(Part 3 of 3)
They told me, but I didn't believe it. Some things you just can't believe until the truth shows up and breaks you open.
I heard the sharp intake of breath as she looked at me, and I saw her eyes widen.
"So it's true, what Angel told me. You're alive." It was her voice speaking, but she was speaking for both of us.
My Harry always could.
She circled me slowly for a moment, just looking me over, before she reached out toward me. "Well, Francis? How does it feel, coming back from the dead?"
"You tell me," I managed to whisper, as her arms went around me, and then I couldn't say anything more. I just buried my face in her hair.
It smelled just the same.
Dimly, as if from a long distance away, I was aware of Cordelia huffing indignantly, but it didn't matter to me at all. My hands were moving over Harry's shoulders, and without thinking about it, my lips were moving from her hair to her temple, where I could feel her pulse beating, like it had never stopped. I stayed there for a long time.
She let out a sigh, leaning against me, her arms tightening for a moment around me before they fell away.
Gently, but firmly, she moved back. "Well, Francis, that's a much better hug than our last one."
Then she saw my face, and guided me back over to the couch that I'd just left, minutes ago. I guess it was rather obvious that I couldn't see too well, right then.
"Angel tells me that you thought I was dead." She gave me a sharp, considering look. "He said you aren't quite exactly our Francis, either. Seems like he was right about that one, too."
With difficulty, I managed to mutter, "Yeah." All of me was far too absorbed in looking at her, feeling the warmth of her skin close to mine, smelling the shampoo and cologne that she always used and the way that they mixed with her own scent, and God, I'd forgotten so much. I had tried so hard to forget. "Did he tell you much about what happened to us, here?"
"Not much, no. He said we were divorced."
"Just before. That's right."
"Before you died. Here, that is. I do get the whole alternate universe concept, you know, at least in theory. There's been a lot of talk about it. But it's different, actually seeing you alive."
"So, I'm dead where you come from. How did it happen?"
That was just like my Harry. She was never one to avoid a subject, no matter how painful it might be.
"Vampires." I didn't intend it, but my hand went out anyway, to touch the side of her neck.
"That's creepy. Don't do that." She took my hand to pull it away, but instead of putting it down, like I had with Cordelia, she held it for a moment, looking it over. Then she looked at the other one, and I was glad that Faith had never demanded that I take off the ring.
"It's the same one," she observed, matter-of-factly.
I glanced at her hands, and she saw the look. "We were divorced here, Francis," she snapped. "I was engaged to marry someone else. Yes, I took off the ring. It's one of the things you do when you get divorced."
I said nothing, but it seemed like the communication I'd always had with my Harry wasn't entirely gone with this one, because she heard the question without my saying it.
"It wasn't because of the demon thing, either, although you never did get that."
"No. It wasn't. After you, I got engaged to an Anomovic, and yes, I got out of it without anybody getting eaten. I'm an ethno-demonologist now, and I owe my career choice to you. So you did leave me something, anyway. Or at least I've always tried to look at it that way."
"You did. So, where you come from, what do you do? Are you still a teacher there?"
"I'm a private investigator now. This is my company - "
"Haven't I heard this one before?" a sarcastic voice interrupted. I had completely forgotten that Cordelia was still there.
Over my shoulder, Harry flashed her a smile that took my breath away. "Yes. I remember. But I guess, for him, it's actually true."
I didn't have the faintest idea what they were talking about, but it didn't matter. It was enough for me just to see Harry, to be close enough to her that I could actually feel the living warmth rising from her skin.
Cordelia's movement caught my eye as she drew closer to us, frowning, her arms crossed defensively. "When did Angel find the time to call you and fill you in on all this?"
"He left a message for me while I was out of town. I just got back today, and I caught up with him on his cell just a little while ago," Harry answered. "Of course, the signal from his phone went out just when things were getting really interesting. This was the soonest I could get here."
"Sounds like he told you a lot," Cordelia snapped irritably, and then muttered something only half-audible about Harry's timing.
"Well, I asked him a lot of questions." Harry's voice was milder, clearly choosing not to be drawn into an argument. She was still watching me closely, like she was trying to figure out all the differences, right on the spot. "Angel mentioned that you were up at the prison with him earlier, visiting your new girlfriend."
"Not in this universe, she isn't," Cordelia corrected.
"I know. I meant from the other one. She didn't know you here, did she, Francis?"
"No. She didn't."
"It must be even stranger for you than it is for us."
"So, are you planning to stay here? Or are you going to try to find a way to get back?"
Just a little while ago, there had been no doubt in my mind about that. Now, this close to Harry, I wasn't quite so sure any more.
"I don't know yet if there is a way back," I evaded. "I - think I died there."
"Well, that shouldn't matter, since you died here, too."
"Yeah, whatever." That subject still didn't feel exactly comfortable to me.
"Where are you staying?"
"Nowhere really, yet," I said just as Cordelia butted in.
"He can stay at my place. I've got room, and it comes complete with ghostly warning system. Dennis can watch out for any more stinky demon-thugs that might still be coming after him."
"Well, I don't have a supernatural doorman, but Francis might prefer ..."
Just as the two of them seemed to be squaring off to fight over me, I was rescued by the noise of Angel and Wesley's return.
"Harry. You're here already." Angel seemed surprised that she had arrived before him. "I don't think you've met Wesley - ?"
It felt oddly wrenching when Harry turned away from me, toward the door, as though losing eye contact with her meant that she might disappear any minute. Belatedly, I recognized in myself something very much like the look that I'd been seeing in Cordelia and Angel's eyes.
Wes looked better, I realized. It wasn't that the scrapes and bruises had healed much since a few hours ago, but some of the strain that had been in his face when we were at the prison was gone. He smiled at Harry, and the smile seemed genuine.
"Mrs. Doyle, it's a pleasure. Wesley Wyndham-Pryce. I've heard so much about you."
Harry smiled back politely, with a slight nod, and then turned back to Angel.
"Francis was just telling us how he is a private investigator where he comes from, and guess what? This office is his." Their eyes met, and the smile on Harry's face widened into a grin, as though they shared a secret. Angel's face softened in return, with an oddly nostalgic look.
"What am I missing here?" I asked, glancing over at Wes for help, but he looked completely blank. Whatever it was that so amused Harry and Angel, he didn't seem to have any more idea about it than I did.
Harry looked back at me, still with that wicked sparkle in her eyes. "Oh, nothing much. It's just something that the other Francis said once, that's all."
Cordelia jumped in. "I was just saying that we ought to fix up the couch over at my place for Doyle. Dennis likes him - well, he liked the other one anyway - and, you know, safer."
Angel frowned. "Actually, I think he'd be much safer staying here. I have plenty of room downstairs."
I shook my head sharply. "Rather not. No offense - sorry." It was hard to explain just how much I didn't want to stay in the vampire's apartment, below what was almost - but not - my office.
Cordelia looked triumphant. "My place it is."
Harry frowned, as though about to protest. I was beginning to feel like a choice piece of meat on a dinner plate, being approached by several outstretched forks.
"Ummm ... no." Desperately, I glanced over at Wesley, the only person not fighting for a piece of me. "Wes, got any room at your place?"
"Why, yes. It is small, but perfectly adequate."
"That's settled then," I said hastily, trying to ignore the disappointed faces around me. "I'll stay at Wesley's for the moment."
"Well, you do look tired, Francis, but it's very good to see you, even if you're not quite the same." Harry took my hand again, lightly. "Do get some sleep, but I'd like to compare notes tomorrow, your world and mine. It all sounds fascinating. I'm staying in town for awhile, and I don't have any plans. Shall we meet for coffee tomorrow?"
"Uh. Yeah. I'd like that." Knowing the various tones of Harry's voice and what they meant, it sounded to me like my wife - who was my ex-wife, here - was working up toward asking me out for a date, even though I wasn't really her ex, just somebody who looked a lot like him.
I wasn't quite sure how I ought to feel about that. It felt oddly like a betrayal of the other me, the dead one. I felt sure that my own Harry wouldn't have shown that much interest in a mere double of me - but who was I to be talking?
"Well then," Wesley rescued me, "Until tomorrow, all. Mrs. Doyle."
Part of me didn't want to let Harry out of my sight. But weariness, and that strange sense of unease, won out. Everything would be easier to deal with if I could get a solid night's sleep. Still, after being in the same room with her, even for a little while, any room that she wasn't in felt far too empty.
Once we were out of there and on our way to his place, Wes said quietly: "You haven't asked yet. Thank you."
"It's not like I had time to ask."
"I know. Things went surprisingly well, actually, and I do believe that I have you to thank."
"Knowing about the world that you come from ... it creates a somewhat different perspective on the situation." Wesley didn't offer anything else right then, and I was too exhausted to press further. Trying to sort out everything - Faith, Harry, and all the rest of it - well, it would just have to wait.
Wesley was courteous enough not to try to draw me into any more conversation that night. Either his couch was more comfortable than I expected, or I was more tired. Either way, I didn't notice much about his apartment. Once I had confirmed that there was no one waiting for us in the darkness inside, I didn't keep my eyes open long enough to do much more than get my shoes off.
The next thing I knew, it was daylight, and fairly decent cooking smells were teasing me awake. I stayed there on the couch for awhile, thinking over yesterday, before I finally swung my legs over the edge and went to track down the source of the pleasant odor of breakfast.
It hadn't been just my imagination on the day before. Wes definitely looked like some weight had been lifted off his shoulders. Whatever had happened at the prison, it seemed to have done him good.
"I've already eaten, but yours is ready."
"Thanks, man. Owe you another one," I muttered as Wes put a plate in front of me.
Poached eggs. Damn. How many times had I told him I didn't like my eggs poached? Even with everything that had happened, it still took me a moment to remember that the Wesley who had prepared many a breakfast at my apartment was not in this room.
Hell, I was hungry, and it smelled good. I dove in anyway.
This Wesley shook his head, watching me quietly as I chowed down.
"You don't owe me. If you like, we can call it even."
"Whatever." I shrugged, and ate.
"Do you have any idea of the effect you've had on everyone, just being here?" Wesley asked, sitting across the table from me with an air of scholarly attention. "It really is quite remarkable to see."
"Oh yes. Perhaps I'll write an article on this phenomenon of alternate universes one day. It's fascinating."
Now, that one sounded like my Wes. I flashed him a grin in between mouthfuls of breakfast.
"I don't think I had realized quite how much your counterpart's absence was still felt," he went on. "The way that Angel and Cordelia are behaving since your arrival... I don't know how they will react when you leave again. As I do know you will."
I stopped eating for a moment, met his steady gaze, and then went on chewing. What was there for me to say?
"If you do feel that you owe me a favor," he went on, "then all that I will ask is that you treat their feelings with some respect."
I frowned, swallowing. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I am well aware that you have difficulty accepting their... enthusiasm... for you. I would hope that seeing your former wife again has made it somewhat easier for you to understand their position."
That was the end of my appetite. I pushed my plate aside. "What are you saying, Wes? That I shouldn't even try to get back where I belong? That I should just hang around here and pretend that I'm the person they remember? You and I both know I'm not."
"You are not their Doyle, no. But you are close enough to be able to help them heal, and maybe you are already doing that. Your counterpart's death changed both of them a great deal, and I am not only referring to the transfer of the visions to Cordelia. I had known both Angel and Cordelia in Sunnydale. When I caught up with them again here in Los Angeles, they were much different."
"Well, time - " I began awkwardly, but Wesley shook his head.
"Not time. It was only a few months."
I stared at him. "They only knew the other me for a few months?" I couldn't quite wrap my mind around that concept. "Guess I must've made an impression."
That fell totally flat, but Wesley resolutely went on. "In any event, the loss affected them greatly. It appears to have been compounded by the fact that they were forced to witness their Doyle's sacrifice, and were unable to prevent it."
Once again, I found myself oddly tempted to apologize for a death that wasn't even my own.
"So? What do you expect me to do about it?"
"I fully expect you to take any steps that you can to find out whether you can return, and I will of course offer my assistance to find any possible way for you to get back to your own reality. My only request of you is that you take into consideration the effect of your presence, and of your absence, upon this one."
"Yeah. Sure. I'll think I'll go take a walk now, OK?"
"I quite understand."
"Fine. Thanks for breakfast," I mumbled, as I headed out.
The morning sunshine outside made me blink, and I paused in the doorway on the way out of Wesley's apartment building, letting my eyes adjust, while my thoughts chased each other around my head like a hamster in a cage.
I never asked to be responsible for the emotional well-being of a souled vampire and his flighty seer. Damn it, I never asked to be responsible for anyone else's mental health, in this or any other universe. It was more than enough to be responsible for my own.
There was something ... off, outside. You know that old chestnut about the feeling that you're being watched? Well, it's real enough. I've felt it too many times not to know that I could usually trust it to be accurate.
I looked around, slowly, keeping it casual as I reached in vain for a cigarette that wasn't there.
I couldn't quite put a finger on it, but...
I smelled magic. That's really the closest I can get to describing it. Sometimes I look at an object, or a person, and just get that skin-crawling sensation about it, and something pops into my mind, a kind of recognition. It's like I'm getting it from someplace else. I haven't figured it out yet, and I'm not sure I want to know, but it was right there right then.
Come to think of it, the vampire - Angel, I corrected my own thought, reluctantly - had mentioned smelling magic when I first came back. Everything had been so completely skewed right then, in the office that was and wasn't mine, that it hadn't registered so much with me, but I was getting that sense of familiarity now.
Rayne. I was suddenly sure of it. Ethan Rayne was around somewhere, and he had done something not quite natural, recently and nearby. That was the familiar feeling.
Even as I concentrated on looking to all the world like I had nothing more on my mind than the absence of a cigarette, keeping any hint of realization out of my face and movements, it grew stronger. I tried to sharpen the focus, to figure out exactly where it was coming from.
Then, abruptly, I knew.
I turned and walked rapidly about halfway down the block, toward a solid flight of stairs leading up to someone's front door. I couldn't see anything behind it, but I knew, without being able to explain how, that Ethan Rayne was there.
I was beginning to scare myself.
He was pressed against the wall, not just motionless, but with the kind of absolute stillness that requires a little unnatural help. Anyone walking past would simply not have noticed him.
Anyone except me.
When our eyes met, he did not attempt to run. Instead, he straightened and spread his hands apart, with a wry grin. "You've found me. Excellent. I knew there was more to you than - "
I punched him in the mouth before he could finish the sentence.
by Mike Dewar
Rayne staggered back, clutching a bloody lip. "Ah. From discovery to pugilism in less than two seconds. Well don--"
His voice cut off in a gurgle as I grabbed him around the throat. A moment later, he was pressed against a wall, and judging from the way he paled, my expression was nothing to joke about. "You," I spat.
"Yes. Uh, me," Rayne managed to cough out. "But not likely to be...for...much...longer..."
I abruptly realised that my knuckles were whitening around his neck. I loosened my grip and listened to his grateful heaving breaths. I was angry with the man, sure enough, but I didn't want him dead. I hadn't even realised I was squeezing that hard.
An uncomfortable memory of how easily I had tracked him came to mind. Maybe the violence of my response was somehow linked to that...some kind of hunting reflex or something. A disconcerting thought, and one I didn't have time for. The colour was returning to Rayne's cheeks, and a foxish smile to his lips, which meant the man was starting to get a handle on himself. The more confident he got, the more likely he would pull a runner. I couldn't afford that.
Deliberately, I tightened my grip again, to keep him on edge. To remind him who was in charge here. "I was just thinkin' about you, Rayne. Seems I'm in the wrong neighbourhood, dimensionally-speaking, an' that's all your fault. Comments?"
Rayne sucked in more air as I let my hand fall away from his neck. "I must say, you've got the threatening down pat. Far more so than I would have expected, given your reputation. I don't suppose you've ever run into a girl named Buff - "
I drove my fist into his gut and stepped back as he gasped and spluttered. "Critique my technique on your own time, Rayne. How do I get back?"
Clutching his belly, the Englishman sagged to the ground, hugging his knees as a shield against more punches. "Back? Was being dead really so fun you want to do it again? You should be thanking me, really - "
"I wasn't dead," I interrupted. "There's been some confusion on that fact. I'm not from around here, Rayne. Different universe or dimension or something. This world's Doyle is still stone-cold - you pulled me out of my world. An' I'm lookin' to go back."
Quite unexpectedly, Rayne laughed. "Oh, that's just marvellous. An alternate dimension? I told those lawyers that resurrection spells were a tricky business...they should have just shelled out for the Urn of Osiris like I advised, rather than make do with budget materials..."
"Great," I snapped. "This is a cautionary tale to dark sorcerers everywhere. Could we get back to my little problem, or do I have to cut off your airflow again?"
Rayne shook his head, chuckling. "My apologies, of course. As a Chaos Magician, I just find the whole thing terribly amusing. I couldn't have planned it better myself, to be honest." He stood slowly, clutching his side. "But there's no need for further violence. I'm sure we could come to some kind of arrangement. My rates are extremely reasonable - "
I raised a fist pointedly.
" - though, it would do my reputation some good to do some work pro bono, too," he added hastily. "If we could just nip back to Wolfram & Hart, I'll be happy to whip up a spell to send you back."
"Not an option, pal. They already sent one big-ass demon after me. I wouldn't trust them if my life depended on it." That wasn't entirely fair - I didn't know much about the lawyers in this crazy world where Slayers turned evil and vampires (occasionally) good. Maybe they were a bastion of joy and happiness in the City of Angels, but somehow I doubted it. Angels - I could go back to Angel's firm for aid, but as Wesley had pointed out, they weren't necessarily about to jump behind a scheme to send me home. Using dark magic, no less.
Wesley. There was my safest choice, it seemed. I could at least trust him for an unbiased opinion, and he could evaluate Rayne's magical skills.
Rayne, who didn't seem capable of shutting up. "Well, it's interesting that you should put it that way, really. About your life depending on it. You see, Lee Mercer, the gentleman who hired me, seems to have done so largely without the authority of his firm behind him. Now you've run off, he's apparently got people looking for you and for me, with guns in their hands and murder in their hearts, so to speak."
That added an entirely different issue to my plotting. "He wants us dead?"
Rayne gave me a pained look. "You didn't think I was hiding down here under a masking spell for my health, did you?"
"Why try to kill me, after all the effort he went through to get me?"
"And try to kill me," Rayne pointed out. "Let's not ignore my plight, shall we?"
"I don't give a damn about your troubles, Rayne," I growled. "Now answer the question."
Rayne shrugged, then winced and rubbed his side again. "Deniability, Mr Doyle. The bricks and mortar of the lawyering trade. If we're dead, no one can connect us to Mercer and bring the wrath of the Senior Partners down on his unpleasant little head."
I shot him a dubious glance. "But you still want me to go back to Evil Inc. with you? Sounds like that would just put us straight in the firin' line again."
Rayne heaved a sigh. "As I said not a moment ago, Mr Mercer is after us independently. It's entirely possible we could get in and out without him noticing. And as repulsive as I find the idea of trafficking with lawyers again, they are the only ones in LA with the items I would need to send you back. Mystic warehouses aren't all that common, you know?"
"What about Rick's? They've got a good stock list." Assuming of course, that in this world, Rick hadn't become a florist or something.
Apparently he hadn't, because Rayne nodded. "Excellent choice, Mr Doyle, and in any other situation you'd be right on the money. Unfortunately, the items I need for this spell are somewhat more exclusive." He swallowed. "And are those gentlemen with you?"
I turned, almost expecting Rayne to shout "Sucker" and clock me, but there really were five men not five meters away. Their commando outfits, and the silenced submachine guns pointed in our direction, brought back unpleasant memories of the Watchers' Special Ops Team.
The leader's American accent as he spoke into a walkie-talkie killed that theory. "Subjects located."
Whoever the Tom Clancy rejects were, they were damn good. I hadn't heard them coming, and even without the demon, my ears are pretty sharp and my instincts even sharper.
"So...not friends of yours, then?" Rayne muttered behind me.
"Not so much," I responded, shifting position. The men's guns moved to cover me with cool precision.
The leader listened to a crackling voice from the walkie-talkie. "They're contained," he answered. "We're bringing them in now, ma'am."
Rayne whimpered something behind me as the men closed on us.
I kept my hands prudently high. "No chance this could simply be a case of mistaken identity? 'Cause I don't recall violatin' any national security type laws recently. Admittedly, my tax-payin' is iffy at best, but is that any reason for - "
And suddenly I was flying forward into the men, propelled by a surprisingly-strong shove from behind. Everything went red around me, as their guns fired.
And I was lying on the floor, checking for bullet holes and finding none. "Damn it, man, move!" Rayne snarled near my ear. The redness wasn't my panicked brain short-circuiting - there was a deep red haze around us.
There was more gunfire and panicked shouting all around us as we crawled forward through the red mist. "No!" I heard someone scream. "Not the eyes! The eyes!"
"On your feet!" Rayne snapped, and I felt his hands grabbing at my jacket, pulling me upward and propelling me forwards out of the redness and into what seemed to be an alley.
"What the hell was - what the -" I spluttered.
"Yes, yes, your imitation of a stuck record is indeed remarkable, but if we could just keep moving," Rayne bit out. "I'm not entirely sure how long that spell will last."
"Spell? You cast a spell." I said dazedly, stumbling down the alley, Rayne practically dragging me along.
"Give the man a cigar," he retorted. "Of course I cast a bloody spell. I'd just as rather not be shot as you would, thank you so much. Hallucinogenic spell, to be exact. Those fine military men are currently shooting the walls, each other, and the little Arab terrorist pixies, or whatever else their fevered minds cooked up."
"So why aren't we - "
"Playing with the pixies? I cast the spell, so I'm immune to its effects, and it doesn't affect non-humans. Or apparently half-humans, either."
I shook him off and spun around. "Apparently? You didn't know? What if I had gone nuts with the rest of them?"
"I would have snuck out alone and left you to get shot," Rayne said matter-of-factly. "If we could really keep moving..."
"Don't bother," I said quietly.
"Excuse me? I rather - " Then he noticed the small laser dot dancing around his chest. I hadn't looked down, but I was prepared to bet I had my own, too.
"Good plan, anyway," I said. "It just wasn't likely that a crew like that wouldn't go in without back-up of some kind."
"Of course," Rayne said, looking up at the gunmen on the roofs to either side of us. "Obviously."
Ten crowded minutes later, Rayne and I were seated in the back of a dark black van, being glowered at by two of the GI Joe commandos opposite us. Somewhat to our surprise, we weren't dead. We were handcuffed, which wasn't a great sign, but not dead.
Sometimes you've got to look at the bright side.
I leaned across to Rayne. "Don't suppose you have any more tricks up your sleeves?"
"Plenty. But they all require my sleeves, and the hands they contain, not to be handcuffed," he whispered back.
My assessment of Rayne was shifting fast. From the way he caved when I'd roughed him up, I'd taken him for nothing more than a coward with a magic wand, but he'd handled himself impressively with the commandos. Better than me, actually, though it hurt my ego to admit it. I still didn't trust him even slightly, but I had to admit the trickster was slick.
"Well, this is another fine mess you've gotten us into, Stanley," he said in a louder voice.
I shook my head. "This is your master plan? Quote old movies at people until they go away?"
Rayne grinned. "Got to respect the classics, old boy."
"Shut up," GI Joe number one said.
"But how else are we to while away our journey together?" Rayne said cheerily. "Shall we sing songs or play 'I spy'? Though the lack of windows could prove a bother, I must - "
The commando leaned forward and delivered a quick, impersonal punch. Rayne yelped and raised his cuffed hands to his bruised nose. "People keep doing that today. It's really getting very tiresome - "
Another thud of fist on flesh, another yelp.
I ignored it, my attention on something much more interesting. An attaché case was lying next to the two commandos. An attaché case with two familiar initials stitched in gold on it. Déjà vu all over again. It wasn't a big ugly demon holding me prisoner this time, but I was in the custody of Wolfram & Hart for the second time. Rayne wasn't the only one having repetitive experiences.
I wasn't entirely sure why we were still alive, given Rayne's earlier comments. Unless Mercer had changed his mind for some reason. But I couldn't imagine what that reason might be. If he'd found out that I was from another reality, that would make me even more useless to him. So that couldn't be it. Somehow I doubted he'd had a crisis of conscience.
Either way, the idea of sticking around didn't appeal. If Mercer had by some miracle turned over a new leaf, he could share the joy from a distance, by phone. And then I would go and ride to meet him on a flying pig.
After a few smacks, Rayne had subsided into silence. I glanced at him. Not much help there. His lips twitched in a kind of amused resignation. As for our captors, they just sat there, solidly immobile. The van was walled off from the cab section, so I wasn't sure who was up at front. At least two more, though. I could maybe bust the van doors if I charged them in demon form, but I was in no state to fall out a moving vehicle again.
No, whichever way you looked at it, I was stuck.
At least until the van stopped moving. Which it did about five minutes later, with a screech of brakes. The commandos eased past us and kicked open the back doors, revealing what looked like the interior of a parking garage. Grey concrete pillars surrounded us, flashy cars parked between them. Judging from the flashiness of the cars, we were in W&H's garage. Only lawyers or actors can afford cars like that.
The commandos roughly grabbed us and half-pulled, half-shoved us out. There were more of their comrades outside the van, standing in a rough semi-circle with weapons ready.
I let my legs buckle and fell against my captor. He swore and dragged me upright. "Keep moving, freak."
"Sure thing, boss," I said, standing upright and going demon. He yelped as spines jabbed his hands, leaping back. I helped him on his way with a kick, snapping my cuffs with my enhanced strength. "Movin' fast enough for you?"
"Whatever you're thinking, I hope it's considerably less suicidal than it appears." Rayne said, as the commandos around us raised their guns. Hammers cocked.
I smiled, as I brought my hands around in front of me and let them all get a good look at what I'd snatched off my captor's belt. "Probably more so, actually. How do these grenades work again?"
The men tensed as I tossed the pineapple-shaped explosive from hand to hand. Rayne took several steps away from me, towards the gunmen. "I'm not with him," he said hurriedly. "Really."
"You wouldn't," my former captor said, still down from my kick. "You'd kill yourself, too."
I grinned. "Really? 'Cause I've never tested exactly how strong this body is. Could be it could shrug off one of these. Well, better than you folks could, anyway. Wanna find out?"
"Let's not do anything stupid," another commando said. "Maybe we can work something out."
"Shut up, Riggs!" the man on the ground snapped.
"Yeah, shut up, Riggs," I agreed. "What's the delay on this thing? Three seconds or something, right?" The tinkle as the grenade's pull ring landed on the ground seemed very loud in the quiet lot.
And then the men were running away from me, as I tossed the live grenade casually in the air and caught it again.
And they were diving for cover as I spun around and flung it into the back of the van, slamming the doors shut as it clattered inside.
Even with the van containing the impact of the blast, the shockwave knocked me backwards. But that was fine by my standards, because it propelled me in the direction of the toll booth exit. I scrambled to my feet and kept running, leaping the barrier and sprinting out onto the sunlit street.
As I expected, no shots followed. I was wanted alive.
But if they wanted that, they'd have to catch me first. And well-trained and athletic though those guys were, they were no match for an adrenalin-pumped Bracken half-demon with a hefty head-start.
Run, run as fast you can, you can't catch me, I'm the exhausted-covered-in-spikes-demon-man.
Exhausted, I practically fell through Wesley's elevator doors. I managed to raise a trembling finger to punch the right floor number and sagged back against the wall as the elevator creaked upwards. My fingers still shook from the insanity of my recent activities. Having to dodge petrified pedestrians until I could shed the demon hadn't helped, either.
I've handled live grenades before, you know. SWAT uses concussion grenades to stun dangerous suspects, and they never miss an opportunity to show off their cool gadgets to their less-militant fellow cops. Still, those were just to stun. Worst you could get was a ringing headache, temporary deafness and a brief attack of blindness. As opposed to say, being blown in half.
Maybe my bluff was accurate - maybe my demon form could have handled a grenade in close proximity. I hoped like hell I'd never have to find out.
Still I couldn't help but feel a crazy type of triumph. I'd gotten away for the second time, done it from better and smarter foes, who were expecting it and armed to the teeth. I'd gambled with my life and won. Won big.
I was humming along under the influence of a heavy adrenalin buzz as I staggered along the corridor. Liberally sautéed in macho self-satisfaction, my heart still racing in an irregular little polka beat and my breath coming in gulps, I fell through the doorway of Wesley's apartment.
"Hey, Wes, your crazy roomie's home. My walk ran a little long. Oughta keep that door locked, you know - "
What I wasn't expecting to find was that the sly goat had company. The sight of the elegantly-dressed woman seated opposite Wesley stunned me into silence. Fancy executive outfit, expensive shoes and perfectly-styled hair - this one I'd never seen before. This one I would have remembered.
They sat intimately, either side of the dining table, arms rested on the table top, faces leaning in towards each other, she draped sideways across her chair, the longest legs I'd ever seen crossed sedately to the side of the table rather than under it, he hunched a little, legs apart and ungainly, not precisely a romantic picture.
Wesley. And one of the classiest brunettes I'd ever had the fortune to lay eyes on?
Of course, they jumped up and apart like somebody had set crucial portions of their anatomy on fire as the door crashed back and I staggered in. The gal - and, hell, had this universe nabbed all the attractive leggy brunettes? - reacted minimally, straightening in her chair and, a few heartbeats later (okay, several of mine) deliberately rose, an indefinable but hard expression on her face that I didn't much like. Wesley, on the other hand, fell off his chair in a spluttering heap.
Well. Not... fell off, exactly. The chair tipped as he jerked in his surprise, spilling him out just in time to avoid him going down with it when it smashed backwards onto the floor. Wesley caught himself on one knee.
I stared at the two of them, quite too astonished for words. No kidding this was an alternate universe.
Wesley picked himself up, along with what bits of his composure were still salvageable. "It's not what it looks like," he said quickly, pushing his glasses more firmly onto his swollen face with an unsteady hand.
I stared at him blankly a second more, turned to appraise the woman, who bore the appraisal with a smirk - and I definitely wasn't warming to the bird, for all that the packaging was superb - then back to Wesley. A snort of laughter escaped me, despite the lousiness of the day. "There's no cause to be all modest, Wes. Sorry about, you know, the interruption. I can go out, run round the block a few more times. How long'd you like? Ten minutes? Fifteen?"
Wesley choked and started to turn an odd colour. I looked between he and the woman, suddenly concerned. I knew Wesley's sexually-embarrassed reaction. It had provided me endless hours of entertainment baiting the stuffed shirt. This wasn't it.
He cleared his throat and pointed at the woman - not in a fashion that showed any particular affection or regard, either. "You don't know her?"
The woman and I exchanged a further glance. She looked vastly amused. She tossed her shiny hair like a shampoo commercial and presented me with the straight solid line of a jaw that had nothing delicate or demure about it beneath all the gloss.
"No," I said. "I don't know her. And unless someone gets around to makin' some introductions, I guess I'm not going to any time soon."
"Ah." Wesley swallowed visibly. His voice, when it came out was a ghost of a rasp. "This would be Ms Lilah Morgan. Of, ah..."
"Of Wolfram and Hart," the woman finished. She took several smooth steps, swaying her hips as she crossed the room to me, and extended her hand. She waited a few seconds before she withdrew it with an unconcerned shrug. "I can't blame you for not trusting me. After all, my firm's had you kidnapped from another world, beaten up, assassins set on your trail... I can see how that might hurt the trust."
"No kidding," I said.
Lilah Morgan of Wolfram and Hart lifted one side of her mouth, bunching up her cheek in a partial smile too sly and smug to condescend to being a whole one. And to think I'd actually thought... Wesley and this woman?
"I'm not working with Ethan Rayne and that idiot Mercer," she said. "If that helps. You're not my project. In fact, besides a mutual employer, your troubles are nothing to do with me - so far."
Behind her, Wesley was shifting on his feet, and looking like he didn't know what to do with his hands.
"Ms Morgan..." he said finally, weakly. "Would you like that cup of tea now?"
"Tea?" I said blankly. "Yeah, Wes. They try to kill us, but that doesn't mean we can't get all civil and English with them."
"That's not--" He paused. "I think we may be interested in listening to what Ms Morgan has to say, Doyle."
He and the lady lawyer exchanged a glance I didn't much like, and I started wondering what had been said before I'd arrived on the scene.
Lilah nodded, and conspiratorially leaned in towards me - she had to lean, she was almost as tall as Wesley, which was a good few inches on me - and stage-whispered, "I'm here because I think I can help you. Isn't that, well - something?" The sparkle in her eyes and the mischief in her grin, though not what I'd grown to expect from bloody Wolfram and Hart, did absolutely nothing to assuage my concerns.
Wesley got us sat down at the table, and then, nervously avoiding all the daggers that were being glared around, went off to make tea. I picked at a scratch on my arm that was scabbing. Lilah pretended disinterest and polished her nails against the hem of the short business skirt hitched almost indecently high on her thighs by her long, crossed legs.
I had to avoid looking at those legs. Too long, and I'd be a goner. The woman's body was a carefully honed weapon.
Wesley came back, then, and set a tray down with three neat teacups and saucers on it. The giant wuss. He poured out the tea, still being careful with his right arm. And I'd almost forgotten that the guy had been brutally and systematically tortured not more than a week since, among everything else.
Lilah evidently followed my gaze. "I neglected to mention, Mr Wyndham-Pryce, how very remarkably good shape you seem to be in, recent events considered."
Wesley's expression hardened. "Ms Morgan--"
"Lilah," she corrected."I heard what she did. I hadn't anticipated finding you in so collected a state."
"Lilah," Wesley said. It was almost a snap, which surprised me. Though his next words were instantly calmer again. "I'd really rather not talk about it. If you please, the subject at hand."
"Yes." She backed it up with a sharp nod, clued in that she was going to get nowhere on the torture issue. God knows, if Angel and Cordelia couldn't prise a reaction out of him, the bitch lawyer who'd probably had a hand in siccing Faith onto him in the first place couldn't. She turned her gaze direct onto me, and said baldly, "I have Rayne. After I've talked out a few things... I think he could be persuaded to co-operate. In short, I can get you out of here."
I almost spat out my first mouthful of Wesley's tea. My brain replayed the guy who snatched us, saying, *"We're bringing them in now, Ma'am."*
"That is where you want to be, isn't it? Home? The world you belong? Whatever the good and plenties may want. Say I can get Rayne to reverse his incompetent spellcasting."
"Why would you?" I asked when the choking had ceased. "I just spent hours giving your goons the runaround, and now you want to *help* me? Unless getting cosy with Wes here has given you a sudden change of heart--"
Wesley cleared his throat irritably.
Lilah sighed daintily. "The snatch was a mistake. Violence always is when there's... room to negotiate. I always preferred talk, anyway - cuts down on the mess, and these shoes cost more than you'd see in a year."
Considering what my firm earned in a year, that didn't exactly take Prada, but I got the picture. "And you think you can negotiate with us? How is our mutual friend, anyway? Not too scorched around the edges, I hope?"
She looked amused. "He'll survive. I needed Rayne, shouldn't have gone for the two-for-one. I apologise for that. It was crass of me."
"Yeah." I rubbed at a bruise and scowled. "And I say again, why in the hell would you want to help me?"
"Why wouldn't I?" she countered. "Lee Mercer and his pet sorcerer screwed up big time. Not only have they not gained any leverage over Angel, they've provided him with his dead ally miraculously resurrected. Or... whatever." She shot a look at Wesley and I filled in the fact he'd spilled all about the whole parallel realities theory to her already. "But excuse me if I fail to wave banners saying 'Go Team Evil' for this fiasco. They screwed up. When screw-ups happen in our firm, everyone tends to feel it. Some of them not for long. On the other hand, though - they made a mess. I clean it up, they lose points with the upper echelons back at the office, I gain them. It isn't a difficult equation."
"You're gonna throw in with the enemy to screw over your co-workers?"
"In a nutshell." She nodded brightly. "Of course, not particularly helping Angel, either. He doesn't want you to go. But the two of you...?"
She leaned back in her chair, picked up her cup and saucer, and looked between myself and Wes, twirling the cup in her hands. "I think we all know in which course of action our best interests lie."
She kept on smiling between us. Me, I looked very sharply at Wesley, and Wesley looked away.
I might have said something then - like, exactly what had they had chance to talk about before I walked in on the conversation - had the spike of excruciating vision agony not chosen that moment to embed itself in my brain and demonstrate once again that the PTB at least were indifferent to that trifling matter of my being stranded in a parallel universe, and not big on making allowances.
I staggered when the vision hit and lurched forward, my hands going down hard on the nearest flat surface, which rocked furiously, not helping the feeling of nausea that was naturally attendant to the images being poured into my brain like boiling oil.
Next thing I was aware of was the hand under my arm holding me up. Wesley, peering down through his spectacles in concern. Lilah, of course, hadn't moved. She continued to observe archly from her seat as I shook my head, swallowed, and asked Wesley if he had anything in the way of a half decent whisky. Or a godawful whisky, for that matter. I wasn't all that inclined to be fussy.
Wesley looked disapproving. "Shouldn't we go help Angel and--"
I coughed sharply and his voice died.
When he turned to Lilah Morgan, the sound that came from his mouth had a much harder edge to it, "Ms Morgan. We will give your proposal due thought, but I really must ask you now to leave."
She stood up without complaint. I was unable to drag my eyes away from the smooth motion of her legs as she glided over to him. She fished in-- what I realised after a wide-eyed moment must be a breast pocket in her expensively tailored blouse. And drew out a business card. When she extended it to him in a slim, elegant hand, it looked more like a proposal. The slight stroke of her fingers across his as he took it (swallowing, his eyes crawling over everything else in the room and doing acrobatics trying to avoid hers) was practically indecent.
"I wouldn't dismiss," she said, the tip of her tongue creeping out to edge across her lower lip, "Anything we've talked about here out of hand."
She turned to me, smiled, and transformed almost to a demeanour of indifference. "You do want to go home, don't you? Ethan... well, let's just say you probably won't get any other opportunity. Turns out he's not exactly Golden Boy with one of the senior partners for some business he and his chaos-cronies were involved in back in the eighties. Once they get a hold of him..." She laughed. "The clock's a-ticking, boys."
With that, she tossed her hair back and stalked out of the door, leaving a slam and a powerful blast of over-scented air behind her.
I looked over Wesley's shoulder at the business card in his hand.
"Only you could look that glum when the hot chicks are pouncing on you with their phone numbers," I said. But my heart wasn't in it.
Angel wasn't exactly on hand to give us a lift, and Wesley claimed he didn't have a car, so that statement kind of made me wonder precisely what we were doing as we headed down to the parking outside his apartment block after safely watching Lilah Morgan's figure retreat down the street and turn the corner at the end.
"Maybe we should follow her?" he suggested, breaking my line of thought. "Angel has, after all, dealt with a great many visions--"
"You follow her," I sniped. "I'm the one who gets the bumper family-sized headache if I chose to ignore these things, and I'm not looking forward to experimentation as to whether the powers will make any allowances for the broody guy already being here to deal."
I may have been imagining the touch of wistfulness in Wesley's gaze as he'd watched Ms Morgan turn that corner. But I doubted it.
We descended some steep steps to the vehicle berths. Wesley headed straight for motorcycle in the corner, drawing out keys from his jacket.
"Wesley? That's--?" my voice degenerated into a mangled splutter.
Wesley turned and squinted at me curiously and asked me if I was 'quite all right'. I could practically hear a handful more of my cherished preconceptions about His Uptight Britishness shatter.
Of course, neither of us was in much of a state to be riding a motorcycle. A very uncomfortable journey later, which was largely spent getting far more familiar with Wesley's anatomy than I'd ever counted on getting, we pulled up outside the art gallery where I'd seen the demon attack taking place. We gingerly unwrapped from each other and disembarked with much mutual wincing.
There was a police cordon and a crowd already there. As for Angel and Cordelia--
"Can you see them?" Wesley muttered, straightening out a kink in his back as we joined the ranks of interested spectators. Some amateur linebacker jostled him and, looking pained, he touching his fingertips to his injured arm before withdrawing them hurriedly.
"You tell me. You're about a foot taller'n I am," I retorted.
"Well... there is your demon heritage... perhaps some kind of enhanced vision..." he meandered lamely.
"I could maybe sniff them out," I allowed irritably. "If I was about to turn all spiky-face for an audience of about two-hundred. Yeah."
"Ah." He peered around, stretching his skinny body to see over the heads of a crowd all trying to do the same. He pointed cautiously down to our right. "There's something of an alleyway down that side there. If they were making a surreptitious escape, that would be the way they'd go. Unless, of course, they left by the sewers."
"If Cordelia's with him?"
"You know her so well after so short a time," he mused sarcastically. "Except - what makes you so sure that she is with him?"
"I..." I had no real answer to that.
"Hmm. Maybe it has something to do..." Wesley briefly paused to make apologies to the couple he'd just pushed his way past "...with the fact... that you're both really the same seer. In a manner of speaking. Her visions are, after all, yours. They're not supposed to exist twice in the same reality. There's a connection between you."
"Hey! I'm spoken for. I can't have 'connections' existin' between me and strange women! Faith would kill me--" I shut up. Mentioning Faith in front of this Wesley still seemed rather bad taste.
We made it through the last straggles of the crowd and broke into a run to round the corner of the alley. It was narrow, and there wasn't anybody in sight. The wall of the gallery facing onto it had no windows or back doors.
The sound of female cursing emanating from behind a dumpster lifted my flagging spirits.
On the other side of the dumpster, I skidded to a halt, faced with a Cordelia and Angel draped in thick goops of... brilliant orange slime?
Cordelia was batting Angel's hands away. He'd evidently just hauled her up through the open sewer grate from the tunnels below the gallery. He proceeded to nudge the grate closed with his foot while Cordelia's litany of "Ew, ew... don't touch me... don't even look at me... ew..." changed to a low keening wail and something about her shoes.
"Cordelia?" Wesley ventured. "Angel - dear God, what is that stench?"
Cordelia hiccupped to a brief, ominous silence and glared at him. "Eau de stinky sewer and dayglow demon slime, dumbass," she snapped. "Ew... oh, God... I can't believe this... orange is so completely not my colour... Look at me! No, don't look at me! I'm clashing!"
Wesley tentatively extended a clean handkerchief, oblivious to the frantic waving hand motions of Angel where he hunched into the shade of the dumpster.
She jumped back. "Get that away from me! Don't even think it. I oughtn't need tell you I've more demon-slime-cleaning experience than you'll ever have, buddy, and right now demon-slime-cleaning-guru say..." She hung her head and sighed morosely. "I'll see if it'll chisel off once it's dried."
Wesley tucked the handkerchief wordlessly away. He glanced meaningfully at me, then he asked, "Why did you come with Angel, Cordelia?"
She looked surprised. "They're working on the sewer junction Angel needed to use to get here, and it's broad daylight. There wasn't much other option if we wanted to stop the tourists from being demon-kibble and Angel from being toasty." She narrowed her eyes. "Why?"
"No reason," Wesley said hastily. He looked worriedly and contemplatively back toward me. I wondered if her thought it might be dangerous for either or both of us, this shared visions deal.
"So," Angel said, clearly reaching in desperation for a change of subject. "What have you guys been up to?"
Wesley sighed. "A rather interesting morning, as it turns out. A most agreeable breakfast, a little research that I'd been meaning to get done for weeks... visit from one of out friends at Wolfram and Hart..."
Angel's eyes stopped rolling and his head shot up. "Wolfram and Hart were at your place?" He scanned Wesley's form intently. "Are you all right?"
"He's fine," I said. "They sent some luscious lady lawyer to sweet-talk him. Me, on the other hand - I got the requisite ugly goons. Which, sadly, is very much par-for-the-course with my luck."
"Lilah Morgan was at Wesley's place?" Angel said, and Wesley nodded. I smirked at Angel. The Broody One had been pretty quick on the draw in joining the dots from my description.
"Mm," Wesley agreed. "She offered us a deal. Apparently she'd rather undertake some damage control to make Ethan Rayne send Doyle here back to his own world than allow herself and rest of her Wolfram and Hart colleagues - but chiefly, I imagine, the former - to feel the senior partners ire for Mercer's failure."
Cordelia snorted. "As if we'd fall for anything that bitch tried to pull."
"I think she was sincere," Wesley said quietly, and something tightened inside my own chest, because until that moment I hadn't really allowed myself to give any credit to the offer, considering its source. But if Wesley-- "And she may also have been right when she claimed Ethan Rayne to be the only chance for Doyle to return home. The spell - all the variables - only he knows exactly what he did before. It's unlikely that another mage would be able to reverse it. Certainly not quickly or cheaply."
"It's unlikely that it's not a big, glaring trap," Cordelia said. She swung around on me, looking more than a little wild in her coating of orange slime. "It's too dangerous. You should stay here. It's not... terrible here, is it? After all, you have friends. People who want you around. And you do good... you could do good here. Help us with our helping the helpless, huh? Just like you did b--"
"*I didn't*," I said sharply.
"Doyle," Angel began. He didn't seem any more happy than Cordelia. "I - we - realise you want to return, and we'll help you all we can, but... you have to bear in mind it probably will be a trap. You may be setting yourself up to be disappointed."
"Either I am or you are, yeah?" I sneered. "Let's face it, you're not exactly impartial." I broadened the sneer to cover Cordelia, who managed to look shocked, which I hadn't realised she could do. "You act like you care, but you'd both like to see me stranded here."
Angel opened his mouth again, but Wesley interrupted sharply.
"Perhaps you should tell me where you left the car so that Doyle and I might go bring it around." He gestured towards the crowd they were still trying to disperse and the police tape beyond the mouth of the alley. Wesley raised his eyebrows and added mildly, "We *could* continue this conversation somewhere we're not likely to get picked up by the police for hanging suspiciously around the scene of a crime..."
"Whatever," Cordelia snapped, and shot me a look that made me absolutely sure I hadn't heard the end of this conversation. "Let's get out of here. All of us." She included me with an airy wave of her hand that sent a few droplets of orange ooze in my direction.
Considering the sullen possessiveness that I could read on Cordelia's slime-smeared face, Lilah Morgan was looking better all the time.
by Ellen & Katta
When we returned to the AI office, Cordelia disappeared from sight immediately, presumably to clean herself up. Wes and Angel promptly took advantage of Cordelia's absence to begin debating the merits of Lilah Morgan's proposal. As usual, they were discussing me as though I wasn't there, which was getting more and more annoying.
"I'm not claiming that we can trust her, Angel," Wes said mildly. "Of course we can't. But I think we've seen enough of Ms. Morgan to know that she invariably acts in what she considers to be her rational self-interest. If she believes that she will gain some benefit from sending Doyle back, she'll do it."
"And if she believes she'll gain just as much benefit by luring him in to Wolfram & Hart and capturing or killing him, she'll do that, too."
"I don't doubt it."
"Then why even consider it?"
I finally spoke up, tired of being ignored while my fate was debated. "Because maybe I need to go home."
"Even at the risk of dying again?" Angel turned to me, and I could see him struggling not to show emotion. "Even if Lilah keeps her word, which is unlikely ... the process of sending you back might be fatal. Guaranteed she couldn't care less about that part. Once you're gone, whether you get home whole or arrive in a thousand pieces doesn't affect her plan."
"True," Wes conceded.
Angel was still looking at me, not Wes, and not doing a very good job of keeping that mixture of hurt and hope out of his eyes. "Is the prospect of remaining in this reality that terrible?"
I opened my mouth, then shut it again. I didn't know quite what to say.
When Cordelia emerged from the basement apartment, she looked flawless once again, beautifully dressed, freshly washed hair gleaming. "Hey." Like Angel, she had eyes only for me. "Do I win the Most Improved for today?"
"Thank you." She grinned triumphantly, apparently satisfied, then looked at me with a sharp curiosity. "Oh, hey there... wait a minute... do you think you could come over here and stand by the light a moment?"
"Humor me," Cordelia said, in a manner which made it clear that she was totally confident I would obey. Somehow, without knowing quite why, I did.
She came right up to me then, too close for comfort, but she kept her hands off. Seems she had learned to respect my space that much, if not much more. She tilted her head a little, staring into my eyes until I could feel an embarrassed flush starting to develop.
"What are you looking for?"
"Weren't your eyes - Angel! Weren't our Doyle's eyes bluer than that?"
Angel gave her a condescending smile. "No, Cordelia. Our Doyle's eyes were exactly that same shade of green."
"Come on, it hasn't been that long! I know I'm right. I remember them being more of a greeny-blue, and this Doyle's are more of a bluey-green."
"Excuse me," I said with heavy sarcasm. "This conversation is goin' about three generations beyond absurd."
"Sorry." Angel shrugged, smiling in the "Well, it's Cordelia" way that I had already grown to know far too well.
"Perhaps we could bring our attention back to the matter at hand," Wesley said quietly. "I believe the question on the floor is what Doyle wants to do, not what color his eyes are."
I shot a quick half-grin in his direction. "Thanks. Glad to hear somebody's on the same page with me here."
"OK then." Cordelia turned to me with a look of firm resolve. "Doyle. Why not stay with us? You don't know for sure if you can go back. Even if you do, you may be dead there, or you may end up dead. Again."
Angel put in, "It's not as though there's any guarantee here either, Cordelia. Keeping him here and keeping him safe aren't the same thing." Angel glanced over at me, then looked away as he went on. "Doyle could as easily be killed again here, as there."
"Don't even think it," she snapped.
"We need to consider all the possibilities," Angel went on, in a reasonable voice. I would have appreciated it more if he wasn't keeping his eyes so carefully off me, as if to pretend I wasn't hearing every word he said. "Our Doyle stayed with us because he needed to atone - "
"Are you saying that being with me was some kind of punishment?" Cordelia flared.
"Not being with you, Cordelia. The fight - he never really wanted to be part of that, and the visions - you know for yourself now how much they hurt - "
"But it's different now. This Doyle doesn't need to get vengeance any more. Harry's alive here, and whatever vamp did her over there is probably long since dust in this world."
"Her name was Darla," I said quietly, and I saw Angel flinch.
"Well, there you go, then," Cordelia said triumphantly to Angel. "You dusted Darla yourself, so you know she's gone for good."
"I did," Angel concurred softly, but his eyes were back on me now, however unwillingly, as though he couldn't keep his gaze away. "I'm sorry."
"About what? Harry or Darla?"
Angel's words were clearly for me. "She was my sire. We were lovers for a hundred years."
"And you dusted her?" If he was trying to impress me, I tried to convince myself that it wasn't working. Trouble is, it was. I knew how formidable Darla could be.
"Once I was cursed with a soul, we were on opposite sides of the fight. Some divides just can't be crossed, no matter what has gone before."
Cordelia snorted. "Don't bet on that. Slayers and vampires are on opposite sides, and look what happened there. So don't give me any more of that 'some things are not meant to be' crap. That doesn't apply to us, and you know it."
"Do I ever get a vote in this?" I sniped, sarcasm increasing with my frustration.
Angel responded: "Yours is the only vote that matters."
"Screw that!" Cordelia exploded. "We mattered to our Doyle - didn't we? - enough to die for. If you think I'm just going to stand aside and let him go again - "
"I'm not your Doyle. I never was. When are you going to get that?"
Cordelia whirled and, this time, looked straight at me. "You could be. If you wanted."
"Well then, maybe I don't want to be somebody else's frickin' fairy-tale idea of who I oughtta be. Maybe you never really knew either one of me at all."
"Or maybe I do know who you're supposed to be," she countered, unfazed. "Maybe I'm not as clueless as you think. Imagine that!"
"It's my life."
"So what does that mean? That you want to throw it away again?"
"I wasn't the one who threw it away in the first place - "
"Maybe not, but you're the one who might be throwing it away now. Did you ever stop to think that maybe, this is where you belong - and it's your other world that isn't right?"
"It's my world. It's where I live."
"Not any more."
"I think I've had just about enough of this." I vaguely remembered having said something to Harry about coffee, but even more than that, I knew I had to get out of here, away from these two.
I pushed past Wes, who let me pass, with a look of understanding on his face. Except I couldn't imagine him understanding how I felt. I didn't really get it myself - except, *trapped*.
Yeah. I felt trapped. I got that part.
"Doyle, wait - " Angel called out, but I ignored him, heading for the door. I heard a faint release of breath from Cordelia, as Angel apparently blocked her path. "No. Let him go."
"Let him go?"
"I know. That's just what is hardest for us to do. But we have to do it," Angel said. "Let him go."
I was out the door, and didn't hear any more.
There was nothing particularly fresh about the L.A. air even in this reality, but anything was better than the smell of vampire and worry inside Angel Investigations. I took deep breaths of the smog as I hurried down the street.
"You're going to get yourself cancer," a voice said behind me.
I slowed my steps. I'd forgotten about Harry. "Sorry."
"Apologize to your lungs." She smiled, a very Harry smile that made me waver. I had to fight an urge to take her arm.
"So, coffee?" I asked, trying to cover up my mixed emotions.
She nodded and looked around until something caught her eye and she pointed towards a tiny café sign near the corner. "Ah, there it is. I had coffee there when I first came to L.A."
"Okay." It looked like a nice place. In my reality, it was empty, door kicked in and windows covered in graffiti. Did that mean this L.A. was better?
I didn't know, but I felt strangely unreal stepping into the café with my dead wife who was neither of those things. More unreal than I'd felt from spending time with a vampire, a flake, and someone who should be my associate in what should be my agency.
We got our coffees and sat down, watching each other silently for a while. This damn alternate reality thing meant even small talk could get awkward really fast. 'So, have you seen the latest Ellie King film?' Who's Ellie King?' 'Uh... in this reality? Probably a waitress at Starbucks.'
"Am I..." she started. I was grateful that one of us was finally speaking, and even more grateful that it didn't have to be me. "Am I very like her?"
"Yeah." I answered right away, needing neither further explanation nor time to think. Maybe if I *had* given myself time to think I wouldn't have said that. Harry looked downright queasy, and I didn't blame her. "A bit tougher, maybe," I amended. "Sadder."
"You're tougher too," she said, taking a sip of her coffee as she gave me a long, thoughtful gaze. "But you're different altogether. It's hard to explain. Francis... *My* Francis... he threw his life away."
That seemed like a harsh judgement on a man who'd died to save others. I think she sensed my discomfort, because she added, "And I don't mean the way he died. I think dying... strange as it may sound, I think dying was a step in the right direction. Those last few months, he really *cared* about something again."
"And I - I mean he - didn't before?"
"Not after he found out..." She glanced at the people around us. There were far too many for the word "demon" to be used lightly. Even the conversation we'd already had must be on the odd side.
"It's a tough thing to find out about yourself," I said, defending my counterpart.
I thought back on the day when I'd found out myself, and the look in Harry's eyes right before she died. "The last thing you ever said was 'What are you?' "
Her eyes widened at that, and then she blinked quickly a couple of times. "Oh, Doyle, I'm so sorry."
The way she called me Doyle reminded me that she wasn't the woman I had married. "Not your fault, love."
"She would have gotten over it," she said, clasping my hand. "Whatever she said, whatever she *felt* right then, she would have gotten over it. "
"And I wouldn't, right?" I offered a lopsided smile, even though I felt more like crying.
"You don't know that." Her voice was fierce and her grip around my fingers hard, but I didn't mind. It meant she still cared. "Maybe in your world, you would have."
"Would haves are pointless," I told her bitterly, remembering nights spent thinking out ways to change the past, to keep Harry alive. "It didn't happen. Not in my world, not in yours."
"Do you think..." She hesitated. "Do you think there may be worlds where it did happen?"
I thought about that. "Yeah, maybe." A world without vampires, maybe, but then again, in a world without vampires there would be no demon side for me to worry about.
"I'd like that." She let go of my hand and sat back, smiling a little. "I'd like to think that there's a world where Harry and Doyle were happily married and had a very long life together. Maybe even had some quarter-demon babies."
Her voice was light; to her, it was just a comforting game. But I'd travelled between the worlds, and I wanted to ask her if we could make this world *that* world. Well, maybe not with the quarter-demon babies, that thought creeped me out. Everything else she'd said seemed alluringly sweet, though. I wanted that happily ever after, and my heart ached to ask her for it - but I didn't. How could I? It wasn't *my* happily ever after. It belonged to that poor sod who had killed himself to save some people I didn't even know. It wasn't my world. It wasn't my Harry.
Besides, my Harry or not, was there even such a thing as going back? I doubted it very much.
I stirred my coffee even though the one lump of sugar I had put in it had long since dissolved. "If this was three years ago..." I started.
So she felt it too. That encouraged me a bit. "I won't say I'm over you." I looked down for a moment. "In the other... in my universe... you know I have someone, right? Things are so different. It's not easy..."
"Is she prettier than me?"
"What?" I couldn't believe she'd just said that. "That's not a fair question. That's... You're not... And *she's* not... I mean, just what you guys *wear*..." And then I caught sight of her eyes. Her sparkling, teasing eyes. Damn. I had forgotten how her sense of humour involved saying embarrassing things just to watch me react. "Not funny, Harry."
"She *is* prettier than me!" Harry said, delighted.
Her soft curly hair was falling into her eyes and I was nearly in love with both those things again. But even though the question had been made in jest, I made the comparison, and I couldn't imagine Harry in Faith's clothes and make up, or moving the way Faith always did. Pretty wasn't really the issue. Faith was just a whole different ball park - or rather an amusement park, of the rickety kind that was set up overnight, where you'd have the ride of your life and never know if you could make it out of there alive.
And God help me, I couldn't live without that ride anymore.
"There's more to it than that," I said, both answering Harry's question and taking my thoughts further. "More to Faith... and more to all of it." I took a sip of my coffee. It was getting cold and would soon be undrinkable, but I didn't want to drink it all just yet anyway. I needed this time to breathe.
"I'm happy you have someone."
The words were spoken softly, but hurt like a knife in my guts. She meant it to, that was the worst part. If I had someone, it meant that I no longer had a claim on her. It'd be easier for her, I supposed, if she could make Faith what kept us apart.
And maybe Faith *was* what kept us apart. I couldn't have them both - not only was neither of them the sharing type, they didn't even live in the same universe. If I stayed, I'd never get to see my Slayer girl ever again, and that thought hurt even more.
"I'll tell you what I can't do," I said at long last. "I can't stay in my old office playing pretend games with Angel and Cordelia. 'Cause that's what it would be, no matter how well we all know I'm not him. I'd go crazy in a week. And it wouldn't be fair to them either. Or Wesley." I paused, surprised to hear myself say that. This Wesley wasn't the one I knew, and even if it had been, when had I ever gone out of my way in order to avoid annoying Wesley?
"Sounds to me like you've already made up your mind," Harry said.
I took a deep breath and drank the last of my coffee, even though it was cold and foul. "Yeah. I have." I put the cup down and rose from my chair. "I'm ready to go home."
She rose too. "Glad to hear it."
"I still love you," I blurted out.
"I do, you know," I said, trying to make light of it. "I loved her more than anything, but I do love you too, and I'll love any Harry in any universe I ever get into - which I really hope will be as few as possible, but still. If reincarnation's for real and one of us gets reborn an emu, I'll still love you."
Her mouth twitched in a near smile. "An emu?"
"Yup. Big emu loving."
She laughed, but there were tears in her voice. "I'm sorry, Doyle. I only loved the one."
"That's okay," I said, and it was. Harry might have divorced the Doyle in this universe, but I kind of liked that she wasn't willing to mess around with his memory by adding me into the mix. Poor dead sod deserved that much.
I got the living lady with the hellish temper. "Better this way."
"Probably," she agreed.
I hesitated for a second, and then I reached out my hand. She shook it without comment, and we walked back to the office in silence, knowing that we'd found some sort of equilibrium in all this mess.
Only when I was about to step inside did she talk again: "Take care."
"You too," I said, meaning it with all my heart.
There was a Harry alive and well in this universe, and that knowledge was one thing I could take with me home. It almost made me grateful to that bastard Rayne.
I walked back into the office with a purpose and certainty I hadn't felt since Harry's appearance threw me a curve ball.
Inside, Angel was working through some Tai Chi moves in a corner, off in a world of his own, while Wesley slumped over a desk loaded with papers and Cordelia leaned painting her nails. There was a stifled aura about the scene, that suggested they'd been in a state of waiting since I left. It was a fraction annoying to find the lives of strangers hanging on my every action... but I was sure enough now of who I was and what I wanted that it didn't throw me anymore.
They hadn't heard me come in. I announced into the silence, "I'm going home."
Angel wavered and planted both feet on the ground, the transitory grace leaving his big form again. Cordelia abandoned her nails, hands freezing in the air. Wesley had quite possibly fallen asleep.
"No," Cordelia protested. "No, no, no... it's all wrong, can't you see? You were sent here for a reason - our Doyle's dead, and your world--"
"It's not dead," I said firmly. "Not while there're still people fightin' for it. People like me. I have to go back."
"My Harry's dead. That's the way it is, and I can't fight for her memory in my world if I'm livin' in this one. That lady--" I looked back at the door where I'd just walked in off the street, like there was an invisible thread stretching back from me to her, still sitting staring into an empty cappuccino mug at that table "--she's a great gal, but it's not real. Neither is this. I'm not your memories, so don't waste them on me."
"I understand," Angel said.
At that moment, Wesley stirred and knocked half the papers off his desk as he flinched awake. Cordelia snorted at the mishap, and he sat up blinking. His eyes became a little more alert as they settled on me. "You're back."
"Yeah. Look, Wes, I need you to call Lilah."
His face cleared quickly at that. "You've made your decision."
"Yeah." I tried not to make it too obvious that my gaze avoided both Angel and Cordelia. "*Final* decision."
Angel said, "I'm still not sure this is wise. No, don't - I know we've been through this, but just listen to me, Doyle. I know Wolfram and Hart..."
"So do I. An' I don't trust 'em as far as I could throw their bloody office block, but they're right about one thing in all this - they've still got my only way home."
"Oh, for goodness sake!" Cordleia exclaimed. "It's a trap! We know it's a trap! It couldn't *have* a bigger neon sign flashing over it announcing 'trap'!"
"So we play the trap." I scowled. "We got Wes here - he knows a thing or two about their magical gimmicks." I rode on before Wesley could even begin to get his flustered protest in. "We got me an' Angel - granted, mostly Angel - to take 'em on if it comes to heavy fightin'." I personally quailed at the thought of anymore hard exertion in my current condition, but like hell was I telling them. "So we do this, 'cause it's the only chance I have. If it is a trap, we turn it around. We *need* Ethan Rayne to send me back. He's the only one who really can."
"*Is* it his only chance?" Cordelia pounced, glaring at Wesley.
Wes' face twisted and he nodded. "I'm afraid it is, Cordelia. Even if it was possible to guess the details, a sorcerer's mystical signature will tend to work its way into the specifics of a spell and make reversal by any other agency quite impossible... I realise it's a risk, but do you really want him to be stranded here, unwilling? Doyle was your friend."
I said, "I'm *not* going to live with having turned down my only chance to go back where I belong - to the people I belong with."
He looked down. Cordelia's mouth worked without, for once, producing any sound at all.
"Sorry," I said, meaning it.
"No." Angel surprised me. "Your world needs its champion. It would be selfish to ask you to abandon that obligation."
"'Champion'?" I asked, with a trace of laughter. "Thanks for the thought, and not that I ain't appreciatin' the support and all, but my world's still *got* a champion... name of Faith, if you recall."
But Angel wordlessly held my gaze. I wondered if he was thinking about what had happened to Faith in his world - how abandonment and betrayal had played their part in unhinging her. Now, Faith wasn't the most emotionally available of gals, but I was pretty sure I was her closest connection in my own world. Considering what had happened to her without that connection in *this* one, I didn't much want to start speculating on what it might do to her if I never came back.
Yeah. I'm pretty sure that must've been what Angel was thinking.
He said heavily, "Wesley, make the call."
"Are we sure?" Wes returned with a bt of a snip in his voice, his hand now hesitating automatically on its way to the phone for the third time.
Everyone turned to Cordelia, who folded her arms, straightened her back and narrowed her eyes. But after a long moment she subsided and said, much quieter than her usual strident tones as she stared down at the floor, "Okay. It's what Doyle wants... Okay."
"Yeah," Angel said. "We're sure."
Wesley paused in front of the doors to the courthouse, peering around uneasily. I exchanged puzzled looks with Cordelia and Angel behind his back, but a moment later he said, stumbling slightly over the words in his distraction, "Lilah had some unusually precise instructions for how we should set about accessing the building. Let's see now..."
He waved his arms in front of him in an odd fashion and mumbled something indecipherable that might not even have been in English. Made a few more passes with his hands before nodding briskly to himself and reaching out to tremulously push open the door. His throat jumped noticeably, and Angel had pushed forward to protectively flank him by the time he overcame his brief hesitation and stepped inside. I followed, neither commenting upon nor pulling away from Cordelia's slim hand when it slipped itself through my arm, fingers digging in sharply from tension. The move had old habit written all over it.
"Wow, the city court's sure changed since I was here last," I said, in the same instant Angel snorted and remarked, "Guess they've done some redecorating here since my last visit."
It made for an odd moment, Angel tossing a slightly unnerved glance over his shoulder, and leaving me no shortage of uneasy myself. Great - now I was sharing a brain with the creepy ensouled vampire.
Someone had replaced the interior of the court house with nothing less than a medieval dungeon. The walls were bare stone on all sides, polished stone flags on the floor beneath our feet stained in places with old dark patches the shape of pooled liquid that I really wasn't especially wantin' to think about too much. The odd end of chain hung here and there about the walls, and flaming torches were mounted at more regular intervals, sending out flickers of orange light and a host of strange-shaped shadows. The benches that lined the back half of the chamber looked more like church pews, and in the front half of the chamber there was a dais, on one side of which a spindly bespectacled demon sat scratching a Parker pen across the open pages of an enormous ledger. Several yards above our heads, a gallery dissolved backward into darkness.
The air smelled stale, like it'd been trapped in there for a few hundred years. It was a feat not to gag when I breathed in. Angel blanched, too, although Cordelia made a more pointed observation.
Lilah Morgan, leaning demurely against a central stand on the dais, laughed. "Night Court," she supplied with dry amusement and a hint of businesslike apology.
"You don't say," Cordelia said.
A few paces behind Lilah, two black-clad Wolfram and Hart commandos held a petulant Ethan Rayne in place between them. In the space at the base of the dais and before the rows of benches began, a circle was already marked out, mystical props arrayed around it which Wesley studied with a critical eye, and after a moment said, "I see we're all prepared."
Lilah tipped a graceful shoulder. "You'll find we deliver as promised. After all, nothing short would suffice for our very *exclusive* clientele. Our usual clientele, that is." She smirked.
"What, slumming outside the realm of the warty and slimy?" I said genially, although I could feel my heart thudding inside my chest. Even if things ran smooth regarding Wolfram and Hart keeping to their bargain, there had to be any number of things that could go wrong with the spell itself. Far as we'd been able to gather, Rayne had brought me not only across dimensions but months forward in time from the moment of their Francis Doyle's death. Not only might I not end up at the precise moment and place I'd started, but one of the less appealing possibilities Wesley had described was the dispersal of my own atoms across 6 months of either universe's past.
Call it an uneducated guess, perhaps, but I didn't think demon healing would be too much good in helpin' to fix that one.
She gave me a silky look designed to make men melt, and purred, "But darling, all the girls *love* a man with spines," in a mock Texan drawl.
"Don't you forget it!" Cordelia piped up, aggressively, tightening her grip on my arm in her determined defence, although I kinda wished she wouldn't. Her other hand stabbed through the air, ticking Lilah off like a stern schoolmarm.
I perished the resulting image from my brain, and resorted again to the increasingly familiar litany, 'Faith will kill you... Not just kill - flay, disembowel, dance on all the pieces wearing your head as a hat, and hang what's left out to dry to make a nasty souvenir...'
Okay, so the litany had embellished itself a bit in a few days keeping company with Cordelia. What? I was only mostly human.
"We came here to deal," Angel broke in. He said it quiet, but it carried. Something in his tone sent chills down my spine and sobered me right out of any desire to engage in the Ritual Verbal Sparring with evil-lawyer-lady.
"Spoilsport," Lilah told him with a pout. He gave her a hard look, and she rolled her eyes and turned to Wesley instead.
"Everything seems to be in order, insofar as I can determine," Wes said, although the rather besieged expression he shot Angel's way told both of us eloquently enough that he considered himself mystically out of his depth.
Well... it wasn't like we hadn't been through all this already. For a chance to get back to Faith, and Kate, and the Wes I knew, and the world I belonged in, it was a risk I was prepared to take.
Lilah nodded to the two commandos and they released Ethan Rayne. She gestured invitingly toward the prepared circle, and said caustically, "Your mess - you go fix."
"My, aren't we terse." Rayne flounced a bit, an avid dislike in his eyes, but stepped down to the circle. Angel and Cordelia tensed - the latter not doing my already aching arm any favours in the process - and I remembered uneasily that they knew him of old. But he just swept down onto one knee and, so far as I could tell, only rearranged the mystical ephemera a bit. He picked up one vial, sniffed it gingerly, and his face twisted in disgust. "Vaneril extract instead of alianve vapour? Urgh, how crude. I shall never live this down."
"Just do the damn spell," Lilah said. The edge in her voice, in place of any pretence at geniality or seduction, made me look up sharply. She was... nervous? A faint twinge of suspicion made my skin crawl.
But it could be anything. For all I knew, she might simply not be sure she could control Rayne. She might be fearful of what the senior partners would think. And this might well be my only chance to get home. Angel and Cordelia hadn't noticed anything, too distracted by other weights on their minds - but if I raised any suspicion, no matter how slight, I already knew that they would stop me from going whatever it took. So when Rayne said snappishly, "I'll need Doyle inside the circle," I detached myself from Cordelia and walked across the stone floor with its disturbing array of stains, my feet too numb to feel the ground.
Rayne stepped up and rearranged me firmly, pushing me back a pace, then backing off, crooking and angling his head in a comical fashion. "I suppose that will have to do," he judged critically, picking up half a dozen of the mystical oddments with such force they made slapping noises that echoed throughout the chamber when they came into contact with his hand. He sat down cross-legged at the edge of the circle and rearranged them again around him.
In the background, Angel was standing stock still, a stolid - a kinder description than 'constipated', although I guess you could call it either way - expression on his face. Cordelia jittered nervously at his side, bouncing on the balls of her feet in agitation, while Wesley watched the proceedings intently, his forehead deeply furrowed.
"Doyle..." Cordelia began, and broke off as my gaze returned to her. After a moment's difficulty, she just said softly, "Good luck."
"Yes," Wesley agreed, sincerely. "Good luck."
Angel held my gaze and lowered his head in the barest fraction of a nod. I grimaced - although it had been meant to be a smile - and returned the nod. Broke his gaze awkwardly because it wasn't feeling like he ever would.
"Say 'hi' to non-psycho-Faith for me," Cordelia said - it seemed more out of a need to be the one to say the last words to me than anything else.
Rayne closed his eyes and relaxed into a meditative pose. He stayed like that silently a long moment, and when he opened his eyes there was new focus and gravitas in them. Gutteral words came out of his mouth. He reached for the first of the items around him--
"--Vaneril extract, Lilah, *really*--" he huffed, loudly, to the somewhat nonplussed watching lawyer, breaking the mood of solemnity entirely before immediately carrying on voicing the harsh syllables of the spell.
I could feel a charge beginning to build in the air. A tingle intensified quickly to feel like my skin was tightening. A start of movement from Wesley, halted and reined back, caught my attention. The crease in his forehead had deepened, and his lips were moving slightly as though attempting to figure something out. Like he thought he should know something, but wasn't quite sure.
Ethan Rayne's voice rose to a shrill, gutteral shriek, and it didn't seem too wild a guess that he was approaching the climax of the spell.
"W-wait just one moment here!" Wesley bounded forward and almost tripped, falling over himself even as his blurted words tripped over each other. His toe caught an ugly statuette near Rayne's knee and sent it rolling, and as it came around in an arc that halted butted up against the bottom of the dais with a 'clank', I felt the charge in the air dissipate in a 'pop', like a burst balloon.
"*Mr* Wyndham-Pryce..." Lilah began aggrievedly.
"But - but surely vaneril extract would only be redundant in a working intended to transcend dimensions and time itself..." Wesley stuttered. "Or indeed anything but perhaps a simple translocation spell..." His voice grew stronger as he spoke, until it was steady as a rock as he swallowed and insisted loudly, "It's a double-cross!"
"Heavens! Doesn't the boy catch on quick?" Rayne said with airy sarcasm, and I stared at him, because that meant... all that fuss... that he'd intentionally helped us. But I realised studying his face that it was merely the contrariness of his character at work; that malign will to ruin the plans of anyone *with* plans.
"Lilah? What the hell is this?" Even before he'd finished speaking, Angel had jumped up onto the dais, cut through the two Wolfram and Hart commandos like he was knocking down toy soldiers, and seized Lilah by the neck. The immediate response to the question was unsurprisingly a choking noise and both her hands gesticulating frantically toward her throat.
He loosened his grip.
"Lee, you little rat-bastard!" she croaked.
Which provided the rest of us with a second's warning, though hardly enough when about a dozen more commandos were melting out of the shadows of the gallery over our heads. I recognised among them Lee Mercer, Rayne's original partner in misdemeanour, picking him out in the gloom mainly by his very white cast. Half the men slid down on ropes so their crossbows could cover all the edges of the chamber. The rest levelled their weapons from the vantage above. Mercer chose to stay up in the gallery, although that could have been because he just couldn't slide down a rope with the sheer amount of plaster-cast attached to his body. He snarled something at Lilah that was about as intelligible as Rayne's gutteral chanting, although I did get the gist of it from the violent jerk of his casted arm, an extended finger protruding out comically at the end - he winced and recovered to add more audibly, "Nobody damn move."
"Lilah..." Angel growled. A dozen wooden crossbow bolts fixed on him.
"It's a kick in the tail," she said, silky tones marred by a throaty crackle. "Hell, I'd have been happy to let you think 'good old Doyle' was back in his own universe. You might've been a happy little angsty soulful vampire never knowing otherwise. Too bad."
"I take it this set-up was to transport him straight back to Wolfram and Hart," Angel said.
"Top marks, that bloodsucker."
"Why?" Wesley asked. "Your reasoning before sounded logical enough for all parties. So why the double-cross now?"
"New information always changes the game." She looked directly at me. "Isn't that right, 'vision boy'?"
"You want my *visions*?" I asked, confused.
"No," Cordelia said angrily. "They want *my* visions. And they're the same... isn't *that* right?" She glared challengingly at Lilah, and I remembered the vision I'd had in Wesley's apartment, after the deal had been pitched.
"Call it putting you on a long leash," Lilah told Angel. "We know what you know, and... feel free to go-to, helping out the good-and-plenties... just so long as we know it doesn't interfere with our plans."
Rayne added with wry glee, "It turns out my spell brought the perfect toy to use against you after all, Angelus."
Angel shot an annoyed look down his nose at the chaos sorcerer. "Just whose side are you *on*?" he demanded.
"I believe it's the side of general mayhem," Lilah provided helpfully. "Even at the cost of Wolfram and Hart's... *very*... beneficial... favour." The look she shot him as she drew the words out, stretching them hard, didn't imply he had a rosy future.
I noticed that Lee Mercer was spluttering and looking steadily more agitated by the second as the rest of us steadfastly ignored him. "Everyone shut the hell up!" he snapped, stuck out cast arm swinging savagely to point at Lilah. "You too, bitch!"
She rolled her eyes.
Mercer glowered around us one by one, and seemed satisfied by what he saw. He muttered, kinda low key, to the commandos, "Bring the short one. You can leave the rest... don't kill any of them, but feel free to... damage... as much as you want. No - scratch that. As much as *I* want. Make that lots of damage." He loosed a high-pitch giggle.
I think I moved at the very same moment Angel did. Before the commandos could begin to act upon the order. I sprang upwards as the change to demon rippled through me, avoiding a hail of arrows intended to make me even more a pincushion than my demon form already looked. Angel meanwhile had chosen a different approach, yanking Lilah in front of him as a human shield and pulling her to one side so that both their forms protected Wesley. Cordelia pressed herself back against the wall, out of sight of the men on the gallery. Over in the corner of the dais, the demon scribbling into its ledger watched the proceedings out of the corner of its eye, and the rate of its scribbling increased to a frenetic pace.
Mercer yelled, "Don't kill the Brachen, you idiots!" as my leap brought me down just over the rail of the gallery, and I handily caught two commandos with a boot in the face apiece as I landed, in one of Faith's favoured moves. Since the four up there who were still conscious were already struggling to reload their crossbows, the warning was a bit late. Lucky for all of us they were lousy shots. But maybe Mercer didn't feel so much that way - he squeaked in terror as he realised there was nobody now between him and the spiky, 'short', and above all *angry* demon and ran to hide behind the nearest commando, who promptly tossed the crossbow aside to draw a compact rubber truncheon from a strap on his hip. They all had, I noticed, stakes holstered upon their other hip, but no guns or grenades. Evidently they wanted to avoid anything too explosive around me after the last encounter. Or maybe it was just that they didn't want to kill.
I snarled and tried to get through him to Mercer, but unfortunately I wasn't Angel. The others on the gallery rushed to protect their leader, and even when one was felled as the vampire deflected a crossbow shot below us to catch him in the gut, that still left three against one, and they were better armed. A flurry of kicks and punches later, very few of them mine, and a blow to the jaw knocked me off-balance and reeling over the edge of the gallery.
The floor... wasn't exactly soft.
I lay stunned a moment from the fall, and still wasn't in too stellar a state of consciousness an indeterminable time later when hands tugged at my shoulders. Hands attached to black-clad arms. Two of the commandos hauled me to my feet and I was barely able to muster the smallest struggles of resistance as they began to drag me toward the exit.
"Excuse me." A familiar voice stopped them, its politeness strained. Someone caught the man at my right by the shoulder, and as he turned around planted a fist firmly in his face.
Wesley shook his fist and mouthed 'ow' while the commando on my left loosed his grip on me, letting me fall back to the stone floor, and drew his truncheon with clear intent of adding to Wesley's already-extensive bruise collection. Cordelia leaped on him with a battle cry more like a yelp, pinning his arms to his sides from behind. I caught his ankle and mustered enough concentration to sprout spikes from my hand. He yelped and fell over from a combination of the injury and Cordelia's weight dragging him backwards. She skipped aside as he toppled, then promptly surged back in to kick the downed man in the stomach, thoroughly winding him with the pointed toe of her stiletto.
I looked up in time to catch the last of Wesley's struggle with the other man, this time fetching him a punch that kept him down.
"That bitch!" Cordelia muttered abruptly, and I followed the path her quickly-departing heels were taking her in, to see Lilah cutting her losses and sneaking out while Angel threw the remaining half-dozen commandos about. I couldn't see anyone on the gallery. I couldn't see Mercer.
Behind the flurry of black-clad bodies that was Angel and the commandos, Ethan Rayne looked as though he'd very much like to be copying Lilah, but instead of making good his escape seemed trapped by the ever-changing mass of violently kicking or punching limbs blocking his way to the door.
I looked at Wesley, who fielded the glance with instant understanding. "I think it should be possible," he said slowly. "The vaneril extract was the only thing that struck me as out of place..."
He bent down to help me to my feet. On my way up, I shot out a punch at the commando Cordelia had winded, knocking him back to the floor. I retreated the spines on my hand, a little guiltily. Wesley watched with an air of marvel. "I don't think Angel and Cordelia's Doyle did *that*."
"Yeah, well, something you might've noticed by now," I said. "I'm not him."
Wesley and I scampered through a gap in the explosion of limbs from Angel's frenetic combat, caught Rayne by an arm each, and dragged him out of harm's way in the opposite direction to the one he so obviously wanted to go.
"Really, I think I should leave now--" he protested in a near-squawk. "Violence disagrees with me - I have a doctor's note..."
"Save it for someone who's interested," Wesley advised wearily. A swift move from Rayne succeeded in throwing off both our grip and sending the air from Wesley's body in the pained 'whuff' of an elbow to the stomach. I dodged the stab his fingers aimed for my eyes, caught his arm and twisted, and knocked him back against the stone wall, pinning my forearm like a bar across his throat.
"You got some business to finish right here," I said. His eyes flickered past me to the circle. Guessed right first time, whaddya know?
"Not possible," he said blithely - albeit also hoarsely. "Too many distractions, too many random factors in the initial summoning. Of course, far be it for me to dissuade you of any ambitions to become a fragmented dissolute consciousness, if you *want* to end up spread out across a billion different parallel universes..."
"*Home*," I stressed. "'Cause if it's you who's got to reverse this... I'm thinking it's not looking like I'm about to get any other chances. And there is a chance, right?"
He grimaced, and I raised a spiky fist in front of his face where he could get a good look at it. "...maybe fifty-fifty?" he admitted.
"Doyle..." Wesley began, with concern.
"It's got to be enough," I told him roughly.
"And why should I help you?" Ethan Rayne demanded indignantly with his next breath.
This time I let the fist connect. Although I did retract the spikes (and feel a pang of regret as I did).
"We'll let you go," Wesley promised quickly. "Just do the spell... try to put things back. Exactly, in fact, as arranged before. You'll have a head-start on Wolfram and Hart, since they seem to be quite occupied letting Angel clean the floor with themselves just now. We won't come after you. And I won't tell Rupert Giles on the Watchers Council that you're on the loose."
Rayne took on a shifty, calculating look at that last implicit threat. He nodded carefully to Wesley. "So... that's how it's to be, is it?"
"Will you do the spell?"
"It doesn't seem as though I have much option."
Wesley managed not to look *too* smug. He advised me with an undercurrent of some pleasure, "I think you can let him loose now, Doyle."
I didn't share his confidence, but I did as he asked. Rayne dusted himself off distastefully, and gingerly picked his way around the unconscious and bleeding bodies to the circle. It needed a few repairs after Angel and the commandos had stomped all over it. Wesley and I scuttled around shifting the bodies that were in the way while he laid things out again. I retrieved the statuette practically from beneath the feet of a commando desperately trying to hold his own against Angel: caught the vampire's eyes as I did so and saw his expression harden as he realised what I - what we were all about. The Wolfram and Hart man sailed over his shoulder and he turned, opening his mouth to speak, but before he could another commando tried to stake him from behind. He didn't need the warning that didn't quite have chance to travel past my lips.
I couldn't see Cordelia or Lilah, but didn't have time to think about that now. I skidded to a halt back at the edge of the circle, almost overbalancing as I dumped the statuette on the floor. Rayne turned his nose up at it and provided his critical appraisal: "Wolfram and Hart have no *taste*."
"Do you need anything else?" Wesley asked, seeming to have soaked up all the urgency that Rayne was emphatically lacking.
"Everything... seems... in place," came the distracted response as Rayne crawled about, making a last correction to a few odd scuffs in the line of the circle with his finger, then swearing as a commando's boot scraped over it again just as he'd finished. I only just ducked the backswing of a black truncheon.
Angel's arm shot out of the melee to catch the man by the scruff of the neck and haul him away, carrying the last of the fight to the far side of the chamber. Wesley bounded to the damaged section of the circle, crying out, "I've got it - start the spell!"
Rayne crooked an eyebrow at me. "You'd best stand inside the circle."
This time he didn't bother with all the elaborate fuss and extras. No sooner had I crossed the circle then he'd begun to chant the syllables of... well, of what sounded to *me* like the exact same spell as before, but judging by Wesley's intent face was subtly different to a more learned ear. The charge of the spell's activation made itself felt almost instantly, and with it came the odd pain I'd first felt back in my own office. I staggered as it hit, wavering on my feet.
"Doyle!" A woman's shout of distress rang out in the shape of my name. Not Faith - Cordelia.
Cordelia. I blinked eyes that were trying to screw shut in a reflex reaction to the pain, and saw her as Wesley caught her at the edge of the circle, preventing her coming any nearer. The familiarity twisted a quite different agony inside my chest.
She had scratch marks on her cheek and her hair was in disarray - made me wonder briefly how Lilah had fared. Angel skidded to a halt at her side, completing the picture, a truncheon claimed in the fight still hanging loosely in his hand. His face, though set with grim acceptance, was a little more drawn and pale than even a vampire's ought be.
I opened my mouth to try tell them... *something*... a goodbye, a reassurance, an apology - but no sound emerged. I looked down at myself to see the familiar broken patches of light were beginning to take over my skin. When I looked back up, Cordelia had both hands pressed over her mouth and horror was reflected in her eyes. I shook my head, desperately wanting to tell them this had all happened before... that it would all be all right.
Not that I knew that. Or anything really, about where I was headed. I guess this was a leap of faith, the real deal. And all respect to Dr Sam Beckett, but I really *did* hope this one would be the leap home.
The last thing I saw before the darkness enveloped me was Angel and Cordelia, clinging to each other.
Looking for all the world like they were watching their friend die all over again.
by Roseveare & Ellen
I vworped back into an empty, darkened office, and promptly fell over as reaction turned my limbs to rubber. The pain of the transition faded and was replaced by an annoying, tingling numbness which seemed to worm its way into the aches of the past few days and intensify their dull grumble.
Hell, maybe it was part exhaustion and relief as well. I lay there for a bit on the floor of my - *my* - own office, breathing in the smells of home in the air. No overpowering vampire scent here. I'd been away too long.
The thought seeped in remarkably slowly; that the chance I'd taken had paid off, and contrary to expectation (Rayne's, at least) I was not in fact dead. It had worked, after all.
...All presuming, of course, that an alternate Faith and Wesley, weren't about to walk through the door and set about me as an intruder in my own home.
The door out of the side office clicked. I jerked my head up and stared intently at it.
Wesley, rubbing his eyes, blinked owlishly and obliviously with his specs askew and fumbled for the lights. He looked tired, and pasty like he'd seen less sun than Angel did on the average week. He squinted over the tops of the desks and made a 'tsk' sound. "I could have sworn I heard..."
"Reckon that's prob'ly 'cause you did hear, Wes," I hailed from the floor. "Give a guy a hand up here, will ya?"
For a long moment he simply stood there, jaw dropped, hands falling to his side. Then he appeared to gather himself together in a rush. "Doyle? Oh, my word..." He hurried across and fussed over me like he was fixing to beat Cordelia's record.
I had an odd moment of double vision as, with the thought of that other world, *my* Wesley seemed to be overlain by his counterpart. A little harder-edged, a little sadder, a smidgen more relaxed to make up for it.
He wasn't there yet, I thought, and maybe he never would be. Nurture over nature, butterflies and thunderstorms, cause and effect, yadda, yadda, yadda. But just possibly he was on his way. He had already changed in the months that I had known him.
I made my eyes focus, and sent the double-vision packing. And there was just Wesley, bending over me, a stunned expression on his face. "You're... you *are* all right, aren't you, Doyle?" he asked carefully.
"Nope," I said cheerfully. Possibly I was a *little* drunk on relief. "I'm bruised, an' I'm tired, an' my head hurts. You wouldn't believe what I've been through these last three days, Wes."
"You... weren't disintegrated?"
"Only felt like it." I caught his arm and he helped lever me to my feet. The floor seemed none too steady, but it calmed down after a moment. I leaned on the desk and reached for a cigarette from a crumpled packet on its edge, in an effort to calm my nerves. "No, I was--" I hesitated, given pause by something I saw in his face, and slowly finished dismissively "--somewhere quite different. Wes, what the hell happened while I was away? You look like crap."
"Thank you so very much, Doyle, it's good to see you, too," he shot back wearily. "As for what we've been doing." His voice slowed down to a stop. I could see he didn't much want to go on. I began to feel a little cold. "Well, you seemed to just... burn up, right there in front of our eyes. Of course, we had to explore the option that you had been caught by an unusual variation on a translocation spell - perhaps seized by nefarious forces and sucked into a demon dimension, for example." He looked at me, almost hopeful with academic interest for a brief moment.
I shook my head. "Ixnay on the demon dimensions. Leastways... no, not as such." Cordelia had said, damn near enough, that *this* was the demon dimension. I chased away the chill thought with a toss back to Wes; "And have I ever mentioned how much I intensely don't wanna ever join you on your dream vacation?"
He narrowed his eyes suspiciously.
I had no doubts he'd wangle the full story out of me later, probably after I'd got a few drinks down me. For now I said, "Go on."
Wes shuffled almost embarrassedly. "Well, we... went on a bit of a rampage, I suppose. Not that I would ever usually rampage, in normal circumstances, but tensions were high and Faith was - well, hightly tense. And I was a trifle overwrought myself. I couldn't trace the spell back to its origin with any success, so we...Faith and I... visited some people."
"Some people, eh?" I repeated sarcastically.
"A number of, um, individuals in the city being of less than spotless repute... to, ah, question them regarding your... disappearance."
I prompted, "These individuals bein' the kind of individuals I'm thinking they're bein'...?"
"Oh, demon overlords, master vampires, sorcerers of rather shady reputation, the odd demonic shaman."
My response came out as a cough, and I had to concentrate to produce words. "And this 'questioning' would've been conducted Faith-style, right?" Hell's teeth, I was going to be spending the next ten years ducking vengeful assassination attempts - or then again, on balance probably rather less years. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for beating on the bad guys, but a guy's got to maintain a certain equilibrium on his own doorstep.
Wesley shuddered delicately in response. I cringed in kind. "I shouldn't imagine LA's black magic underworld has ever seen a clearout like it. Faith was--" It wasn't the first time he'd paused on finishing that phrase, I hadn't failed to notice. "But we found no trace of you, and none of the various miscreants seemed to know anything. Eventually... a few hours ago, in fact, we had no choice but to conclude that our faint hopes had been in vain, and the overwhelming likelihood was not only that you were dead, but we might *never* find any leads indicating to whom that act should be attributed."
Wesley looked down, and I caught in finally to the admission he'd been avoiding. "Faith thinks I'm dead."
"We saw you *burn*, Doyle." His gaze started to crawl back up, but didn't get too far before retreating back to my shoes. "We weren't out to mount a rescue, not really. Neither of us said it aloud, but... I think we were both of us thinking about nothing more than revenge. And though we both knew how little chance there was of ever finding you in one piece, she would have searched forever for a phantom..." He stopped. "But it was unhealthy, and ultimately unproductive. I am Faith's watcher, Doyle," and now he did meet my eye, unwaveringly, "and I made the decision. I told her we had to let go. She's the Slayer, above all - the world is on her shoulders. She had to begin to move on.
I swallowed hard, but said with conviction, "Damn it, Wes, there's nothing to be sorry for. Hell, I spent enough years mournin' Harry... And I'm back, I'm not dead, and everythin' is gonna be just fine." I broke away from Wesley and lurched toward the door. Apparently I still hadn't quite got back my 'land legs' for reality - Wesley's quick lunge after me stopped me from ending back on the floor.
"You can't possibly be serious!" he exclaimed. "I don't know what's happened to you these past days, but I can see you're in poor shape. You're in absolutely no condition to... and where *do* you think you're going, anyway?"
I flopped a hand back over my shoulder at him, and this time managed to stay on my feet. "Got to find Faith. Tell her I'm all right. Gal must be goin' spare."
"That's something of an underst--" Wesley's splutter almost drowned out his words. "Really, I think it would be best for all concerned if we simply sit down and have a nice, *calm* cup of tea while we await Faith's return. She went out to let off steam by venting it on LA's unlucky base demon population, besides; she could be anywhere, and the last thing you want is to collapse in the street and be carted off to A & E. Patients that sprout spikes under stress might just be a little too much for them."
"I'm all right," I grumbled, resenting the heavy weakness in my legs. I wanted to see Faith. "She needs me," I told Wesley. "God knows what's goin' through her head right now." I needed to reassure myself that what happened to that other Faith wasn't going to happen to *mine*.
And it had been a long few days without her.
But I paused in the door, caught in a further wave of disorientation from that other universe.
"Wesley," I said slowly, supporting my weight in the doorway, "did you ever hear of a vampire with a soul?"
"A wh--?" He paused, broke off, looked bemused. "I... yes, as a matter of fact. Where on Earth did *you*--?"
"Just the facts, Wes," I said. My voice seemed to echo oddly, and I heard strain mixed with the impatience there. For some reason, there was a rush of noise inside my head, and my heart seemed to strain inside my chest.
Wesley said dubiously, "There was a souled vampire known to the Watchers Council. In fact, it was a vampire once known as Angelus, who had long been associated as the consort of Darla--" His voice broke and he peered at me, but I was too near the edge of emotional exhaustion to waste reaction on *her*. Angel... Angel was here in this universe? I thought blankly.
Then Wesley continued, "However, the vampire with a soul was reported destroyed, in Sunnydale, when Buffy Summers fought the Master. According to our contact in Sunnydale, he fought bravely unto death as an ally of the Slayer's side of that battle... Is there something wrong, Doyle?"
"I..." I looked at the Wesley of my world, and recalled with a pang the man... creature... *man* who had been his friend in another world, and almost mine.
"Is this important?" Wesley asked.
"No. No, it's not," I said. I left the support of the door jamb and spurred my stiff body on its way again, if anything a bit heavier than before.
As I turned I added, not looking back-- "Not in this world."
I wasn't sure why, but my steps were leading me someplace that seemed familiar. Soon enough I figured out that the search was taking me back to the same neighborhood where - in that other reality - another Faith had tortured another Wesley.
In fact, I was just about a block away from the same spot that the other Wes had showed me, when the crash of a window exploding out into the street brought my search for Faith to an abrupt end.
The slim figure that came flying through the window, surrounded by shards of broken glass, was the one I was looking for, all right. Unfortunately she was entwined with some guy about three times her size, in the midst of an enthusiastic battle. The two of them rolled and landed almost at my feet, still fighting, disregarding the scattered glass that fell around them. Faith was carrying on a running commentary as she punched her opponent, who appeared to be far too busy trying to survive the experience to speak a word.
"Next time you think you can pull that kind of shit - "
"Faith!" I interrupted sharply, but for a moment, she kept going.
" - just remember there are still plenty of people who can kick your ass - Doyle?"
The double-take would have been comical, if it wasn't just about breaking my heart. She froze, staring at me, and the guy she'd been wrestling with - a human, from the smell of his sweat and blood - took the opportunity to scramble to his feet and run like hell. She just stayed on the ground, staring up at me, her face stunned into blankness. Neither of us bothered to watch him go.
"Doyle?" she repeated uncertainly. "But, you're dead."
"Well, not exactly."
"What?" Slowly, she rose to her feet, heading toward me. "Are you for real? You're not for real, right?"
"Faith ... "
She came closer, and I held out a hand toward her. I'm not sure what I was expecting. A handshake? A hug? A kiss? Whatever it was, it wasn't what I got.
After a brief hesitation, she flew at me, fists clenched. "You died!"
"Uh - "
She crashed straight into me and kept on going, knocking me flat out on the ground beneath her, and then started raining punches down on me. "You died! You had no fucking right to do that to me! You had no right!"
"Ah - Faith - you're hurting me, here - can you give me just a moment to explain?"
I was silenced by a punch in the mouth that split my lip against my front teeth and probably loosened two or three of those in the bargain. I struggled to catch her arms, to restrain her, but she was uncontrollable.
"You had no right, you had no right, you had no right..." Each repetition was punctuated by a blow.
"Please, Faith - "
I couldn't get the breath to go any further, as she punched me right in the gut.
"Shut up! You fucking died on me! How could you do that?"
I had never been attacked by a slayer in hysterics before, and her fury would have been remarkable to watch, if I were only watching. Unfortunately, I didn't have the luxury of being just an observer.
She kept right on hitting me, not seeming to notice the tears that were streaming down her face, and it hurt.
"Faith, please!" I didn't want to beg, but I was getting desperate here. Blood was starting to drip into my eyes, and I was sure that she had broken a rib or two. "Just let me tell you what happened - "
"What happened? What do you mean, what happened? You died on me! You died - " and then, just as suddenly as they had started, the blows stopped, and she was sobbing. She threw her arms around me, the same hands that had been punching me a moment ago now running up and down my body and face, touching the places where she had broken the skin, stroking the places where I knew I'd have bruises for days.
"Oh, my God. I'm sorry. Doyle, I... Doyle... "
"Shhh," I tried to say, but had to spit out some blood before I could speak. "It's all right, I'm back now."
"I hurt you. Doyle - "
The kiss was almost as painful as the blows had been, between my split lip and my loosened teeth, and I could tell that some of my blood was going into her mouth, but she didn't seem to care. Her body pressed mine down hard against the cold street, and I could feel a piece of broken glass under my shoulder, but I knew better than to try to stop her now, even if I could have spoken to protest.
Her hands were tearing at my parallel-universe-borrowed clothes, going under the shirt and grabbing handfuls of hair in a way that hurt almost as much as the punches, and I wasn't going to have to explain too much to anyone about what I was wearing, because she was ripping it off my body in pieces. Her nose was running like a little kid does after crying, smearing my face along with the blood and the tears, but there was nothing childish about what her hands were doing to me. The short time we had been apart was far too long and there was nothing left in that alleyway or in the rest of the world but her body and mine and the next time that I cried out, it wasn't from the pain any more.
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