DISCLAIMER: Angel and BtVS characters and concepts belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, etc.
Just borrowing, no profit, yadda, yadda, yadda.
I awoke, slumped across the familiar awkward contours of a couple of pushed-together chairs in my office, to the sounds of arguing and the glare of the sun blazing in through the blinds to penetrate my eyelids. I shifted, raising an arm to cover my face, turning over. A number of aches I'd forgotten about announced their presence.
In many ways, waking up to the music of an argument was something of a relief. Home comforts, if you will. Because I'd been having the strangest dream, and part of me had been expecting to wake up somewhere... not much resembling Kansas at all.
"...to go, Wesley. I mean, what were you thinking of? The one lead we have from this screwed-up business and you have to take him out and vanish for the rest of the evening? Did you even stop to consider that some of us might be waiting back here for you to show up?!"
On the other hand, my very considerable hangover was not finding the volume of the debate any relief at all. "Faith-" I groaned.
She predictably ignored me. "And if that wasn't bad enough, you finally turn up drunk out of your doofus wits and crawl up the steps so that Bat-Doyle here can pass out in the doorway."
I creased my forehead in puzzlement at Faith's uncommonly mild vocabulary, as Wesley protested weakly, "You said all of this last night, Co-"
"And like you were in any fit state to listen? Or remember? I'm gonna keep saying it until it goes in-"
"Faith!" I snapped, sitting up. My jacket, which had been draped over me, slid into an untidy heap on the floor, and the move did a lot less for my head than the shouting, on the whole. The sunlight shone directly into my eyes, dazzling me, and I blinked in the glare for a moment-
-before focusing, with a jolt of alarm, on a woman I'd only seen before in a dream, who emphatically wasn't Faith.
"And you! Doyle... uh... whatever your name is... Doyle," Cordelia snapped, swinging around on me as I leaned on the wall and swayed to my feet, groaning.
My head spun. Finding a sink definitely felt like being the first order of the day.
"I do know exactly whose fault all this was!" she continued mercilessly. "'Cause I know Wesley, and if you know Wesley, even if you don't know Wesley, then you should know he doesn't do this. Right? He doesn't do the broody drinking 'getting-my-sorrows-utterly-wasted' thing. Unlike you, who I also know... kind of.... You just called me Faith... Well suffice to say I know you encouraged him!" She finally paused for a breath and choked on it as full realisation dawned. "You just called me Faith?!"
All this wasn't improving the state of my hangover. I cast a pleading glance at Wesley, who looked as grey as I felt and was trying to sneak out of the office while Cordelia's back was turned.
That woman must've had eyes in the back of her head. Her arm shot out behind her, an accusatory pointing finger on its end. "Don't you dare sneak off! We need you. You're research guy."
Wesley sagged into one of the client chairs lined up neatly beside the door and Cordelia continued ranting at me as though the interruption had never occurred.
"What the hell did you think you were doing? He's on medication - you know that, right? Part of the whole 'being tortured for hours by Psycho-Slayer-Girl' thing. You want to land him in the hospital?"
"Cordelia, I assure you I'm fine-" Wesley attempted to interject, looking slightly freaked out.
She rolled right on over him. "Not to mention the worry. You have no idea how much Angel and I have been trying to make like all sensitive-"
"-not that I don't appreciate your concern-" Wesley said, beginning to look mildly pissy, hangover or no hangover.
"-And you go take him out to get drunk!" Cordelia finished on a screech. "And I'll ask again, did you just call me FAITH!"
Her voice reverberated unpleasantly inside my head, starting up a wrestling match with the residue of last night's binge that was sloshing around in there. That girl was scaring me. I was starting to have very strong suspicions that I'd gotten the calmer, saner, softer deal with 'Psycho Slayer Girl'.
"Uh... sorry?" I tried distractedly. I was going to need that sink very, very soon.
"Cordelia," Wesley said firmly. "Will you please listen?"
He and I both cringed at his volume, but to my surprise, Cordelia turned around, her lips pursed, and in profile the leap of her throat was visible as she swallowed whatever she'd been about to say next.
"Thank you," he sighed. "Doyle is all right. I am all right. Last night, I believe... cleared the air somewhat, in more ways than one. I am very aware that we should at the very least have phoned in to let you and Angel know everything was all right, and I apologise for any concern we caused you. Now, I think..." He frowned at me. "You are all right, aren't you?"
Shaking my head frantically, I bolted out of the door.
Angel was still moaning while pulling on his clean shirt as we got out of the elevator. "I mean, this is sixty-percent silk. Do you know how long it takes to get stains out?"
"Are you like this because of the soul thing?" I snapped back. Hungover and all, I didn't much feel like playing nice with the cuddly vampire. "Because I never met a prissy vamp before and, y'know, if this is part of what makes you 'special', I think I prefer the bloodsucking variety."
He looked taken aback, then offended, then defensive. "Well, actually, Angelus-"
I tuned out the rest. We were approaching reception, and I could hear Cordelia and Wesley in the middle of another full-fledged round of name-calling that was descending into truly schoolyard-esque territory. My head started thudding anew, and I longed for Wesley and Faith's friendly debates, even with the possibility of violence that tended to skirt around them. I couldn't actually envision Cordelia picking Wesley up and hurling him through a window if he pushed her that little bit too far.
"... and it's such a pity that it's demons we investigate and not the exhaustive variety of badly-applied highlights available cheap in LA," Wesley griped, "Because then maybe you'd actually contribute more to this agency than bad coffee and indecipherable filing."
Then again, you never knew. I didn't particularly like the way Cordelia's eyes had narrowed.
"Kids," Angel said, still sounding pissy about the shirt as he tucked the new one into his waistband. "We have a case." He pointed at me without looking my way.
"What side of the coffin did you get out of this morning?" Cordelia shot back.
"Well, excuse me, but it's difficult to stay cheerful after being projectile vomited on by a half-demon trying to break the land-speed record on the stairs." He glared around at the three of us, then a very particular irritation settled across his face and he returned to Cordelia, "And can we lose the coffin jokes?"
She was too busy smirking to pay much attention. "Ah. More sufferage of the Dark Avenger wardrobe," she said sagely, and stage-whispered to me. "Would you credit it? And this is a guy who can't actually see his own reflection."
"It's the Soul Thing, right?" I asked.
She scrunched up her face. "I think it's the Angel Thing. Hey, have you seen his car?"
Angel slammed a file down on the desk, making Cordelia and Wesley jump and my hangover do acrobatics. "Case. Doyle. Faith. Wolfram and Hart. Some aspects of which might be urgent. Guys?"
With that, all possibility for the joking around vanished. Cordelia's expression took on a seriousness I wouldn't have thought possible, and Wesley sagged into a chair and frowned intently at the pages of an open book. Of course, at the mention of Faith, my reaction wasn't much different. She could be in danger, and here I was joking around with vamp-man, his cheerleader secretary and an amnesiac, beat-up Wes.
"Right. First we need to know everything you remember from the spell that transported you to when we met you yesterday," Angel said. He picked up a notebook and pen from the desk, but handed them to Cordelia, who looked annoyed.
"Wrong. First we need to get to Faith and warn her," I said. Damn it, she could have been in danger last night, and I'd gone out and gotten drunk with Wesley. This screwed-up universe was doing a weird job on my priorities. "In fact, they could have got to her by now and we wouldn't know." In alarm, I started towards the door.
Angel's hand gripped my arm. Painfully. "We have these nifty things here in this universe. They're called 'telephones'. Maybe you have them in yours?"
Cordelia muttered something about that being a pearl beyond price from a man who couldn't answer his cellphone.
I nodded. "You call."
The first number he tried, nobody was picking up, and he frowned and rang the prison direct. After about half an hour of red tape he got onto someone who was prepared to answer his questions and take seriously his warning that one of their inmates might be in danger from a contract taken out on her life.
By that time, Cordelia was pacing the office, having dumped the notebook and pen in front of Wesley, who in turn was dozing across the table with his head rested on his arms.
Angel was still talking when Cordelia suddenly stopped. "Oh my God," she said, squinting through the glass to the hallway outside the office.
"I think there's somebody standing out there." Her voice was hushed with awed amazement. "I think that's... oh, my God. I think we've got a client."
"Client, huh?" I said, impressed. "I vaguely remember we had those, once or twice."
"And you know what that means? Head-splitting-vision free client... we get to charge."
She was already bouncing her way to the door to snag whoever the poor soul outside was before they wised up and left.
Cordelia's exuberance didn't last long - in fact, when she shepherded the client back inside her face was so sombre her previous cheer might never have existed. It didn't take much figuring out why.
The woman would normally have been pretty, but someone or something had given her a real working over. Bruises and an intricate network of small cuts marred her visible skin. A couple of spots of blood on her clothing hinted at who-knew how much more damage underneath.
"Guys." Cordelia had a sensitive-voice. The revelation could've floored me, except the next instant I saw her fashionably-clad foot connect, hard and surreptitiously, with Wesley's ankle. Wes snorted awake with an exclamation and Angel set down the phone as Cordelia continued, meaningfully, "This is Miriam. She's come to us for help."
"Miriam Welsh," the woman supplied, looking nervous and jittery. "I've heard you handle unusual cases - things that maybe most people wouldn't believe?"
Angel's expression went through a variety of contortions in its attempts to avoid looking cross, and eventually settled into something vaguely neutral. His eyes flickered around myself, Wesley and Cordelia.
"That's right," he said finally, his decision evidently falling on the side of not telling a severely beat-up woman clearly in dire need of aid to come back later when it was more convenient. He quickly stood and surrendered his chair, guided her into it with astonishing gentleness, sliding the loose jacket she was wearing from her shoulders.
"Of course." Wesley was already rising to his feet. He exited, in shambling, difficult steps. A moment later, coffee-making sounds were emanating from the next room.
Cordelia sat down in his place and leaned across the desk to place her hand sympathetically on Miriam's. "Don't worry," she said. "We're here now to help. Whoever it is that's after you, we'll sort them out."
Since Cordelia had put the machine on not long ago, it was only a minute or two before Wesley returned carrying a tray somewhat shakily.
A faint guilty look flickered across Angel's face and he quickly took the tray. I remembered Wesley complaining about Faith making various incisions in his right arm with a piece of broken glass and winced. Cordelia caught on a second later and leaped up out of the chair to allow Wesley to sit down again. He made a few faint protests but gave in when her expression turned from compassionate to irritated.
Miriam looked at Wesley with wide, shock-glazed eyes. The two of them exchanged sympathetic winces. They did kind of have a look of bookends about them, battered figures framing Angel's desk.
"You work here?" she asked him hesitantly, sipping the coffee Angel placed in her hand. "I mean, when I walked in - I thought you were here as a client." She suppressed a laugh.
"No, no... our last case got a little rough," Wesley reassured evasively.
"See. Angel Investigations, you can rely on us for dedication," Cordelia said chirpily. "Right down to the actual-physical-wounding and the migraines-from-hell." Everyone gave her odd looks and she rolled her eyes. "Okay, well. This is Wesley. That's Angel, the boss. I'm Cordelia. Oh, and that's Doyle - and he is a client. Sort of. But he used to work here - sort of - so it's totally okay to talk in front of him."
Angel cleared his throat and cut in. "Miss Welsh. I realise this might not be easy for you to talk about, but you must tell us what happened so that we can help you. Who did this to you?"
She blushed and averted her gaze. "It's - it's Mrs Welsh. Well, not really. I still use Mrs, but my husband, Jeremy - he's dead. He's been dead four years. And - he did this to me." She spread out her arms with all their cuts and bruises, gazing at them as though it was the first time she'd seen them. And she burst into tears.
Cordelia was on her knees next to her chair, offering physical support with the air of someone who'd done this before, her abrasive personality set aside, and Wesley was predictably extending a pressed, clean handkerchief. Angel was sitting on the edge of the desk, looking a little lost but nonetheless determined to help.
I kept back out of the way. It wouldn't help to crowd the poor gal, and I was intrigued, watching them work together, figuring out the dynamics between them.
"It wasn't long after his death," she said in between sobs, "that I began to have this feeling - this sense that someone was watching over me. It was wonderful and comforting, to think that he wasn't gone completely. I thought maybe I could-" She broke off a moment. "If things had stayed that way, it would have been fine. But I can't make a life for myself with a ghost. It's taken me years to try to move on, to commit to another relationship and a man that means anything to me again - a couple of flings in the meantime that went nowhere, there was some unrest about those. I could tell he wasn't happy, didn't want me to move on from him. But it was nothing like this time...
"We were having dinner at his apartment. He's called Ben. Benjamin. He runs a cafeteria. He's such a sweet man."
She broke down again, and it took her longer, this time, to recover and go on. "The windows in his apartment, they just shattered inwards. There was flying glass everywhere, and other things were hurled around the room - hurled at us both. He's in intensive care. They said there's a good chance he'll be all right."
"Oh, my God," said Cordelia breathlessly. "I'm so sorry."
Miriam showed her a cellphone, and I realised she'd been gripping it since she walked through the door. "I'm waiting for a call. I should be at his side, but - what's the use in him getting better, if it's going to happen again? He's in danger so long as I'm near him. I have to stop it now. I hoped - I realise it's a strange request, but I hoped you'd be able to do something."
"We can do something," Cordelia said firmly. "We can completely do something. We've handled ghosts before."
"Right." Angel was nodding, but there was still a trace of indecision in his eyes. He looked at me and Wesley. "If you could stay with Cordelia a moment, there's something I need to discuss with my associates. Please excuse us."
"All right," she said, nodding hollowly. Looking a little afraid. Well... that was definitely understandable.
Angel drew us outside into the hallway, where Wesley leaned on the window, looking pasty and ill in the little sunlight that was filtering through and Angel lurked at the side of the window in the darkest corner. I sat on the top step.
"Guys," the vampire said. "I know... we have other stuff at the moment. I don't want to... can't turn her away. But I can't make this decision. You both have a say in this too. Faith's all right for now, and we've warned the prison authorities. I'm not sure there's much else we can do there. There are visiting hours this evening. Maybe we'll be finished in time to go, or at least some of us could go."
"I'm not sure why you're asking me," Wesley said. "I should think I have very little bearing on Faith's welfare."
"You were her Watcher. You should have a say."
Wesley's eyes narrowed and he looked like he'd swallowed a mouthful of bees, but I could tell that Angel really was trying to be considerate. He fluttered a hand dismissively. "I agree with you. Ms Welsh's case should take precedence." He slumped back against the window, practically asleep on his feet.
Angel looked at me. I gulped. This wasn't easy.
"We shouldn't be standin' here jawin'," I said sharply, turning my face so he couldn't read it. "Not when we've got a jealous ghost to exorcise."
"You don't have to do anything. This isn't your world, you don't belong here. You haven't had a vision. You've no obligation to help Miriam Welsh. And Faith-"
I stood up, angrily rounding on him. I'd made my decision, and the last thing I needed was Mr-Soulful-Vamp talking me out of it when I was trying to be selfless. Faith could die. But so could Miriam, and...
"This doll's dead boyfriend's on the verge of killin' her," I snapped. "Faith at least can defend herself. This gal has no chance except us - you. You aren't the only one who helps people. I have my own investment in this 'Helping the Helpless' gig."
I glared at Angel. I was expecting - if not argument, some rebuke for my temper. Instead, he reached out and set a hand on my shoulder.
The kind of gesture you'd only get between two friends who'd lived and lost and fought side by side.
"Doyle," he said, and nothing else. It was an affirmation.
And he smiled. A brilliant, real smile that lit up his sombre face, a smile that went right down to the soul.
Me, I resisted the impulse to squirm out from under his hand, and tried to quash any giveaway signs of how his touch made my skin crawl.