See chapter 1 for disclaimer.
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.