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.