instant before I was distantly aware of the demon's grip loosening, of being able to breathe again. The creature had become just a lifeless, heavy weight - one which someone quickly pulled off me.
I gasped in air. I could hear my rescuer's own frantic breathing; ragged, pained. It didn't sound like Faith.
I blinked, stared up at the shadow unsteadily standing over me. Features came slowly into focus.
"Are you all right?" he asked, breathless but as clipped and incongruously polite and proper as usual. He had my knife in his hand and the blade dripped the demons' thick yellow blood. His own face was coated with red.
I recovered enough from my surprise to shake off my demon form, and felt even more tired and battered in the absence of the demon's extra strength. He held out a hand to help me up, but I wasn't in any condition to even try just yet, so I waved him off and stayed where I was.
Wesley said, shakily, "I thought I was dead there for sure. Lucky you saw this." He held up the knife in illustration. Wrinkling up his nose in disgust, he wiped the blade off on the dead demon's back, then extended the knife back to me. His hand, holding the knife, shook ludicrously - even more than mine, accepting it.
He sat down heavily on the pavement. His pale suit was a mess of blood and street-grime. His gaze drifted and fixed on something. I followed its direction.
Faith was still at work on the remaining demon. It was face-down to the concrete, and not about to harm anything in its current condition, but she continued to batter on at it. I turned away, sickened not so much by what she was doing to the demon as by the expression of focused enthusiasm on her face as she did it.
Wesley got up again and staggered over to restrain her, his hands flapping and his voice stuttering his incredulity. "Faith! What do you think you're doing? You almost got us both killed!"
I could tell that approach was never gonna work with Faith. I sometimes wonder if Wesley will ever learn that. She spun around on him, fists raised, her lips drawn back in a fightin' snarl. Still ready to do more damage.
Pity she can't always direct that damage in the right place. Wesley fell back. She relented, and didn't hit him - just as well, since I think he'd had enough for one day.
She laughed and wiped her bloody hands on her pants, then ran her fingers through her hair. She was hardly breathing heavy. The unreasoning excitement of battle dissipated from her eyes as she wound down from the fight.
She frowned at the blood and exhaustion on Wesley, then shrugged. "You look like shit, Watcher," she said, without the slightest hint of concern. Her gaze slid past him to me, and her confident, devil-may-care expression looked a fraction more strained. "Doyle! You all right?" Whether her faint surprise was at my physical state or the fact she cared at all, it was impossible to tell.
Right then, I couldn't bring myself to answer. Unfortunately, Wesley had no such problem. "You almost got both of us killed," he repeated. "Doyle would have died if it hadn't been for my intervention."
"You were so wrapped up in the unnecessary pummelling of that wretched creature, you failed to help us when we needed you. It came that close, Faith-" He held out his hand with his fingers a fraction of an inch apart in illustration. "That close to both of us being killed, and where would that leave you? We will need to have a serious talk about this, later. Indeed we will."
Faith cast a desperate look at me, but I didn't feel like standing up for her right then. Whatever there might sometimes be shared between us when she was feelin' playful, and whether Wesley was being an ass or not - though he was dead right about the content, if not perhaps the method and timing of its delivery.
I met her gaze with expressionless silence and turned away to engage in the difficult process of peeling myself off the ground.
Maybe that was a mistake. But I wasn't feeling too clever right then.
She gave Wesley a glare carrying so much venom it could've knocked him dead on the spot. "Talk. Later. Right." She looked around at the demons, two dead, two groaning, her face a mask of aggressive sarcasm. "Well, I got two, and seems you only got two between the both of you, so I guess that leaves you boys with the clean-up work. Later, guys. You have fun, now." With that she spun on her heel and stalked off. The roll of her hips emphasized that arrogant slayer swagger even more than usual.
On her way she finished off the two downed demons with short, violent jabs of her boot to each scaled neck, punctuated by loud snaps.
Wesley sighed, and walked painfully back to me, just in time to stop me falling over again when I finally achieved a vertical state.
"That girl does try one's patience," he said, in his most pompous tones. Smiling smugly, he retrieved his glasses from the ground and snagged a handkerchief from a pocket to wipe the blood from his face. I noticed now it had mostly come from a long, shallow cut across his forehead and a bloody nose, for all it had looked horrendous.
"Still," Wesley added, "At least this little debacle has proved something." He paused as though it was self-evident, then continued, a fraction irritably but mostly with an inflated arrogance, "A Watcher always comes through in the worst of situations. Perhaps now I'll receive some of the respect around here that a trained member of the Council ought." He smiled like the Cheshire Cat.
Incredulous, I stared at him for long enough to affirm he really wasn't joking.
Then, I followed Faith's example. And walked. Well, staggered, at any rate. Not after her, mind, but towards the nearest bar.
Leaving Wesley to stand airing peeved sighs and muttering to himself in the midst of the carnage.
And, yeah, I know I should be used to them by now, but it's hard when every time I think we're starting to get somewhere, to make something of this deal we've got going here, they do something like this and remind me how isolated we all still are for all we work close most hours of the day and night fighting evil. After seeing off demons, vampires, elemental spirits and the Watchers Council, you'd think we'd be more of a well-oiled machine by now, but we're still all gears, no mesh - except for the sex, but that's a different question. They say there's no 'I' in 'team,' but for Faith it's the only letter in the alphabet. Sometimes I wonder if she'd even blink if she woke up one morning and Wes and I were gone.
Not that it's just her, mind. There're plenty of other things putting that distance in the way - Wesley's stiff standoffishness hardly having been improved any by recently seeing his would-be-girlfriend consigned to an existence as a host for the aforementioned spirit, and I daresay I got my faults too.
But sometimes, I think Faith's only getting worse.
I don't know if anything I say ever really reaches her. It's like her views are formed in concrete despite her youth; everything's about violence, indulgence, living fast. I don't know where she's going. I can't see her lasting through life like this. When I try to visualize what she might be like in the future, I can't see her at fifty.
Hell, I can't see her at twenty.
And I'm not talkin' about whether she'll survive that long living the hefty-risk lifestyle of a slayer. Though I can't say I don't think about that. A lot. But when you're that unbendable, something's gotta crack sooner or later. When you spend every day only trying to stay alive, when the world is your enemy and your life is run by a stuffy institution who for the most part stay thousands of miles out of your danger... well. And what kind of a life is that anyway?
There's a thing or two I'd like to say to this Council of Watchers, that's for sure.
If I've got anything to do with it, if there's a difference I can make, I'll see her survive in spite of them. I've grown kinda fond of having her around. Too fond, probably. I knew from the start what she was about.
I know our relationship - if you could even call it that - is nothing more to her than a means to assuage her slayer-size appetites.
I stayed in the smoky little bar a while, brooding over a couple of drinks. I didn't really have much enthusiasm for the drinking, though, for once.
My shabby, dishevelled state was drawing stares, and after an hour or so the evening was beginning to catch up with me and I felt so tired and battered all I wanted to do was go home and drop. No matter whether I might find Faith waiting in my apartment when I got there.
So I went back. I found my apartment empty, but could hear somebody upstairs in the office. I went up there and stuck my head around the door to see Wesley sat at my desk, working away.
His nose was embedded in a book, and there were volumes and manuscripts strewn all across my desk, half a dozen sets of opened pages gaping up at the ceiling. From where I stood I could spy a rather idealised depiction of one of the demons we'd been fighting earlier.
Ah, research. Diligent guy, Wesley.
He glanced up as I walked in, arching his brows and peering at me through his glasses as though I was some sort of academic curiosity he'd just uncovered. I noticed he'd cleaned up and the only sign now remaining of his earlier sorry state was a band-aid on his forehead and a slightly thick lip. He looked just fine. I wondered what I looked like.
Something the cat dragged in, probably.
He seemed surprised but not displeased to see me back. Which was probably more than I deserved after walking off and leaving him on his own with the clean-up work.
I'll say that about Wes, he doesn't hold a grudge.
He held a finger to his lips and pointed across the room. To Faith. My first thought was disbelief that they'd been alone together for any length of time after earlier events without one or the other of them walking out at the very least. But then I saw that Faith rested, snoring softly, in an inelegant sprawl across a chair, and figured she'd probably been sleeping since before Wesley arrived.
She had a couple of empty beer bottles in the crook of her elbow, and an empty tub of ice cream lay discarded on her lap. She looked precisely as young as she was.
Times like this, she messes with my head most of all.
I looked back to Wesley and jerked a thumb over my shoulder, indicating the elevator down to the basement which served as my home. Figured we could have a quiet talk there without waking her, discuss a few of the things that needed to be said.
After a moment's blank incomprehension, Wesley got the message, nodded, carefully put all his books and papers aside very quietly, stood, took one step - and fell over his own feet, landing with a crash.
Faith snorted her way to wakefulness and raised her head, looking around intently, as though she expected to find a demon - some other demon - in the office.
Wesley picked himself up from the floor and said, meekly, "Sorry."
"Nice one, Wes." Faith gave him a sarcastic round of applause then unfolded her slim body from the chair and looked me up and down critically. If there was any concern in there, it was well hidden. "You look better. Not a lot, mind, but better. Doesn't take much effort to guess where you've been."
"Yeah, well. I view almost gettin' dead as a good excuse to down a pint or two."
She took that as an accusation, although I hadn't actually meant it that way. I winced as the look on her face told me I'd started the argument I'd been hoping to avoid.
"Yeah?" she said, aggressively defensive. Her mouth stretched into that crooked, mocking sneer I've come to recognise as a warning I'm about to be verbally worked over by an expert. "Ever think maybe you're in the wrong business, Mr. Backbone? Maybe you should've stuck to teaching little kids. Hell, I reckon most of my teachers were probably demons in disguise anyway, so it's not as though you wouldn't have been in like company."
"Faith," Wesley began. His face and tone were all disapproving father-figure, and I winced, wondering how he could be so oblivious to how much that pissed her off.
"You keep outta this," I snapped. It came out more harshly than I'd actually intended; I was just anxious to shut him up, since Wesley's input into any argument with Faith only makes her worse, however good his intentions.
"Yeah, Wussley," Faith drawled. "It's not like anyone asked you to be here in the first place, Watcher. Hey, that's a good one. You, a Watcher? You couldn't watch a pan of water without letting it burn."
"Faith..." Oh, man, now I was doing it. I snapped my mouth shut, too late.
"Why can't you guys just loosen up?" she spat back. "You both look alive to me. Five by five, no harm done! You think you can't handle yourselves? - fine, don't come with me. If I look out for you in the middle of a fight, I end up getting dead! You know how that is, Doyle? I thought you used to be good at this. Lately, you suck. And d'you know why?"
She paused, as though expecting an answer. When she didn't get one she continued, more aggressively than before. "Well, I'll give you a clue - You might fight better if you weren't so goddamned busy watching what we're doing! It's not like I can't take care of myself. Hell, better than you or anyone can; I don't need anybody watching out for me! And as for Wesley..." she hesitated, then shoved her hands in her pockets and shrugged her shoulders with an elaborate show of indifference. "Plenty more pansy-assed watcher types where he came from," she drawled sarcastically.
Wesley looked shocked, at that last part. I tried to convince myself she didn't really mean it.
Maybe she didn't. There wasn't that much malice in the girl. I hoped.
About the rest of it, though... she's right. I do look out for them. Slayer or not, and whatever she says, however she acts, Faith's still pretty much a kid. Not an innocent, perhaps, but still only seventeen. And Wesley... he's much more of an innocent than she is, for all he's a decade her senior.
I thought back to the fight. Yeah, she was right.
But when you're working with others, you watch out for them. At least in theory. I learned that in the LAPD. It's only a disadvantage if others aren't doing the same for you. I learned that there, too.
I couldn't see a lecture on that particular theory working with Faith. Girl ain't much of a team player.
Her gaze shifted between Wesley and myself, defiant with challenge and a hint of nervous trepidation. She had taken her hands out of her pockets and fallen automatically into a combat-ready stance, rocking back on her heels jauntily as she waited for a response.
Getting mad now, I thought, would only make her take off again. And it worries the hell outta me when she does that, no matter she's always come back so far. Struck me as an option to avoid.
I had barely started to frame a placating reply when the pain hit.
Being interrupted mid-thought by blinding agony was so familiar to me by now that it took a moment for me to realise it wasn't a vision.
It wasn't a vision, but it smarted like anything, just the same.
This was kind of a burning sensation, like nothing I'd ever felt before, which flooded my senses without warning, setting all my nerve endings alight with agony.
"Oh, my," Wesley breathed. Faith's mouth had dropped open, astonishment leaving her speechless, though unfortunately I was in no position just then to appreciate this rare event.
I lowered the hand I'd automatically raised to my forehead in anticipation of a vision, and stared in disbelief at the exposed skin of my hands. A strange light seemed to be burrowing outwards from under my skin, new patches of it forming and growing even as I watched. Where it touched, it burned, and it was spreading. Patches met other patches and merged.
What it felt like now reduced the sensation a few seconds earlier to an itch. It felt like I was being burned up from the inside out.
"What the...?" I looked to Wesley. Was this some kind of spell? If so, he knew a whole lot more about that sort of thing than I did.
If it was a spell, it was nothing well-intentioned. My whole body felt like it was burning up, like there'd be nothing left of me any second but ashes, just like any of the vampires we'd dusted.
A nicely ironic way to go, considerin'.
Wesley, the only one of us in any way qualified to defend against something like this, was preoccupied trying to keep a white-knuckled hold on Faith. A losing battle, I knew. Faith was straining forward to get to me; Wesley was holding up against her better than I'd ever have imagined he would, but it couldn't last.
"Faith, no," I heard his desperate voice faintly, through a haze of static. The room seemed to be getting an impossibly long way away. "It's some sort of malign magic. God knows, he must have made enough enemies over the years. There's nothing you can do except get caught up in it too. It could kill you."
"Like it could be killing him! I've got to do something!" Faith broke his grip - and probably very nearly his arm - and lunged forward.
"No, Faith!" Wesley cried, with futile horror. "It won't do any good for you both to..."
Oh, man. If I had to go the last thing I wanted was to take her with me. But there was nothing I could do to stop her. I couldn't move, pinned there by the sorcerous light. All I could do was watch as she reached out to me, her face a mask of determination...
No. She hadn't missed. That slayer hand-eye co-ordination didn't miss. Her hand had gone straight through me.
I realised I could see the floor through my magic-lined arms.
Damn it, I was being disintegrated. Burned up, slowly. In a moment there'd be nothing left-
Wesley was right. I had made a whole lot of enemies in this city. Some of them had tried to send people out after me more than once, in the past, and received a pile of dead or battered minions for their pains. And some of them - dark thoughts of lawyers flitted across my mind - might even have the financial whack to pay for me to be dispensed with by magic, from afar.
I should have thought to have my own protections set up against this kind of attack. Heck, I'd even had Wesley and his books available on hand there for a couple of months.
Too late now.
In the instant before I was too busy concentrating on dyin' to see anything much of the room around me at all, I heard Faith's scream.
It was a cry of rage and distress, a sound which tore itself out of her lips with a passion and fury I'd never dared let myself believe I could ever evoke in her.
'She must've been beginning to care, after all, to dredge up a cry like that,' I thought as the world receded. 'Damn it all, now I'll never know if we really could've had somethin' together.'
It was the last thought I took with me into the darkness.
I spent a long time in a fuzzy semi-aware state, wondering vaguely whether the demon in me meant I was bound for hell despite everything I'd done.
After about half an eternity it dawned on my overtaxed brain that I could still feel my body, and that there was far too much very real hurtin' going on in there for me to have crossed over to the other side quite yet.
I was lying on a hard, cold surface which chilled to the bone even through my layers of clothing. To be honest, a little hellfire might have been an improvement.
Fire... I recalled being burned alive. Didn't feel burned now. Just aching, the bruises from the earlier fight intensified now by the chill. And dead tired, like I'd had about fifty visions each after the other.
Which was all still pretty good considerin' I'd never expected to feel anything again.
My senses continued to return gradually, and I became aware that, wherever I was, there were others close by. At first the voices floated through my brain as distant noises without any trace of meaning. As time passed the sounds became words, and the words started to arrange themselves into sentences with some degree of coherence.
Two distinct men's voices, each snappish and irritable, each speaker obviously less than friendly with the other.
I peered out through slitted-open eyes, but I was lying face down and I couldn't see anything except their nifty, expensive and absolutely-bloody-freezing polished stone tile floor.
I stayed exactly as I was, resisting the temptation to try inch my head around for a better view. Whatever they'd brought me here for, I was pretty damned certain it wasn't anything good. I didn't want them to know I was awake and aware. Let them talk on, oblivious. Meantime, I'd absorb all the information I could about what in hell's name was goin' on.
"It didn't look like it went too well to me," one of the guys was saying. His voice was sneeringly aggressive, oddly muffled, slightly nasal, and he used the tone of someone addressing an employee. "The senior partners will be displeased."
Senior partners... Goddamned bloody lawyers. I might have known.
"Oh, come off it, now. What do you take me for? I'm quite aware you wanted the second spell yourself," replied a smooth, dry, amused voice in a decidedly English accent. The speaker obviously wasn't remotely impressed by his companion's attempt to pull rank on him. "The senior partners didn't mention anything about it. Besides, the spell worked perfectly, I felt it, so either the answer to your problems doesn't exist, or he's leverage against both people you're after. I'd go with the first personally - psychotic murderers tend not to collect too many friends you can use against them."
So this was the guy who'd magicked me here. Bastard.
"Looked to me like you had a hard time even getting him here. And as for the second spell, I think the sum we paid ought to deliver more than a fifty percent success rate. Aside from which... do you really want to go back where we found you?"
"He's here. I've done everything that was officially asked to cover my obligation to you people. As for the rest, I'd stay the threats. Do you really want me to mention to the senior partners your attempts to use their resources for your personal vendettas?"
"Look, Rayne..." The guy - the lawyer - floundered, sputtering to a halt, and changed the subject to a different gripe. "Are you sure you even brought him back? He still looks pretty dead to me."
'Dead...?' My thoughts parroted with alarm.
The lawyer continued, oblivious, thankfully missing any visible reaction I let slip in my shock. "It's no use to the senior partners if you've magicked them a corpse. They may think you're the man for these things, but I've done my research. I know your magic's screwy as hell. Practical jokes seem to be the best your tricks amount to. Costumes and candy bars. You couldn't raise a dead hamster."
A kick connected with my side without warning. I managed to change a yell of pain into what I hoped was a close approximation of a semi-conscious moan. "He's alive," Rayne's voice said dryly, clipped.
All this raising the dead talk... I'd not thought I could feel any more chilled, but I could feel it now, like splinters of ice running through my veins.
I'd thought I was dying. Rayne's spell had been to raise the dead. And he seemed pretty darn sure he'd succeeded.
Had I died after all, back in the office?
"He could be the wrong guy." Lawyer-boy was a persistent little weasel, give him that, his drawl measured and sarcastic. "He doesn't look much like the picture we have."
"Mercer, the picture you've got is so out of focus it barely looks human. He's Doyle. The spell was tied to his name, his identity. It's impossible that it could have brought anyone else."
Lawyer-boy descended into sullen silence. Rayne paced about the room inaudibly muttering to himself. After a few seconds Mercer said, insistently, "What about Faith, then?"
Her name jolted through me like an electric shock. Again, I had to have betrayed some kind of visible reaction, but their attention must've been elsewhere.
"What about her? You shouldn't be so surprised a murdering maniac doesn't have anyone close enough to use against them. Too bad, you'll just have to find some other way to get at her."
Another jolt. Murdering maniac, my Faith? Well, I guess the impression she makes upon the guys on the other side can't be too pleasant... But the description disturbed me, all the same, coming from a lackey of Wolfram and Hart of all people.
Mercer said, "I have one already. How about if I were to give you a little extra, to go after her separately? The senior partners don't have to worry, and we can forget mentioning anything to them about... anything else."
It occurred to me that if Faith was the other party they'd mentioned, I didn't have the slightest idea who it could possibly be they thought they could use me against. Surely not Wesley. And not Kate either, nobody would ever fool themselves into thinking she'd give in to that kind of coercion. It was baffling.
I couldn't think of a single other person who'd care enough what happened to me to be a possibility. They had to have made some kind of mistake.
One thing for sure, walking dead man or not, if they were going after Faith, I had to get away from there and warn her. Whatever the hell else was going on, and however mad the world had suddenly become.
Rayne was making indecisive noises which I interpreted to mean he'd accept but only after letting Mercer wonder about the answer for a while. He changed the subject - back to me. "Is he dangerous? You did say he was supposed to be some sort of demon hybrid, so perhaps you'd better restrain him before he wakes up. Because if he wakes up peeved, my magic goes towards saving my own skin. It's not in my contract to protect lawyers."
"He's not dangerous." Mercer's voice dripped contempt, though whether it was directed at me or Rayne was impossible to tell. "Far as I'm aware, he was just the Undead Avenger's messenger-boy, halfbreed demon or no."
Rayne grunted. "Better find something to restrain him with anyway. I noticed Wolfram and Hart has quite the collection of manacles, not to mention a uniquely expansive store of weaponry for a law firm." He chuckled, seeming greatly amused by the operation.
Sounded like my cue to leave. I'd learned as much as I would from these guys for the moment and I had no intention of ending up in chains. Plus, I didn't know who this fellow they were after might be, but their dismissal of me as no threat was just irritating. After all the trouble I'd given the lawyer-types in the past, I'd have hoped to rate a little more than that.
They couldn't have gotten me mixed up with someone else, could they?
Some other half-demon called Doyle? Oh, yeah.
I'd been listening carefully to the direction their voices and footfalls came from, trying to follow their progress in relation to me. I decided it would be best to take out the magical threat first, since I already had an idea what Rayne's magic could do to me.
Rayne was a pacer and I knew, following the betraying sounds of his feet and his dry, sarcastic voice that he should be quite close to me.
In fact, just about there...
I snapped my eyes open, rolled over, shot out a hand to grab an ankle, and wrenched the guy's legs from under him.
'Cept it wasn't quite that easy. My whole body was stiff from the cold and the enforced stillness, and put up considerable protest to the idea of moving. And my right arm, injured in the fight earlier, still wasn't up to much.
I managed to execute the manoeuvre in a series of clumsy, lurching motions. It only worked because neither of the guys had any clue I was even awake.
Rayne fell heavily and gracelessly, his long lanky form stretching itself across the floor with a brief curse that was cut off as his head hit the hard tiles. Satisfied he wasn't gonna be giving me any trouble for the time being, I turned my attention to Mercer.
Lawyer-boy, obviously no fool - and no hero either - was already practically out the door and opening his mouth to yell for assistance. I was somewhat surprised to see he had his neck in a stiff cast, and a bandage on one arm. Recalling the vendetta he had goin' against Faith, I wondered now if that was the result of a recent first-hand encounter.
I lunged for him, desperate to stop his yell for help. This required getting to my feet, which I sort of managed. My momentum carried me to him and gave out neatly in time for me to fall on him, dragging him down and cutting off his shout.
My hand over his mouth prevented him from attempting any further cries. He tried to sink his teeth into my palm and I leaned my weight hard against his neck cast. He got out a muffled curse, and something that sounded a lot like, "You fight as dirty as she does."
Guy must've met Faith.
Neither of us was currently in particularly good shape, but I knew what I was doing while all the fighting he was used to took place in a courtroom.
He managed to get in a couple of decent shots that didn't improve my day any, but following a few minutes of close, vicious scuffle, experience won out and when I'd bashed his head against the floor a few times he joined his cohort in a reluctant nap.
I rolled aside and lay on my back, breathing heavily, staring up at the ceiling. Trying to gather the energy to stand.
Someone might have heard. Someone might come in to check on these two. I had to move, and soon, because I was pretty sure I'd used up all the fight left in me for the time being.
If I didn't get out of there quick I'd be in chains, as they'd intended, with the only result of all my efforts that I'd be watched a hell of a lot more closely.
And then there was Faith.
I had to get back to her, back to the office. That cry, that look on her face when she thought I was dying... or, I guess I was dying...
Still didn't know quite what to think about that one. Couldn't wrap my brain around the idea I'd been raised from the dead.
Anyway, I had to let her know I was still around.
I forced my uncooperative muscles into action and made a painful progress to my feet. The circulation and feeling was returning to my limbs, but doing it in such a manner it made me kinda wish it wasn't.
I contemplated the unconscious Mercer and Rayne for a moment. I could kill them, end any further threat they posed to Faith and myself... but whatever else they were or they'd done, they were still human, and I wasn't entirely happy at the thought of slaughtering them while they lay helpless.
I pinched Mercer's suit, but otherwise left them as they were.
The suit was a little large, but it would have to do. I'd be far too conspicuous walking out of the basement and through the corridors of Wolfram and Hart's office building in my own battered and slightly charred clothes.
I ascended the stairs to the basement exit and stood for a long moment in front of the closed door.
Then, gathering up all the tatters of my composure, ignoring my various hurts, I pushed open the door and walked out of there. Through the corridors, past various employees, exchanging the occasional nod with a passing suit. I got to the foyer without discovery or even suspicion. Nobody spared me a second glance as I left via the main doors.
Emerging into the sunshine and petrol fumes of the LA streets.
The world outside that door was different from the LA I knew.
The moment my feet hit the sun-baked sidewalk, it felt like I was walking through the streets of an alien city.
I couldn’t quite pin down why, exactly. But it seemed as though the very air was more relaxed, and the shadows were lighter, and the people moved easier - and everyone appeared less aware of the vampire threat than ever.
What could have happened in the time that I’d been... gone? And how much time were we talking about here anyway?
With that thought in mind, I stopped at a news stand on the next street corner to glance at a paper.
Damn... I stared at the date on the paper, uncomprehending, as the information slowly sank in. May 6, 2000. I tried to remember what day it had been and got a fuzzy last-coupla-days-of November back from my sluggish memory. Wherever I'd been, I'd been there almost six months. So long... It must be true, after all. Rayne really had brought me back from the dead.
And a lot could happen in that length of time.
I flicked through the paper, studying it more closely. Couldn’t find a single obviously vampire-related story within. Killings and attacks in abundance, yeah, as always, but next to nothing that screamed ‘supernatural’.
I stared blankly at the open pages, no longer really seeing the tiny black print. What the hell had happened to the world? Had somebody - maybe even Faith - finally put an end to the Master in Sunnydale?
Somehow, that thought didn’t cheer me in the least. In fact, it turned me cold all over, the very idea of a world without the vampire threat. What was I, after all, without this fight? Only another one of the demons, when it came down to it, with no real place in the human world.
Once upon a time there’d been a happily married third grade teacher called Allen Francis Doyle... until the day demons ate his wife, and he discovered the reason they didn’t eat him too was because he was half one of them himself. After that, he turned himself into a vampire-killing machine, stripping from himself and his life everything else that had ever mattered, everything else that had made up the man he‘d been...
I’d never imagined myself living in a world without the vampires. I’d only imagined myself dying to help create it.
This was gonna to take some adjustment.
I thought back to Wolfram and Hart and brightened slightly at the reminder that there were always the lawyers left to fight.
My brain still shied away from the concept of having died. I couldn’t really take it in. Only an hour or so ago... or so it still felt to me... it had been business as normal. And now, the world had suddenly changed.
Faith and Wesley... as far as they were concerned I‘d been six months dead. I wondered if they’d missed me. I wondered if they’d grieved for me.
I tried to picture Faith grieving over anything, but my brain had even more trouble making that leap than accepting my death. My imagination rebelled at the effort of stretching so far.
It was still better than the picture would have been three months ago... oh, hell, nine months ago... before I’d met her and Wes. Back then, pretty much everyone I knew remotely well would’ve received the news of my demise with a shrug and a "Well, you can’t say he didn’t have it coming to him." Kate might have gotten drunk in my memory, maybe a few of the PD guys would‘ve joined her for appearance‘s sake. Nobody else would’ve cared.
I realised I was receiving sour looks from the guy who ran the news stand. "You gonna pay for that?"
"Yeah." I reached into my pocket then remembered it wasn’t mine. What was more, it was empty. My own wallet was in my jacket, which I’d taken off at the office that n... a lot longer ago, apparently, than it felt like to me. "Uh, no. Sorry." I reluctantly put down the paper and moved on.
The exertions of the fight still lined my limbs with an insistent ache, making any movement a chore. I wondered how that could be, if I’d been brought back from the dead. Maybe it was the process itself which had done it, and I was only relating it to the fight because that was what I remembered. But that didn’t explain why my arm still hurt. Perhaps Rayne’s spell had brought me back in the condition I’d been in when I’d ‘died’.
The bruises Mercer had added to the collection ached too, and though I was beginning to feel better than I had since Rayne’s spell had dropped me in Wolfram and Hart’s basement, I sure didn’t feel like tackling the distance to the office on foot.
I could have done with a good long rest. A few hours sleep... a long drink... not necessarily in that order. But I had to get back to warn Faith. And Wesley too, assuming he was still around.
Realising that wasn’t a given concerned me more than I’d have expected. Rayne and Mercer had made no mention of Wesley. And in six months, in our sort of dangerous business, he could easily be dead by now.
Pushed onwards by the urgent need to know they were both all right, I started to walk, fast as I could manage.
The office was different too. I smelled it as soon as I walked inside.
For one thing, it stank of vampire. Not a good sign.
I’d had to pick the lock to get in the front door. Now I closed it quietly behind me and took the elevator up to the office.
I found it silent and empty. It looked like everyone was out.
The scent of Fiend of the Night was still unnervingly strong in there, and somebody had rearranged the furniture a bit sometime in the last several months, but you could tell Wesley at least was still around from the painfully neat little stacks of papers and books dotted about the place, much to my relief. I was half afraid that Faith would have killed him herself one of these days, with her temper, never mind the forces of evil.
I supposed it was good to know they’d carried on after my demise, fighting the good fight and all that. But it felt peculiar, lookin’ around that place and thinking of them in my office without me.
I wondered whose was that third personality that marked the place like a dark cloud - and why Faith seemed to have taken to wearing cheap perfume and actually keeping a desk, albeit a somewhat messy excuse for one.
I got back into the elevator and took it down to the basement flat. Maybe there’d be somebody down there.
What I found was a basement flat that wasn’t my home any more.
When I walked into its dim, unlit rooms I was surrounded by somebody else’s things, under a barrage of impressions of another personality inhabiting the space that my subconscious still perceived as my own. Some of this was real nice stuff; antique books, weapons... not the junk it’d been filled with when it was mine; the debris of bottles and papers and unwashed clothes. It sent a fierce shiver down my spine to see it all so changed.
It wasn’t Faith or Wesley who was living there, either. Of that, I was certain. It was way off either of their styles. This was someone distinct. Someone new.
They’d got another person in. Someone in my place... I told myself sternly that the automatic stab of resentment that idea provoked was completely illogical - I’d been dead, gone. But it still sucked.
I wandered through the apartment that still felt like it ought to be mine, and at the same time felt so alien, trying to locate any sign that I’d ever lived there.
There was nothing.
The smell of vampire hung around there as well, stronger than ever. And I realised abruptly that it wasn’t only much stronger, but also fresh.
When I’d found the lights switched off I’d automatically assumed the place was empty. Of course, I hadn’t considered the possibility that there might be another intruder in the place. I’d let my guard down, surrounded by too much to take in. Too busy wrestling with feelings of alienation and loss, I’d managed to disregard completely the instincts I‘d developed over the years since Harry‘s death.
I switched to demon, to utilise the stronger senses of that form to sniff out the vamp, and that was when a voice behind me remarked in low, sarcastic tones, "I didn‘t think you could be human. You smell of magic."
I spun around to face him. In the dim light I couldn’t see much more than a shadow. A pretty bulky shadow, at that. Broad shouldered, tall - taller than me, needless to say. He was dressed in black, an ensemble finished off with a big coat that draped around his form like a cloak. Every bit the modern vamp of style.
I shook off the demon form, feeling my face twist into a human snarl as the frustrations of the day took over and joined forces with carefully honed instincts and adrenaline to override my general exhaustion.
I didn’t waste time with the small talk but opened with a sweeping kick at his ankles intended to drag his legs out from under him. Hoping to finish it quick.
He jumped neatly over the kick and threw back a punch which smashed straight through my attempt to block and caught the side of my face a glancing blow as I was moving to avoid it. I slammed backwards several feet until the wall stopped me, none too gently.
Damn it. This was a serious vampire, no fledgling like the usual fare.
With one arm still pretty lousy and feeling generally a lot less than my best, I began to suspect this wasn’t a fight I should’ve been so eager to rush into.
Well, there was nothing I could do now to avoid it. It was a case of win or die... Uh, die again, at any rate.
I recovered to duck under another punch and managed to land one of my own which knocked him flat. He sprung up again in a second, with a sort of back-flip. No shortage of fancy moves, there.
I pressed the advantage, pushing my attack while he was still recovering his balance. And though he staggered under the barrage of hits, I knew he’d recover in seconds as soon as I let up. I looked around the room frantically for anything vaguely resembling a stake.
In my distraction, though, I wasn’t watching him close enough, and after a flurry of motion and pain, the next I knew I was caught in a truly vicious arm-lock, my already damaged arm twisted around behind my back and threatening to snap under the pressure of his undead grip.
"Now, who are you and what are you doing here?" his voice growled, low and soft, next to my ear. The pressure on my arm increased as he spoke. Any moment, the bones would snap like twigs.
I was trying to gather together the energy to switch back to demon form, but answered to give him something else to think about in the hope he’d hold off breaking my arm. "I work here," I snapped, hearing my voice harsh and curt through the pain. "What’s your excuse?"
My words died away, though, because he’d stopped, the pressure on my arm vanishing, the instant I’d spoken. He let go of me as though I’d burned him.
I spun around to face him, and got a good look at him up close for the first time.
He was staring, blankly, in disbelief. "Doyle?" he asked, stunned.
I’d never seen him before in my life.
And I wasn’t about to hang around to chat with vampires, whether they claimed to know me or not. I swung round to put my foot through a nearby wooden chair, splintering it into bits, and snatched up a broken section of the frame that would serve as a stake.
I lunged forward to stake him, but the expression on his face made me hesitate. He looked like he recognised me... he looked horrified. There was a depth of pain and sadness in those dark eyes that I’d never thought any vampire could possess.
But... vampires were soulless, evil. No exceptions. I shook it off. And by then, it was already too late.
"Put that down, buddy," a female voice commanded, as I raised the stake again. "Unless you want to accessorise with some serious body piercing."
A tall, dark-haired girl was pointing a crossbow at me from the doorway, and there was a definite mean edge to her voice that told me she‘d probably carry out that threat happily enough, given a reason. I let the stake fall from my hand. It hit the floor with a hollow clatter.
"Cordelia," the vampire said urgently, inclining his head desperately in my direction.
"What? Did you hurt your neck?" her tone was caustic and dismissive, and I had a feeling it was also normal. "Hey, don’t you ever turn the lights on in here, Mr Sit in the Dark and Brood?"
She clicked across the floor in her impractically heeled shoes and flicked the switch, unwisely taking her hand off the crossbow for an instant - but she gave a little shriek and dropped the weapon altogether when she turned back and her eyes settled on me.
"Oh my God!" she shrieked, in a truly ear-splitting fashion. "Doyle? Doyle!" She moved forward as though she was about to jump on me and hug me to death or somethin‘, but stopped short after a few steps.
Maybe it was the confusion she read from my expression; maybe it was something else. But her face fell and for a moment she looked real broken up. Then she just looked spitting mad. "Wait a minute!" she snapped. "What’s with the pointy sticks and the breaking and entering? And the suit! You‘re some kind of shape changing demon, aren’t you? Ooh, you are so going to get it buster, wearing that form around here."
The vamp guy was just starin‘ on in mute disbelief. I glanced between them, wondering what drugs they were both on, and why a young human girl like this Cordelia was choosing to defend one of the fang brigade.
The girl was quite the looker, too, now I had chance to notice - although the shiner she sported did mar the effect somewhat.
Hell, who am I kidding? Black eye or no, she was still a stiffener.
Cordelia’s perfume was the same I’d detected in the office upstairs, and it occurred to me that perhaps I’d made an error. Wesley and Faith could easily have relocated once I was gone; after all, it was me who’d held the lease on the office.
"Okay. My mistake," I said quickly, eager to be out of there. "I’ll be goin’ now."
I threw the remnant of the chair at the vampire and dived for the door before either of them could move to stop me...
...At the same instant as somebody else walked in through it. We collided, and he ended up on the floor while I managed to catch my balance on the door frame.
I was aware of a scuffle in the background as the girl moved to intervene and the vampire held her back, eliciting shrill protests.
The newcomer looked in a bit of a state. Wasn’t surprising I’d knocked him over; it looked like you could knock him down by breathing out too hard in his direction. He was all bruised and battered and bandaged, like somebody had recently worked him over real good.
It was Wesley.
I found myself grinning with relief at the sight of a familiar face, even if it was a somewhat battered one; I never would have thought I’d be so happy to see Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, of all people.
I must have been right the first time about the office after all. Maybe he could use a bit of help to deal with this vampire squatter and his girlfriend. I bent down to pull him to his feet.
"Hey, Wes," I said as he accepted my help. He looked mildly confused, as well he might considerin’ the last he saw of me I‘d been in the process of being burned to death by a malign spell. "What the hell’s going on? Who are these people? ...And where’s Faith?"
The muscles in his arm stiffened underneath my fingers, and he pulled away.
The expression on his face was one of horror.
Wesley flinched from me, skidding across the floor in his haste to get away. The vampire stepped in front of Wes, almost... protectively. And even more surprising, Wesley anticipated the vamp's movement, like they'd fought on the same side before.
"Wes?" I couldn't believe it. Wesley, working with a vampire? He may have acted like he sat on one too many stakes at Watcher school, but he was still a good guy. Wesley would have eaten hot coals before helping a vamp.
Of course that was six months ago. Now, he was standing in front of me, ready to help a vampire take me on. And where the hell was Faith? My blood chilled. Was Faith the reason Wesley was working with a vamp?
We all stood there for a few seconds, like someone had hit the freeze-frame on a video. It was starting to get old.
The stake had landed on the floor just next to my foot and I slid my toe under it, keeping my hands raised to distract my stunned audience. I didn't know why the vamp and his girlfriend were staring at me like I was a long-lost family member, but if I could just keep their attention...
I jerked my foot upwards. The stake leapt into the air and I made a wild grab for it... and missed by a mile. That kind of thing only ever works in John Woo movies, apparently.
But strangely, the vampire didn't leap at me and tear my throat out, despite my bungled attack. Instead he whispered, like he couldn't believe what he was saying, "Doyle?"
I licked my lips and tried to think of something to say.
Unfortunately, my list of pithy comments was driven clean out of my head by a stunning blow to the back of my skull. As I tumbled to the ground, I caught a glimpse of a hideous wart-encrusted face leering down at me.
The vampire was fast, I'll give him that. He hit the demon square in the chest with an impressive leaping double-kick which would have probably snapped my spine had I tried to do it. But he just bounced off the demon. Then it just swatted him away. Literally gave him one open-handed swat which blew him across the room and into a wall.
"Angel!" Cordelia shrieked at the vampire's crumpled form.
Wart-face bent down and grabbed me by the shirt. "I've been looking for you," it rumbled, in a voice like a rusty can-opener.
"Oh, really? Do I owe you money for a poker game or something?" I asked weakly. "You don't look like one of the crowd I usually play with, but after a few rounds of scotch I usually can barely see the cards, much less the other players-"
It hit me. Its full strength wasn't behind the blow - I could tell, because my head was still attached to my shoulders. But it sure as hell felt like it wasn't. Wart-face flung me over its shoulder and started for the stairs. My eyeline was directly level with its butt. Not a pleasant view, I can tell you. Pretty fortunately, I passed out.
I'm pretty much an expert on headaches. There's the throbbing agony of a vision, the deep ache of a hangover, the stabbing pain of a skull fracture... I could go on for hours.
My head wasn't quite as bad as any of those when I awoke, but it was pretty bad.
"Ow," I groaned, lifting eyelids that felt like lead blinds. The first thing I saw was Wart-face's grinning mug, little bits of old meat glistening between his yellowed needle teeth.
"Wakey, wakey, little half-man," it whispered, its revolting breath washing over me.
"Do you even own a toothbrush?" I moaned, trying not to breathe.
The demon rose to its feet, taking its bulging head away from me. I sucked untainted sweet-smelling air gratefully. Now Wart-face had backed off a bit, I could actually see my little slumber nest. It looked like the inside of a van, old with scraped paint flaking on the walls. I guess Wart-face wasn't really that good at auto repair. My hands were tied above my head with thick rope and I was slumped against the van wall, my legs curled painfully by my side. The extra fun part of this set-up was that the demon had tied me at just the right angle to put my weight on my injured arm. I gave the demon a pained smile.
"Don't be funny," Wart-face warned me, growling. I think the toothbrush crack got to him.
"I try not to, but it just keeps on happening," I shot back. Admittedly, taunting a demon that could mash me into a flat pulp wasn't the brightest thing I could have done, but I'd be damned if I just lay there and did nothing.
The demon's eyes narrowed. I could see pulp-mashing thoughts flickering behind its eyes, but then it just turned and walked over to the front of the van. I heard the tearing of leather as it forced itself into the driver's seat. " Sit tight," it threw over its shoulder, as the van started and country music began to tumble from the radio.
Great. A murderous demon with crap taste in music. I tugged at the ropes, but just cut off the remaining blood flow to my fingertips.
"So, where we going?" I called. "Will there be aspirin?" The demon's response was to turn the bloody country music up louder. Nice work, Doyle.
I stared at the ceiling and wondered if trying to get him to change the channel would get me killed.
But then, after a long absence, the ol' Doyle luck kicked in. It's won me card games when I was so trashed I couldn't see the table, saved me from painful gruesome deaths at the hands of more demons than I care to remember and preserved me from Faith in a bad mood, which truly is a supernatural feat.
In this case, Doyle luck manifested itself when I looked up and saw what I was tied to. At first I couldn't believe it. The rock-head demon had gone and tied me to a bleeding weapons rack! Above me were the comforting shiny blades of half-a-dozen throwing knives. I began to twist my wrists up towards the blades, sawing at the rope.
Of course, I nearly slit my wrists. Eventually I calmed down enough to get my wrists moving at an angle which wouldn't take my fingers off and just like that, the ropes slid off. Good thing the demon took better care of his knives than he did his van.
I staggered to my feet, tripped over something, and fell flat once more. I tensed, but the demon didn't turn around. For the first time in my life, I was glad for the existence of country music. As I pulled myself up again, I found that my legs had been entangled by the thing that had tripped me. A black suitcase. I kicked it away and scrambled to my feet. Wolfram & Hart, the gold letters on the case read as it slid across the van floor. What a surprise. My new bestest lawyer pals.
According to my watch, I'd been out for a while. It was now after sunset - vampire time. And here I was, riding along in a van with good ol' Warty.
I selected a particularly wicked-looking axe from the weapons rack and gave the back of the demon's head a speculative look. Sure, if I got in a shot before he spotted me, there'd be one less demon in the world, but if he heard me coming, there'd be one less Doyle in the world. I was in no state to go a round or two with my smelly captor, axe or no axe.
I turned to the van doors, putting the axe level with the lock. Prickles raced across my skin as my demon side surfaced, spines protruding. It was time to leave.
I can only guess what the various LA street crazies and night people thought when they saw me walking along the sidewalks. Spines or no, tumbling out of the back of a moving van can do nasty things to your skin. My face and hands ached like fire, and I could see hundreds of little scratches covering my palms like cobweb. Add to that the fact that I was trying to conceal a double-headed battle axe under a lawyer's suit jacket really a bit too small for such purposes, and I must have looked a sight. Luckily, I didn't run into any cops. Having to explain to some doughnut-scoffing cop why I was toting a medieval piece of hardware would not have been great fun.
It looked like it was sometime around midnight - I couldn't be sure because my watch was in small fragments on 43rd street, being driven over by late-night truckers. I wandered for about an hour, trying to decide where I could go to get medical attention. Unfortunately, my mental efforts kept on bringing up one place, and one place only.
Hospitals were out, since they require nasty little explanations for mysterious wounds. And I didn't know if any of the usual demon doctors were still in business. It had been six months, after all, and patching up demons isn't the safest profession. 'Sides, they all charge hefty fees and my wallet was God knows where.
But Wesley always kept a first aid kit under one of the desks in the office. I could only hope he'd kept up the habit.
I was thinking a bit more clearly when I arrived at my former office for the second time and this time I noticed that some idiot had changed the name on the door. 'Angel Investigations', it now read. The damn vampire was mocking my old firm. I really wanted to play wooden acupuncture with him, but I was just too tired.
The office was dark and deserted, and I crept across to Wes's desk and grabbed the first aid kit from under his desk. All senses on edge, I tried to tend to my nastier scratches. Of course, with my senses in hyperdrive, the antiseptic stung even more than usual.
Finally, I dumped the band-aids and antiseptic back into the box and headed for the door.
"This is ridiculous!" Wesley's affronted voice complained loudly downstairs. I paused while curiosity and survival fought for control. I made up my mind to leave. It was too risky, the vampire was too tough for my current state, and I was so tired I could barely think.
But then I turned around and crept to the stairs leading down into my - the - apartment. My mother always said I was too curious for my own good.
Lying flat on the stairs, deep in the shadows, I could just see part of the apartment.
"There are a million and one shape-shifting demons," Wes continued, waving his hands around over a desk covered in books. "I can't just pluck a species name out of thin air!"
The vampire stepped into my field of view and planted a hand on Wes's shoulder. "I know, Wesley, but we need answers and we need them now."
Amazingly enough, picky Wesley seemed ashamed of his tantrum. "I suppose I could try the Black Chronicles again," he said with little hope in his voice. Planting himself down on my sofa, he picked up and book a flipped through it. " So, any distinguishing characteristics?"
"He looked like Doyle," I heard that girl - Cordelia - say dryly, out of my field of view.
Wesley rolled his eyes. "Very droll, Cordelia."
"Guys..." Angel said patiently. "Let's stay on track here."
Wesley looked uncomfortably at the vampire. "As much as I hesitate to bring this up, is there any possibility it *wasn't* a shape-shifter?"
"Huh?" Cordelia said blankly. "That would mean-"
"That it was really Doyle," Angel said quietly.
"Uh, yes," Wesley said awkwardly. "I admit that I'm not as qualified to discuss Doyle as you, but-"
"Yeah," Cordelia cut it harshly. "You're not."
"I only meant-"
"Besides, the real Doyle would never be caught dead in a suit," she finished firmly.
For a girl I'd never met before, she understood me pretty well.
Wesley looked like he was melting in the hot silence emanating from Angel and the girl. "But isn't it possib-"
"No," Angel said abruptly. "There was nothing left, Wes. Not even ash. Get back to the Black Chronicles," he said in a tone that brooked no argument. How the hell did a damn *vampire* know what that spell did to me? Ash... no wonder it hurt so much.
Wesley nodded slowly, transfixed by the vampire's intense gaze. He peered down at his dusty old book. "Smell?"
Angel frowned. I got the impression he did that a lot. "Smelled... normal for Doyle, I guess. He could have done his laundry a bit more."
I was indignant. The clothes weren't that bad! After all, beggars can't be choosers. In my book, if it's not evolving sentient life, it's clean enough to wear. But apparently not clean enough for sissy-boy-vampire.
"Did he smell of sulphur?" Wesley asked hopefully. "With a faint lingering cheesy smell?"
Honestly, did these people think I never bathed?
"No," Angel answered.
"Well, he's definitely not a Wareshi spirit," Wes said firmly.
"Way to go, Wes," Cordelia said sarcastically. "At this rate, Angel will be hitting his tri-centennial before we find out what's going on." I kinda liked Cordelia. She seemed a decent sort, whatever her dodgy associations. Nasty tongue on her, though.
"Well, considering you're so ready to contribute to my research," Wesley said with barely concealed exasperation, "have you found anything useful on your side of things?"
"Yes," she replied smugly.
"You have?" Wesley asked flabbergasted.
"You have?" Angel asked, eyebrow raised. Inwardly, I cheered her on.
"Well, we wanted to find that demon that snatched Doyle-faker-guy, right? So I found him," she said, handing a book to Wesley. Now I could finally see her. Her back was to me, but considering the lovely behind that presented me with, I wasn't complaining.
'Faith will castrate you,' my thoughts warned me quietly.
Wesley paged through Cordelia's book. "Well, it... appears she's found something."
"Really?" Angel asked.
"Really? I mean, of course I have!" Cordelia said firmly. "See, not just a pretty face," she told Angel sharply. "I do contribute."
"But you don't answer the phone, take messages, organise meetings or make coffee," Angel responded pointedly. "Which is your job."
"Men!" she rolled her eyes heavenward. "Never satisfied."
Angel's response was interrupted by Wes in full professor-mode. "The demon that snatched Doyle, or whoever he is, was a Cursak Beast. They're incredible natural trackers and predators, generally hired as bounty hunters. They've been known to track their targets across continents, and they're practically invulnerable."
Great, just great. Not only was a demon chasing me, but it was a huge, strong and unkillable demon. Lovely.
"Practically?" Angel asked.
"Apparently, Cursaks are extremely allergic to silver," Wesley clarified. "It's believed they may be a purer offshoot of the demons that bonded with humans and evolved into werewolves. They're extremely sought after for their skills and combat ability. Not too bright, though."
Yeah, I could confirm that one.
"I think I've dated football players like these guys," Cordelia contributed.
I waited with interest to hear how Wesley responded to that one.
He ignored it. "So, in conclusion, I believe we can firmly say - we've got problems."
Angel shrugged. "We'll deal. We haven't got a shortage of silver-lined weapons," he said, crossing the room and opening a weapons cupboard identical to mine. Hell, it *was* mine! He drew out a nasty-looking silver dagger I didn't recognise, more of a short sword. "Will this do?"
Wesley said something, but the words were lost in the sudden haze of pain that flooded my temples. I was dimly aware of my hands shaking violently, as images and sensations seared my mind.
//A young businessman being confronted by a huge slimy demon. A rancid stench filled my nostrils as the demon slithered closer, grinning savagely. A sign was superimposed over the doomed man. 'Delilah's Delights', the flowery pink letters read. A sweet store on the corner of 22nd and Main, with an alley with sewer access right next door...//
I have no idea how I managed to stay in place during the vision. Using strength I didn't know I had, I clutched the stairs railing tightly. It took serious effort to unclench my fingers when the vision passed.
Down below, Angel was helping Cordelia to her feet. Her face was flushed and her brow tight with pain. I knew if I looked in the mirror, I'd see the same expression on my face.
I knew, somehow, she'd just seen the same thing I had.
What the hell was going on here?
But I didn't have time to consider it. The kid in the alley needed me. Besides which, Angel was striding for the exit, his coat flowing behind him in a dramatic kinda way like he was Batman or something. I didn't want to be around when he hit the stairs.
Head aching, I grabbed my axe and staggered for the door.
I ran the eight blocks to Delilah's. The run nearly killed me before any demons could. I rounded the alley corner and saw Mr Slime. It seemed bigger than in the vision. Smellier, too. The man I was supposed to be rescuing lay unconscious in a pile of trash. And between him and the demon, his assistants flanking him, was Angel.
I have to admit, part of me wasn't really surprised. Angel was holding his own against the demon, sending blows flashing at it so fast I could barely follow them. The bastard sure could fight. Wesley and Cordelia stood back a few meters, Wesley holding an axe, looking fierce but useless, while Cordelia tried to rouse the fallen victim.
The slime demon hit Angel a good one on the jaw and the vampire spun a full circle with the force of the blow. It lunged, meaning to bury the vampire beneath its bulk. I don't know how, but Angel got his feet back under himself and tripped it. The demon fell hard, dragging Angel with it. Pinning the vampire, the slimy monster rained punches down, battering and bruising him.
Wesley tensed and I could see that, any second now, he was going to leap across and try to save his vampire pal. I couldn't allow that. I couldn't care less if Angel was ground to dust, but I wasn't about to watch the demon rip Wesley to pieces.
With a roar of fury, I charged the demon, my own demon side coming free so fast it almost hurt. I brought the steel curve of the axe's blade down into the centre of the slime demon's back. It howled with gurgling fury as I tore the axe free and swung again and again. As it reached out to hit me, I chopped one of its arms off. As I dodged a gush of demon slime, I finally got into position for a killing stroke and swept the axe around.
The demon's head splattered when it hit the ground. A second later, its body followed.
I wiped green sludge from my face as Angel rose to his feet, watching me closely.
"My God," Cordelia muttered. "It's Super-Doyle."
Angel took a step towards me. "Close enough," I warned, raising the axe as I felt my spines flare defensively. "I want some answers, pal, and you're going to give them to me or I'll fill a dust buster with you. We clear?"
Angel's dark eyes blinked once as he stepped back. "Crystal."
"Good, now first off-" A roof slate crashed to the ground just in front of me. "What the hell was that?"
Angel and I looked up. Perched on the edge of the roof, Wart-face leered down at me.
"Found you..." he grated gleefully as he dropped. I raised the axe futilely as he crashed down onto me. Hit the ground hard, born down by his crushing weight. My head bounced off the pavement, my spines retracting as I lost control of my demon side. I looked up at the demon through darkening eyes. He smiled and reached for me.
But then with a flicker of motion, Angel's large silver knife buried itself in his chest. The Cursak gurgled, the veins on his neck bubbling and bulging. His warty features twisted in shock and pain and he fell forward. On to me.
I passed out, buried beneath seven feet of bubbling demon.
The first thing I noticed when consciousness leaked back into my brain was the gentle touch of a woman's fingers on my face, followed by the smell of perfume.
Okay, so the next thing I noticed was the cold metal of a handcuff around my left wrist, but in what passed for my existence since Rayne and Mercer dragged me back from wherever I'd been to wherever I was now, that almost qualified as pleasant.
Fingertips, soft and tentative, were stroking their way down the side of my cheek, tracing the scratches left behind from my tumble out of the van. As light as the touch was, there was an odd sort of tingle that went along with it, as though some kind of faint current of energy were moving across my face along with the fingers. I could sense it even through the latest variation on the headache which seemed to have become the theme music of my life.
From a distance, I heard an uncomfortable-sounding throat-clearing noise that might have been the vampire. Then again, vampires don't need to clear their throats. Or do they?
"Cordelia." It was Wesley's voice. "You shouldn't get so close, it could be dangerous."
I'd been contemplating attempting to open my eyes, but now I lay still and listened, interested to know what they had to say about me. Their reactions before had been odd, to say the least.
"He’s still out like a light. Can you blame him? The poor guy got pancaked." She withdrew her light caress as she clapped her hands together to illustrate my latest Wile E. Coyote impression. Judging by the closeness of that breeze, she hadn't moved too far away.
"Don't get too attached. You said yourself that this is most likely a shape-shifter of some kind, and not Doyle at all."
"No, it's really Doyle. If he could change his shape, then by now he would have done some slimy thing and slipped right out of the handcuff, right? I mean, who wouldn't? Besides, there's... something. I can't explain it, but I can feel it now. Especially... well, when I touch him," the girl answered, in a voice full of wonder. "I just... know him. Maybe it's some kind of a vision thing, some kind of a connection, but I'm sure now."
"Or else you just want to believe." Wesley spoke gently, but he just couldn't keep that trace of mockery out of his voice.
"Very funny. No, I don't think anybody has been abducted by aliens, even if he does look like somebody stamped a map of the butt end of the next galaxy on his face. It's really Doyle. He's just got some weird kind of amnesia or something. Somebody has mixed up all his memories."
"He did have a strong smell of magic on him when he first came in," the vampire, Angel, agreed. "Of course, after the Cursak fell on him, there's nothing much left of any other smell on him but Cursak."
I made a decision and managed to open one eye partway. Saw the girl's face very close to mine. Despite the fading black eye, she was still amazingly beautiful.
Even more amazing was the expression on her face. She was looking at me like I was the most astonishing thing that she'd ever seen, and I had the distinct feeling that this girl had seen a lot... and not just in visions.
Funny thing, up until I ended up getting my molecules painfully disassembled, right in front of two of the very few people who actually cared about keeping them stuck together, it had never even occurred to me that anybody else in the world might ever have the same curse thrown on them as I did. I always figured that it had to be my very own private hell. What could this gorgeous girl have done to get the Powers mad enough to put her in the box they'd built especially for me?
"He's awake!" she exclaimed, with a brilliant smile, as I managed to get both eyes open.
"If you can call it that," I muttered.
"Maybe getting another knock on the head brought his memory back. You do remember me now, don't you, Doyle?" Cordelia coaxed.
It occurred to me that it might be wisest to go try getting along with these people, just for the moment. Among other things, even without one arm cuffed to the bed I was in no condition to do any fighting. Also, it seemed like the vampire and the girl, not to mention Wesley, might be my best chance of finding out what in the world was actually going on here.
Of course, until I knew a little more about the Doyle they thought I was, I couldn't exactly fake them out, but acting confused right now... well, I couldn't actually call it acting, either.
I settled for what you might call an equivocal answer.
"Well, more or less."
"He remembers me!" she crowed triumphantly.
"We just met. You work for the vampire," I said slowly, putting together what I could remember from the day just past. "You get the visions, same as I do."
"Well, duh, of course I do. You gave them to me. And you work for Angel, too, or at least you did."
"No," I protested feebly. "First of all, I never met you before today, or maybe it was yesterday, I’m not sure any more. And if I could get rid of the damned visions, true enough, I'd do it in a minute and be glad - but they're not something you can give away."
"Well, you found a way," she said, her voice very soft. "I'll never forgive you for it, either."
I had a feeling that I didn't want to know what she was going to say next.
"You kissed me... just before you... died... like this."
Before I had a chance to wonder which one she was going to demonstrate, the kissing or the dying, her lips closed over mine.
Ever heard people talk about getting a tingle when they kiss somebody? They don't mean it, not really. It's just a pretty expression.
This one wasn't. I actually felt a jolt when Cordelia kissed me.
She pulled back sharply. "What was that?"
"I have no idea," I answered honestly. "Want to try it again?"
Cordelia grinned triumphantly. "You see, it is Doyle! I told you so!"
"Actually," Wes began, "You originally said-" Then he broke off with a sigh.
She bent down again to kiss me, and I didn't mind that having one arm cuffed to the bed gave me a perfect excuse not to resist. Once again, there was a shock, a little crackle of energy. She pulled back reluctantly, and stared at me with a puzzled expression.
"What is this? Are you really android-Doyle or something? You never had an electric charge before."
"Perhaps it has something to do with the visions?" Wesley suggested. "I don't know if there are any recorded cases of two seers coming into close physical contact with one another."
Close physical contact? With an effort, I stopped the images that idea brought to mind... better not to go there, not if Faith was still alive somewhere. I wrestled my uncooperative mind away from that thought.
"And another thing," I said irritably. "I have never worked for a vampire."
Cordelia stared at me, with a wounded expression.
"Doyle, come on, you have to remember. You worked for Angel, and then you passed the visions along to me, which was just so unfair, because you know how much they hurt."
"Yeah, right, sure. Sorry." Even though I didn't believe a word of it, for some reason, I actually found myself feeling guilty as she gazed at me with that soulful look, with her lower lip trembling slightly. "But you’ll never get me to buy that one, not after what happened to my wife."
Now the girl just looked confused. "What do you mean? Did something happen to Harry?"
"You knew Harry?"
"Well, duh, you introduced me to her yourself, just a little while before you... you know."
Wesley supplied helpfully, "Died."
"Thanks, Wes," I snapped. "You at least should know me well enough to know that I never worked for a vampire. I still can't believe that you ever would."
"I'm afraid that I don't know you at all," Wesley responded. "I know of you by reputation only. We never actually met."
"Now who's the one with amnesia?" I complained, even more frustrated, and getting angry.
"You are," Cordelia announced brightly, apparently delighted to get a question that she could answer. "You've forgotten all about working for Angel, and meeting me. But it'll be all right. It will all come back to you."
"Not likely. How many times do I have to tell you this? I never worked for your Angel."
"You didn't just work for him, Doyle," Cordelia said softly, her fingers brushing against my hand lightly, almost reverently, with that little buzz of energy trailing a tickle of sensation everywhere we made contact. "You died for him."
That one left me speechless. I looked at Wesley, noticing once again, now that my sight was clearing somewhat, that he looked almost as much the worse for wear as I was. He seemed to have nothing to say on that subject, either, and he was very busily looking everywhere in the room except at me.
Cordelia turned toward Angel. "Do you think we should get in touch with Harry? If this is really Doyle, she'd want to know."
"Does everyone in this godforsaken place like to play at seances?" I asked bitterly. "Maybe you should have your own talk show."
"What are you talking about?" She looked at me with blank incomprehension.
Angel said quietly, "He thinks Harry is dead."
I looked at the vampire, who seemed to be the only one in the group doing more listening than talking. The expression on his face stunned me. I'd never seen a look that carried so much pain on the face of a human before, let alone a vampire.
"What the hell do you mean?" I asked him. "'He thinks Harry is dead?' Thinks? I saw it happen. I saw them kill her... Your kind."
He looked straight back at me, with infinite sadness.
"You're not from here at all, are you?" he asked, and his voice was heavy with meaning. "You're not the Doyle we knew. You come from a different place altogether - if 'place' is even the right word."
Cordelia glared at him with an astonished anger that it was wrenching to witness. She looked as though she might start to cry - or, alternatively, start to trash furniture. "What do you mean?"
"Do you remember the other Willow?"
She hesitated for a moment, then grimaced with distaste. "The vampire Willow, the one that Anya brought by mistake?"
"That’s the one. Remember how she came from a different version of Sunnydale? Where things were, well, just different. I think this Doyle may be from another one of those ... alternative worlds, I guess you'd call them."
I couldn't help some reaction to the mention of the Hellmouth; the vampire caught it, although the others didn't, maybe because he was the only one still looking at me. He didn't let on to them that he had noticed. If anything, that made me even more uneasy.
"Of course!" Wesley exclaimed. "An alternate reality? What a fascinating idea! It would make sense, given the facts we have..."
Sense? I was trapped with a mad vampire and two humans who seemed to be just as crazy as he was. Of course, they would think this all made perfect sense. Hell, maybe it did on their side of the looking-glass.
"Not a chance," Cordelia protested, echoing my indignation. "I mean, vampire-Willow was like the opposite of real Willow, right? This isn't mirror-Doyle, this is our Doyle. He looks like our Doyle, and, okay, so the action-Doyle stuff was a bit weird but he saved you, right? Just like before. He's for real, Angel - he even smells like our Doyle, right? Because you should know."
Wesley cast a pained look at the possessive way Cordelia's hand had settled on my good arm, but otherwise he seemed to dismiss her. Angel followed his gaze, and then after another brief glance at me, looked away quickly, as if he had been splashed with holy water.
"Yes. Alternate realities," Wesley went on, with one of his knowing nods. "I've heard about this sort of thing before. You're right. I don't know why I didn't think of it myself."
I couldn't follow all they were talking about, but... a world in which my Harry was still alive? I couldn't even allow myself to think about that idea, or I would end up drooling right next to this lot.
Looking down at the floor and just about everywhere else but at me, Angel went on: "He really doesn't remember. To him, I'm just another vampire."
"But if he's not from our own reality," Wesley continued, and his voice grew hard, "Why would he ask about Faith?"
This time I didn't even try to hide it. One thing I learned awhile ago - if you know somebody's on to you, you change the game, and I decided right then that I was changing this one. I straightened up at the mention of Faith's name, and the cuff jerked against my arm, holding me back. "Where is Faith? Is she still alive?"
"She was very much alive last week, " Wesley answered drily. "I am carrying the marks to prove it, as is Cordelia."
I turned too quickly toward Cordelia, and was rewarded by a stab of pain. "Faith did that to you? Why? Where is she?"
Cordelia asked angrily, "Why should you care? You never even met Faith."
"Not here," Angel reminded her. "Apparently things are different wherever he comes from."
"Or just in whatever screwed-up hallucinations he's been having since his memory got fried. Maybe he decided he was entitled to a Slayer of his very own," Cordelia snapped persistently, with an angry glare at Angel. Angel directed a look back at her, and it wasn't lacking in compassion, which surprised me considering the source, but its message was plain enough - not now - and she hmmphed and fell into a sullen silence, arms crossed huffily over her chest.
"Wherever he's from, it can't be that different," Wesley put in. "You might notice that the idea of Faith carving her initials into me didn't surprise the man too much."
Cordelia whirled, as though struck by a sudden thought. "Do you think Wolfram and Hart sent him here, like Faith? I mean, they've got some pretty tight connections in the demonic social circles in this city, and we know they're out to get us. Maybe zapping Doyle back from the dead - or wherever - could be part of some twisted plan of theirs..."
"Wolfram and Hart?" I blurted out, and all three of them turned toward me.
"That does mean something to you, doesn't it?" Angel confirmed.
"Sure does. But first, tell me what the hell you are talking about. What do Wolfram and Hart have to do with Faith?"
Cordelia looked doubtfully at Angel. "Should we tell him? I mean, does he even know which side he's supposed to be on?"
"I think we should. This may not be our own Doyle, but he's still Doyle. If he's here, then it's for a reason."
"Fine then, find a reason. Wesley can look it up in his books. I'll settle for finding Doyle. Our Doyle. Any Doyle." Her tone was dangerous.
Wesley cautioned, tritely, "Even so, one person's reason may be another's excuse for murder and mayhem. Remember, the other Willow was evil."
Seemed like some things about Wesley hadn't changed.
"The other Willow was a vampire, standard package, soul and other valuable options not included," Cordelia retorted. She and Wesley exchanged a quick glance, and he tossed something in her direction. She grabbed it out of the air - the gal had decent reflexes for a normal human - and laughed out loud when she saw what it was.
"If it makes you feel better," she said dismissively, and with a condescending look back at him, she pressed a small wooden cross lightly against my abused cheek. "See? No smoke, no burn, no problem. Ta-da! We now return you to your regularly scheduled universe."
Angel frowned. "Cordelia. Wesley. He's not a vampire."
"I'm glad to know that I'm in such perceptive company," I snapped impatiently. "So, are you going to tell me about Faith, or are you all plannin' to keep me shackled here all night for your personal entertainment?"
Cordelia favored me with an aggrieved glare. "You wish. Back from the dead and Faith is the only thing you want to know about? Death must do a weird number on your priorities, not to mention scrambling your mind." Then she relented and snapped, "Wolfram and Hart sent Faith to kill Angel."
"Is she still alive?" Remembering how well Angel fought, I had a sinking feeling that the answer would be 'no,' but he surprised me.
"She's alive," Angel said. "She's in prison right now, but she's there by her own choice. There isn't a jail built that could hold her, if she didn't want to stay."
"You got that right," I threw back at him, feeling an idiotic grin of relief spread across my face, but unable to stop it, even in the glare of Cordelia's concentrated scowl. I hadn't fully realized quite how worried I'd been about Faith until that moment. A few minutes seriously contemplating a world without her slammed it home to me... Man, was I ever in too deep. "But why would Wolfram and Hart send a Slayer after a vampire? Sure, it's the usual way of things and all that, but knowin' those creeps I'd expect it to be the other way around."
It was Wesley who answered. "This Slayer is a rogue, and this vampire has a soul."
I stared at him. "What is it you're trying to sell me, Wes? That somehow everything is switched around, evil Slayer and good vampire? Black is white and white is black? Is that supposed to be the deal?"
"In this particular case, and to my own discredit, yes." Wesley sighed. "I must take my share of the responsibility for Faith, and she has been more than eager to remind me of that fact. If you claim that you know me, or at least some counterpart of me, then you should be aware that I would not work for any ordinary vampire." He straightened himself slightly, wincing as he did, and a look of something like pride, and more, came over his face.
"Angel does, indeed, possess a soul. He now works on the side of good. There would be no other reason for me to ally myself with him."
I was feeling the strangest prickle at the back of my neck as I looked at Wesley. He was gazing at Angel as he spoke to me, with a sad little smile, and it was giving me a weird sensation, because Wesley's expression as he looked at Angel was warm with admiration and affection. Friendship, certainly, but more. It was something I'd never seen on Wesley's face before, a look that was close to hero-worship.
But that wasn't the strangest part of all. There was a similar expression on Angel's face, but it wasn't directed toward Wesley. The vampire didn't even seem to notice Wesley.
It was directed at me.
It didn't take long after that for them to talk each other around to setting me free. They were hardly comfortable with keeping their old buddy Doyle chained up, even if he thought they were all lunatic strangers.
The vampire unlocked the handcuff, and good as it felt to get rid of that thing, I could've done without Angel getting quite so close to me. Alleged soul or none, the guy creeped me out.
Wesley managed to hustle Cordelia out of the room to allow me to throw on some clean clothes he'd brought in. Which were all black and too large - and, gee, no prizes for guessing whose wardrobe they'd raided for those.
My arm twinged with pain as I struggled to shove it through the shirt sleeve and Angel, looming, said, "You ought to get that looked at properly. You might have a hairline fracture."
I scowled. Aside from the fact that his low voice next to my ear had made me jolt in less-than-manly fashion, I didn't need health advice from any vampire. "It's fine. Besides, half-demon, remember. Hospitals? - probably not a great idea. One sneeze in front of the doctors and I'm suddenly the medical curiosity of the century."
Angel seemed surprised, and his expression turned thoughtful. I wasn't sure why until he mused, "You can joke about it... you use it to fight..."
I shrugged, finally managing to pull on the black shirt, which smelled of vampire and cheap washing powder. "It's a weapon. Why shouldn't I use it? I wouldn't be able to do what I do nearly so effectively without it, if at all. Not a Slayer. Don't have a head full of demonic book-learnin'. I'm all for survival and, y'know, killin' vamps - no offence - ain't exactly low risk work."
"No." I looked down, following the direction of his gaze to the pattern of bruises on my chest. I buttoned the shirt over them. He cleared his throat. "What... exactly is it that you do?"
"Oh, yeah, you think I worked for you. Right. Well, for your information, I'm a licensed PI, and this is... was... whatever... my office."
Angel gave a little cough of laughter.
I was more than a little unsettled by vamp-man trying to make like we were the best of friends. Wesley seemed aware of that too.
"Angel, would you mind...?" he indicated the door. At his undead pal's puzzled expression, he explained, "I'd like to talk to, um, Doyle here, a moment. You're too close to all this to see it objectively. Besides which, I... think you bother him."
Angel looked... faintly hurt? In any case he seemed to understand well enough, as he reluctantly left to join Cordelia in the office, and I couldn't deny my relief as the door closed behind his black-clad form.
"Nice one, Wes," I said, once he was gone, keeping my voice low. "You can stop the act, now. Tell me what the hell's really happened here?"
He blinked at me, confused. "I assure you, there has been no pretence. Evidently you still suspect I am your friend. Likewise Cordelia and Angel still believe, at least a little, that you may be the man they knew."
"And what do you think?" I asked, my voice sounding harsh to my ears.
"I think I've never met their friend. Which does not necessarily mean I consider you to be evil. But it does mean you're going to hurt them. You do hurt them, even by just being here."
"Wesley." I gripped his arm. "You're the only good thing I recognise about the world since I woke up in Wolfram and Hart's basement, and you're telling me you really don't know me?"
"That is indeed the case, I'm afraid," he said quietly. "And if, as you say, I was your friend, imagine how it must be for Angel and Cordelia, who saw your counterpart die for them. And you are not him. You have no affection for them - in fact, Angel scares the hell out of you, and don't think I didn't notice what you were playing there with Cordelia."
"Wesley?" This wasn't the man I remembered. He looked like Wesley, and talked like Wesley, mostly, but there was something very different there.
Still, a lot could change in six months and it didn't mean you had to be in another universe. I still didn't buy the explanation.
I said, somewhat desperately, "You're Wesley Wyndham-Pryce. A Watcher - Faith's Watcher. You know about 50 different languages. You crashed at my apartment for a month with a broken leg watching some of the crappest television I've ever seen. You've saved my life a few times and almost got me killed a few more. You drink more tea than oughta be humanly possible for one man, and your dad was a complete shit."
He gaped at me for a long moment before managing a flustered recovery. "I don't doubt you know some things about me from your friendship with my counterpart, but I assure you we don't know each other. I have never stayed in your apartment. And Faith went bad before I could ever truly be a Watcher to her."
I jumped up, unnerving him. "We gotta go find Faith. They're after her, that Rayne guy and Wolfram and Hart's lawyer types. They were after your Angel as well. That's what they wanted me for - a lever. I didn't understand them at the time."
"They thought you were someone else, too," he reasoned slowly.
"Yeah. Whatever. And, anyway, I gotta see Faith. I can't get a handle on all this 'til I've seen her-"
"What is this obsession with-?" he faltered, incredulous. "You and Faith? Oh, Cordelia's going to love that one." A pause, then he slowly let go of a long sigh. "You do realise, don't you, that the Faith we're talking about isn't the girl you know either?"
"Well, that's a matter of opinion. I've only got your word I'm in some crazy mirror universe. An' normally, y'know, I'd believe you, Wes, man. But given that you could well be Evil Wesley-" I left it hanging there with savage irony.
He blinked. Frowned. Nodded reluctantly and allowed, "I suppose I walked into that one." His expression grew deeply thoughtful, and I studied the lines and bruises on his battered face, trying to work out where my Wesley left off and this new one began.
Finally, he said, "Angel may not like this but, well..." He took a few steps towards the door, hesitated and looked back. Held out a hand in a beckoning gesture. "If you're up to it, let's get out of here. There's something I think it might help for you to see."
Angel and Cordelia were a lot less than keen on the idea of us taking off, but Wesley faced them down with a calm determination which astonished me and, eventually, they acquiesced.
I wasn't sure how much of their reluctance was lingering distrust of me, and how much residual protectiveness for the dead friend that I wasn't. Or maybe it was Wesley they were worried about. The man looked like a walking bruise. Whoever it was that'd worked him over, they'd been thorough. Too easy to believe that it might have been Faith.
I had to make a conscious effort not to shiver, every time that possibility brushed my thoughts.
In any case, that was how Wesley and I, both looking like half-dead survivors of some major catastrophe with our myriad cuts and bruises, ended up taking a cab across town to a run-down area of the city where big half-empty apartment blocks loomed up above narrow dark streets.
Wesley's expression was grim in the glare of the streetlights as he paid the cab driver, who took off with the haste of someone who knows which neighbourhoods it's not a good idea to hang about in.
"This way," Wesley said, and started walking, like a sleepwalker, blank and automated. I still had to fight the protests of my battered muscles to keep up.
I watched the frown lines creasing his forehead deepen into crevasses, then chasms, the further we walked.
Something had occurred here. Something bad. Something he didn't want to go back to face - but he was going.
Whatever it was that had happened to this Wesley to make him different from the man I knew, it had brought out a steel in his character I'd only ever caught the faintest glimpses of in the mildly ineffective Watcher who'd regularly drained the tea supplies in my office. No matter whether he was removed from the man I knew by a matter of universes, or by time and ensorcelled memory loss.
"We're here," he said presently, his voice reverberating around the tall, darkened street. His face had gone paper white, and the bruises screamed out all the louder against the paled background.
"Nice place," I said, uneasily, the levity an effort to break the sombre atmosphere. "Real classy..." I gave in. "Okay, what's the significance of 'here', then? So far as I can see, it's just a shabby street in downtown LA. And not the most spectacular example of such I've ever seen, at that."
Wesley didn't answer. He was staring up at a shattered window several floors above. His mouth was set in a thin line. His gaze broke and he glanced down at the pavement beneath his feet.
"There is nothing here..." he said. "Nothing. It was pointless to come. I shouldn't have brought you. There's nothing to see."
His intensity gave the lie to that. He was seeing plenty. I just couldn't fathom what it might be.
"Wes," I started, concerned.
He slumped down atop a box among a pile of junk at the side of the street. Water had pooled in the recesses between the trash, sheltered by shadows and not yet dried up from a recent rain shower. "No point going up there." Although he made no effort to indicate it, I figured he was referring to the room which had the broken window. "The police will, of course, have cleared everything away, and probably they will have sealed it off. I'll abstain from breaking the law, I think." He sounded wretched: bitter, self-mocking. "Stupid. Of course there's nothing here. What they didn't take, the rain washed away with the blood. I'm a fool."
"You're not-" I stopped. "What blood? Damn it, Wes, what happened here?"
He shook his head. "I thought I needed to come back. I came with you because I couldn't bring them. And I thought it might help both of us. But it was pointless."
"I'm sure it wasn't," I said. I reached down and gripped his shoulder, intending to pull him up and lead him away. We'd passed a shoddy little bar on the corner, it'd be good enough for my purposes. "Come on, Wes, there is no point in sittin' here, mopin', I'm right with you there. Not when there's plenty of perfectly good bars in LA that'd make much better mopin' ground. And you and I both sure as hell need a drink. Come on, let's get out of here."
But Wesley wrenched away from my touch. He overbalanced and fell to his knees on the damp pavement amid the strewn garbage, his hands resting on the tarmac, fingers outspread. He stared down at them. He was shuddering, shoulders quivering.
"She came to Cordelia's flat," he said. "She wanted Angel to come after her, so she took me. Cordelia would've been a better hostage, for Angel - I wouldn't have thought he'd search for me so diligently. But it wasn't about that. It was an old score. I'd failed her, and she wanted to take it out of my flesh."
"Wesley?" I crouched down in front of him. His left shirtsleeve was askew, bandaging showing underneath. What other hidden wounds was he carrying around with him? I wondered if his friends Angel and Cordelia even knew about them all.
"It still took him hours to find me. She didn't idle them away." I'd thought he'd finished, but then he added, a dark mutter under his breath, "At least he stopped her before she started bloody burning me."
Burning? Damn it, I'd thought she'd beaten him up - she, yeah, he had to be talking about Faith, I accepted reluctantly - but it hadn't been like that. It had been prolonged, systematic. I shivered.
I wanted to be home. I didn't want to be here, in this place where everything was turned upside down and Faith had got her kicks torturing Wesley.
"She enjoyed it," he said.
"Gal's got strange enjoyments," I said, at a loss.
A small huff that might've been laughter. "I suppose you would know. God, Cordelia..." he swept a hand across his eyes. Hell, he was laughing. Sort of. He choked on it after a few seconds. "Your world," he said bitterly. "In your world, she's the Slayer and I am her Watcher in truth, isn't that so?" The look in his eyes was a lot like amazement, like longing.
"Yeah. Well..." I shifted uncomfortably. "She still ran away from you. Turned up at my patch in LA. You came on her heels. Things sorta went on from there, and before I knew it I was making a career out of actin' as mediator and translator between the two of you."
The edges of his mouth quirked up in a smile at that image.
"The Faith I know wouldn't have done this, though," I said.
"Are you so sure?"
I hesitated. Faith had tied me in a few knots when she couldn't get her own way, but that was only playful, like. Well, mostly. And she knew I could take it. "Yeah," I said.
He nodded. "She... wasn't always bad. It didn't have to happen. She had some bad luck. Some unfortunate experiences. Maybe it didn't help, that there were two of them. It took away some of the responsibility. Made it cheaper. Easier to fail."
I bit my tongue on my lack of understanding and just settled for nodding encouragingly. But he seemed to have wound down. He just crouched there in silence, in the muck and the damp, staring into space.
"Come on," I said, after several long minutes. It was cold, and I hurt, and there was only so much cathartic wallowing a beat-up guy could stand, and a beer was always a better solution, anyway. "Let's go get that drink, Wes."