DISCLAIMER: Angel and BtVS characters and concepts belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, etc.
Just borrowing, no profit, yadda, yadda, yadda.
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.