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?"