Early sections of this story were written way back prior to season 4 of Angel.
DISCLAIMER: Angel and BtVS characters and concepts belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, etc.
Just borrowing, no profit, yadda, yadda, yadda.
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.