See chapter 1 for disclaimer.
by Roseveare and Mike
We huddled into the shelter of the stairwell, four warm bodies and one cold one pressed awkwardly into the small space, and struggled to regain control of our breathing while objects thudded against the door that a coat-wrapped Angel and myself strove to hold closed. An irritated breeze raced around the hallway and slapped at us but, lacking any loose objects to hurl, it wasn't so much of a problem.
Gradually, it died down.
"That went well," I ventured sarcastically when things had subsided enough for speech. Apparently nobody deemed the comment deserving of an answer.
"Everyone okay? How's Wesley?" asked Angel's muffled voice from beneath the coat.
Cordelia, tucked in a corner beside the unconscious watcher, raised her head. "I think he'll be all right. I can't see any marks, so I guess he just fainted." She looked like she bit off a joke; instead she cast a thoroughly wasted glare at Angel, who in his current circumstances stood not the slightest chance of actually seeing it. "Great job with putting the walking hospital case in the line of fire, Mr. 'I couldn't possibly smooch up with a woman who's not blonde'."
Miriam stirred, moving to grasp Wesley's face in her hands. She gently tried to slap him awake, attempting - impossibly - to avoid bruises. "Hey, guy?" she encouraged. "Wes?" She looked at the rest of us for confirmation on her shortening of his name, and I saw the guilt in her face.
Wesley groaned. "I don't want to go to school..." He blinked fully awake. "Ah. Um..."
"Jeeze, Wesley," Cordelia said. "You're having just the most suck week, huh?"
"I shouldn't have let you take the risk." The coat shifted frustratedly, then slumped back, restrained by the sun. "It's my fault. I should have done it. I let you get hurt - again."
"Oh, do shut up," Wesley said, weakly but with a discernable snap. "I'm perfectly capable of making my own decisions, Angel. Please do me the courtesy of acknowledging that."
I couldn't decipher the answering mumble that came from the depths of the black leather.
Cordelia tottered up on her heels, prodded at the door, and doubtfully enquired of the world in general, "You think it's safe to go back in?"
I seemed the obvious choice to make the cautious foray. A few pieces of furniture rattled irately, but the actual danger seemed to have passed. Leaving the weapons as they were, blades jammed deep into the office side of the door, we helped each other back inside and settled in the office to contemplate our bruises. Cordelia made coffee, compounding the misery of the little scene.
"Okay, so it didn't work," Angel said presently. "So, how come? Why didn't it work?"
Sagged in his seat looking grey, Wesley nonetheless managed to muster his customary spiel of academia. "Clearly Miriam herself is not the centre of the haunting as previously deduced. We need to find the real centre, wherever it might be, and perform the ritual over it for it to take effect."
"But, where? As we've seen, wherever the centre is, the spirit's not bound to it in the manner we might normally anticipate. How can we tell?" Angel looked to be sinking into a fairly practised state of gloom.
Cordelia agreed with him, albeit with a roll of her eyes. "Yeah. How many goes is it gonna take to get this right? Are we going to have to get old Jeremy riled enough to be putting serious effort into killing us dead in order to perform the ritual every time we try?"
"I very much fear so." Wesley sagged even further into the chair. "Luckily - if that's the right word - I did make another copy of the ritual." He flapped his hand towards a piece of paper Angel picked up and frowned sourly at.
"Uh, maybe I could-" I started, figuring that, Wesley having been nearly killed once already, Faith would understand. Probably.
"No," Angel said quickly. "If anyone's taking on the role of a target for this spirit's rage again, it's going to be me."
Cordelia made a disgusted "pffft" sound.
"Vampire. Immortal. Supernatural healing," Angel insisted.
"Yeah. Apart from the fact all Jerry has to do is shove you out into the sunlight and you're flames and dust."
Angel's expression, however, brooked no argument. He stuffed the paper into a pocket of his jacket.
Miriam had been watching the proceedings with quiet guilt, and now she spoke up, almost in tears. "I don't understand it. Jeremy - he was a good man, a good person. He was never violent, wouldn't ever hurt anyone. Why would he be doing this?"
Rearranging his limbs with leaden effort, Wesley leaned forward, returning to some semblance of life. He extended a hand he stopped just shy of resting on her knee in a gesture of comfort, at least until Miriam moved her knee to complete the contact. Wesley swallowed but managed not to withdraw his hand. "The spirit may not understand too much of what's happening. It may only be the smallest remnant of your husband, trapped on this plane, reacting by instinct and habit. Habit is a powerful force, Ms. Welsh."
He patted her knee, smiled tightly, and moved to beat a polite retreat.
The cup of congealing coffee he'd rested on the floor next to his feet exploded, peppering shards of glass and splashing lukewarm liquid to the furthest corners of the room.
"Oh, hell," said Cordelia.
"We have to get out of here." Angel was on his feet, reaching again for the black coat. "We need to perform that ritual properly and get rid of this spirit before someone dies. Wes, the spirit's centre - place of death?"
He nodded. "It's a strong possibility."
"Then we're going. Cordelia-" Angel threw something across to her, and when she snatched it from the air with an "eep!" of excitement I saw it was a set of car keys. "Go get the engine started." An unbroken window rattled ominously. "Run."
She left, at warp speed or thereabouts. The grin on her face and the enthusiasm with which her fist clutched around those keys suggested it wasn't entirely the impending danger that powered her haste.
The rest of us followed, progress impeded by Wesley and Miriam's weakened states and Angel's bundled state. Which left me as the one fending off hurled objects and bolstering the others up against the occasional especially vicious blast of supernatural ire.
Outside, the engine was running and the hood was up. We piled into the car, me slipping in the front next to a Cordelia grinning maniacally behind the wheel, Wesley and Miriam on either side of Angel in the back, shielding him as best they could.
The car looked decidedly familiar. Given the various rather more critical distractions, it didn't seem the time to devote too much thought to that. But I couldn't resist musing aloud about the wisdom of a vampire driving a convertible.
"Go figure," Cordelia said.
The convertible shot forward under her guiding hands, and she nearly sent us straight up onto the pavement and through the side of a nearby building as the windscreen wipers went haywire like they were trying to beat through the glass to get to us.
I was abruptly very, very afraid - and the ghost had little to do with it.
I couldn't help but notice how the mood of our little party deteriorated as the journey progressed, the distraction of Cordelia's dismal driving aside. She and Angel were the major culprits, grimness settling around both their shoulders in a manner even I, having known her just over a day, could tell was unusual for the former. There was something about their depression that was subtly different to Wesley's battered worry and Miriam's guilt, and it intensified as we drove further into the docklands district, with its derelict buildings and dingy, near-empty streets where warehouses shadowed out the sun.
Cordelia, tight-lipped and pale behind the wheel, must've noticed my confusion, and gave me a rather freaked glance-over before saying, "It was close to here that you... that..."
"Where Doyle died," Angel supplied from the back.
It was the most peculiar of feelings that struck me as those words registered, like I was walking over my own grave and echoing hollow, loud footsteps through the topsoil.
I suppose it should've been a comfort to know that at least an alternate version of me had had people who cared this much over his passing. But mostly it freaked me out, just as much as it did Cordelia to have me here, now, with them.
I thought about Wesley and Faith again. About arguing with them the last time... I looked in the rear-view mirror at the bruised guy sitting in back next to the space that was Angel, crumpled suit and sagged depression. Getting fired seemed to have knocked all the starch out of him. My eyes on mirror-Wes, I found myself missing the starch, wishing for the straightened back, puffed out chest and stuffy comment.
I was becoming positively unhinged.
"Doyle... died?" Miriam, I saw in the mirror, looked understandably confused.
"It's complicated," Angel's voice said from the space.
"It's another parallel-universe Star Trek deal," Cordelia said caustically. I craned my neck around in time to catch the vampire's glare of disapproval on the back of her head she remained oblivious to.
Miriam blinked, her attention wide-eyed on me. "Another?" she picked up weakly.
"We deal with a wide variety of paranormal and otherworldly phenomena," Wesley said. "It's probably best not to worry too much beyond 'more things on Heaven and Earth'. We should concern ourselves with your own case at this time."
The scattering of paraphernalia on the dashboard clattered and jumped without aid of either a bump or corner to make them do so, as though in agreement.
I eyed the activity. There hadn't been a peep out of the spirit for about quarter of an hour, and right now, Miriam wasn't even looking at Wesley. She was staring instead out of the window at the broad shady street as she mumbled an agreeing, "Y-yes. Thank you."
"Here," she said then, voice abruptly much stronger. "Stop here."
"What?" Cordelia demanded as she pulled us to a screeching halt that had my nerves trying to crawl down into the dark little space under the seat for safety.
"This is the place," Miriam said.
I snatched at a pen on the dashboard as it leaped up, aiming for either Wesley or Angel, cursed as it fought my grasp, and wondered why the activity was suddenly-
Something clicked in my head at the same time as Wesley voiced a faint, "Oh, dear."
"It was a hit and run," Angel said slowly. He glanced up and down the street which, while not exactly busy, wasn't empty either. A group of kids played, further down. A couple of winos lounged with brown paper bags I was in just the right mood to envy at the mouth of an alley across the way. Scattered people walked about their business. Sporadic traffic crawled by.
Angel looked un-thrilled. "We've got to perform an exorcism in the middle of the street?"
It was just about cloudy and dim enough now that Angel could walk around outside the car unprotected, though we left all the doors open on the convertible, parked up half on the sidewalk, wildly askew despite Cordelia's insistences it was perfectly fine.
Angel stood in the middle of the road with paint all over his face looking nervously at the open car and the long, shifting shadows that flickered with the motion of sun and cloud.
Angel looked nervously at Miriam.
Passers-by looked curiously at Angel.
Cordelia and Wesley, leaning on a low wall together, a conspiratorial duo more at ease together than I'd seen them so far (they weren't arguing for about the first time that day, for a start) looked expectantly at Angel.
Miriam looked expectantly at Angel.
I looked deliberately away and tried not to smirk. Didn't work on either account. Half-covering my face with my hands in the pretence of rubbing my forehead, I turned back, unable not to watch.
Angel cleared his throat, swallowed, and very politely leaned down to touch his lips to Miriam's.
That was it - they didn't get any further. The air around exploded, and dust and splinters of rock and wrappers and debris caught up from the street whirl-winded itself around them.
Angel, prepared this time, wrapped Miriam tight in his grasp and in his leather coat, and read quickly from the paper gripped in his hand.
Standing in the midst of all that he somehow made it through the ritual, keeping Miriam safe, shooting the occasional glance over to Cordy and Wes where they hovered worriedly looking on, as though in spite of their own mortality they'd like to rush in to help their undead boss.
Hell, there were a couple of bad moments I was tempted to rush in to help. Must be nice to have that brand of Dark-Avenging-Hero charisma.
He finished off with determination, shouting out the last few lines to the wind and the street and the gaping onlookers. With a special pissy glare reserved just for the gaping onlookers.
Nothing happened - except that a few of the passers-by tossed coins. Cordelia dived forward, but fell back when she realised it was the smallest of small change. People in these parts didn't have too much money.
"It didn't work," Wesley said tightly.
"No kidding, Sherlock," Cordelia retorted. My hangover, which I'd briefly managed to forget, stabbed a fierce revenge. Angel shouted something from his mini-tornado but we couldn't hear a word. "This is not good. It was supposed to work here!"
Wesley swallowed. "I suppose it couldn't, after all, be the victim's home? The place the spirit felt most drawn back to?"
"It's got to be the next choice," I said. "And maybe if we get away from this spot the activity will die down again, like it did before."
"Right." Cordy eyed the sky. "And hurry. 'Cause unless I'm mistaken, I'm raising that by a 'move now or Angel's about to become Melba Toast'."
All three of us contemplated the whirlwind of pissed-off spectral power Angel had told us at length and with emphasis to keep our distance from. I didn't even bother wasting time assessing Cordelia and Wesley and their comparative chances. I pulled on the demon - wincing at the number of interested bystanders who 'oohh-ed', but then again if they thought the rest was a show, a guy in a spiny mask wasn't going to burst their bubble of happy normality - and waded in.
It was pretty much like I'd always imagined it must feel like to be in one of those acceleration generators astronauts get trained in. Plastered against Angel by the G-force, I tried to unpeel his rigid grasp on Miriam and yell into his ear.
"We have to go inside! Angel, you gotta let got of her, she's the only one who can let us into her house so we can try perform the ritual again!"
He let go of Miriam and she crushed herself into my arms instead, which made it even more difficult to breathe. I couldn't move from the spot for a moment, then I felt Angel's large hand plant itself in the centre of my back and shove. Then I was staggering out into clear air.
I let the demon dissolve away before Miriam saw it.
Behind me Angel, freed from the necessity of protecting Miriam, fought his way out of the funnel. His exposed skin was raw, patched with grazes torn by rock pieces and dust, and I was taken aback to see him vamped-out. Hard to believe, but I'd almost forgotten.
That mask melted away as well when he saw my instinctive fear-reaction. I bit my tongue on an urge to apologise at the dejection in his face.
I shifted my hold on Miriam, who was sagging in my grasp and visibly on the verge of tears, and herded her towards the row of converted flat units some way down the street that her mumbling had indicated.
"Wait," Angel said, fending off a coke can that came close to scoring on his caveman brow.
"Jeeze, Angel," Cordy began.
"No. We shouldn't go inside. There'd only be more... ammunition there, and besides, we don't even know if this would work. It's already failed twice. That should tell us something. I'm beginning to think we're going about this the wrong way."
Wesley looked thoughtful, then shook his head. "I really don't see any other option, Angel. We have to try this. It's the next logical step. If there's no success here, then clearly we must reassess, but..."
Angel ignored him, turning to snag Miriam out of my arms again. He held her shoulders while I stood close at her back to shield her from the remnant of the spirit's anger.
"Miriam," he said, compassionate but stern. I had to remind myself again, hey, vampire. "Can you tell us any more about the circumstances of your husband's death?" A bottle flew at her with frightening speed and he plucked it out of the air by its neck almost casually and held onto it. "Anything you can think of, however irrelevant it seems, however much it might hurt, however much you don't want to. We need to know. Something isn't right here. You know we can't solve this without all the details."
"Oh my God." Miriam gulped and the tears she'd been holding back burst the banks. "We were so happy, and I... I didn't deserve him, I didn't deserve to be happy. You'd think if I loved him that much I could have been faithful, right? You'd think that would follow naturally, and I didn't mean it... I don't even know why I cheated, it just happened, but I never even understood why I went with those other men, because I loved him... only him. Jeremy."
"Miriam." Angel leaned forward as though to tighten the embrace and then apparently thought better of it.
"It was my fault," she said. "My fault. I didn't love him enough and he was taken away. The hit and run driver killed him but he died because of me. I'm sure he would have hated me. He wouldn't have wanted me to be happy. I didn't mean to fall in love again. That's why this is happening. I killed him and I don't deserve-"
"No, no, no!" Cordy burst out, at Miriam's side in a second despite the remaining activity, unceremoniously shoving Angel out of the way in the process. "You had affairs, sure. Pfft. Who doesn't?" I blinked. "But that doesn't mean you're guilty of anything but, uh, a really over-active libido. You're not a killer and you don't deserve this. And your fiance certainly didn't."
Wesley appeared at her other side, cautiously taking hold of the distraught woman's arm. "Miriam," he said softly. "You said yourself your husband was a good man. While I'm sure your dalliances would have hurt him, I'm equally sure that he wouldn't begrudge your chances of moving on from him now, four years on. And I'm certain he wouldn't want to harm you, or your paramour. All of this is really rather obsessive, wouldn't you say?"
"Obvious much, Wes?" Cordelia said.
He didn't even bother to hush her, his attention solely upon Miriam, his gaze intent, and I knew that expression on Wesley. It came fairly often right before a cry of 'eureka!'. "Miriam... do you think that perhaps you are the one who thinks you need to be punished?"
She gulped a massive sob, and the last of the activity disappeared.
Cordelia and I blinked around and exchanged bemused looks, then she was joining Wesley with Miriam. Feeling out of my depth comforting an hysterical woman with, apparently, a massively destructive psychic power, I looked around for Angel.
The vampire had retreated to a corner of shade, as patchy sun had begun to break through onto the street. He was looking intently at a car parked down the road. Following his gaze to the vehicle, I realised that not only did it look familiar, but a figure leaned against its far side, watching us over the top.
I squinted. "Wasn't that car outside the office when we left?"
Angel nodded slowly.
I shifted position slightly, turning my head as if to glance back at Wes and our erstwhile client. "Impressive. I've been doin' this a while, an' I never got my own stalker."
"It's nice to have fans," Angel murmured.
With exaggerated casualness, I fumbled for a packet of cigarettes in my coat, and extracted one. "Okay, let's just play this nice and cool, and maybe we can surprise him. Just don't let on that we..." I realised I was addressing an empty space.
"Saw him," I said belatedly, as Angel dashed towards the figure, vampire speed closing the distance between them effortlessly.
Although, predictably, at the vampire's first twitch, the figure spun around and sprinted down the nearest alley.
I gave my cigarette a longing glance, then cast it aside as I moved after the vampire.
Angel's coat was already disappearing around the alley corner as I reached the parked car. As I slid over the bonnet, I tossed a quick glance inside: a couple of coffee cups, a fast food wrapper...our "fan" had been watching us for a while.
He wasn't at all slow on his feet, either - as I rounded the corner I could see him well ahead of Angel. A duffel bag slung around one shoulder obscured most of his form, bobbing furiously with every step.
Angel was faster, but the vampire was hindered by having to stick to the shadows. I winced involuntarily as he flung himself across a short patch of sunlight with a sizzle like burning bacon.
Hell, the vamp was tough. He could take it.
But there was no way he was going to catch the guy, not while having to avoid bursting into flames.
There was no way I was going to get him, either, as far behind as I was.
Unless I got creative.
I spun around and dashed back to our shadow's abandoned car, ignoring Wes and Cordy's confused stares. A quick elbow to a window got me inside, and I scrabbled at the sun visor. A bunch of keys tumbled into my lap.
I gunned the engine and the car screamed down the road with a reckless disregard for safety or speed limits, scattering our last few spectators as they shouted and swore.
Figures. Conduct ancient magical rituals in front of folks, and they throw money. Slap the accelerator a little hard and they act like it's the end of the freaking world.
I spun the wheel, dragging the car through a turn that was slightly too close for comfort. This wasn't one of my usual haunts, but years of patrolling still made street maps unnecessary.
That alley leads on about a block or so...assume they didn't turn off into one of the buildings, then they come out...
I spun the wheel again, veering onto the correct street. There weren't many cars on the roads, but those that were there expressed their displeasure with horns and raised middle fingers.
I was too busy to care.
I stomped on the brakes, and the car jerked to a halt, effectively sealing the mouth of the alley. Glancing to the side, I saw our buddy pull up sharply about ten meters or so away. The sun was behind him, but I caught an impression of a slight frame, taut with surprise and adrenalin.
I flashed an ironic wave as I shoved open the door and started towards him. The figure flung a look over its shoulder at Angel also bearing down on him, coat raised high around his shoulders to ward off the sun.
I could picture the expression on our mutual target's face, and suppressed a grin.
I half-expected him to give up right then and there, but instead he ran at the nearest door in the alley, what looked like the side entrance to an apartment block. His leg came up and kicked the door open in a single, practiced motion.
The figure dove inside, slamming the door shut in Angel's face. With considerably less grace, the vampire smashed straight through it. He didn't even break his stride.
I rushed through the splintered entrance after them. In the passage ahead of me, apartment doors slammed shut with the terrified haste of residents who had encountered Angel going full-tilt. The vamp in question bounded up a flight of stairs at the end of the corridor, shaking wood chips from his clothes.
I ran like hell in a futile attempt to catch up.
We went up three flights without so much as a pause, and I could feel my smoker's lungs protesting indignantly as we reached the fourth and final floor.
I was just trying to keep my legs moving at that point, and I nearly ran into Angel before I realised he'd stopped. I peered over his shoulder, my breath rasping like someone was scraping a cheesegrater up and down my throat. Unsurprisingly, Angel wasn't even breathing hard, or indeed at all, and he glanced at me irritably as if I was going to scare all the bad guys away.
"What the... hell... was that... back there? I thought vampires... supposed to be... sneaky!" I gasped.
Angel shrugged, scanning the corridor before us. "I thought private investigators were supposed to be fit. We all have these little misconceptions."
I wanted to kill him quite a lot just then, and it had absolutely nothing to do with him being a vampire.
I bit down on my retort. "Where'd he go?"
Angel shrugged again. "I lost him turning around that last flight - by the time I got up here, he was gone."
"Roof?" I asked, pointing down the length of the passage towards a big black door right at the far end.
Angel shook his head, pointing at the shiny padlock on the big black door.
"You think he lives here?" I asked as we edged our way cautiously down the passage, glancing into crisscrossing passages.
"No. The way he dove in here after you blocked him off - looked like a random choice. Nice move with the car, by the way," he offered, smiling slightly.
"Thanks." I caught myself about to smile back, and rooted for a cigarette instead. Finding one at last, I gripped it between my lips and fumbled for my lighter. It was only then that I remembered that my lighter was in another reality, and that I'd picked the cigarettes up at a convenience store last night. A convenience store at which I had forgotten to buy matches.
"Damn," I muttered to no one in particular.
Angel half-turned. "Huh?"
And then the door nearest to us, door 408, burst open. I know it was door 408, because it swung straight into my face and I got a very close and painful view of the plaque.
As I tumbled into Angel, our target shot from the room. I caught a confused glimpse of strangely familiar features, as he leapt over us and sprinted down a side passage.
Angel rose from the floor in a single predatory bound, moving in pursuit.
Unfortunately, my own personal type of predator was one which currently had difficultly distinguishing between the floor and the ceiling, and I slumped back, my nose throbbing enthusiastically.
I heard a flurry of footsteps and then a loud crash. Pulling myself to my feet, I glanced in the direction the two had fled, expecting to see Angel clutching my attacker by the collar.
Instead I saw him standing helplessly, fists clenched in frustration, in front of an open fire escape door. A door through which bright sunshine streamed.
"I'm on it," I responded, pushing past him as I gathered the demon to me. The sun shone warm on my skin as I flung myself through the doorway, grabbed onto the rail directly ahead of me, and vaulted it effortlessly.
I've done a lot of stupid things in my life.
"Jumping from the Fourth Storey of an Apartment Building to Reach the Bottom Before the Person Climbing Down the Fire Escape Did" made the top five easily, just below "Challenging Faith to a Drinking Contest."
If it wasn't for the relatively soft landing below, it could all have ended pretty painfully. It may seem humorous, even ironic, to be saved by a huge pile of refuse, but I really wasn't in any mood to appreciate it as I plunged feet-first into an open dumpster.
I spent an unpleasant second or two there, the urge to vomit vying with the sensation that my stomach was in fact no longer within my body, but instead four storeys above it.
Then I burst from the dumpster in a snarling ball of spines and fury...to land in an empty alley.
I glanced around for a second, before I realised that my plan had in fact succeeded a little too well. I looked up and saw a duffel bag descending towards me at speed.
The duffel bag, and a second later, its owner slammed me to the concrete. There was a brief, confused flurry of arms and legs, and then the figure was off, leaving me spread-eagled on the floor.
With a growl, I gave chase. I was tired of playing Wiley E. Coyote to this jerk's Roadrunner - he was going down if I had to pursue him into the next state.
We dashed across a street, dodging cars and shrieking pedestrians. It took my adrenalin-fuddled brain a moment to realise why they were shrieking, and I hastily retracted my spines and hoped desperately no one had a camera.
Narrowly avoiding being flattened by a taxi, I half-ran, half-limped into the next alley.
Abandoned newspapers danced around my trembling legs, as I glared up and down the full length of the alley. Big warehouses on either side formed intimidating walls, like an urban version of a hedge maze.
Gulping air, I took a few steps further in, scanning my surroundings. I caught a flash of colour through the grimy windows of the warehouse to my left. The warehouse that had a sliding door, slightly ajar.
It took all my willpower to keep my head turning as if I hadn't noticed anything, as I took another step into the alley. I shifted my feet slightly, getting my balance, glanced around one more time, and moved.
A shoulder charge took me through the doorway and bowled over the person behind it. The duffel bag went skidding away and I rolled frantically, trying to land on top of my opponent. We spun through one last dizzying turn and then I pinned his hands to the hard wooden floor.
Grey eyes met my own, alight with recognition, and I made two important discoveries in quick succession.
"Kate!" I said in surprised delight, sitting back on my haunches. "What are you doin' h - "
Something cold pressed against my belly, and I heard a hammer cock.