DISCLAIMER: Angel and BtVS characters and concepts belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, etc. We're just borrowing.
LAST TIME ON DOYLE INVESTIGATIONS: Doyle's choice to help Kate with a police case left Faith and Wesley to fight a demon from one of his visions. After a difficult combat, and perceiving Doyle's choice as a betrayal, Faith and Wesley decided to leave LA and go their own way. Now, the story continues...
by Mike Dewar
The steering wheel slipped and slid in my hands as I stared into the darkness ahead of the car, my eyes burning from lack of sleep.
The tires skidded slightly on the road, but I corrected the car's motion with a sharp twist. Neither of my companions commented on the fact that I was driving far too fast on a wet road, in appalling visibility, with no one wearing seat belts.
I think we all just wanted to get to our destination as fast as possible. Get it over with.
Clouds hung thick and dark on the horizon - the only way we'd known the sun had risen that morning was when my alarm clock had gone off. The rain had been falling last night, when we angrily went to sleep - to try to sleep. The rain had been falling when we awoke, and had kept falling throughout the morning, while Faith and Wesley ran around dismantling the pieces of my apartment that had become theirs and packing them away in suitcases. The rain was still falling as I drove a weighted car through a day as dark as night to the airport, making the wet road even wetter, the cold afternoon even colder.
Wesley sat to my left, his suitcase held tight against his chest. Every now and again, a drop of water would slip through a hole in the canopy above him and drip onto his glasses, prompting an irritated swipe of his sleeve to dry them. Apart from those occasional twitches, he didn't move.
Faith lay sprawled in the back, her boots scraping limply against the back of Wesley's seat, instead of riding up high in their customary position against the window. Usually the constant scratching noise of sole against glass annoyed the hell outta me, but at the moment I missed it.
And I wasn't pleased that I missed it, either.
So what if they decided they didn't need me anymore? I was damn sure I didn't need them. Wesley was right: they'd dropped in on me without asking, and we'd all nearly gotten each other killed more than once.
Wesley had drugged me and left me defenceless in front a clan of demons, not to mention invaded my private space, and totally wiped out my kettle with his constant requests for tea.
Faith had abandoned both of us to go out and party on a number of occasions, more often than not after some spat with Wesley that had left me trying to play peacemaker and getting nothing for my trouble.
I wouldn't have had to worry about Wesley, if Faith hadn't decided to run away from her duty in the first place.
Spike wouldn't have tried to kill me if she hadn't been around to tempt him for his hat trick.
Kate might have come to work with me, if Faith hadn't been looming in the distance.
The car's tires skidded again, and I spun the steering wheel hastily to keep the car under control, changing gears as I did so.
I leaned against a vending machine and watched as Wesley talked to the woman behind the desk marked 'Flight Enquiries'.
Faith had planted herself in a plastic chair opposite me, and was munching her way through some bar of processed crap she'd taken from the machine at my back.
She'd been eating a candy bar the last time we were at the airport too, when we were preparing to see off the Council's team of private killers. She'd offered to share it, and then when I'd agreed, she'd-
I tensed. Wesley was coming back from the counter now, face grim. So this was it.
Better think of something fancy to say. Serious, yet philosophical. Above all, don't break down and start crying like a baby-man, even though you know you want to...
"The flight's delayed."
My brain froze up. My mouth, unfortunately, did not. "H-Huh? What? Oh."
Way to go, Doyle. Articulate, yet concise. I drew in a deep breath, and then realised I still had nothing intelligent to say. "Oh," I repeated dumbly.
Faith seemed to have none of my verbal impediments. "Why?" she demanded angrily. "What kinda delay?"
My heart sank. She sounded so angry that she wasn't already leaving. It cut. I tried to ignore it, but it did.
"The storm, apparently," Wesley said. His voice lacked her irritation. It just sounded tired. "All the planes are grounded." He slumped down into a chair next to her.
"Well, great," Faith said bitterly. "Just great. Pilot's afraid he might get the sniffles, so we're the ones who get screwed over."
"He's probably more concerned that a lightning bolt might blow a hole in his plane," Wesley observed. "One would assume, anyway."
Faith shoved the rest of the candy bar in her mouth and chewed glumly.
"It doesn't change anything," he continued. "We'll just leave a little later than planned. New Jersey will have to suffer unspeakable evils for a short while longer." He looked at me quizzically. "You've lived here longest - how long can we expect the storm to last?"
I wasn't entirely sure that I trusted my mouth, so I engaged my shoulders instead.
Wesley frowned. "You have no idea?"
I shrugged again. "Storms are generally a rarity around here, an' this is the worst I've seen by a long shot." I cleared my throat uncomfortably. "You're welcome to stay with me 'til it clears."
Wesley and Faith exchanged glances. "No, no. Wouldn't want to trouble you," he said politely.
I shrugged a third time. Why quit a winning formula? "It's no trouble."
Wesley shook his head. "No, I think it's best we just get a hotel room. But thank you for the offer."
As they picked up their bags, I realised Wesley was right. This delay hadn't changed anything.
But I couldn't quite shake an indefinable hope that maybe it had changed everything.
The sky was no clearer as the car sped back along the road. Rain drizzled down onto the windscreen, making long glistening streams on the glass.
We sat in silence like before. But if anything, this silence was even more uncomfortable than the last. The plane tickets had promised a clean break, painful, but over fast. Now it looked like the break would be prolonged, at least for a few more hours, a slow tearing apart instead of a sharp snap.
Wesley muttered something inaudible and reached across, turning on the radio. The gentle strains of classic music filled the car. I flicked it off again, for no particular reason.
"Sorry, Wes, but I don't feel up to the Bach Brigade this early in the mornin'," I said in response to his irritated glance.
"I was trying to find a weather report," Wesley retorted, turning it on again. He spun the tuner knob, and the violins dissolved into static, then wobbled into electric guitars for a moment, before transforming into a bored voice.
"...ditions appear to be worsening. The forecast for the day predicts..." a gentle snort "...sunny and mild, so who knows when this storm'll ease up. I've received reports that-"
Wes shut it off.
Lightning flashed above, lighting the whole car interior white for a second.
"Jeez," I heard Faith mutter in the back. "Kinda glad we're not on that plane."
I blinked, trying to clear my blurry vision as the crash of thunder swelled through the air. The rain intensified until the canopy above us was trembling gently and all I could hear was the soft drone of raindrops on metal and cloth.
Lightning flared again, fierce and bright. Another rumble of thunder.
Abruptly, the road ahead was no longer empty. A pale figure, long red hair streaming behind it, looking directly at us with a face devoid of expression - I stomped on the brake pedal, my nerves clenching as the car fish-tailed violently and then spun.
I was vaguely aware of a surprisingly-high shriek from Wesley, as the world flashed around and around, the steering wheel twisting, trying to break free of my grip. I think I swore as I saw a street lamp rushing up to meet us-
Faith didn't make a sound, not even when we struck.
Gradually, I became aware that I was lying half-sprawled across the back seat. My hands were shaking and green, but I didn't seem to be harmed. The demon had saved me again.
Wesley had no demon to protect him, but he seemed shaken more than hurt.
Faith... Faith wasn't in the car.
I looked around frantically, and saw a crumpled figure lying in the road.
I scrambled out of the car, Wesley staggering after me with an uncharacteristic curse as he struggled to get purchase on the slippery ground.
"Some ride," a voice said from behind us. I spun around and nearly fell flat on the ground, my feet skidding beneath me.
"Faith, you're... you're all right," Wesley said, his voice shaking.
"Sure." She shrugged. "Slayer, remember? Takes more than one little driving incident to see me off." Sure enough, she looked unharmed, though her hands were trembling slightly. She glanced at me. "Nice driving, Doyle." The anger was back, hard and uncompromising, but I noticed that her hands had stopped trembling.
Fine. If hating me was how she dealt, so be it.
I turned my back on her and pointed at the road. "Then who's that?"
I was still demon, so I could hear the woman's heart beating before we were even near her. That saved the embarrassment of checking for a pulse, since she wasn't wearing anything. At all.
"We gotta get her out of the rain," I ordered. "Faith, Wes, lend me a hand."
Faith shot me a resentful glance for my attempt to use non-existent authority, but she bent to help. Wesley just stood there, staring down at the woman's nude form, his jaw twitching slightly.
Faith turned her anger on him. "Come on, Wesley! I know it's been a while, but can't you get your rocks off later?"
Wesley didn't respond. I don't think he even heard her.
"Wes?" I asked. "Lend a hand, huh? We need to get this girl somewhere safe, whoever she is. Now len-"
Wesley's voice trembled when he spoke. "I know who she is. Her name is Charlotte Ambrage. She's a Watcher."
by Mike Dewar
Wesley graciously parted with his suit jacket and we gently carried the unconscious woman into the back of the dented car - or at least Faith and I did, because Wesley was too busy turning red. I daresay I looked a little flustered myself. As I helped manoeuvre the woman onto the back seat I was very aware that under the baggy, ill-fitting jacket was nothing but bare flesh. Flesh paper-white with cold. Where my hands accidentally touched her body it was like touching ice. It seemed miraculous that she was still breathing.
While Faith and I were trying to prop 'Charlotte' into a reasonably comfortable-looking position she wouldn't immediately fall over from, Wesley slipped into the driver's seat.
"Hey! What d'you think you're doin'? You don't even have a valid licen-"
"And you shouldn't," Wesley said grimly. "And right now, I don't care. All I care about is getting home in one piece."
Then he looked like he'd almost swallowed his tongue as he realised what he'd said.
Home. He'd said home.
"So we're goin' back to the office now, then?" I asked sarcastically.
"There seems to be little choice. We can hardly carry a semi-naked woman into a hotel to book a room, can we?" he sniped back. "Besides, we have to find out what she's doing here. We may need to make use of your resources one last time... if, of course, you don't mind," he added guiltily.
I grimaced and pulled shut the door as Wesley started up the car. Faith and I were supporting the woman on either side, keeping her from falling forward and mashing her face into the back of the seats in front. Her head lolled back, shifting aside the mass of reddish curls to reveal a face that looked like it had been chipped from ice. Sharp, delicate features, all cut in white. Her eyes were closed. Wesley's suit jacket swamped her slim body, making her look tiny and wasted.
"You sure she's alive?" Faith said. Wesley turned around to glare at her warningly. "Well, I've seen livelier corpses. And yeah, I do mean that literally."
"I heard a heartbeat when we found her," I said shortly.
Faith ignored this. "So what's the story on this chick, then?" Faith prodded Wesley in the back through the upholstery of the driver's seat, making him squirm and making the car veer alarmingly. Both of us yelped, and she quickly sat back with a 'what did I do?' look in her eyes. "She an old flame of yours, Wes?"
Wes was staring forwards into the driving rain and I couldn't see his face, but the tips of his ears very definitely reddened. "Uh, n-no. Not at all. Faith, will you please set your one track mind onto a different track for once?"
She grinned, but as I smirked back at her, sharing the joke, she seemed to remember she was pissed with me and turned it into a glare. I sighed and looked away. Charlotte slumped to one side and I ended up with a mouthful of her drenched hair. Spluttering, I propped her back up.
In front of us, both hands clenched white-knuckled on the wheel, Wesley stared dead ahead in focused concentration, like he was trying to outstare the grey of the storm.
Trying to carry an unconscious person inside in the dark was not an occurrence that the designers of my building had planned for - the place was a bloody death-trap. Slippery floors, tight doorways, not to mention the chairs and desks that lurked in shadowed corners to entangle arms and legs...
It wasn't helped by the fact that Wesley had worsened from his usual level of hand-eye coordination - that of a decapitated chicken - to that of a limbless decapitated chicken, forcing us to try and bump doors open with our elbows or rather, in Faith's case, her boot.
I was pretty sure at least two of those doors would never close properly again.
But eventually, after several bruises (mine), one scraped shin (Wesley's), and a banged skull (Charlotte's), we staggered down the stairs and into my apartment.
Faith, annoyingly, escaped injury, and in fact seemed hardly out of breath as she manhandled the still-slumbering Charlotte onto my bed. Without asking, of course.
After the covers had been drawn up around Charlotte's shoulders, and Wesley's jacket had been removed by an impressive feat of sleight-of-hand (and sleight-of-touch) on my part, we all stood in a little semi-circle in my bedroom and watched the sleeping woman.
I glanced at Faith. She glanced at me. We both glanced at Wesley, briefly united in our confusion.
Gradually, Wesley became aware of our fixed stares. "Er," he said vaguely, as if suddenly realising that he had been staring at Charlotte a little too intensely. "We should probably try to make her more comfortable. Faith, boil some water."
Faith's stare became an outright glare. "Why?" she asked petulantly.
"For a hot water bottle," I said, at the same time as Wesley said, "For tea, of course."
He blinked. "In retrospect, Doyle may have the better idea. Run along, Faith."
The English in crisis. A strange bunch.
Faith left the room slowly, full of exaggerated resentment, while Wesley ignored her with fixed determination, probably brewing imaginary tea in his mind to calm himself down. And then we were alone together. Except for the naked woman, of course.
"So... Wes," I said stupidly. He didn't respond. "How do you know this filly?"
"Woman," he said automatically, then paused. "Um, we met while we were training to be Watchers in England."
I looked down at Charlotte. "So, what, you were in the same class at Watcher School?"
"Academy, actually," he answered. "And no, she was a year ahead of me." He took off his glasses, frowned slightly at the dirty lenses, and fumbled vaguely for a jacket pocket that wasn't there.
After looking down at where it was, attached to the rest of the sodden jacket, lying on my floor, he decided to abandon propriety and just use his shirt to clean the glasses. Since the shirt was as wet as the rest of him, he didn't achieve much.
"She was - she is the daughter of a very dear friend of my father," his face darkened briefly, "and they were both very keen that we would, ahem, 'get together', so to speak. But Charlotte wasn't interested in the slightest, and I always had my head in a book, so nothing ever came of it."
He didn't say that he hadn't been interested, though, I noticed.
"Shortly after graduation, I was sent to work in the archives and Charlotte was sent to France to help with translating some arcane texts - her grasp of medieval French is phenomenal, quite the prodigy actually." Wesley smiled slightly. "And that was the last I saw of her."
"Faith'll be very disappointed," I said wryly. "I think she's expectin' some kind o' sordid romance or some good ol' steamy smuttiness."
Wes shook his head in a self-depreciating way. "Unfortunately not." His face abruptly turned bright red as he realised what he'd just said.
I bit back a chuckle as Faith slunk back into the room. "Water's boiling," she said irritably.
"Ah," Wesley acknowledged, still slightly flushed. "Very good. Thank you, Faith."
"Whatever." Faith glanced at me. "Are you ever going to say anything worthwhile?"
I opened my mouth to respond sharply, and realised she was looking past me. At the bed.
I nearly swallowed my tongue as I looked down and realised that Charlotte's eyes were wide open and that their gaze was focused and steady. She'd obviously been awake long enough to get her bearings.
Wesley, if anything, looked more shocked than I was, and judging from the sudden return of blood of his face, he was fervently hoping she hadn't caught his unfortunate remark. "H-hello," he said.
"Hello." Her voice sounded like a softer, more feminine version of his own with the same precise English syllables and educated inflections.
"I don't know if you'd remember me," Wesley told her, "my name is Wesley Wyndham-Price - we met at the Academy?"
She shook her head. "I'm afraid not."
Wesley deflated. "Really? I-I mean, oh. Are you sure? They, uh, used to call me..." He glanced at me and Faith, flushing again. This was obviously not a good night for Wesley's complexion, which was rapidly becoming more blotched and red by the second. "...'Wacky Wes'."
"They called you Wacky Wes?" I interrupted incredulously over Faith's sniggering.
"With heavy irony, yes," Wes responded.
Vague, yet strangely disturbing, visions of Wesley at Watcher frat parties vanished from my mind, much to my relief.
Charlotte shook her head again. "I'm terribly sorry to cause offence, but I simply don't recall you."
"No, no offence caused, I assure you," Wesley said, without much conviction. "It's hardly surprising you've forgotten me... it was years ago, after all."
She looked around very slowly, as if she was moving on a slightly different time scale to everyone else, probably an after-effect of the whole nearly-freezing-to-death thing. "Where am I? Who are these people?"
Wesley appeared to remember his manners. "Oh, yes. Forgive me. I'm Wesley, as I already told you, this is Faith, my Slayer, and this is Doyle." His voice appeared to at least partially regain its usual pride and pomposity - I guess having your own Slayer to watch over is a greatly-envied task for a Watcher.
Then again, if you replace 'Slayer' with 'Faith', then I imagine Wesley would be more pitied than envied by his colleagues.
"This is Doyle's apartment," he continued. "We've, um, formed a temporary coalition with his demon-hunting operation." I have to admit, 'demon-hunting operation' sounded better than 'failing PI agency which hunts demons and can't get normal cases.'
Charlotte appeared to slowly digest this information. "Oh. What's a Slayer?"
There was absolute silence for a moment or two.
Predictably, Faith was the one to break it. "Jeez, I'd hate to see what she got on her final Watcher exams," she muttered flippantly.
"Actually, Charlotte passed with honours," Wesley said absently, his mouth obviously operating without any real input from his brain "She scored quite a bit higher than me in Ancient Languages, too." There was a slight touch of bitterness in his voice.
Academic envy. It's never pretty.
I opened my mouth to say something to that effect, but the woman in front of us interrupted me.
This time, the silence lasted quite a lot longer.
"She doesn't remember a thing," Wesley said quietly as he closed the bedroom door behind us. "It's as if something just wiped her mind clean of all her past."
"Good thing for your fragile male ego, huh?" Faith commented.
He frowned. "Faith, my male ego, fragile or otherwise, has no part in this discussion. And Charlotte's loss of memory is in no way a 'good thing'," he added primly.
She smirked. "It's a point of view." Wesley's lips thinned alarmingly.
"Speakin' o' points of view," I said quickly, "I've got one worth considerin'. What are we gonna do with her?"
"Well, I imagine we could seek some kind of medical assistance for her. Hypnosis therapy or some such," Wes suggested, diverted from his impending lecture.
For a second, Faith looked ready to continue the disagreement, but then she glanced at me and agreed suddenly, "Yeah. Makes sense. Hell, this is LA. Shrinks grow on trees here."
I shook my head. "So let's say some wonder-doc hypnotises her an' she starts talkin' about vampires an' demons. He'll just turn her over to the Looney-bin. No way she can go to a regular doc."
Wesley nodded thoughtfully. "Good point. I'll try and get in touch with the Council in the morning - I believe they have medical specialists who deal with these sort of things."
Faith looked vaguely annoyed that Wes and I were in agreement, like he'd betrayed the cause or something, but she just nodded. "Okay. I call the sofa."
"Excuse me?" Wesley said.
Faith rolled her eyes. "For sleeping. There's no way I'm climbing into a bed with Red over there; she just ain't my type." She smiled wickedly. "But I'm sure if you ask her real nice she'll share with you."
Wesley just spluttered.
As it eventually turned out, sleeping locations wasn't that much of an issue. Faith got the sofa, of course - like anybody was going to tell her otherwise - and Wesley declared that he would stay awake to stand guard over Charlotte, in case she suffered any after-effects from her ordeal.
Charlotte seemed quite impressed with this, despite the fact that Faith laughed so hard that she had to go and sit down for several minutes.
Crunched awkwardly into one of the office chairs with a blanket over me, I still heard her snickering carrying up the stairs for a good half-an-hour. That and the rain kept me awake for half the night. The chair's sharp edges took over for the other half
In the morning, my spine feeling as if it had been delicately stroked with a gardening rake and my eyes closed to semi-conscious slits, I staggered downstairs. Much to my surprise, Wesley wasn't dozing gently against a wall. Instead he was hunched over a growing puddle in the middle of my bedroom, gamely manoeuvring a coffee mug to try to catch the drops of water tumbling with monotonous regularity from the ceiling above. Faith was nowhere to be seen.
"Pipes gone again, huh?" I said wearily.
Wesley nodded wordlessly.
My building's plumbing and gutter systems, never marvels of efficiency at the best of times, tended to fail dismally during heavy rain, resulting in leaks and dripping in the most bizarre places. Heavy rain, incidentally, that was still falling. In fact, it seemed harder than it had been the night before.
Abruptly, Wesley took the half-full mug out from under the drip and just walked away, leaving the dirty moisture to splatter against what passed for my carpet.
"Hey!" I yelped. Receiving no response from him, I hurried forward (prompting another protest from my back) and cupped my hands under the drip. "Hey, Wes, damn it," I tried again.
Wesley looked around innocently, pouring the filthy water into a kettle. "Yes?"
I stared at him, my hands rapidly filling with chilly water. "Wes, I've got these great inventions, you know. They're called 'taps'."
Wesley looked blankly at me, and then glanced down at the kettle in his hands. "Ah. No, this is for something important," he explained solemnly, and turned around and walked into my kitchen, still holding the kettle of muddy water.
Obviously, lack of sleep had driven the man insane. I looked down at the pool of water that was now joyfully overflowing my fingers and running onto the carpet again. "Wes, can you give me a hand? Wes?"
I looked down at my hands again and silently apologised to my landlord. The water made a huge dark stain on the carpet which began to spread out into a surprisingly symmetrical circle as I followed the possibly-insane Watcher.
Now the crackpot was staring intently at the kettle as it squatted on my stove.
"What the hell are you doing?" I asked bluntly.
Wesley nodded wisely to himself. "I am attempting to prepare a magical potion."
"Out of rainwater."
I sighed. "Why?"
Wesley raised a finger and assumed the Classic Watcher Lecture Position.
"Briefly," I added.
Wesley's hand dropped limply. "While I was guarding Charlotte last night, around midnight, I noticed something unusual."
"You were guardin' a naked Watcher who can't remember her own name... an' you only noticed somethin' unusual then?" I asked sardonically.
Wesley waved a hand dismissively. "More unusual than usual, I mean. Red lightning, to be exact."
"The lightning in the storm outside had developed a distinctly reddish hue, most definitely unnatural in origin," he clarified.
I shrugged. "So? Wes, with the amount of neon lights in this city, I'm surprised the lightnin' didn't look luminous green. Add that to lack of sleep an'-"
Wesley shook his head in vigorous denial. "I assure you, I was, and still am, in complete control of my faculties."
"Sure," I agreed wryly. "By the way, if you're expectin' that water to boil, you haven't turned the stove on."
Wesley looked askance. "What?" He flicked the power switch hastily. "That in no way reflects on my testimony."
"Of course not."
"Anyway, the potion should enable us to detect any magical cause or aspect of the storms, thus allowing us to-"
A polite cough interrupted him. "Excuse me?"
"Ah, Charlotte," Wesley said warmly. "You're - Oh. My. God."
He made a strange whinnying noise in the back of his throat. I'm fairly certain I stopped breathing for a second or two.
Charlotte was standing in the doorway, smiling politely at us. Nothing disturbing there. The disturbing factor came from the fact that she was wearing tight leather pants, and a black tank-top that was so small for her that it fit like a second skin. Hell, it fit like her first skin. The fact that it had 'Grunge Whore' across her breasts in red was merely the icing on the cake.
To put it simply, while she was wearing considerably more clothing than she had been last night, the overall effect was that she was not only still naked, but also covered in syrup.
Wesley moved past whinnying and onto a strange shrill choking sound.
Charlotte looked down at her clothes with a kind of vague horror. "That sweet girl Faith lent me these, at least until I can get some more."
I was part of the way towards recovering from her outfit (sleeping with Faith tends to wear away at one's inhibitions), but that just pushed me right back into incoherent shock again. The woman had a conversation with Faith for more than ten seconds, and she was still capable of using the word 'sweet' in this same sentence as her name. Either Faith's personality had radically shifted overnight, or Charlotte had severe brain damage in addition to amnesia.
I was tending towards the second option.
Wesley still seemed incapable of speech or most basic motor functions, so I smiled weakly and said, "How nice of her."
The kettle screamed shrilly.
"Oh," Charlotte said, her face lighting up. "Are you making tea?"
Obviously, there were some parts of being English too deeply rooted for even amnesia to erase.
With my grudging assistance, Wesley managed to get the boiling water from my kettle (which was now covered in an inch-thick layer of interior grime) into another cup with nothing more than minor burns. The requisite foul-smelling herbs were added, and the newly-brewed potion did nothing at all.
It continued to do this for several minutes.
We watched it. "It may be... ahem, delayed reaction," Wesley suggested weakly.
"Yes, I'm sure that's it," Charlotte said supportively.
Nothing continued to occur with diligent regularity.
Wesley, looking highly embarrassed, retired to the upstairs office with a large spell book, a cellphone, and stock lists from several of his preferred herbalists, while Charlotte and I continued to observe nothing.
Wesley returned from the office, enduring my amused glances with admirable fortitude, while the potion sat absolutely still and unreactive.
We were still staring at it, willing it to bubble, or emit a foul stench, or any of the usual things magical potions do, when Faith returned.
"Ya know, my mother used to say, 'A watched pot never boils,'" she observed dryly. "Of course, she coulda been talking about weed."
"Faith," Wesley said impatiently. "Did you fetch the powdered Valorian root I requested?"
Faith shrugged lazily, tossing a bag at him. "All the magic root you could ever need, Wes-ster. Either that, or some green chilli powder - not sure which."
Wesley tugged the bag open and pressed it to his nose. A second later, he recoiled sharply, coughing. "Yes... that would be... oh dear Lord... that would be the correct root."
Taking a pinch of the crumbly powder between thumb and forefinger, he dropped it into our sadly-uncooperative potion. It sank to the bottom of the cup.
Nothing, obviously having too much fun to stop, continued happening.
Wesley's face fell. "Oh dear... perhaps there's something I was missing in the book..."
Wesley stretched out for another of his blasted herbal texts, still holding the bag of impotent Valorian root in his other hand. Until, that is, Faith snatched it out of his fingers and poured half of it into the cup.
"Really, Faith, what on earth do you think you're doing?" Wesley yelped. "That herb is extremely costly!"
"Quit penny-pinching, book-boy," she shot back.
"I am not penny-pin - "
"Guys." Before either of them could respond, I pointed at the table. "Looks like we have magic."
The potion had turned from its previous murky brown-and-green sludge into a fiery blue-red mixture. Occasionally, it fizzed slightly, and I could swear I saw lightning crackling across its surface. It looked like the Cocktail From Hell.
"Good Lord," Wesley murmured. "That is unexpected."
"Yeah," Faith shot back. "One of your potions worked. Practically a world-first."
"What exactly does it mean?" Charlotte asked quietly, staring at the fizzing liquid.
Wesley flipped hurriedly through his book. "Um... I'm not exactly sure. Per se."
"Oh, wonderful," Faith growled. "A detection spell which we can't understand. Love that wacky sense of Watcher humour."
Wesley frowned, turning back a couple of pages. "It's very strange... I could swear there was an entry for this kind of event." I reached out and took the book out of his hands, ignoring his bleat of protest.
Carefully, I pulled two stuck pages apart, running my fingers between them to scrape away the dried chewing gum that had sealed them, and then handed the book back to him.
"Faith, we will have words about this," Wesley said darkly, scanning the revealed pages. "Here we are. The crucial page I was looking for and was mysteriously unable to locate."
Faith did her best to look innocent but failed dismally, probably due to lack of practice.
"Storm spirit," he said meaningfully.
"Great," Faith said sarcastically. "Storm spirit. Whoopee. It's all so clear now. Now how do I kill it?"
Wesley looked up at us. "Actually, I'm not entirely sure that you can."
"That would be bad?" Charlotte inquired.
"Most probably," I answered. "Spill the details, Wes."
"A storm spirit isn't exactly an entity, so to speak. It's more of an elemental force, a manifestation of nature." Wesley grimaced. "And it's very powerful. According to several primitive cultures, there are spirits present inside every storm or weather phenomenon, powering and directing them on an extra-dimensional level. As far as the entry reads - it's really rather sparse - there are several methods by which such spirits can be summoned and bound. Usual side-effects of such spells include abnormally violent weather and unusual visual occurrences, like say... clouds gathering themselves into angry faces, or rain becoming boiling hot-"
"Or lightnin' flashin' red," I added.
"It definitely fits," he agreed. "It usually requires a lot of magical power to control, since a bond needs to be formed between the sorcerer and his conjuration, a spiritual pact, you might say."
"An' this pact accomplishes what?"
Wesley shrugged. "Just about whatever the sorcerer wants it to. Imagine the amount of power a black magician could tap from something as mighty as a storm, particularly considering the power of this current thunderstorm. If the spirit can command even the slightest fraction of that energy... the damage could be incalculable."
He closed the book with a snap.
"Why couldn't someone summon the spirit of a summer's day?" Faith complained. "I need to get a tan."
But no one laughed.
Research. Good ol' dusty, mind-numbing research. The first resort of a demon hunter, or a Slayer, under pressure. And the least favourite.
Wesley had abandoned us to go and hunt for more herbs, for some kind of spirit-tracking spell that might help us out. That left me and Faith. Alone. I didn't need a vision to tell me how much fun that was going to be.
Of course, Charlotte was there too, but since she didn't really know anything about us, or herself for that matter, she just sat in one corner and watched the angry silence grow.
I rubbed my eyes as the words in front of me started to swim and dance. "You findin' anythin', Faith?"
"Oh." I turned a page.
Faith turned a page.
I turned a page.
Faith turned a page.
"I found a spell to protect against bein' struck by lightnin'," I announced, "...says you got to bath in lead for three days an' then wrap a strand of cotton around your horns." I frowned. "Somethin' tells me this book wasn't written by a human."
Faith looked up. "Doyle?"
"Is it related to what we're looking for?"
"Well... sort of. In a distant, twelfth-cousin-twice-removed kinda way."
"Then I don't want to hear it." She got up and walked towards the stairs. "I'm gonna get some more books."
"You do that."
She clumped up the stairs, leaving me alone with Charlotte. Who spoke, for the first time in hours. "Doyle, I wonder if I might make an inquiry of you. It's rather... personal."
"Shoot," I said, flipping past several drawings of demons, lingering briefly on one of a scantily-clad succubus.
"Are you and Faith, ahem, involved? Romantically?"
I smiled weakly. "Is it that obvious?"
Charlotte shook her head. "No, it's only a touch above blindingly so." She smiled as well.
"We were an item," I said shortly. "Not any more."
I sighed. "I let her down, her and Wesley. Wasn't there when I was needed. Faith's not the forgivin' type."
"Have you let her try?" Charlotte asked softly.
I laughed. "Jeez, you are in serious denial about that girl, lady. I could crawl through needles, an' she wouldn't forgive me, not unless she damn well chose to of her own free will. An' she doesn't want to."
Charlotte nodded once. "I see. Does she love you?"
I laughed again, this time bitterly. "Faith doesn't do love, Charlotte. Me and her was just sex-capades, nothin' more or less."
"Did you love her?"
I didn't answer that one. Instead, I lit a cigarette and took a long breath of smoke. When I let it out again, a rush of indignation came with it. "Listen, honey, you hardly seem like the one to be counsellin' about love. Wesley's got it bad for you, or at least used to, an' you just ignored him."
Charlotte looked stunned. Just totally stunned, as if something I'd said something she couldn't faintly comprehend, like Wesley was half-chimpanzee or a serial murderer in his spare time. "Pardon?"
I shrugged. "You heard me."
"I don't ignore him," Charlotte said faintly. "I'm polite to him."
"Polite, huh?" I said. "Faith was never polite to me, love or not."
Charlotte abandoned me as well, after that, leaving me alone with my thoughts and half-a-dozen arcane books. I vaguely hoped my thoughts would abandon me too, but no such luck.
Faith didn't come down again, which probably meant she'd gone to blow off some steam.
And she was the one complaining about me abandoning her when I was needed, I thought resentfully.
It was getting late, and the storm still wasn't letting up.
I guess I must have dozed off at that point, because the next thing that woke me was the sound of screaming from my room. Where Charlotte was.
I ran to the bedroom door and flung my shoulder against it, shoving it open. White light blinded me and thunder assaulted my ears, and I knew only one thing for certain as I looked inside.
The storm that was raging outside the building had broken into it.
Charlotte was convulsing on the bed, screaming. Red lightning crackled around the room. The air, the furniture, the walls, the floor, the woman - all were alight.
My jaw dropped, possibly not so much from shock at the sight of the red lightning as from the sight of Charlotte's body, red-limned, which the light made as visible through the bedclothes as though I was wearing X-ray specs.
I turned. Wesley was standing behind me, looking dishevelled. From the streak of white talc in his hair, he'd been back long enough from his foray to have been trying to get some sleep in the bathtub.
"Okay, you're magic-guy. What in hell should we be doin' about this fireworks display?" I asked helplessly.
"We have to stop it, whatever it is. It's hurting her-"
Before I could prevent him, he'd pushed past me into the room, dodging bolts of crackling energy. Charlotte, like the centre of one of those little static electricity globes, fiery red claws radiating outwards from her, screamed louder and her rolling eyes slid over him as though he wasn't there.
"Wes!" I yelped, diving after him. "You're gonna get yourself killed!" I didn't know how much current was running through that woman. Might be more than enough to crispy-fry even a very determined Watcher. I at least had a few more defences than he did. I swatted his hand back as he was reaching out to her and moved to hold her down myself, trying to keep my hands high up on her arms and shoulders and not let her struggles bring them in contact with, um... other places.
The shock from that initial touch rippling through me was enough to tear the demon out. Obviously some portion of how much it damn well hurt was conveyed in my strangled yell, because Wesley did a re-think and flinched back, ducking the lightning bolts with new fear.
I registered, with the portion of my brain that was still up to noticing anything outside of my desperate hold on the convulsing Charlotte and 'ouch', that Wesley had staggered around the bed, tripped over his feet, climbed upright again. I dimly heard him yell, "Hold on Doyle! I'll be right back!" as he disappeared out of the door.
Thank you so much, Wesley.
I grit my teeth as electrical flashes lit up my own bones down the length of my arms and I tried to yell at Charlotte to calm down. I didn't know if all this was her doing and if she could stop it at will, but it seemed worth a try. Her convulsions lessened slightly, though whether because of me or for some other reason was anyone's guess.
Now that it was less frantic, I noticed that her screaming was actually words, the same phrases repeated over and over. Sounded like Latin. It joined forces with the shocks reverberating through my skull, reducing the world to painful noise and light. I tried yelling at her to shut up, but no joy.
Wesley stumbled back into the room with a book open in his hands. Reading from it, he began shouting more Latin, oblivious to a couple of narrow misses from the lightning bolts.
Gradually, the storm energies subsided. Charlotte's face was normal again, but she continued to struggle against me, whimpering weakly, her movements no longer powered by that unnatural, convulsive strength. I remembered which face I was wearing, and would've cursed if I'd had the breath.
As the last of the energies faded, Charlotte's eyes slipped shut and her movements ceased. Her heavy gasps quieted to shallow breathing as she subsided into unconsciousness.
With a groan, I released my grip and collapsed. I fell off the side of the bed and onto the floor with a thud.
Hesitant footsteps. Wesley squinted down at me in concern. "Doyle, are you all right?"
"No. Don't touch me," I managed. Little residual shocks were still running through my body. I rolled over and crouched on hands and knees, watching the remnant red sparks disappear down my arms into the floor. I cautiously let my demon form go, and almost passed out.
"Good God, Doyle," Wesley said with appalled sympathy. I accepted the hand offered to help me up. "Are you going to be all right, now?"
"I think so." My voice was a rasp. I choked a moment, and aiming for levity added hoarsely, "Man, testing how much voltage a Brachen demon can absorb wasn't exactly somethin' I'd have volunteered for, not even in the interests of science." I shook my head, trying to clear it of stars. "What was that you did, anyway?"
"A simple ward spell. I didn't know what else to do. Thank goodness it worked. I wasn't at all sure it would."
I wasn't at all sure it had, thinking back to how gradually Charlotte's convulsions had faded, but I kept the doubt to myself. Wesley's hand clasped briefly on my shoulder before he let go of my arm. After a dubious moment some modicum of balance reluctantly set in. Standing accomplished, I tried to stop shaking, but that was pretty much a lost cause.
"Go get some rest," Wesley said firmly. "I can look after things here."
He moved to examine Charlotte, nervously chewing his lip and clutching his spell book like a shield as he carefully leaned over her still form. As I left, he was tentatively working up the courage to touch her wrist to double-check for the pulse I could've told him was still beating strong within.
According to the clock in the living room it was well after midnight. I staggered into the kitchen to get a strong drink. Glass in hand, I headed upstairs to see what Faith had been up to while Wesley and I almost got killed wrestling a naked woman lit up like a Christmas tree.
The elevator proved unresponsive, which was not really a surprise as rainstorms tended to upset its ancient mechanisms. It was surprising we hadn't yet lost the electrics. As I climbed the stars, my shocky limbs protesting every step, the roar of the weather outside which had been silent in the basement reached my ears. It's fury pounded against the sides of the building, rain ricocheting off the windows like bullets. If anything, though, it was actually quieter than it had been.
I supposed it was too much to hope that it was slackening off. I wasn't even sure I wanted it to. When the storm departed, it cleared the way for Faith and Wesley to follow.
I wondered if that fireworks display upstairs would've been so much worse if we hadn't been secure from the storm inside the stone box that was the basement apartment.
Faith's irritation hadn't taken her further than the office, thanks to the rainstorm. She was curled up in a chair, oblivious to the world, her mouth open, snoring like a hog. A little vindictively, I poked her awake with a finger in the ribs.
"What the-?" she began irritably. She stared up at me, an extremely strange expression on her face, blinked several times with increasing incredulity, and finally collapsed into shrieks of laughter.
She fell off the chair, choking, her fist pounding the floor, gesturing inarticulately at me.
Leaving her rolling on the floor, I stomped into the bathroom to glare at the mirror.
My frazzled hair was standing on end, cartoon-style.
I stuck my head under the shower and flattened my hair dry with a towel. The sounds of Faith's laughter were still faintly discernable from upstairs as I headed back down to the apartment.
Wesley was still fussing over Charlotte in the bedroom and I supposed that whatever way you chose to look at it he had everything in hand. Hardly able to think for the aches starting to set into my abused limbs as the shock wore off, I ransacked the kitchen, took the dregs of a bottle I found there to keep me company, and lurched through into the living room to collapse on the couch.
When I woke, my watch said it was 6.47am and the bottle still retained its inch or so of whisky. A sorry state of affairs it was indeed when I was too tired to take the cap off the bottle. I returned it to the kitchen empty and made a round of coffees which I carried into the bedroom.
Wesley had pulled a chair across to the edge of the bed to watch over his lady-love, but now he slumped forward on the covers, bent head sprawled atop his arms, his books strewn all around the bump that represented Charlotte's feet. Charlotte... was blinking, very much awake, and regarding with mixed distress and bemused fondness the Watcher snuffling into her ankles. Her posture was stiff, as though she didn't dare move for fear of disturbing him.
I smirked as I set the coffee mug down. "Mornin', darlin'."
She froze at the sound of my voice, and I remembered what she had chanced to see last night. When she looked up, her eyes were fearful, then puzzled. She reached out a hand to Wesley's shoulder, and her touch jerked him to wakefulness. He lifted up his head, looked flustered, and fussed with his crooked glasses, avoiding glancing at either of us. Charlotte continued to regard me with suspicion, but Wesley's conscious presence relaxed her somewhat. Uneasily, I set the mug down on the table next to her, then turned to hand Wesley his.
He swallowed a mouthful without looking and grimaced.
"We're out of tea," I said. "You two drank it all."
He sighed, rubbed his eyes, drained the cup, and blindly thrust it back towards me as he struggled to gather up his books and papers so that Charlotte could move her legs.
She flinched from me when I leaned over her to take the cup, saw my reaction, and her face crumpled in apology. "I'm sorry. I don't know what's wrong with me. I had... such disturbing dreams, last night. Dark tunnels, endless... and then suddenly flashing light, and your face all lit up - only it wasn't your face, it was different. Demonic-" She shivered, and caught something in my return gaze which made her breath hitch. Wesley set his hand on her shoulder kindly, but she didn't notice.
"You're - not human," she said. It wasn't in any way a question.
"He's on our side," Wesley said firmly, with a warming faith. "That's all that matters."
"But you look so normal."
"Hang on." My stressed brain was just getting around to fully digesting her words of a moment earlier, and was in no mood for the whole 'how to explain you're half a demon' thing, act three hundred and forty-two. "You're sayin' you don't remember anythin' else disturbin' happenin' last night? Just dreams, and me all demon-face?"
She nodded palely. Her hands clutched the bedclothes to her. "Why? What's happened? What should I remember?"
I guess I'd be pretty upset too if I couldn't trust my memory and had just discovered I was talking to a demon - although some subconscious awareness of her Watcher's Council training must remain; the existence of demons and magic didn't seem to surprise her in of themselves. I haltingly told her the events of the night, my attention flickering constantly to Wesley, trusting him to warn me if there was anything he didn't think she could handle. He knew her, after all.
After that she sat and chewed at her fingernails while Wesley tried to tell her not to worry; that he'd help; that everything would be all right.
I went out, braving the weather to buy some tea. The rainstorm had given LA the atmosphere of a disaster movie. The water-laden streets were empty and grey and the water streamed down the gutters, flooding the road in places. I saw only a dozen other pedestrians. On the roads, there were barely any cars. Most of the traffic that went past me was emergency services. It took me a while to find a store that was open, not that it made any real difference since I'd been soaked through about five seconds after leaving the office, and there was a point beyond which you couldn't get any more drenched.
When I got back, Faith had come down from upstairs and was lounging around in an overlong T-shirt and nothing else, glowering at news forecasters on the TV who were using phrases like 'worst rainfall in years' and 'potential crisis situation'. I didn't bother talking to her, still somewhat pissed about last night, just walked past bearing tea for Charlotte and Wesley. An arm reached up and snagged the third mug on the tray - mine - as I passed the couch.
I pretended I hadn't noticed.
"Thank you," said Charlotte meekly, as I handed her a cup, though her eyes were still scared.
Dripping self-consciously onto the floor, I asked Wesley if he'd found anything yet.
"Not as such," he said warily. "Have you spoken to Faith at all?"
"Not yet. Have you?"
He nodded, and I waited. 'Not as such' wasn't 'no'. I hesitated a moment, milling over whether or not to voice the obvious, before I frowned at him and prompted, "Last night would suggest a connection between Charlotte here an' the lightnin' storms."
"Well, it could be coincidence-"
"Come off it, Wes." Faith was at the door, still in just her T-shirt. "I bet Red here's in on it. Maybe she botched the summons for this storm spirit thing and it fried her brain."
"No," Charlotte said, shocked.
"Maybe she did it and she doesn't even remember," Faith said. "Biting off more dark arts whammy then she can chew."
Charlotte said, "No!" again, but she looked very afraid, and I too was afraid Faith had hit the nail on the head. It was an all too likely situation. Which didn't mean I thought Faith shouldn't have had more sensitivity when voicing the possibility.
"Nonsense," Wesley said positively. He enfolded Charlotte's hand protectively in both his own. "Charlotte would do no such thing. I know her. It's far more likely that whoever is trying to control the spirit has set it to come after her for a reason. She is, after all, a highly placed member of the Watchers Council, probably here on Council business. It must have been a previous attack by the spirit which damaged her memory."
Faith snorted, but relented. She'd quite liked Charlotte, I'd thought, but then again it wouldn't be the first time if her friendship was misplaced. Maybe she was remembering Sandy.
"Whatever her connection to the storms might be," I said, "Isn't it a helpful development? I mean, what if we can use it as a way to get to the storm spirit? That's one step closer to doin' somethin' about this than we were before. An' maybe we can get her memories back at the same time."
"Indeed." Wesley was nodding positively. "Instead of two separate problems, it's entirely possible we have two halves of the same problem."
"So that's good, yeah?" said Faith. "Can we eat now? I'm starving."
The morning passed. The TV reception fuzzed and flickered, and finally died and didn't come back, and we dragged out the radio for continued updates but the radio masts must've been down, too. It just sat on the table and crackled away to itself, useless.
Faith got dressed. Wesley set himself up with his books at the table with a coffee percolator burbling beside him, and got cranky when I asked him if he wanted an intravenous drip, and crankier still at the remark Faith added after that. Charlotte, somewhat recovered, minced around delicately in Faith's leather gear and I avoided her and the nervousness I now saw in her eyes whenever they fell on me, despite Wesley's attempts to reassure her.
I didn't know Charlotte was in the kitchen when I went in to get a snack. I'd just come down from the office, where I'd been shifting around the last week's paperwork with negligible actual accomplishment.
She was poking through the cupboards, rearranging the contents with the kind of horror of disarray Wesley often showed, multiplied by femininity. At my incautious entry, she dropped a pan on the worktop and spun around, pressing her back to the unit behind her.
"Sorry, didn't mean to startle you," I said lamely. I couldn't very well walk straight out again, so I moved to get the sandwich I'd come in for.
She stiffly resumed her inspection of the cupboards, and I made my sandwich, and we kept our distance. If I hadn't been trying so hard to surreptitiously lean past her without attracting her attention when I needed to get into the fridge at her back, she probably wouldn't have freaked quite so much when I accidentally brushed her arm.
Her whole body flinched. A plate went flying, careening across the worktop and bouncing off the wall. Its fragments showered the floor, pelting my ankles. "What are you?" she shouted. Turning, she slipped and fell against the table. Her frantically grabbing hands found no purchase to balance her, and she slipped down to the floor, where she tried to scramble away from me. "You're not human! You're something else, some kind of creature! What are you?"
There was something strange in her voice, in the way she addressed the question, I noticed through the familiar stab. Wesley... I'd thought Wesley had given her a brief account of my origins, but apparently not. I tried to stammer out calming words, but they didn't reach her.
Wesley skidded through the door, and a moment later Faith appeared, hovering at his shoulder.
"Charlotte, are you all right?" he asked gently, with a suspicious glance towards me.
I shrugged and held out my hands helplessly, mouthing soundless protests, which I only kept soundless because Charlotte was speaking, and Wesley was visibly trying to listen.
Her eyes weren't properly focused, and she clasped her knees in her arms, rocking back and forth, muttering. I heard "Years of service, all for nothing." I heard something about 'demons' and 'power' and 'tap into', and my veins flowed with ice in place of blood.
Wesley knelt down and gripped her shoulders. He shook her, but she didn't seem aware of him, just kept mumbling, kept trying to rock despite his hold. "Treachery?" he asked, half-shouting. "What treachery? What's the matter, Charlotte? Damn it!" He shook her much more viciously, powered by fear.
"I can do that, if you want," Faith offered.
He didn't take up the offer, but it seemed to decide him. His jaw bunched in determination and, drawing back a hand, he delivered a open-palmed slap to the woman's face. I blinked in astonishment. Faith had the bad grace to snigger.
But Charlotte's wide eyes regained some sense of awareness, and her incoherent muttered tirade ceased.
"Charlotte," Wesley said gently, his fingers apologetically brushing her face where his slap had left a reddening mark. "Do you know where you are? Do you know who I am?"
Maybe not the best question to ask an amnesiac, but she nodded.
"You lost it for a moment there, I'm afraid. I'm sorry I hurt you. Do you remember what you were saying?"
"No. Yes. I don't know! I don't know!" She buried her face in his shoulder, sobbing, arms clutching around him. Wesley gaped, stunned, and cautiously flapped a loose wrist to pat her on the back like a hurt child. As I hustled the smirking Slayer out of the room, I could hear Charlotte behind me: "I did it, didn't I? I did it and I don't even remember... I don't even remember..."
I frowned down at Wesley's books, scattered open across the table where he'd left them. This... this was impossible. Wes was research-man. This stuff was his scene, not mine. But Wesley was acting as comfort-blanket to a sobbing Charlotte and, much happiness to him and all, but it left Faith and myself somewhat high and dry. Again.
I pointed to Faith and to the second chair at the table. "Sit."
Grumbling, she did, with a resentful glance towards the bedroom where Wesley had carried Charlotte.
I thrust a book in front of her, sat down myself and gathered up another volume that was big enough to be used as a table in its own right. It was open at the page where Wesley had left off, and the text was a baffling mix of middle-English and Latin. Shit.
There were several quiet seconds while we squinted down at pages.
"D'you think they're screwing in there?" Faith asked.
I looked up: her nose was emphatically not pointed towards her book, but towards the bedroom. "No," I said irritably. A few days ago, I might've added more, some reprimand for her base callousness, but I'd lost any rights I might have to criticise Faith, and she might well take me apart if I so much as tried, the way she'd been the last few days.
"Huh. Well, it's not like Wesley gets many chances to get some. Kinda dumb of him to waste it."
"Faith. The woman's a delusional wreck."
"She'd have to be."
A brief silence, then we snickered in unison. We both cut short our mirth and looked up at the same time. Our eyes met, and then slid apart. I tried to concentrate on anything else. A distraction. I needed a distraction... oh, yeah. Research.
I squinted at the doorstop in my hands, and tried hard to read the dense text. It took several minutes for it to dawn on me just what it was I was reading.
"Faith," I said urgently. "Find somethin' to help us translate some Latin."
"Just... find somethin'. 'Cause I only understand about every tenth word of this shit, and I think I just hit the jackpot. If this is what I think it is..."
My urgency must've been contagious. She was on her feet and tossing books off the table into a pile on the floor. Wesley would've hit the roof. "No good... trash... crap... bullshit... Damn it, tell me he doesn't do his stupid translations from memory-" Her hand fell on another volume and, well into her stride, she'd almost tossed it away over her shoulder before doing a double-take and presenting it to me.
A Latin sourcebook. Big book, complexly lain-out pages, tiny text. Even looking at it hurt my head. I groaned.
"What's so crucial anyway?" Faith asked, watching me squint.
"This Latin stuff in here," I said. "It's what Charlotte was screamin' last night."
Charlotte was thankfully asleep when I ventured into the bedroom to drag Wesley out and tell him what I'd discovered. My steps were reluctant as we retreated up into the office, leaving Faith downstairs to watch over Charlotte. Wesley wasn't going to like what I had to say. I didn't particularly want to say it.
"No. You're wrong," he insisted, when I'd finished. "This spell - you don't know what's involved. It's a blood rite - an abomination - Charlotte couldn't, wouldn't..." His brief angry tirade trailed away as he saw my expression and he asked plaintively, "You're sure?"
I nodded. I supposed it was an encouraging measure of his faith in me that he chose to believe. He was already blanching at his reaction. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean - it's just, you and research-"
"I know this isn't easy," I said. "But she was chanting it last night. The summons for the storm spirit. She obviously performed the rite - screwed it up somehow. Just like Faith said."
"Good God." He looked even more distressed at the idea of Faith having a correct insight than of myself successfully researching Latin. "But she had no memory of it. Surely she couldn't be held accountable?" His worried, distant expression marked the question as rhetorical. He was wondering what the Watchers Council's answer to that would be, not mine.
"What would they do to her?" I couldn't help asking.
He shuddered. "I can't bear to imagine. If she's tried to release these darker forces once, she might do so again. She's not safe. She's Council trained, and with the knowledge she has-"
"Well, actually not, right now."
He shook his head. "They could hardly count on her loss of memory being permanent. It would be an untenable risk. They'd have to do something."
I sighed and nodded slowly. "We couldn't - protect her from them somehow, I suppose?"
"Most certainly not!" Wesley said, shocked. "Quite aside from what the Council would do to punish us if we were found out - and you're already in enough danger from them - we could be exposing the world to a terrible threat. The destructive forces she's tried to raise-! We already have to tame one rampant elemental spirit because of her, and I'm not sure you realise the danger of the task ahead of us there. No, the Council would be right. What must be done..."
He sank down on the edge of a chair, resting his head in his hands, and I felt terrible for him. Duty outweighed even... love? Maybe it would've been better if I'd never done that research. Or maybe half of LA would've ended up being levelled when Charlotte regained her memory.
It still might. Wondering if we ought to do anything to keep Charlotte restrained, the sight of Wesley made me bite my lip on the suggestion of tying her down.
We remained there, he sitting distraught, me standing restlessly, until the office door chimed, the blinds flapping as someone briskly pushed it open. Briskly, but not Faith's familiar slam.
Damn it, this was hardly a time for any admittedly much-needed clients to descend upon the agency. Leaving the small office, I moved to intercept the man who was striding purposely through the outer office with my apologies that we couldn't take on his case. His confident, grim smile and his tweed stopped me in my tracks.
"Jacob Carnagan, Watchers Council," he said loftily. "And you would be Wesley Wyndham Pryce?"
Wesley was already hurrying out of the office to correct Carnagan and generally toady up before I could reply, and he didn't look much happier to have me mistaken for him than I was to be mistaken.
"Mr Carnagan. I do apologise. We didn't expect you'd arrive so soon. I'm Wesley Wyndham Pryce." It was possible that the way he seized Carnagan's hand to shake was meant to come off as enthusiastic and genial, but mostly it looked flustered. "This is Doyle, a fellow crusader in the fight against the forces of evil."
He beamed at his rather dramatic introduction. In my turn, I unenthusiastically shook Carnagan's hand. "Uh... nice to meet you."
Carnagan was a large man, fiftyish, grey hair thinning, aging but still undeniably powerful both physically and mentally. The canny, hard glint in his eyes concerned me a great deal more than the casual arrogance and aggression of the Special Ops Team had. He loomed over both of us, and you could've fit two skinny Wesley Wyndham Pryce's into the space occupied by his bulky frame.
His air of authority was only slightly diluted by the fact that he was drenched to the skin, and the tatty, dripping umbrella scrunched up in his hand wasn't much of a plus for his image either. He nodded impassively at my greeting. His tweed squelched as he stepped further into the room, head bobbing around interestedly.
"This is your demon-hunting operation, Mr Doyle?" His polite smile had undercurrents. I saw anew through his eyes the shabby repair of the office; the dingy bare brick, the paintwork scuffed and peeling where there was paintwork at all, the disarray of the papers piled over my desk.
"Yeah. Hence the 'Doyle Investigations' sign on the door," I said, forcing a defiant smirk. "Or did you think we were a financial agency?"
His brows bunched up in annoyance at being mocked, which was fine by me. I didn't have any reason to be polite to these people. Wesley's stony glare had more effect. I reluctantly acquiesced to the frantic psychic waves he was sending out telling me to behave.
"I apologise if we're a little cranky, Mr Carnagan," Wesley said. "As you can imagine, we've all been working around the clock to try to deal with the situation. We're all a little overstressed and overtired, I'm afraid."
I watched Wesley clench both fists at Carnagan's acknowledgement, insulting in itself, and then his fingers deliberately unfold one by one until his hands were relaxed again.
"Where's Miss Ambrage, Mr Pryce?"
"Ah." Wesley stuttered a bit. "I'm afraid the situation has changed somewhat since we contacted the Council. New information would seem to suggest that Miss Ambrage's condition is a result of extremely unwise meddling in the dark arts." He outlined the events of the morning.
Carnagan frowned and nodded his way through the explanation. "Indeed," he said as Wesley finished. "A traitor. Excellent work, Mr Pryce. We've been aware for some time that there was a dissenter at work, someone in the inner echelons of the Council. In fact, I was sent here to investigate their activity in this region. But I would never have suspected Charlotte of such a crime." He shook his head grimly.
"Neither would I..." Wesley hesitated. "You know her, too?"
"We worked on some translations together, not long ago. To think of the knowledge we were dealing with then - falling into the hands of someone willing to abuse it. It doesn't bear thinking about."
"We can't be absolutely certain she did abuse it," Wesley said quietly. "There could be another explanation. She might not be guilty."
Carnagan regarded him a little pityingly, but said, "Maybe not, Mr. Pryce, but you know we cannot fail to act on the likelihood."
Wesley avoided his gaze. "That's... Wyndham-Pryce." He looked as though he'd like to say more.
I patted his shoulder. "C'mon, Wes. I'm sure Mr Carnagan wants to get cleaned up, change into some dry clothes. Wouldn't want to meet the lady lookin' like a drowned rat, would he? Besides, another of those lightnin' fits and we'd end up with Kentucky Fried Watcher."
We were denied the entertainment of watching Carnagan attempt to walk around squeezed into clothing borrowed from myself or Wesley when he brought in a travel bag he'd left in the hallway. Ultra-efficient bastard. He took it into the bathroom and re-emerged shortly, clad in tweeds indistinguishable from those that had been soaked and now dripped dry on the clothes stand in the bathroom, their pattering reminiscent of the endless rain outside.
Carnagan clanked around in the kitchen, making himself some tea in the kettle from the other day's rainwater experiments. In harmonious glee we had both neglected to point out to him that we'd been using a pan to boil water since then because of the faint purple and brown residue that wouldn't come off.
Wesley smiled faintly as, through the gap in the door, we watched Carnagan raise the mug to his lips.
"I can't say I think much of this guy as one of your Watcher's Council's best and brightest," I said. "I mean, thinking I was you. Do I even remotely look like a double-barrel surname?"
"Well, in his defence, it's quite likely the Council's records didn't lead him to have the highest expectations of me," Wesley murmured.
"Now, c'mon Wes, I'm sure they don't think all that badly of-" I began, and choked off indignantly. "Hey! I resent that!"
He tried to look innocent. "Well, what I meant to say, of course, is-"
"I know very well what you meant, thank you very much!"
"This really is very good," Carnagan said, wandering in clutching his mug of tea and cutting short our comradely banter before somebody bought themselves a knuckle sandwich. "A delicious aroma and, to the taste, a little touch of something... I'm not sure what. Interesting, though. What brand is this?"
"Erm," said Wesley.
"Just a cheap deal from the local store," I said noncommittally. "Considerin' Wes here drinks enough tea for ten men, I'm not gonna fork out on the expensive stuff, am I?"
"Not likely," Faith snickered, wandering through from the bedroom, closing the door after her. "Mr. Penny-Pinching here doesn't fork out for anything. Not unless it's at least thirty percent alcoholic, at any rate."
"Thank you, Faith. Now, much as I appreciate your contribution to this discussion, shouldn't you be watchin' over Charlotte?"
"Red's getting dressed. I figured it wouldn't hurt to let her do it in private." She smirked at Wesley. "Feel free to go in and take over from me, though, if you wanna."
Carnagan's eyes were flickering dubiously over her. "And this would be the Slayer?"
He didn't look overly impressed.
She returned his appraisal with scorn. "This would be the new tight-assed Watcher?" The cocky sexuality of her body-language visibly increased even as she spoke. Her smile took on a degree of nastiness I hadn't seen in it for some time.
Wesley, red-faced, spluttered, "Faith!" and she, if not precisely subsided, became abruptly tight-lipped.
I'd seen this before. Faith and Wesley's reaction to the Watcher's Council was to pull together in the face of adversity. She'd try not to make him look bad in front of Carnagan, though Wesley might well get it in the neck in double measure when his colleague finally left.
I said quickly, "Faith, this is Mr. Carnagan from the Watcher's Council. Mr. Carnagan - the Slayer, Faith."
They eyed each other warily. Neither made any attempt at a friendly greeting.
"Um. Now that we're all acquainted-" Wesley began uneasily into the silence that had stretched on a little too long.
The bedroom door clicked as Charlotte walked through.
She'd abandoned Faith's T-shirt (probably wisely, it might've given old Carnagan heart failure) in favour of one of Wesley's shirts, but had retained the leather pants. The shirt bagged over her slim form. The pants clung, underneath. The effect was curious, and androgynous, and I felt a certain disappointment. The brief 'huff' of air expelled from Wesley's lips suggested his thoughts were along similar lines.
My own breath caught as her gaze skipped over me with its now normal nervous hitch. If she were to say anything to Carnagan about what she knew-
Hugging her arms across her chest, she crossed the room to us. She stopped, with a jolt, still a few feet away, cutting short her impulse to go to Wesley. Her eyes fixed upon Carnagan.
"I... know you," she said, sounding puzzled.
Carnagan drew in a breath, and his chin rose sharply. "You remember me?" He looked around the rest of us.
Wesley perked up at the possibility that her more recent acquaintance with Carnagan might provide a route with which to start restoring her memories. But after a moment, Charlotte sighed and shook her head. "No. No, I don't remember anything. Only that I've - seen you before. I know I have. Maybe it was in a dream."
"No," he said, smiling gently, reaching out his hands to place them lightly on her shoulders. Wesley, in the background, looked pained. "It wasn't in a dream. I know you, Charlotte. It's Jacob. Jacob Carnagan. We met before, two years ago, working on translations of a series of texts containing ancient resurrection rituals and summoning spells for dark spirits."
A flicker of reaction in her eyes before she caught herself, and shook her head again. No way to tell if that had been memory or simply connection. "I don't remember it." A pause while she studied him further, obviously thinking deeply. "I'm told... you can help me find out. Remember who I am. Discover what I've done."
"Yes, Charlotte. I can do that." His voice was kindly, fatherly almost.
Her jaw set in determination. "Then I'm ready. Do your tests. I want to know."
The apartment was flooded with the stenches of various herbal and magical cocktails for the next several hours. I made the solemn resolution that when Carnagan had gone, I would be buying a new kettle. The smells were enough for me to fervently hope that Charlotte didn't actually have to drink any of the concoctions but, not especially wanting to find out, I kept well out of the way of the activity.
Faith went to hang out of a window upstairs, rain or no rain. The smells had risen right through the building, she said when she ventured down later, dripping wet and shivering but without the greenish complexion the rest of us had developed from breathing in the fumes. It was a good thing that nobody else lived in the building, and none of our working neighbours had come into their offices because of the storms.
It all achieved, as far as I could tell, very little. Carnagan, after about four hours, admitted he'd tried just about everything he could think of. Charlotte still had no memories, although she'd been sick twice. The only thing that his investigative efforts seemed to have ascertained was that if Charlotte had tried to summon a storm spirit and lost control of the spell, the backlash could certainly be responsible for her memory loss.
"We need to track the spirit itself," he concluded, pouring away something noxious down the drain. I watched from the doorway, hands over my nose and mouth. My sink hissed and emitted green smoke as the liquid fell on the basin, and I grimaced. The landlord wasn't going to be happy. "Whatever it is that happened, we know they're linked. It's possible that only by returning both to the location of the original rite can we effectively reverse the damage and find out exactly what did happen."
"And it isn't as though we don't have to go after the storm spirit anyway," Wesley concluded. "I believe I have a spell that should track the spirit's emanations to the point where it was summoned. I was going to do some investigating, before the situation with Charlotte erupted." He crossed to the table and sorted through the books and papers there. After a moment, he turned back to Carnagan clutching a manuscript.
"Excellent. Good man." Carnagan picked up his still-soggy umbrella from where it stood on the floor in a corner. "In that case, we've no time to waste, Pryce."
"That's Wyndha- you're going out there?"
"We are." Carnagan pulled on an expansive grey raincoat and started to fasten up the toggles.
Wesley looked at Charlotte who sat, still not looking overly healthy, clutching a cup of tea. She tried to smile at him encouragingly, but the end result looked too sickly for comfort.
He drew himself up taller in decision. "I can't leave Charlotte. I should stay here. She trusts me. Faith-"
I cleared my throat meaningfully, seeing the Slayer's expression take on a distinctly pissed-off cast.
"-or Doyle will go with you," Wesley finished.
Carnagan, unimpressed, said, "If our theories are correct, Pryce, she's still a renegade, a criminal. She certainly doesn't require your coddling."
"Be that as it may, I think it's only humanitarian that I stay. We're not above dealing with our rogues compassionately."
That might've been a small snort of laughter that escaped Carnagan's nostrils, but then again probably not. I think everyone there was well aware that ethical treatment of Watcher's Council criminals-in-custody wasn't what was on Wesley's mind, though.
"Pryce," Carnagan said, with slow intent. "I assume even your Slayer is quite capable of watching over an amnesiac woman without your help. The two of us alone here have the training to combat the storm spirit. Get ready. We're going. Now."
"But if she were to have another fit when I wasn't here-" Wesley protested helplessly.
"Wesley Wyndham-Pryce!" Carnagan snapped. "You will do your duty as ordered!"
"Hey!" Faith's eyes were narrowed menacingly. "You don't talk to him like that." Her fisted hands swung at her sides in a loose rhythm, like she was working up to hitting something.
Carnagan didn't look at her. He'd stepped closer to Wesley and leaned into his face so their noses almost touched. "I have seniority here. You know that. Call your delinquent Slayer off."
"I'll be all right," Charlotte said. "I'll be all right here with Faith and Doyle." Her voice shook.
Faith's fists swished in the air.
A tiny, tight smile tweaked the corner of Wesley's lips as he nodded to Faith. "Mr. Carnagan is right. Our duty is to work with him."
She rolled her eyes in return, and shrugged, holding her unclenched hands up and out in a humour that was nonetheless also defiant. It was a moment of almost psychic communion between the two, and Carnagan looked annoyed, while I... I realised for the first time that in some ways maybe Faith and Wesley, both very much the black sheep of their respective roles, weren't so different after all.
In Wesley's absence, there wasn't a lot that we could do. We sat in front of the defunct TV, Faith swearing as she tried to coax some reception out of it. Eventually she gave up. We waited staring at a blank screen instead of a snowy one. Time passed. I made tea. Time passed. Faith made tea. Proof enough that she was dangerously bored.
"Wanna play cards?" she asked eventually. At least boredom had worn down the abrasive edge of malice that had been in her tone whenever she spoke to me lately.
"All right. Charlotte?"
She nodded, smiling, looking grateful for the offer of a distraction. I wondered what she'd been pondering, locked in her quiet thoughts the last few hours.
We gathered around a small table and the clock hands drew around towards evening and then night. The storm outside increased its fury to the point where we could hear it faintly even in the basement.
"Never thought I'd be hoping for Wesley and The Cardigan to come back," Faith said uneasily as the lights flickered for the fourth or fifth time. "It's not like we know how to handle this magical shit."
The lights flickered again a few minutes later as Charlotte scraped another round's winning across the table towards her. Wesley hadn't been kidding when he said the lady had a brain. She had a cunning mind at least when it came to cards. Faith and I were holding about equal with each other, both some way behind her.
Concerned, I left the game to check on the conditions outside. I didn't like the idea of venturing out of the front door that shivered on its hinges with the force of the wind and rain, so I took the stairs to the top floor landing. I peered out of the window in the hallway outside the locked-up offices of our chiropodist neighbour. Half the city lacked its customary overgenerous sprinkling of lights in the darkness, but was lit up periodically anyway by startling flashes of red illumination that made it almost as bright as day. The noise was deafening. It surprised me that the windows were holding up against the barrage.
I swore, thinking of Wesley still outside - although the thought of The Cardigan, to use Faith's name, out in that brought some measure of cheer.
I headed back down into the apartment. It was only as I descended the steps to the basement that the roar of the weather and its assault upon my ears began to fade and I heard the screaming. I ran down the last of the steps and into the living room.
The scene was much like the previous night. Charlotte screamed and convulsed as Faith held her to the floor, and red lightning flickered around them. The lights in the room had blown and everything was lit up in red.
There was no Wesley on-hand to deal with things this time. My initial rush for the books strewn on the table was stalled by the realisation that I had no idea what spell it was that Wesley had used the previous night, and I probably wouldn't be able to pronounce it even if I could find it. I moved to help Faith instead.
I yelped and went demon as my hands made contact. The jolt wasn't any better than it had been the time before. I took one shoulder and Faith the other, and I only hoped we could ride it out until whatever was getting at Charlotte settled down again. At least, I hoped it would settle down and we wouldn't end up getting electro-shock therapy until Wesley and The Cardigan decided to return.
Faith looked across at me, her face contorted in pain, lips stretched to reveal grit teeth. "Shit, Doyle," she yelled haltingly. "I'm really - sorry - I laughed - yesterday." Another flash lit up her bones and I got an intricate view of Faith's anatomy that I could've well lived without.
Charlotte quieted gradually, the room descending into darkness as she did. I'd had my doubts about whether Wesley's spell had really been what stopped her fits, last time, and was grateful to have them proven founded. As she stilled and lay as if asleep, Faith and I struggled up to kneeling, leaning exhaustedly on each other for support. She was shaking as much as I was. I wrapped an arm around her shoulders and our shudders merged. I couldn't tell whose were whose.
"I'm gonna kill Carnagan," she stuttered, looking more ragged than angry in the faint light trickling from the kitchen's open door.
"It wouldn't have made much difference if Wesley had been here," I said, and explained my reasoning.
She nodded, then, looking over my shoulder, her expression froze. "Doyle. I think you need to be a human 'round about now."
I turned my head and saw Charlotte sitting up, looking at us blankly. Her expression didn't change when I switched back to human. Something in her eyes was... odd.
I reluctantly disengaged from Faith, and was warmly encouraged by her own similar reluctance but it wasn't really a good moment to start with the hopeful thinking about the possible ramifications that had for our deceased relationship.
"Charlotte?" I said, crawling over to her on hands and knees. I waved a hand in front of her face and her eyes didn't track it. "Charlotte?" I snapped my fingers in front of her nose, and her eyes settled on me in irritation, briefly, in an expression I'd seen on Wesley's face, before fuzzing out of focus again.
"Wake up, Red." Faith caught Charlotte's shoulder and shook her, but she remained limp and unseeing.
"Don't slap her," I warned, anticipating her next move. She pulled a face. "Charlotte, come on, talk to me. Pretend I'm Wesley."
"Wesley's human," she said distinctly, and something about the way she said it suggested it wasn't entirely a response to my remark.
"Yeah, and he's not a short, Irish drunkard either," Faith said with wicked humour. "But use your imagination, like the rest of us hafta."
I glared at her shadowy figure, then almost wrenched my neck when Charlotte's next words yanked my attention back to her.
"I remember it now." There was no emotion in her voice. "I remember the summoning rite."
"Damn," I murmured. I'd hoped that the inevitable would be avoided somehow, that the conclusions we'd drawn would turn out to be wrong. I didn't want to think about Wesley. I realised that, somehow, Faith's hand and mine had ended up clasped together, and she was on the verge of breaking all my fingers.
"I remember... Darkness. Tunnels. Sewers. Black, all around. The vessel screamed as it was dragged down the tunnel to the chamber. Treachery... treachery. Screaming again when the spell was cast over it..."
The specifics of the spell wouldn't have made for all-ages viewing. Faith and I backed off slightly and listened with growing horror to the details Charlotte recounted.
Hell and damnation, Wes, I know you think I'm crazy dating Faith - ex-dating Faith - but she'd never be a party to anything like this...
"He lost control, and the magic flowed away. Not enough left to finish the binding into flesh. Finish me. Broken... in pieces... incomplete..." Her chin suddenly jerked up and she let out an ear-piercing shriek of despair. I noticed even in the semi-dark that there was moisture running down from her eyes.
I swore as realisation hit.
"What's wrong?" Faith demanded. "What's she talking about? Who's 'he'? What the hell's going on?"
"She thought she was human," I said numbly. "Now she knows for certain that she's not."
"What?" Faith was moving to help Charlotte as the older woman collapsed into sobs.
I pulled her back. "Don't. I don't know how much of Charlotte is left in there."
"What the hell?" Faith's hands curled into fists around my shirt collar. "Cut the shit, Doyle, what's happening?"
"She didn't relate the events of that ritual as the caster. She didn't cast that spell." I struggled to unhook Faith's hands, and caught her head in my own hands, turning her to face the moaning Charlotte. "That," I said, "Is our storm spirit."
"That's the storm spirit?" Her eyes were wide in disbelief. "She's the storm spirit? If she's the storm spirit, who the hell performed the ritual?" She had to shout to be heard, because Charlotte was chanting again. I recognised the words and the rhythm and rolled my eyes. I was getting pretty fed up of hearing that spell.
Then I froze, because Charlotte's voice was changing, distorting, as she spoke, and a moment later, it wasn't Charlotte's voice that was emerging from her lips at all.
"You gotta be kidding me," Faith said. "But that's-"
"Jacob Carnagan," I finished.
by Mike Dewar
Charlotte rose slowly to her feet, Carnagan's voice still rolling from her lips, rich with its usual arrogant confidence. The red lightning crackled about her again, but it was different from before.
Previously, it had ripped through her body with the force of a hurricane, tearing and scorching. Now, its movements were slower, more languorous, almost playful as it coiled about her body.
"Uh, Doyle," Faith said hesitantly. "Is it just me, or is she not exactly... standing normally?"
I licked dry lips. "It's not you." Charlotte's feet were an inch off the ground.
"Any suggestions, boss?"
Of course. When everything was going her way, she was pissed off with me and wouldn't listen to a word I said. Now, suddenly I was in charge?
I took a cautious step towards Charlotte, feeling the hair on my arms rising. "Hey. How ya doin'?"
The lightning twisted and writhed about Charlotte's face, throwing her features into sharp relief. Carnagan's voice rose in intensity and pitch, still in eerie timing with the motions of her lips.
Faith cleared her throat. "You want anything? Blanket, nice cup of tea... battery?"
Charlotte rose another inch or two off the ground, still chanting. The lightning about her flared, and Faith grabbed my shoulder and yanked me back. "Whatta we do, Doyle? Hell, what's she doing?"
I glanced at her panicked expression and back at the hovering woma - spirit. "Uh..."
I blinked. It was hard to really make Charlotte out in the bright light from her private thunderstorm, but were my eyes going or was she getting paler... less substantial? A moment later, I was sure. I knew what she was doing.
"Leaving? Where's she gonna go?" Faith asked, her hand tightening on my shoulder. "The only door out is past us..." Her voice trailed off as she realised what she'd said.
"Don't worry," I said, worrying furiously. "I don't think she's plannin' to use the door."
It was clear now - even Faith saw it. Charlotte was fading away before our very eyes, growing less real as the lightning about her grew brighter and brighter.
"We gotta stop her," I said, refusing to think about the practicality of what I was suggesting. "We gotta stop her gettin' out of here."
Faith laughed hysterically. "How? You hiding a lightning conductor under that shirt?"
Charlotte was nearly gone, a bare shadow inside a nexus of electrical energy.
Aw, hell. It's not like I ever come up with smart plans anyway. Might as well stay true to form.
I was everywhere, and I was nowhere. I was in a thousand, thousand pieces, falling over the city streets. I was a flash of energy from sky to ground, I was a swirling potent presence filling the sky.
I was everything, and I was nothing.
There was pain, but it was a pain so distant, and yet so encompassing, that I was aware of it only on a purely analytical level. Faith was with me, part of me, and somewhere deep inside I could feel whatever was left of Charlotte's being as well, lost in a deep endless storm of elemental energy.
Lost as I was lost.
I couldn't feel the confines of my own body, just an endless spreading out, a dissipating, across the entire globe, linking every cloud, every rumble of ominous thunder...
There was a tearing, ripping sensation, and my mind went completely blank.
...and I was facedown in filthy water, twitching and shuddering, lightning jolting and burning me, and the pain was inside me like a living thing...
I was vaguely aware of Faith flailing and jerking next to me, flopping in the thin film of dirty water like a landed fish. My muscles refused to obey me, contracting and releasing on someone else's orders... definitely not mine, since all I wanted to do was curl into a ball and scream.
With a titanic effort, I managed to lift my chin from the water, enough to see... a polished shoe.
A shoe which led to the smooth grey cloth expanse of a raincoat, which flowed upwards to form a face...
"Ah. Mr Doyle." Carnagan sounded as calm as a man making polite conversation at a tea party. "This is unexpected." The expensive shoe dug into my ribs and heaved me onto my back, affording me a better view of my surroundings.
I didn't recognise the sewer junction specifically, but I'd probably passed it once or twice, more than likely on the trail of some demon or generically evil beastie.
But even if I had passed it, it definitely wouldn't have looked like it did at that moment.
Wesley lay on his back, his glasses skewed and eyes closed, a couple of meters away. Something was holding him off the sewer floor, something he was tied to with a length of black cord.
I was expecting an altar of some kind. I certainly wasn't expecting a pink-and-white folding plastic picnic table. Carnagan noticed my gaze and shrugged almost apologetically. "They were all out of bloodstained altars at the shops."
Great. Budget Human Sacrifice.
"One has to make do with what's available," Carnagan observed. "And often one is rewarded with bonuses beyond what was allowed for...like you and the Slayer, for example. I'm fairly certain I corrected my mistranslation, but it helps to know I have a few bodies in reserve."
I tried to force my trembling lips to shape a suitably obscene response, but to no avail.
Carnagan smiled slightly. "Well, I'd love to sit around and chat, but tempus fugit, Mr Doyle." His gaze shifted past me. "Tempus fugit, indeed. You." He said curtly. "Over there, near the receptacle. We'll do this right, this time, won't we?"
Charlotte was barely even recognisable as human anymore, just a pale, fleshy presence within a crimson inferno as she drifted over to stand near Wesley. "Oh, enough with the drama," Carnagan rebuked. "The glare is hurting my eyes."
The spirit didn't respond, but the lightning thinned away to a red halo about her, Charlotte's body seeming to coalesce out of the light.
Carnagan stepped over to the table, and bent over Wesley. The limp Watcher was nearly as pale as Charlotte, but I could still hear a heartbeat, though it was fairly weak and fluttery.
Hell, my heartbeat wasn't exactly regular.
"Pryce," Carnagan said sharply. "Pryce, wake up." He slapped Wesley twice, the blows quick and impersonal. "Wake up, man. Pryce, I order you to regain consciousness."
"Wyndh'm-Pr'ce," Wesley muttered, his eyelids stirring and fluttering open. I watched in pitying sympathy as he realised his position.
"Awake now?" Carnagan said briskly, like a doctor with a patient. "Good." He pulled a wicked-looking knife from beneath his coat and checked the edge with his thumb. I swallowed, with difficulty. It was a very big knife.
For Wesley's part he seemed not even to notice the huge blade, his attention instead fixed on the man wielding it. "You. You're the traitor... not Ch-" Then he noticed the other figure standing by him, and for an unbearable second, his face brightened with hope. "Charlotte! Help me! Char-"
The crackle of lightning about her hair cut him off. I watched his face settle into the stoic Watcher's mask, analysing and calculating. "So. That's the way it is." The mask trembled slightly, but held.
Carnagan, who had watched this exchange without expression, nodded. "Well done, Pryce. Glad to see the Council hasn't completely wasted its time on you."
The way Wesley looked at him chilled my blood. I think even Carnagan was taken back by the undiluted hatred in those normally weak and hesitant eyes. He dropped his gaze to the knife, and checked its sharpness a second, unnecessary, time.
I managed to roll myself onto my chest again, and made a futile attempt to lift myself off the ground. The thud as I slumped back attracted the attention of both Watchers, somewhat to Carnagan's relief judging from his expression. "Yes, Mr Doyle? Is something the matter?"
Again my lips failed me. "W - w - w..."
But either Watchers were trained to read lips, or else Carnagan read my mind instead. "Why?"
"Yes, why?" Wesley bit out. "Why turn traitor, why betray the Council and everything you believe in, why throw it all away for your own petty gain?"
Carnagan's expression was dark as he looked down at the younger man. "I threw it all away? They threw it away! They threw away the world we had, the advantage we had won against the darkness, because of their own arrogance and pettiness! I am no traitor, Pryce, no more than those fools in England, with their protocols and their policies!"
He snorted in disgust at Wesley's confusion. "Oh, come on, man! Surely you and yours, who are fighting on the front lines, can understand! The endless political manoeuvrings, the pointless academic back-biting and smug moral superiority while the very world crumbles about us? What use is that? The Council has lost its way, lost whatever drive it had to stand against evil. We're anachronisms, Pryce, useless Englishmen with piles of dusty books and encyclopaedic vocabularies."
He glanced at Faith and sneered. "And our vaunted secret weapon? A girl. One silly girl, fickle, adolescent, undisciplined. Weak enough to be killed by a single vampire, all but useless against the greater threats."
"S-screw you, too," I heard weakly from beside me. A warm, if trembling, hand closed in weak grasp over my own.
"So this is your solution?" Wesley retorted. "Dark magic, perversion of the natural order? We'd be no better than the enemy we fight!"
I expected Carnagan to lose it at that, to raise that huge knife and slice Wes apart, ritual or no ritual. But in contrast the fury in his face seemed to melt away, replaced by pleading. "Necessary perversion, Pryce. Necessary magic. I told the Council, you know, back when Sunnydale fell to the Master. I brought the evidence of my studies to them and urged them to take action."
"Necessary action," Wesley said flatly. "Am I right?"
"It was necessary!" Carnagan snarled. "Look at what they did instead! They sent in their weak, ill-prepared Slayer and the vampires killed her! Killed her and continued to kill, hundreds of deaths that could have been avoided if only the Council had accepted my proposal, had provided me with a subject for the spell as I asked!"
"A subject," Wes echoed. "You mean a sacrifice."
Carnagan shook with the force of his passion. "We are at war, Pryce! There are always sacrifices in war!"
The high colour drained from Carnagan's face. "What?"
"Yes," Wesley repeated. "We're at war. I'm a soldier in that war, so are Doyle and Faith, so was..." his voice shook slightly, "was Charlotte."
Carnagan smiled in approval, as if Wesley was a particularly slow student who had finally understood a difficult equation. "Yes. That's right. Her sacrifice was necessary, as yours is."
"But you're not a soldier," Wesley cut him off. "You crossed that line when you took Charlotte's life and gave her body to that thing. You're a murderer, and nothing good can come of alliance with murderers."
I watched Carnagan's face with fascination. It just froze up, piece by piece. His smile locked, then the rest of his features. His eyes were the last to go, the heat of his passion buried beneath icy resolution.
Wesley gazed calmly up at the other man, but he blanched at Carnagan's next words.
Because they were in Latin.
My arms lay uselessly by my side as Carnagan's voice rose with power and authority, invoking and binding mystical energy. Charlotte's halo brightened until it was blinding, a searing outline about the dark shadow of her human host.
Desperately, sweat beading on my brow, I tried to force my uncooperative body to move, a familiar sense of helplessness falling over me.
I had been here before. Paralysed by Wesley's poison dart, trapped with the crippled Watcher by a clan of demons. But then Faith had arrived to save us.
Now she lay by my side, as helpless as I was. As we all were.
Carnagan's chant peaked, and he brought the sacrificial knife down. There was a crack like thunder.
Instinctively, my eyes shifted to Charlotte, but she was still.
Carnagan swore, kicking at something by his feet. It took me a moment to process what had happened. The plastic table beneath Wesley had buckled under his weight, dropping him to the sewer floor.
"Shoddy American workmanship," Carnagan cursed, planting a brutal kick between Wesley's ribs. The younger man rolled away as the older shifted his grip on the knife and came after him.
Wes staggered to his feet, the rope about his arms still tying him to the split table. His arms bunched, straining against the rope, but the dark cord held. Obviously Carnagan had got that from a shop with better quality control.
Wes lurched back a step, ducking a knife slash, the dismembered table wobbling wildly on his back. My breath caught in my throat as Carnagan whipped the weapon up towards his face.
There was a crunch, and Wesley stumbled back, blood dribbling from his mouth. Carnagan wiped the blood from his knife's bronze hilt with a white cloth, as fastidiously as Wes might clean his spectacles. "Really, Pryce. This is all most unnecessary and hardly seemly-" Still talking, he thrust the blade out. Wes dodged, and clumsily swiped at Carnagan with a protruding table leg.
The standoff seemed to last for hours, Wesley dodging and retreating, Carnagan advancing with broad, confident sweeps of his knife leading the way. Carnagan's first few swipes were lazy, over-confident, but when they didn't immediately fell his enemy, his eyes narrowed in grudging respect and his attacks became more measured. All the while, I strained useless muscles, trying to come to his aid.
Abruptly, a gentle push rolled me to one side. Faith rose on trembling legs, her face gritted in concentration, and moved haltingly towards Carnagan, stalking him. The rogue Watcher's back was to her, his attention focused on Wesley.
Faith was within a metre of Carnagan now, Wesley a metre away on the other side, trying desperately not to betray her as he dodged Carnagan's increasingly-angry blows. Wesley slipped in the grime, and a cut laid his cheek open. Faith gasped involuntarily at the sight of his blood.
That was all the warning Carnagan needed. He wheeled about and smashed the hilt of his weapon down on Faith's head. She dropped without a sound.
Carnagan looked down contemptuously at the fallen girl. "Some weapon. You see, Pryce, there's really no reason to struggle. It's all for the best." He turned back to his target. "Now would you just-"
Wesley rose off the floor almost vertically, slamming his bloody face into Carnagan's. The older man staggered back, and Wesley kicked him hard, hooking his leg behind Carnagan's. Both men struggled to maintain their balance.
Carnagan went down hard, but Wes somehow managed to keep his other foot on the ground, hopping until he could get both feet planted again.
Guess his time on crutches had really paid off.
Carnagan scrambled for the knife, but Wesley stomped down hard. Carnagan screamed as bones crunched in his wrist. "Don't... insult my... Slayer," Wesley ground out, slamming a savage kick into the other man's ribs.
"Damn you... Pryce..." Carnagan gasped, staggering to his feet. "This is... necessary... we're... at... war."
"I'll show you war," Wesley snarled. The larger man charged him, trying to take Wes's legs out from under him, removing his only method of attack, but Wes counter-attacked with low strikes of his feet, aimed at joints and shins. Fighting dirty.
I felt a stirring of pride, deep within. Some of those moves were mine.
A brutal footsweep (which I recognised as one Faith had used on me once or twice, often for less... conventional reasons) put Carnagan on the ground, Wesley on top of him. Wesley slammed his head down twice, and it was all over. Carnagan lolled back against the floor.
Wesley stood, slowly and awkwardly, and limped across to me. "Terribly... sorry to prevail on you in your current... circumstance, but do you think you could lend me a hand with these... knots?"
I stared up at his bloody, bruised face, and tried very hard not to laugh.
The English. They're really something else.
Wesley's lips started to twitch as well, and we both broke into the laboured laughter of hysteria.
A burst of coughing choked the laughter in my throat, as I tried, again, to stand up. And I saw him.
Saw Carnagan, not unconscious as he'd feigned to be, but instead advancing on Wesley with a knife in hand. His eyes met mine.
"W-W-Wes," I tried to get out, my throat constricting as my mouth struggled to form words.
Still chuckling, Wesley met my gaze. "What?" Carnagan flipped the knife and threw. Wesley's eyes widened in doomed understanding as the knife struck home with a thud.
"No..." I moaned as he stood stock-still over me, with a peculiarly confused expression on his face. He half-turned towards his killer, and I saw the hilt of the knife protruding from his back, blood running down the hilt... No. No blood. I blinked, certain my exhausted brain had short-circuited. The knife was buried in the small of his back, but he wasn't bleeding. It had struck right in the centre, but there was no blood...
I understood. Wesley turned completely to face Carnagan, the knife embedded uselessly in the remnants of the table tied to his back.
Carnagan's jaw twitched in helpless frustration. "Damn you, Pryce..." The larger man charged, barrelling towards him.
Wes met the charge fast and low, planting his shoulder into Carnagan's chest and heaving him backwards. The rogue Watcher staggered, and collided with Charlotte.
For a long moment Jacob Carnagan stood absolutely still, apart from a slight trembling as crimson lightning swept over his body. Wesley was blocking most of my view, but I could still see Carnagan's face, his mouth opening and closing in silent agony, his screams drowned out by the crackle of the lightning. Then there was an explosive boom of thunder, and Carnagan's face disappeared from my view as he fell to the ground. I couldn't see his scorched body from where I lay, but judging from the stink of ozone and burnt flesh, I really didn't want to. So instead I watched Wesley's face, his mouth drawn in a hard line as he looked down at the corpse.
His lips moved. I couldn't really hear the words with my thunder-deafened ears, but I could see the letters his mouth formed. Maybe, like Carnagan had with me, I just knew the thought behind the words.
"It's Wyndham-Pryce. Sir."
Wesley kicked Carnagan's knife over to me, and with some difficulty I managed to fold my fingers around it and saw through the ropes securing him to the broken remnant of the table. That accomplished, I slumped back to the floor with a groan. Wesley unravelled the sliced lengths of rope from himself and struggled with a few remaining knots. I stared at the roof of the sewer tunnels and listened to his sigh of relief and to the crash when the loosed table fell to the ground before making the effort to raise my head again.
"Thank goodness," he said, massaging his arms. "And thank you, Doyle." He made as if to lean down, opened his mouth as if to say something else, but then his gaze caught on Charlotte - on the storm spirit, its electricity diminished to nothing, now once again a mere human form - standing silent and motionless on the sidelines as she'd remained throughout his struggles. His head jerked around away from me, and his feet followed.
Grimacing, I forced my limbs to move, rolled over and crawled across to where Faith lay, still unconscious. I poked her under the ribs, trying to distract myself from the choked silence between Wesley and Charlotte. "Faith? C'mon now, Slayer."
Her head rolled to the side, the movement disturbing the fall of her dark hair, revealing blood. Wincing in sympathy, I touched my sleeve to the cut, cleaning around its edges. Eyes closed, she muttered something and her hand rose to swipe at mine. Despite her semi-conscious state, the blow near cracked my wrist. I concluded that Faith probably wasn't going to suffer any lasting damage from her injuries, but if I wasn't careful, I might. "Faith, it's me. You're all right," I said, and said again until her struggles subsided as it sank in that I wasn't an enemy.
I awkwardly sat up against the wall of the sewer and very carefully pulled her into my lap, holding her loosely as she snorted and snuggled in. Her injured state gave a reasonable excuse, and since it might be my last chance to hold her at all, even if she woke up and decked me, it'd be worth it.
Wesley and the storm spirit were looking at each other across three feet of darkness, just far enough to be out of reach, neither making any move closer, neither speaking.
It was the spirit who finally broke the impasse. Wesley seemed beyond all action.
She said, "I have no memories of you beyond the ones made these last days, but... this body remembers you. It trusts you. It will miss you." Taking a single step forward, she placed the palm of her hand against his chest, over his heart.
Wesley swallowed and his mouth worked silently. His hands fluttered around hers as though he'd like to push it off but didn't want to touch it. "Yes," he said eventually. "You - you didn't know-"
"What I was? No. I took on the role you remembered for me, which this form remembered, but it couldn't last. The being that owned this body before is gone. All that remains are traces."
I stroked Faith's hair and she snorted against my wrist. "Hssh."
Something had hardened in Wesley's eyes, his distress transforming into cold determination, but he kept it from his voice and expression. "You wouldn't help me against Carnagan."
"He would have made me whole. I remain damaged - not complete. I would have been sorry if you died, yet we - we would have been complete together." Her eyes glowed. "We would have been one."
"Charlotte would have helped me. As her duty. As a friend. Charlotte would have fought against Carnagan to the last."
I was sure Charlotte had. The storm spirit, on the other hand, had no answer for that.
Wesley relented with a sigh. "Perhaps we can reverse the original ritual, to unbind you from this form. I know there's nothing left of the host now - this is just a body - but perhaps it would help you."
"It is not necessary. My being repairs itself slowly. What Carnagan lacked was largely control. I will keep this form. It is... alien to me, but already I begin to grow into it. I am sure it will serve me well enough."
Wesley's face twisted with something like revulsion, but only for an instant. Then his bland-face was back as he gently removed the spirit's hand from his breast. His thumb caressed the skin of her hand fractionally before he let it go. It dropped to her side with finality.
"Goodbye," he said.
She stepped back from him as the lightning crept over her form, fading her out, and then she was gone.
Wesley watched stonily the empty place where she'd been, then turned his back on it without a word. The storm might have dissipated, but thunder remained in his expression. I unconsciously tightened my arms around Faith as he cast that gaze on me. At the sight of the two of us, it relented slightly.
"Are you both all right?" cracked a voice that didn't sound much like Wesley's - but it was his lips that were moving.
"Yeah," Faith said, unfolding herself from my grasp and standing up, shaking herself out. I stared at her. She touched her head and her face scrunched up in displeasure. "It's just a bump." After according her Watcher a cautious look, she leaned back down to pull me up and set me on my feet, keeping her face turned aside so I couldn't see her expression.
I leaned weakly against the wall and stammered a response to Wesley that must've been pretty incoherent at best, and Faith made some comment about Slayer recovery versus that of lame-ass half-demons.
As I remained none-too-steady on my feet, they each took a hold under one of my arms and we headed down the tunnel to find an exit from the sewer system, and I was too exhausted to much care about the indignity of it.
"So I guess Carnagan lied," Faith said. "I guess this means Charlotte was hunting him. He was the rogue all along." A long silence; for myself, speech too much of an effort at present, and as for Wesley...
Her feet scuffed the floor intentionally as she dragged along. With a huff, she tried again, "'Cause, y'know, I'd wondered how he managed to get here so quick, what with the lightning storms and the planes being grounded and all."
As one, Wesley and I stiffly turned our heads to glare at her.
Several minutes ticked by with no sound but our footsteps.
"So... now Charlotte's gone, that's it, isn't it?" Faith's voice was smaller, this time, almost timid. "We're all cleared up here. Everything-"
"Don't call her Charlotte," Wesley interrupted, his voice grating on the air sharply, like something breaking. His next words escaped then in a rush. "Charlotte's dead. That thing... that thing isn't her, it was never her. It was something else that set up home in her body."
The hollowness in his tone had nothing to do with the sewer's echo. Charlotte was dead, and he'd loved her, after some fashion, whatever their relationship had been - love, lust, a youthful unfulfilled crush. I remembered the storm spirit saying, this body remembers you, and wondered. Maybe Charlotte back then had noticed Wesley after all. Maybe he hadn't been the only adolescent Watcher too shy to confess his feelings. That possibility must be a harsh kick in the teeth for him now.
"Okay. Not-Charlotte, the storm spirit, whatever. Anyhow, what I was saying was, now that-"
"Why'd you let her go?" I mumbled, interrupting.
"Say what?" asked Faith, and I had to repeat myself a couple of times, forcing my still-numb mouth to produce coherent sounds.
I felt Wesley's shrug through the contact of his arm across my shoulders. "Whatever my feelings about the host it destroyed, the storm spirit itself was an innocent, an elemental neither bound by our rules nor a part of our world. Setting it free was the only reasonable option. It's no threat by itself, and the only person who had any means of controlling it is dead." He gave a small embarrassed cough and suddenly, I saw with relief, he was back to the Wesley I recognised. He admitted weakly, "Besides, I had no means at all by which to destroy or capture it. Had I attempted to do so it would most likely have ended with all three of us being toasted to a crisp."
Faith snickered. "Good call, Wes. My vote's with yours against becoming Slayer-saute. But what I was saying-" She stopped abruptly, as though waiting for interruption. As though, now that she had chance to get the words out, she really didn't want to.
After the silence had stretched on much too long for comfort, with neither her nor Wesley making any move to end it, I said them for her.
"You mean it's done, finished, over. Right? The weather will clear up, the planes will be flyin' again, and we can split like we'd planned. There's no more need for you to stay here in LA now, after all."
"Quite," said Wesley, eyes to the floor. "No reason. No reason at all." His eyes flickered up, to run briefly over Faith and myself, then returned to the floor. The knife still held loosely, forgotten in his free hand, tapped proof of his distraction against the wall of the sewer tunnel.
It didn't take long to find a shaft to the surface. Above ground, our feet kicking through drying puddles, we walked home with the night sky clearing overhead.
A home that, very shortly, wouldn't be home anymore for at least two of us.
Back at the office, by reason of being the least battered one of us as well as, I suspected, because he wanted any distraction he could get from the events of the evening, Wesley made tea and fussed over Faith's head wound. I collapsed in a chair feeling energy gradually return and watched them both, filing away these moments with the knowledge that they were among the last. Setting to memory the way they moved together now, as he cleaned away the blood and bandaged her head, where months ago there'd been the constant match of acid insults and derision versus cool orders and rigid adherence to the Good Little Watcher rulebook.
Watching Faith. The fall of that dark hair across her face. The emotion hard to read, sunk back in those dark-smudged eyes. The way her body moved, smooth and athletic under the leather, every small motion filled with heartbreaking grace and bonebreaking strength.
"I've been thinking," Wesley said eventually, breaking me out of my trance and flooding me with the realisation of just how long and how intently I had been staring. I tried to pull my eyes away, to look in any other direction but theirs, but it was hopeless. He stopped, and cleared his throat, and puffed out his chest, switching to Important Mode.
I blinked at him and frowned. Faith gave a pretend snore and dropped her head forward onto her arms where they crossed against the tabletop.
"You... often do," I said weakly. "What've you been thinkin' about this time?"
"Us. The three of us." He pursed his lips, looking between Faith and me - which, come to think of it, he'd been doing a lot in the last hour or so. "And leaving..."
Hope raised its head and I slammed it down, too aware that it was likely to be disappointed.
"I mean, really, one little argument is hardly any reason to break up an alliance which has, for the most part, proved extremely successful," he stuttered, losing his momentum but staggering bravely on, under Faith's hard gaze and my own puzzled one. "And if Faith was amenable - and, of course, Mr Doyle, if you were amenable..."
I opened my mouth to reply, and my breath squeaked in the back of my throat and no sound came out.
"But the Council's orders?" Faith said. "Remember, New Jersey? Vampires to slay?"
"There are vampires to slay over the place, Faith. The Council have other agents they can send elsewhere. That is to say, I'm not saying the Council's way isn't the best way to fight the forces of darkness... but here, with Doyle's visions, with the agency, I can see the faces of people we help, instead of just the numbers of demons slain. I believe I've learned to value that. And I think it's possible that, that, that perhaps the Council spend too long looking towards the darker side of our business, instead of the hopeful. Maybe that's what made it easy for Carnagan to decide to sacrifice individual human lives in the name of this fight. Because he's seen too many monsters, and not enough victims. I... don't want to be like him. And I don't want you to be like him, either, Faith."
It was her turn to struggle for words now. In the end she just looked silently at me, her eyes strange.
"So, how about it, Doyle?" Wesley said. "Are you amenable to our staying? I do realise that you'd expected to have your home and your business back to yourself again, and perhaps this interferes with your plans, and isn't really a reasonable thing to ask, but-"
"Doyle?" Faith said challengingly, overruling him with a glare. "Do you want us to stay?"
A strange emphasis on that 'us'.
I swallowed, the back of my throat dry and painful. They were both looking at me, waiting for a reply. I needed to say something. Now.
I cleared my throat casually, and fought to keep my voice steady, striving to not hear the waver that would reveal just how much this meant. "Well, I guess you could," I said airily, "if you really wanted to."
I mean, it's not like I'm doing anything else with the rest of my life.
Doyle Investigations: https://www.angelfire.com/tv2/doyleinvestigations