Angel/Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Close to Home...So Far Away
By Gabrielle Lawson
Contributing Authors: Mike Donovan, Joe Smith Jr. and Charles Kline II
Doyle hated to ask for help. Oh, not the general kind of help. He'd asked Giles to help him with little effort. Walking from LA, that had taken effort. It was the personal kind of help that he hated asking for. Like now. Walking was becoming increasingly more difficult with each step. His legs felt soft and unstable, like Jell-O, and the ground refused to lie still under his feet. If it weren't for Buffy holding him up, he would have collapsed already. It was nearly sunset, and they still had half a mile to go. They could have made better time if she'd carried him, but he refused to ask for that. He'd walk.
Harry had given up trying to teach him, deciding instead to prompt him when the time came. His mind just couldn't hold the foreign words, not when it was so hard just to keep going. Buffy had even put him in the fountain back in town, but this time he hadn't even felt it. His lungs fought for each breath. His mind kept saying he was going to survive, but every part of his body was telling him that he would die tonight. Just the opposite of last time, when his body had sung as he jumped from the catwalk with his mind knowing all along what it would cost.
The sky was beautiful, streaked with fiery orange and neon pink against a deepening blue. Trees were becoming more common as they moved farther out of town, and the sun slid behind them. The air was clean, unlike L.A. and he decided Sunnydale, in spite of the hellmouth, was a nice locale for his last day on Earth, if that's how things turned out. Though, truth be told, he missed the emerald green of his native Ireland. He had hoped to return someday to the land of his youth and innocence. That didn't look likely now.
He looked at Harry as she walked beside him, but he couldn't tell what she was thinking. He hadn't had the chance to say goodbye last time.
Their last conversation had been unpleasant, for both of them. There was so much he wanted to say to her. It was strange, like one day he knew her, and was known by her, completely. They thought they'd be together forever, that nothing could come between them. And the next they were strangers, mere acquaintances, each with memories of the other that no longer quite fit. Before they had completed each other. Now they belonged to two different puzzles.
Even if he'd found the words, he couldn't say them. They were words to say in private, and he'd missed his chance for that. Buffy couldn't leave him now until they reached the rail station, and the others would probably be there waiting for them. There was a time when he and Harry could finish each other's sentences, know each other's thoughts. Maybe, at a time like this, she still could. Of course, it would probably help if she could see him.
"We've got company," Buffy whispered, just loud enough for Harry to hear.
Doyle looked and saw the trees moving. But then so was the ground, to his eyes anyway. Then he saw a face, human-looking, maybe a little pale. There were more of them. Moving through the trees, staying clear of the sun's last rays. Vampires.
Each glanced toward the three of them-or Buffy and Harry, since they couldn't see him-as they went. Some snarled openly, demon-face showing. But none made a move toward them. The alliance appeared to be holding.
Watching them, Doyle missed seeing the railroad tracks coming up, and he stumbled a bit when the ground inclined. Buffy had one arm around his back though, and he didn't fall. They crossed three sets of tracks, overgrown with grass and weeds as they headed for the little abandoned station Doyle had seen just two nights before.
A door opened in the building up ahead and Rieff walked out with two others Doyle didn't recognize. One of them, a woman, looked human. Cordelia and Giles also emerged, and Giles shook hands with Rieff and the others. Cordelia hugged the boy and waved to the others before they left to take up their positions. She looked up and waved again, this time to Doyle, Buffy, and Harry. Buffy picked up the pace, but she helped Doyle to keep up.
Cordelia frowned with worry as they entered the station. Doyle didn't know what to say to her either, and this time he couldn't just kiss her. Too bad that.
"This way," Giles offered, leading them past the largest room with benches where passengers used to sit and wait for trains. There was another fairly large area behind that one, closed off from the outside by four walls and two doors, one on each side. "There will be half-demons here," Giles explained before stepping through the door, "the most trustworthy of our temporary allies. They'll be our last line of defense outside these walls." He stepped in. "If the Scourge gets that far, Angel and Spike will be on this side."
"They here yet?" Buffy asked.
"Behind you," Angel answered. Doyle tried to turn his head, but a wave of dizziness caused him to close his eyes.
Giles continued, pointing as he spoke, "The commandos have the north, vampires the south, with half-demons between them to the east and west. Those who can pass for human will be closest to the Initiative, seeing as the latter is not privy to our alliance."
He pointed toward the back wall where the full-length mirror was standing. "Doyle, when the time comes, you'll need to lie down in front of the mirror, so we can see where to place your corporeal half."
Buffy walked him over there and Doyle dropped to the floor, thankful for the rest. Still, he had to stay upright, which made him dizzy, or lay down and risk falling asleep.
Cordelia sat down beside him. "We were worried you might run into the Scourge before you got here," she said.
"They don't generally go out in the daylight," Anya reminded her. "Willow's here."
Willow entered with Spike just behind her. She was carrying a paper bag. Spike closed the door behind them and Willow headed to the corner where Anya was sitting with Xander. She looked a little pale. "It's getting crowded out there," she said.
Xander got up and handed a gym bag to Buffy. She thanked him and left the room to change. There was a knock on the other door and everyone jumped. Angel crossed the room and slowly opened the door.
"Don't worry," a man's voice said from the other side, "I'm alone." Angel stepped aside and a light-haired soldier walked in. He was dressed in camouflage and quite well-armed. Doyle guessed he was Riley.
Giles met him at the door. The younger man spoke first. "We're all set out there. My men have orders to concentrate only on the demon threat and to stand their ground. Hopefully that will keep them from wandering too far around the building. Is Buffy here yet?"
"She's just changing," Giles replied. He held out a hand in the direction of the mirror. "There's someone I'd like you to meet." Riley followed him over to where Doyle was sitting. "Riley, meet Doyle."
Riley was staring wide-eyed at the reflection, which, Doyle reasoned, would only show his back. He didn't feel like turning around though. "Pleasure," Doyle managed, not knowing yet if he meant it or not.
Riley smiled, looking a lot less like a soldier. "Likewise. When this is all over, we'll have to shake hands. Good luck."
Seemed nice enough. And he was about to risk his life fighting the Scourge. "You, too."
Riley smiled again and turned back to Giles. "When can we expect them?"
Giles placed a hand on Riley's arm, turning him away from Doyle. Doyle could still hear though. "We can't begin here until just before midnight. The Scourge knows we'll try to stop their leader from emerging."
"So they might show up early," Riley finished. "Could be a long night then. I'd better get back out there. Tell Buffy-" He broke off, unable to finish his sentence or put his thoughts into words. Doyle knew how that felt.
"Tell me what?" Buffy asked, returning to the room but now dressed in loose clothes, not as flattering, but definitely more practical.
Riley walked up to her, bent down, took her face in his hands, and kissed her. Doyle knew that feeling, too, without the bending down part. But while he could empathize with Riley, he sympathized with Angel, who turned his back to them while they kissed. Thus far he'd done a good job of not showing it, but Angel still loved Buffy and always would.
Doyle looked at Cordelia beside him and wished he could kiss her again like that. But he couldn't touch her. Not yet, he told himself. Tomorrow. He would fight with every thing he had left just to see her tomorrow, to hold her hand, to see if a princess and a frog could make a go of it.
"Oh, that," Buffy said when the two of them parted. Her face was a bit red and she glanced at Angel, who was still facing the door. "Be careful," she told Riley.
"You, too," he whispered. He smiled for her and turned to walk out the door. Doyle watched him go, wondering which side of the door would be more dangerous.
"What do we do for the next three hours?" Cordelia asked, shifting her position.
"We prepare," Giles answered.
Cordelia wasn't particularly happy with preparing. She was bored. Over in the corner, Willow and Anya were preparing for the spell. They'd laid out all but one of the talismans and ingredients and were practicing the words. Giles, Buffy, and Xander were discussing what they would do in the Nether. Harry was trying again to teach Doyle the Brachen spell. He sounded so tired and breathless.
Angel and Spike were similarly without much to do. Spike skulked alone in the other corner. Angel was fond of sitting quietly in the dark, so he just watched the others, listening.
She wished she could talk to Doyle. She was worried he would die tonight, leaving her again. She didn't think she could manage that pain again.
"Cordelia?" Giles said, interrupting her thoughts. He motioned for her to join the Nether-going party.
Finally something! She stood, finding her legs a little too stiff from sitting on the floor for two hours. She did her best to hide that though and walked over to where they were.
"Was there anything distinct about where Doyle is being held?"
"You mean besides blood and bones and life-sucking black mist demon with glowing red eyes?" she asked in return. The whole place was pretty distinct.
"Yes," Buffy replied, "besides that. You said it was like a cave. Was it like one big room or a bunch of tunnels?"
"Big room," Cordelia answered, remembering. "But it was dark. I could see walls sometimes, but there might have been other tunnels."
"And Doyle is chained to the floor?" Giles asked. "How thick was the chain?"
Cordelia remembered that too. Doyle shackled and struggling weakly. She lifted her hand, her thumb and forefinger about half an inch apart. "Hands and feet, with shackles."
"Well, we should be able to get through one or the other," Giles began. Cordelia didn't hear the rest. Blinding pain shot through her temples, distorting his voice into an inhuman din. She dropped, knowing what was coming even as it hit full force, filling her skull with deafening pressure. She vaguely felt her vocal chords vibrate, but was not aware if she had spoken or screamed. Images swam madly through her consciousness, familiar images. Doyle.
Angel kept his back to the door so he could hear beyond it. But he kept his eyes on the rest of the room. He tried to focus on Doyle, but that was difficult when there was nothing to see. He tried watching Cordelia, but she was bored and therefore boring. He tried listening to Harry for awhile. He practically had the spell memorized himself, though Doyle sounded tired and confused by it all. Inevitably, Angel's eyes and ears and attention drifted back to Buffy.
She was standing in the center of the room with Giles and Xander, going over strategy. Angel still saw her kissing Riley though. It hurt, though he knew he should be happy for her. He couldn't be with her without risking everything, including Buffy. She needed a human to love her. And she deserved to be loved.
He regained his focus when Cordelia was called over to them. They asked her about the Nether again and she answered without showing fear, as if it was easier to talk about now that she knew it was real. Or maybe she just thought it was the best way to help Doyle. Either way, she told them about the area and about Doyle.
Xander held up a large pair of cutters, but it was Giles who replied to her statement about the shackles and chains. "Well, we should be able to get through one or the other."
Cordelia's eyes widened suddenly, and Angel jumped to his feet. Her whole body tensed up, and her eyes rolled back just before she fell. Giles and Xander caught her first, looking at each other in anxious confusion.
"She's having a vision," Angel explained as he slipped in behind her and wrapped his arms tightly around her.
Cordelia started to relax, and Buffy looked over Angel's shoulder to where Doyle would be. "Were they always like that?" Doyle didn't answer and Angel guessed he was feeling guilty for leaving the visions with Cordelia.
When the vision was over, Angel turned Cordelia around to face him. "What was it?" Angel asked. He took some aspirin and a small bottle of water from his coat pocket and handed them to her. Her hand shook as she popped them into her mouth. "What did you see?" He was sure the Powers had sent the vision to try and draw him away.
Cordelia brightened immediately and smiled one of her prom queen smiles. "Nothing," she told him.
Angel knew she was lying and it strengthened his suspicions. "Was it L.A.?"
Cordelia gave him a condescending look. "How can it be L.A. if I didn't see anything? Just sudden onset temporary migraine. All gone now." And to prove her point, she shook off all the arms supporting her and stood up, brushing the dust off her slacks.
"She saw me," Doyle said from behind them. He'd spoken quietly, but the vision had silenced the room, leaving no competition for his voice.
Cordelia spun around. "It doesn't matter because it's not going to happen. Got that?"
Angel stood to face her. "Cordelia," he tried, hoping to convince her to share what she'd seen.
But she wouldn't let him finish. She poked him in the chest. "That goes for you, too, Broody-Boy."
Angel held up two hands in surrender. He could guess now. Doyle was dead in the vision, for real this time.
Cordelia released him and nodded once. "Good. That's settled then." She held up her watch and frowned. "I think we should get started now."
"It's not even eleven o'clock yet," Giles pointed out.
"It won't matter," Cordelia told him, and Angel knew she'd seen a time in her vision as well. That's when the shooting started outside.
Riley fought to keep focused. He was a soldier first and he was on an important mission, even if he did largely manipulate events to produce that mission to help Buffy. He still didn't understand her sometimes, why she harbored Hostile 17, for example. And then there was the other one, Angel. His hand was cold when Riley had shaken it. He was probably a vampire, too. She was supposed to be a vampire slayer, the Vampire Slayer. He didn't get that.
There he was. Thinking about Buffy again. Distracted. Well, it had been two hours already. He glanced around at his men. They were still in position, though a few of them were yawning. "Keep your eyes open! I promise you won't be bored much longer!" he called out, hoping to rouse them, and himself. Beyond them, around the corner of the building, out of sight would be the mixed-breeds. Until yesterday he hadn't even known they existed. Part demon, part human. One more piece to the puzzle that had replaced the reality he had come to believe in. He didn't know what to think anymore. Everything had become muddled and gray since he met Buffy. Nothing was clear anymore. The Initiative, Prof. Walsh-the late Prof. Walsh-vampires, demons, good, bad, even himself. What was right? He missed Iowa and the simplicity of his youth.
He was doing it again. "Stay alert," he spoke into his headset to his men. He was really telling himself. He focused again on the tree line beyond the tracks and wondered if Buffy was just as bored.
Graham held up one hand and pointed toward the trees. Riley lifted the night vision goggles into place, and the trees came to life. They were there, more than two dozen that Riley could see, creeping towards the edge of the tree line and stretching beyond his line of sight.
"Maybe we should deploy some men around the side of the building in case they try to flank us," Forrest said, making it clear that it was as much a criticism as a suggestion.
Riley shook his head, thankful that he'd discussed tactics with the CO in private. "No. We have reinforcements surrounding the building. I'm not going to weaken our position. We'll make our stand here!" He pointed forcefully to the ground as he spoke in a voice loud enough that everyone heard his answer. "Cock and lock, boys and girls-its Showtime!" He heard the clicks and clacks of the weapons as bolts were pulled back and released and rounds were inserted into grenade launchers. Maintaining his watch on the tree line, he saw through his goggles the first of the demons as they stepped into the clearing, looking like German officers from an old black and white WWII movie. More followed, and Riley breathed a sigh of relief he hoped he wouldn't regret as he noticed that they apparently weren't carrying any firearms.
Riley lifted his own weapon and targeted the forehead of the lead demon. He waited a few more seconds, and his men waited with him. "Fire!" Riley commanded, pulling his own trigger and watching with satisfaction as the demon dropped, his head exploding in a haze of bone fragments and brain matter. More shots rang as the demons rushed their position. The marksmanship of the Initiative soldiers brought down the first wave of demons, but it wasn't enough as even more came out of the tree line. There's too many! Riley thought grimly. They're going to overrun our position. Shaking off his doubts, Riley barked out his orders. "Even numbers-fall back to our secondary position. Odd numbers-lay down covering fire. Marston, Rodriguez, you've got the shotguns. Let 'em get close, then let 'em have it and fall back!"
Giles mouthed the words along with Willow and Anya, coaching them silently though they couldn't see it. So far, after twenty minutes, there was still no portal, and the cutters were getting heavy in his hand. Goose bumps began to raise on his arms and he'd stopped sweating. Anticipation, perhaps, of the demon that would devour him and all other humans if the spell didn't work.
"Is it getting colder in here?" Buffy whispered beside him.
Or perhaps the room was just getting colder. Hadn't Cordelia told them it was cold in the Nether. Giles started to hope that maybe Wesley had gotten the spell right, then as he heard the sound of the shotguns outside, he swore to himself that Wesley had better have gotten the spell right.
"Look!" Xander whispered just as several of the others stood up. The far wall was changing, becoming less solid. It rippled. Then there was a small spot of darkness, about two-thirds of the way up the wall. It spun, brightening on its edges until it was tinged with a brilliant blue. It grew.
"I think we'll need our jackets," Giles suggested as a draft of cold air began to emanate from the portal, now a foot in diameter.
"We'll need a step ladder," Xander commented. The portal was rather high up on the wall.
"We'll make it," Buffy told him as she pulled on an old jacket Giles had decided to throw out. It hung loose on her, but at least she wouldn't have to ruin one of her own should she get thrown around.
Giles tugged on his own dark jacket, and glanced back at the portal. It was a yard wide now, but still halfway up the wall. He could hear a howling wind from the other side, but all he could see was blackness. He checked the batteries in his flashlight and handed the folded tarp to Xander.
At five feet wide, the portal stopped growing. It was at least three feet off the floor. Giles checked his watch. 11:20. Cordelia had been right to make them start early.
Giles turned to Buffy, but Buffy was looking toward Doyle. She looked worried, but she offered him a light smile. Giles touched her arm. "Remember, a N'thirae demon in this form is practically invulnerable. There's not much you can do to him except lead him away from us. But he can harm you, so be careful. N'thirae demons have limited telekinesis. He can throw you."
Buffy nodded. "So I keep running and watch how I fall. Let's do it."
Giles nodded as well and took a deep breath to steady his own nerves. "Xander?"
"Right behind you," the young man answered.
Buffy went first. She only carried a flashlight, and she jumped easily into the portal. Xander went next and Buffy's arm reached out of the darkness to help pull him in. Giles followed and the two of them pulled him up.
The floor here was level with the lower edge of the portal, and through the portal, he could see the dimly lit, utterly empty room of the train station.
"Where'd everyone go?" Xander asked, raising his voice to be heard over the wind.
Giles had expected this. Cordelia had watched a vampire being killed, the same vampire Doyle had seen beheaded some six hours earlier. "We're not there yet."
"This stuff would give Stephen Hawking a headache," Xander complained.
Giles panned his flashlight around, trying to get his bearings. Unlike Cordelia's description of a wide-open area, they were in a narrow corridor, blocked on one end by the portal itself. The walls were black as Cordelia has said, but they dripped with a thick, red liquid much as cave walls on Earth dripped with water.
There was only one way to go and Giles hoped it led in the right direction. He took a step and his shoe made a sucking sound as it left the floor. Brittle bones broke into powder as his foot pressed down again.
"I'm glad I opted to leave my new Nike's at home," Xander said as they started down the corridor. "Everyone remember where we parked."
Scourge had overrun Riley's first position, but they had left many demons on the ground. "Where's Walters?" Riley called out as his troops set up at their fall back position.
"He didn't make it!" Riley's number one called back and pointed towards a throng of Scourge surrounding the hapless Walters who had his knife out and was stabbing at the demons, but there were too many of them and he finally went down beneath their blows.
"Bastards!" Leslie screamed out as he flipped his M16 to full auto and emptied the clip on the clump of Scourge gloating over their kill, bringing many of the demons down and scattering the rest.
Rieff heard the guns and the sounds of the soldiers shouting before he saw the Scourge, but not long before. Well, Dad, he thought, this is it. I hope we were right about this whole Promised One thing. He had a sword that had belonged to the Quintessa's captain. It was an antique cutlass with a curved, single-edged blade that had belonged to the captain's grandfather. He'd given it to Rieff on the trip back to L.A. He'd said he had no son to pass it on to, and he hoped it would do him some good. Holding it, feeling its weight had given Rieff the courage in what he was doing, but now the old fear was returning. They were the Scourge.
Ixani stood beside him and changed, leaving behind her human face for a more imposing one. Her forehead creased and bulged; her teeth became fangs more frightful than a vampire's; and her eyes, now all white, seemed to glow though they gave off no light. "I'm afraid," she admitted, loud enough so that Rieff wasn't the only one to hear, "but I saw my family murdered. I'd rather join them in death than let the Scourge continue to walk the Earth. If I die tonight, I'll take them with me."
There was a murmur of ascent from the crowd, and the first of the Scourge attacked. Naroni met him, cracking a baseball bat hard across his knees, and then, as the demon collapsed to the ground, he swung the bat in a sweeping arc, smashing its skull.
But the demon wasn't alone. Another of the Scourge tackled Naroni before he could recover from his attack, causing the bat to slip from his fingers on to the ground. The Scourge trooper stood over his companion, his club ready to avenge his fallen comrade. Seeing this, Ixani raised a hand, and, making a fist, pulled it back to her chest before thrusting it out again, extending her fingers in a throwing motion. The demon was lifted into the air and tossed into three of his compatriots, bringing all of them down in a heap. Sighing in relief, Naroni took advantage of the breathing space bought for him by his companion, and, struggling to his feet, recovered the bat and readied himself for his next opponent.
Rieff didn't have time to watch the rest. He'd never actually killed anyone before, and he was still unsure of himself, but the Scourge didn't wait for him to find his confidence. He brought up the old cutlass to parry the blow from one of the club wielding demons, but he didn't take into account the force of the blow as the momentum from the demon's swing brought the club down on him, striking a glancing blow, forcing him to lose his balance as he staggered and fell. The demon that had brought Rieff down stood above him, and smashed his boot hard on Rieff's stomach. Rieff gulped for the air that had been knocked from his lungs and clutched at his stomach while still clenching with his right hand the hilt of his sword. As the demon raised his boot for the second, killing blow, Rieff raised up, thrusting the sword outward and stabbing the demon through the chest. Rieff looked in astonishment as he saw the demon crumple to the ground, clutching his stomach. He'd never killed anyone before. Rieff felt the waves of nausea rise from his stomach and wasn't sure if it was because of the boot or the sloshy, sucking sound (somehow he could still hear it over the sounds of the battle) of the demon's abdomen as he pulled the sword out again.
But he had no time to analyze the situation as another demon had already appeared to take the place of the one he had killed. Rieff let his instincts guide him as he used his arms to hit, his legs to kick, and his head to know when to duck. And when he could, he swung the sword, slicing a gut open or thrusting it forward to stab-anything to stay alive or to save the lives of his friends. Ixani, always nearby, used a discarded knife or club, or when necessary, her teeth. But most of the time she used her telekinesis, throwing an attacker away from her or turning his own weapon against him.
Naroni, with his bat, did his part in the fight as well. He screamed with battle rage, his eyes wide and wild, in an unstoppable, berserk fury. Rieff, glancing his way, saw him bash in the heads of two of the demons with that bat that he waved in an uncontrolled fury.
Rieff had it harder. Each motion was an effort. Each kill exacted a price, in pain, in sickness, in fatigue. Each blow made him more susceptible to the next, but he wouldn't give up. He kept a tight grip on the sword and tried to keep his enemies in front of him where he could see them.
Another one fell before him, giving him a rare opportunity to catch his breath. Turning towards Ixani, he saw that she was struggling with a demon that had successfully grappled her throat with his arm and was about to deliver the killing blow with a knife that he had in his other hand that she couldn't see. Reiff could only watch helplessly as the demon stabbed the knife into her back. Screaming in pain and anger, she dug her teeth into the demon's arm, causing him to howl in anger and outrage as he stabbed her again. Both Ixani and the demon fell to the ground, but Ixani, recovering faster, whipped her head to the side, tearing a swath of flesh from his arm, forcing the demon to release her and the knife still in her back. And as she fell, Ixani watched the demon as he leaned forward and pulled the knife from her with his good hand. He tried to move the mangled arm up, but it wouldn't move as he wanted it to. Instead, the knife turned in and moved toward his own skull, stopping only an inch from his face as the demon laughed, dropping his hand to his side.
Rieff found the rage inside of himself when he realized his friend was dead. He was already running toward them before he was aware of it. As the demon tried to stand, triumphant over his fallen foe, Rieff slashed down at him with his sword, channeling all of his rage with his stroke, severing the demon's head with one blow. The body fell beside Ixani as the head rolled away in the opposite direction, but Reiff didn't have time to concern himself with where it went. Instead, he turned grimly away from his fallen friend, sparing her one last glance as he looked for another demon, his thoughts now only of death and killing.
Rieff heard the sound of gunfire as the Initiative soldiers continued to lay down fire against the Scourge demons rushing their position. Every now and again, he'd hear the louder sound of the shotguns mixed in with the staccato of the M16's as the demons got a little too close to the soldier's position. Rieff knew that they had to hold this position-they had nowhere else to fall back to.
The wind became louder as they walked but it became clearer as well, separating into distinct sounds: the whistle of the wind through the corridors, the screams of dying men, the ghastly cackle of the demon, and the echoes of it all.
"He sounds fairly distracted already," Xander commented. "Maybe you two didn't need me after all."
"I'll wager it's more interested in Doyle than any of the other victims," Giles replied. Doyle was the demon's ticket to freedom.
They came to a fork, a choice between left and right. Giles stopped everyone and instructed Buffy to close her eyes and listen. He and Xander stood as still as possible. The echoes made it difficult to tell which direction the true sounds were coming from. Then Giles noticed her hair. She had it tied back in a pony tail which whipped around her head to slap against her left cheek.
"The right," Giles decided. The stronger draft having come from that direction. Buffy agreed.
Another ten minutes passed before they reached the end of the corridor and the large area Cordelia had described. They stopped at the edge and looked out. There was more light here, though not much, and Giles couldn't see any particular source. Bones stood out in bright contrast to the darkness of the walls and floor. Unlike the debris in the corridors, there were whole skeletons of bones still covered in clothes. They could not see the demon, but then they couldn't see more than twenty feet before everything dissolved into black shadows. They could hear him, laughing in triumph and joy at the apparent bounty of the evening.
"Does that mean we're losing?" Xander asked, whispering into Giles' ear.
Giles shook his head. It didn't mean anything yet, only that people were dying, which was expected if unfortunate.
"There!" Buffy said, pointing. Giles followed her arm and extended finger toward a glint of metal and moisture, a mound of clothes with no stark white bones against the far left wall. "I'll go first," she told them. "Stick to the wall. I'll try to draw him farther away." She only waited for a nod from Giles before running out into the room, bounding effortlessly over the skeletons on the floor.
"Kind of hard not to stick to the walls," Xander said, holding up a finger covered in the red liquid that seeped from the black rock.
Giles didn't reply except to step out into the room and motion for Xander to follow. The roar of laughter changed to an angry bellow just as Buffy disappeared from view. Giles told himself she would be fine. He stayed close to the wall where, hopefully, his dark clothing would blend in and make him less noticeable. For the same reason, he left the flashlight off and tried to rely on the inexplicable ambient light.
They made quick progress now that the roar was becoming more distant. Buffy had succeeded in drawing the demon away. The sound still echoed into the room though, and Giles still couldn't see more than twenty or thirty feet.
As they neared the mound Buffy had pointed out, colors became slightly more distinct. Giles recognized Doyle's brown leather jacket, marred though it was by blood and debris. He stepped up his pace but slowed again when Xander stumbled behind him.
There was a soft, agonized moan in the room, audible now that the demon's roar was more distant. Giles thought perhaps it was Doyle. He tried not to think about it being anyone else. Doyle was the only one they could help.
Giles stopped short when he was close enough to actually see the man. He hadn't meant to stop, and Xander ran into him.
"Hey!" the younger man scolded, but then he got a good look over Giles' shoulder and shuddered himself. "How can he . . . ?" he whispered but couldn't finish.
Be alive? Giles finished for him silently as he tried to stifle his own need to retch. But he was alive. Doyle's chest rose and lowered in an erratic manner, pulling air into whatever he had left of a respiratory system.
Giles forced himself to move again and pulled Xander with him. Thankfully, most of Doyle was covered in pants and shirt and jacket, though they themselves were covered in blood. His face and hands, however, were uncovered and told, in detail, the carnage of his ordeal. His right hand, the one Giles could see, was bereft of flesh entirely, leaving only tendon and bone. Ragged muscle covered the majority of his face, shredded and torn. Some places were simply laid bare. The bone of his jaw was visible from his chin to his left temple, streaked with oozing blood vessels, and one of his eyes was open, having no eyelid to cover it. But he seemed to be unconscious, and Giles was grateful for that.
He motioned with his hands and Xander began spreading the tarp out beside Doyle. Giles took the cutters and began working at the shackles around Doyle's ankles. He could feel bone beneath the sodden socks as he placed the blades. He tried to concentrate instead on applying enough pressure to cut through the metal.
As he moved the cutters to the second ankle he noticed Xander's wide-eyed expression. Shock, mostly. Xander had seen a lot since he became friends with a Slayer, but this place-and Doyle. . . . Giles had been trained as a Watcher, and he was having a hard time. The wind picked up and Giles even imagined hearing voices whispering in it.
The bolt holding the second shackle broke and Giles looked up to hand the cutters to Xander. But Xander was still staring, and not at Doyle. Not at Giles either. His gaze was higher, over Giles shoulder. Giles turned his head, expecting to see the N'thirae demon behind him, as illogical as that was. Instead he found half a dozen mixed-breed demons looking down at him.
Right, left, left again, long corridor, right. Buffy tried to memorize her path so that she could find her way back. The demon was fast, but she'd thus far managed to stay ahead of it. Left turn. Barely ahead of it. She chanced a glance behind her, though she needn't have bothered. She could hear it. She only saw black behind her anyway. And the distinct glow of two red eyes. They glowed brighter as she looked at them and, before she could turn away, she felt her legs lift off the ground.
Buffy tried to control her fall, but she couldn't quite tell which way was up. She felt something hard and damp slam into her back and then her side. Her flashlight was gone, but she could feel gravity now. She'd been thrown against the wall.
The only visible light now was the red glimmer of those two angry eyes. She could barely see where the demon ended and the wall began. It screamed at her, so loud and so furious that her chest vibrated with the sound and then suddenly lunged, filling the space around her until she couldn't breathe without drawing the mist into her lungs. It pricked her skin, her eyes, her mouth, causing her to cough so hard that she couldn't even hear herself in the din. As she tried to rise, the demon forced her down again, the mist that she had inhaled creating a feeling like that of drowning in a pool filled with sand.
Then she was off the ground again and slammed into another wall. She grunted as the wind was knocked from her lungs, but she almost felt that a blessing as she had a moment to fill her lungs with oxygen before the demon laid into her again. She held her breath and squeezed her eyes shut, covering her face with her hands.
The demon screamed in frustration, and the sound, coming from beside her, behind her, in front of her, inside her, threatened to shatter her eardrums.
It thrashed her around a few more times for good measure and then threw her aside in disgust, like a toy that no longer had any use. Even as she dropped, she felt him let go. She landed hard, pinning her left foot between her body, the wall, and what felt like her flashlight. Her ears still rang but the demon's roar was growing quieter. Buffy decided she was either going deaf or the demon was heading back the way they'd come.
She coughed again as she sat up, thankful to breathe again. She hoped it was enough time for Giles and Xander. All her Slayer strength was useless against the mist. It had lost interest in her. It wouldn't follow her again. It might even have realized she was only a diversion.
She had to get back to the portal. As she retrieved her flashlight and pushed herself to her feet, a sharp pain shot up her leg from her left ankle. Knowing that she had no choice, but to bear the pain, she bore her weight down on the injured leg. She'd limp tomorrow, but today she had a world to save.
Doyle couldn't remember ever being so tired, not even after walking to Sunnydale. It overshadowed the hunger. He wanted to lie down or at least to rest against something. All he had was himself though, so he'd propped his elbows on his knees. But then his legs grew tired. His eyes kept crossing in an attempt to close, but he forced them open again and again. That was getting harder.
Harry still sat beside him, though she'd stopped bothering to teach him the Brachen. Instead she just talked to him, encouraging him to hang on and to be strong, as if he could keep his non-corporeal heart beating by sheer force of will. He knew she meant well, but Doyle didn't feel he had a whole lot of choice in the matter. He would last or he wouldn't, no matter what he wanted.
Cordelia, also nearby, checked her watch again, biting her bottom lip. Giles and the others had been gone nearly an hour. It was now well past midnight. Maybe he'd already outlasted the time she'd seen in the vision. She still hadn't told anyone what it was, not that it would have made a difference. Knowing the time wouldn't bring Giles back any sooner. He would come when he came. It was as simple as that.
Except that it didn't feel simple. While Doyle felt the temptation of eternal rest if he were to simply close his eyes and die, he also felt regret. He'd come so close to a second chance. At life, at love, at everything. He'd get it right this time, if fate cooperated. He'd even try to be friendly to Wesley. So close. It felt very far away now.
And then there was guilt. If he died, the demon would be free. The Scourge would win. All the people he'd given his life to save would die-and then some. Another one of life's ways of making sure he never did anything right. Only this time, the whole world would suffer.
Doyle dropped his head to his knees and his eyes closed for a moment. It felt good, strain and pressure melting away from his eyelids and his mind.
Harry. Of course. The strain returned.
"Sit up, Francis. Hang on."
Like lifting weights, Doyle lifted his eyelids. Lifting his head was like lifting a Buick. But he did it, just so he could look at her when he told her, even if he couldn't focus his eyes anymore. "I'm dying," he said, trying not to sound as annoyed as he was. "I can 'hang on' all I want, but I can't stop it."
Cordelia moved into view. "But you promised."
He did. "I'm not trying to die, Princess," he tried to explain. It took so much effort to talk. "I'm just running out of time."
Giles heard the howling again and knew by the faces around them-now ten in number-that the demon was coming back. It was still quite distant, but Ixani, the woman he'd met earlier with Rieff, warned him the beast was fast. Giles still couldn't decide if they were fully corporeal or not. They would have had to have been 'killed' by the Scourge to end up here.
"Cut the chains," she told Xander. "Worry about the shackles later. You must get the Promised One out."
The chains were easier and Xander, with the help of one of the half-demons, of a race Giles didn't recognize, had them loose in less than a minute. He dropped the cutters and grimaced as he slowly reached his hands under Doyle's shoulders. Doyle winced at the touch and Xander jumped back, hitting the wall.
Giles was startled, too. But there wasn't time. Doyle still appeared to be unconscious. They had to move him. "We have no choice," Giles told Xander, as he slipped his hands under Doyle's ankles. He felt them twitch but he held on. Xander took hold of his shoulders and, as gently as possible, considering the rising volume of the demon's roar, they transferred him to the tarp. He felt less like a living person and more like a sack of bones as they lifted him, he weighed so little. Still the tarp sagged in the middle, but two of the others stepped forward to lift it.
Giles went first, relinquishing one corner of the tarp to Ixani. He headed toward the corner of the room, back-tracking the way they'd come. With his free hand, he flicked on his flashlight and found the tunnel. The whole entourage was accompanying them and Giles wondered what hope there was for them. Doyle was different. Though they appeared healthier here, only Doyle had a place to go.
Suddenly, the demon screamed behind them, shrill and deep at the same time. It hurt Giles ears, but he could hear syllables in the din, a rising and falling of pitch. It was cursing, Giles decided, even though he couldn't understand the words. It knew what they'd done.
Ixani stopped, halting everyone else. She handed her corner to one of the others. "We can slow it down," she told him.
"You'll die," Giles said, knowing it was ridiculous even as he said it.
"We're already dead," she replied, moving back to where Xander was, near Doyle's head. "He is not." She kissed her hand, touched Doyle's forehead and then slipped into the blackness behind them. "Every twenty meters," she called back, and two others followed her, each offering the same tribute to Doyle. The seven that remained looked fearful, but none argued, and the convoy moved on again.
An agonized scream followed them down the tunnel as they reached the fork and it sputtered out quickly. Giles knew Ixani was gone. One of the others kissed his hand, touched Doyle's forehead, and let the group pass him by. Now they were nine in total and still at least ten minutes from the portal.
"Faster," Giles decided and they all stepped up their pace.
By the time they reached the portal, only one half-demon was left. They didn't need him anymore to hold the tarp, which they carefully laid on the ground. They needed him, a Brachen, same as Doyle, to hold off the demon for as long as possible. They could hear it devouring one of the others deeper down the corridor. The Brachen, a young man, offered what had become the ritual tribute to the Promised One and stepped away. "I hope I'm the last," he said.
Giles held out his hand. "Good luck," was all he could think to say. The young man took it, with a tentative smile. Giles nodded to Xander, and, with his hand still on a corner of the tarp, stepped through the portal and into the world he still hoped to save.
Angel checked his own watch every time Cordelia looked at hers. He wished she'd told him more about the vision, but he also knew it wouldn't help. There was only one way to save Doyle now, and it depended on Giles.
He could hear scuffling and gunfire coming from outside the door, but so far no one had gotten through. The half demons, vampires, and Initiative marines were doing their jobs. Angel hoped it stayed that way, at least until Doyle was safe. He didn't want to lose him again.
The portal shimmered and Giles dropped through it, leaving one hand inside. "We have to hurry!" he called, but Angel was already on his way over.
Giles turned and put his other hand into the portal. Then he pulled and the tarp Xander had carried in began to slide out. Angel could smell the blood and he wanted turn his head away. But he couldn't. This was Doyle, his friend, and, looking at him, Angel couldn't believe he was still alive.
Xander emerged with the end of the tarp and the three of them carried Doyle to the back wall. He weighed nothing at all. Harry was turning the mirror on its side, and Angel could see that Doyle was already on his back. His eyes were closed, not relaxed like someone who'd fallen asleep, but tight like someone who really didn't want to see what was on the tarp.
Angel stepped back a step and knelt down as they lowered the tarp over him. He began to change as soon as the tarp hit the floor. The two Doyles became one, the non-corporeal image disappearing and the corporeal changing. Muscle rebuilt itself over the bones on his face and hands and filled out beneath his clothes.
Cordelia held her breath as she waited for the change to finish, for skin to cover the new muscle. She'd stepped back instinctively toward the door when she first saw him, and now Giles held her arm as she inched forward again. She gave a moment's thought to the sweater he'd just ruined but decided Doyle was worth more. It was working, in spite of her vision. They would get him back.
But the skin didn't come. Some of what he had even went away, leaving his face raw and bloody. Doyle's whole body tensed, and his fingers clenched the edges of the tarp. He opened his eyes, Cordelia closed hers, dropping to her knees as the pain erupted in her head.
But this one was different. Even as she saw the swirling images of the vision, she saw and heard what was going on around her. "Cordelia?" she heard as if under water. Someone was screaming, a sound of panic nearly drowned by the inhuman roar of the demon. Black mist poured hesitantly from the portal, as if it were unsure of its new surroundings. A hot wind began to swirl around the room, and someone cried, "He has to!"
And in her vision Cordelia saw the answer. Doyle in the Nether, torn and dying, little more than a skeleton. Doyle in this world, barely a reflection, emaciated from hunger. And Doyle in the white place, healthy, strong, and alive. Three. And the white place was hers. The vision left her, and she knew what she had to do.
Angel was holding him up, but Doyle couldn't speak. He was in too much pain, and she had his voice. Cordelia looked at the portal and the demon that was almost through it. She stood, pushing Giles away until she was free. The demon screamed at her, but he wasn't all the way through. She ran, covering the ten feet in two seconds and placing herself between the demon and Doyle.
He looked horrible. His face, with no skin left, oozed, and his eyes-there was so much in his eyes. Fear, pain, sadness, regret, worry, love. She focused on his eyes and told herself to ignore the blood as she brought her hands gently to his face. He stiffened and she knew she'd hurt him but it was the only way. Closing her eyes, she kept the memory of him on the Quintessa in her mind and kissed him.
Even with her eyes closed, she could see the light between them. She felt the skin knit together beneath her fingers. He relaxed and kissed her back. Time seemed to melt away and she could have stayed that way forever. But he still had work to do. She reluctantly broke off the kiss and opened her eyes. He was whole. Thin, perhaps, but whole and there was still so much in his eyes. The pain was gone, but fear and worry remained.
She felt a force against her back, gripping her rib cage. It tore her away from him and sent her flying into the hard wall at the edge of the portal. Her head rung and her vision blurred. She might have thought another vision was coming. But she saw the two red eyes lost in blackness just before her mind closed in on her.
Doyle wished for more time. Everything was happening so fast and he couldn't process it all. Not that he wasn't happy with some of it. The pain was gone, though he was still hungry. He knew now he wasn't dying. Cordelia had given him something in the kiss, and he felt whole for the first time since the Quintessa. That kiss, in particular, he wanted more time for. But like their first kiss, the rest of life was impatient. The demon was impatient, too and he ripped her from Doyle's grasp. "Cordelia!" he screamed, or tried. His voice was still weak. But Lo'oran only laughed at him and lunged toward the spot where she'd fallen.
"Francis!" Harry shouted. "The spell!"
Doyle remembered some of it. The wind was ferocious now, and it whipped at his face and stung his eyes. "Ferun norim ka listona!" he yelled. He couldn't even hear his own voice over the wind and the demon, which suddenly whirled around like a cyclone until its red eyes were facing him again.
"Resh irak," Harry prompted, coming up behind him and taking Angel's place. He leaned on her and she held him up, speaking the words into his ear.
"Resh irak ko naronor!" he repeated, finishing the line. The demon moved slowly, whipping about as it tried to reach him. "Li ar noral dokona syr en lit stiral ferik nadon!" Doyle had no idea what any of that meant, but it was having an effect on Lo'oran. It flailed bands of mist about like tentacles, still gaseous but changing. It screamed hideously, like something unearthly, which Doyle supposed it was. Harry continued the spell in his ear and he repeated what she said, faster now, because the demon was moving faster, too. Doyle thought he saw teeth. "Filnal lali palaya ta kiloram. Resh irak ko naronor!"
Definitely teeth. Big nasty ones that could easily take a limb off if they bit down. And arms with knife-like claws. Two of those and six tentacles with barbs all along their lengths. It looked almost liquid now, and it poured each step across the room. So close it could almost reach him. "Ki-" he tried and his voice wouldn't work. He couldn't breathe. It would kill him. Tear him to shreds for daring to escape.
"It's working, Francis!" Harry encouraged, but he could hear the tremor in her voice as well. "Ki lianoram linorok-"
Doyle tried again, though he didn't feel encouraged. Solid could kill him faster than mist. "Ki lianoram linorok kilfal resh irak!"
Two more steps and it would have him. The first shook the floor when it hit, nearly knocking he and Harry to the floor. Legs the width of trees brought down clawed feet on the wooden floor with an impact that jarred the talismans in the corner and sent everyone reaching for a wall. "Tesh nirok Lo'oran fanoranor!"
Wasn't it Buffy's turn? Doyle thought as he finished the incantation and the demon grabbed his throat with one clawed hand. It lifted him easily though he could also feel Harry trying to hang on. The claws, wrapped all the way around his neck, started to cut into him as the demon squeezed. Doyle tried to lift his hands in a futile effort to release himself, but he could barely move his arms. Out of breath, and his vision blurring, Doyle imagined that he saw the demon dissolve, with little streams of black smoke lifting off its massive face. He felt a prick on his neck and then another, but he realized that it wasn't the claws and that it was burning. The demon was trying to change back.
"Again, Francis!" Harry yelled, and out of the corner of his eye Doyle saw a tentacle reach for her, and then he heard her scream.
He tried to form the words, but with the demon's still corporeal hand around his throat, he could barely move his jaw. He couldn't breathe at all. His arms were going numb, his head felt like a balloon filled with air as he saw a flash of dark metal, then heard a piercing, angry wail, and finally felt himself fall.
He coughed, unable to lift himself off the floor. He couldn't see who lifted him this time, but he recognized Giles' voice. "Three times," he said, shouting to be heard. "Say it again!"
Doyle saw Harry clutching her arm, blood dripping slowly from her fingers. Spike was helping her up, eyeing her injured arm, a predatory gleam in his eye. Catching the motion out of the corner of his eye, Harry ducked as Angel flew by both of them, his sword narrowly missing them as he knocked Spike down. Righting himself, Angel swung his sword at one of the demon's squirming tentacles, but it passed through it harmlessly, as if it was air.
"Ferun," Doyle began, but his voice was rough and he coughed again as Angel was once again thrown across the room, landing beside Cordelia's still unmoving form. Doyle took a breath and began again. "Ferun norim ka listona!"
The wind picked up, hotter than before, and roared as it swept around the four walls and rattled the doors, causing one of them to fly open, as a boy who was swept in by the wind, skidded to a stop in front of Harry. She touched him but the boy didn't move. A uniformed demon, covered in blood but smiling, stepped into the room raised his club to strike at Harry, not seeing Spike in the corner. The blond vampire leaping behind the demon, grabbed its head and twisted until he was rewarded with the snapping sound of its neck breaking. Flashing an icy grin at Harry, Spike then turned to the other demons entering through the doorway greeted by Lo'oran's laughter.
Doyle kept up the spell, trying to remember the words now that Harry was distracted. "Li ar noral," he started. It was the third line, but what followed?
"Dokona syr," Giles prompted behind him.
"Dokona syr," Doyle went on, remembering the rest of the line and maybe the next, "en lit stiral ferik nadon!"
Giles passed Doyle off to Anya and Willow, grabbed a battle-ax, and joined the desperate fight. Doyle tried to concentrate on the only part he could control. "Filnal lali palaya ta kiloram." The next line was a repeat of the second. "Resh irak ko naronor! Ki lianoram linorok kilfal resh irak! Tesh nirok Lo'oran fanoranor."
The demon howled again and this time Angel's sword cut into solid flesh, leaving one writhing tentacle on the floor. A murky substance gushed from the severed appendage and formed in a pool around it. Doyle started again, and Lo'oran barked something to one of the demons, which then carelessly tossed Xander aside. Then it turned towards Doyle and pulled Willow away. Doyle started to fall, but Anya locked her arms tight around his torso. "Finish it!" she yelled.
Doyle kept up the incantation as he watched the demon, which now had a knife in hand. His arm drew back, but before he could attack, Angel had skewered the demon with the sword. "Not today," Angel told the demon as he pulled the sword from its back, the blade coated with its blood, and turned his attention back to Lo'oran. "Where's Buffy?" he yelled. Beyond him, on the forward wall, the portal was growing smaller.
Buffy jogged, limping on her left foot and running her hand along the sticky, moist wall. She considered jogging a compromise between walking, which was too slow, and running, which was too dangerous. She'd tripped twice already, once on a skull and once on what she supposed was a femur. She'd almost gotten tangled up in an old piece of chain mail. Lo'oran had been around awhile.
She was in the long corridor, nearly at the end of it. Two rights and a left and she'd be back in the large room. She really didn't want to see Giles or Xander there. Right turn.
She didn't expect the arm that grabbed her from behind. "Well, what have we here?" a smarmy male voice asked. Then he answered his own question. "The Slayer."
He had his arm around her throat, which at least meant he couldn't bite without changing his grip. She wondered if dead vampires could even bite here. But then, his arm felt real enough and there were vampire bones on the ground-which was more than one got back in their own dimension. She decided not to chance it and gave him an elbow to the midsection, forcing the creature to let go. Spinning around to face him, she shined her flashlight in his eyes. "I thought we had a truce?"
He sneered at her. "Not here, Slayer. Your truce does nothing for me."
"I see you're no humanitarian," she quipped, then added, "or whatever the vampire equivalent is of that."
"Why should I care?" he asked. "For me, that battle is over. I'm dead. As are you."
"Me?" Buffy relaxed and let her hand fall into her pocket. "Either you're jumping the gun or you're jumping to conclusions. Either way, you should look before you leap. I walked in here all by myself. Besides, you were already dead."
"Undead," he corrected quickly, rolling his eyes.
Buffy didn't have time for this. "Well, you know what they say," she said, pulling her trusty stake from her pocket, "third time's a charm."
The vampire held up his hands and offered her a fangy smile. "Wait, if you know a way out-"
Buffy sighed. "Look, you're nothing but dust back there. Nothing to go back to. I see two choices. I stake you and put you out of your misery, or I leave you here and let you see if that really is blood on the walls. Think fast, I'm in a hurry."
Buffy guessed he either didn't like her attitude or wanted to go down fighting because he lunged at her, growling and showing his teeth. She ducked his lunge and easily staked him. As his body collapsed into dust, she looked at the stake, and then, deciding to keep it in her hand, took off again, knowing that time was short.
She was surprised again when she hit the large room. There were a lot of people there. Maybe thirty-five. Mostly half-demons, some looked human. Not as strong as vampires, she guessed. But there were vampires, too. And one soldier. She knew him from her days-few as they were-in the Initiative. He stood in a circle of half-demons. They were probably protecting him from the vampires. "Buffy!" he called out, breaking through the crowd to reach her. "Am I glad to see you. What's going on? Where are we?"
She did hate to be the bearer of bad news. She bit her lip but decided she didn't have a lot of time to sugarcoat it. "Walters, I hate to be the one to tell you, but you're dead. You're in a place called the Nether."
He looked at her in shock for a moment, mouth hanging open, eyes not blinking. "I was stabbed," he finally said, quietly. "This isn't what they told me in church."
"This isn't the usual afterlife, I'm guessing," Buffy told him. "The Scourge, that's the demon army, they send their victims here. There was another demon here, a big one, one that fed on the life-forces of these other people here. It's not here now. It's on Earth and I've got to go stop it."
"Who-or what-are all these other people?" Walters asked, pointing to a few of the non-human-looking half-breeds.
"Good guys," Buffy replied. "Half-demons. They're on our side. So are the vampires. Tonight anyway."
"Are you dead, too?"
Buffy had figured that one was coming though she'd hoped not. She really needed to get out of here. The demon was dangerous even as mist. She worried what he was like when he was solid. "I'm not dead. I came here on my own. I can leave the same way. I have to go."
"I'll go with you," he suggested, still looking rather pale. It was a lot to take in all at once.
"I don't know what good that will do," she told him, honestly. "Your body is still there. I don't know if you can go back." A crowd of the others had joined them, listening with interest.
"It's worth a try," one of them said. "We've still got bodies back there."
"What about us?" one of the vampires, a woman Buffy thought she recognized from town, returned. "We're dust back there. What do we do?"
"I don't know," Buffy said. "But I know that there are going to be more and more people here if I don't get out. I have to kill the demon. Follow me if you want. I can't guarantee anything." She pushed through the crowd, glancing off to the side where she had seen Doyle before. He was gone. No Xander, no Giles. They must be out already.
Walters saw her limp and offered her his arm. She put her weight on him and started jogging again, making better time now, but trailing an entourage behind her. The area where she had entered had been lit somewhat by the view through the portal, but now it was dark. A chill swept up Buffy's spine quite independent of the temperature. What if it had closed? She ran ahead, faster now, letting go of Walters and putting her weight on her sore ankle. It didn't matter.
She was somewhat relieved when she reached the end of the tunnel, which strangely now wasn't an end at all. The portal before had been as wide as the tunnel, but now it was narrow, only two feet in diameter. Through it she saw the empty room of the train station, but around it was only more tunnel. And the portal was shrinking. She knew the others were on the other side, that when she jumped through, the room wouldn't be empty anymore. But she also had no idea what she was jumping into. She couldn't see the time as it was there. She could jump right into the mist or right into a sword. The portal collapsed about half a foot. No more time to ponder. Buffy took a deep breath and dove right through it.
Finally, they were getting some help, Angel thought. The half demons had come, staunching the flow of Scourge into the room. Willow and Anya managed to close one of the doors and they stood with their backs against it and their legs braced against the floor. That left a little less to worry about, though there was still a lot. Cordelia was still unconscious, and she'd narrowly missed being trampled several times. Doyle was sitting, leaning against the back wall where Anya had deposited him, too weak to move. Buffy was still inside the Nether as far as anyone knew, and in the brief, momentary glimpses he got of the portal, it had shrunk to less than a third of its previous size.
His other worries consisted of two big arms with claws like daggers and five intact tentacles, twice the length of the arms with sharply-barbed suckers from base to point. Each barb was tipped with red, as if it had already been dipped in blood, and even if a tentacle only glanced, it cut like a cheese grater against the skin.
And then there was also the wind. It was like standing in a convection oven, almost like standing in fire. It disoriented him, confused his senses.
Still he'd managed a few good hits, which left streams of bright crimson running between the black scales that covered Lo'oran's skin. It reacted to pain, but it never seemed to weaken. It didn't help that its wounds were only in the extremities. Angel had twice had an opening to strike the demon's heart, but there was always a tentacle to spare, and the blade would be diverted to some less vital part of its anatomy.
Angel and Spike, knowing that they had to put aside their differences, worked together, taking turns distracting it with diversionary attacks while the other aimed for something vital, but without success. As Spike was attempting to distract the demon, Angel fell, losing his grip on the sword. As he struggled to his feet, he tried to grasp the blade, but it was just out of reach. Then he shouted in pain as five little mouths bit into his right leg; a tentacle yanked him down once again in front of the shrinking portal. He twisted, ready to fight with his bare hands, determined to go down struggling to the last as he saw the creature's gaping mouth and dagger-like teeth. The mouth alone was about half the size of its head, and big enough to cover Angel's whole face.
Something solid and black suddenly flew between the gaping mouth and his body, distracting them both, causing the tentacle around Angel's leg to release its grip. It hit the floor and rolled, and Angel realized it was Buffy. She'd jumped from the portal and landed right by the sword. Picking up the sword and hefting the blade, she quipped, "Anyone miss me?" giving Angel precious seconds to scramble away.
They stared each other down for a moment, taking each other's measure until Lo'oran made the first move, swinging one of its long tentacles at her as if to test the waters. Slashing down with the sword so fast that Angel couldn't see the blade, Buffy severed another of the demon's appendages, being rewarded by its screeching howls, so loud that everyone in the room was forced to cover their ears.
Buffy held her ground, both hands on the sword's hilt while Doyle flinched and tried to raise his arms, screaming as the chains hanging from his wrist glowed like metal in a blacksmith's forge. Feeling the increased heat, Willow flinched away from the doorknob while Spike dropped his sword and put his hand under his arm to smother the flames. Only the sword of Lo'oran, now in Buffy's hands, remained cool to the touch, protected by its eldritch magics. Buffy swung her blade while the demon howled its rage at her impertinence, neither one willing to give quarter to the other as Angel, realizing that she had to fight this battle on her own, turned his back to her so that he could see to the screaming Doyle.
Doyle, finding strength through all the pain, brought his wrists down on to the floor in an effort to try and break the shackles while Angel punched a hole in the wall just over his shoulder, tearing away a sliver of wood a few inches thick. Holding Doyle's wrist to the floor, the vampire tried to pry the shackle off, cutting into his skin with the jagged wood, using it to pull apart the hot, pliable metal far enough so that Angel could pull Doyle's hand free.
Barely able to see straight because of the wind and sound, Angel fought down an instinctual need to cover his ears and cringe until it stopped, knowing that he still had to free Doyle from the remaining shackle burning him. As he slid over to get at the other wrist and started to pry the bolt loose, the sound stopped and Doyle's arm relaxed as Doyle's whole body went limp, his head hanging forward over his chest, his eyes closed. As Angel placed his hand under the chin of his friend to raise his head, his eyes opened suddenly, causing Angel to instinctively jerk his hand back. Doyle lifted his head in an unnatural, smooth, even movement, his eyes glowing red like Lo'oran's.
Doyle had wanted to get out of that room. He couldn't breathe because the air was so hot. And the sound was so loud that he was sure that he'd be deaf if he survived at all. But that was all gone now. Now he felt like he was drowning in oil, that new clear stuff, not the black. It was thick like that but he could see. Everything seemed distant, even Angel and his own legs. "Doyle?" Angel asked. Doyle heard it like one would hear through water. And it seemed almost in slow motion as he saw Angel thrown backwards into Buffy, realizing in surprise that he had done it, though he couldn't figure out how or why. Doyle then felt himself rise up, though he couldn't feel his legs picking him up. Must be a dream, he thought.
Buffy had jumped up quickly, and Doyle took the sword from her hand without even touching it or moving from his place at the back wall. He then pushed her toward Lo'oran, who swung his big arm at her; knocking her to the ground, blood trickling from her lip. But she got back up. Doyle wanted her back up. He wanted her to get the sword again. But then he pushed her again.
"Doyle!" Angel yelled again. Doyle wanted to listen to him, but he was too far away, even though Angel was touching his shoulders. Maybe he wasn't dreaming. He wanted to ask Angel what was going on, but instead he threw him away again, all the way to the door, just missing Harry as Lo'oran hit Buffy again, knocking her down near her sword. Getting up, she cut into Lo'oran's arm, causing Doyle to scream out in pain as he threw Buffy again, sending the sword flying across the room to lodge itself into the wall near his arm.
"Just kill the soddin' mick and be done with it," Spike suggested. "He's doing it." Doyle then pushed him towards Lo'oran, but the vampire ducked quickly and scooted between Lo'oran's legs. The demon turned, and reaching back with his hand, only succeeded in grasping at empty air as Giles grabbed Spike's collar and hauled him out of reach.
"It's controlling him," he explained. "We've got to wake him up."
"Francis," Harry called. She stepped closer. "Francis, don't let him do this!"
Doyle pulled the door open behind her and threw her and Xander, who was standing right next to her, out of it. He then pulled Willow and Anya away from the door they were holding, and then opening it, pushed them out again.
Harry. She was out with the demons. She was unarmed. Anya and Willow. God, what had he done?
As the four of them scrambled to their feet, they saw that they had been thrown into the midst of a raging battle between the half demons and vampires on the one hand and the Scourge on the other. "Any ideas?" Xander turned to Harry. He was not looking forward to getting involved in the savage battle they were witnessing. He saw Willow and Anya stumble into view and dragged Harry over toward them. Willow had to turn away in horror as she saw one of the Scourge demons literally rip the head off of a half demon and throw it at another.
Picking up a sword lying on the ground, Harry turned to Xander with a grim expression. "Yeah. One. Get the hell outta here and to the soldier boys without getting ourselves killed in the process."
"Sounds like a plan to me," Xander said, matching Harry's expression with one of his own as he picked up a sword lying on the ground next to a dead half demon and gave it to Anya, and then picked up a club for himself.
With Harry taking the lead and Xander bringing up the rear, the foursome skirted around the edges of the battle as they made their way to the sound of the gunfire that marked the Initiative's position. Once, they attracted the attention of two Scourge troopers who, with a howl of rage, fell upon them. Harry, stepping up to one of the demons, dodged its clumsy strike with its club and stepping in, struck true with her sword, delivering a fatal blow to the stomach. While Harry was dispatching her opponent, Xander and Anya were having a little more trouble with theirs. The demon, having pushed Anya to the ground, had brought his club over his head and was prepared to bring it down on to the former demon's head, when Xander, yelling his fury, struck first, splitting the head of the demon like a melon. Holding in his nausea, Xander then bent down to help Anya to her feet. "Ok, let's get the hell out of here!"
They were all, those who were left except Buffy, looking at him. That's what he wanted. They wouldn't hurt him. They would try to stop him, but they wouldn't hurt him. They thought he was the only threat. He was just a tool. He'd kill them easily enough once he was done with Buffy.
He had had her in the Nether and let her go, not realizing her importance. But Doyle knew who she was. She was the Slayer. Human and not human at the same time. She would suffice now that he'd lost the Promised One. He was just another half-demon. But she was the Slayer. He could have her. All he had to do was kill her. And then he could have them all.
The foursome led by Harry finally managed to make it out of the station and reached Riley's position, fortunately with nothing more serious than cuts and bruises, although Xander thought that Anya might have a concussion. Seeing them, Riley quickly signaled for a medic, who, responding quickly, saw to Anya first at Xander's urging. Nodding his head, the medic confirmed Xander's diagnosis. "She's got a mild concussion, but she should be okay." He then turned to the rest of the party and after a cursory examination, bandaged the most serious cuts and then nodding his head at Riley, returned to the fighting.
"How's it going in there?" Riley asked. "We're holding here, but only just, and we're running low on ammo. If Buffy and the others don't end this soon, we're screwed!" To punctuate his meaning, Xander looked up quickly as he saw one of the soldiers fire point blank into the face of a Scourge demon that had almost breeched their position.
"I don't know." Xander answered, "But Buffy'll come through. I just know it." Looking around and not wanting to feel useless, Xander then asked, "You got another rifle or something?" With a grim smile, Riley gave him his, and pulling out the Beretta in his holster, joined Xander on the firing line.
She was quick and strong. Gliding in underneath the tentacles, she ducked the arms of the enraged demon. As she hit and kicked at Lo'oran, Doyle also felt her blows. She couldn't evade Doyle, though. There was nothing to evade. Nothing to fight. Doyle knocked her to the ground and held her there, pushing her down when she tried to rise.
Doyle begged her to get up even though he knew he was pushing her down. Lo'oran then brought his foot down on her back, causing her to cry out in pain. She couldn't die. His lips moved, his voice. . . "Buffy." His wrists hurt. They burned.
I've had enough of you, Lo'oran screamed in Doyle's mind. It felt like a fire in his brain. You cannot fight me. You can only fight for me.
"Doyle!" Angel yelled. He must have heard. He stood in front of Doyle. Blocked his view of Buffy. "You're stronger than this! You outlasted him. You beat him. You're stronger than he is!"
Kill him, Lo'oran ordered, and Doyle pulled the sword from the wall. Angel was his friend. He had died to save him. Or tried. Kill him!
"I won't kill him," Doyle said aloud. Buffy was up again. The sword fell. Buffy flew backwards into Giles.
"I'm getting tired of this," she muttered, standing up. Reaching for the sword again, Doyle let her take it. But, as she tried to go back to Lo'oran, Doyle, trying vainly to fight Lo'oran's control, held her there, pointing the sword towards Angel. She let go of the sword, but it didn't fall. Instead, it hovered in midair and then moved forward until it touched Angel's neck. Doyle tried to fight it but he couldn't stop it.
Angel didn't move away or even look at the sword after the first glance. He just spoke, looking into Doyle's eyes. Doyle couldn't even hear him over the escalating howl of the wind, but he saw what he was saying. "You're stronger."
I'm stonger, Doyle thought and he wanted to believe. He could believe. There was a part of him he hadn't tapped into yet. Doyle closed his eyes and changed. He still felt Lo'oran but he felt more of himself. He felt the fatigue, the burning in his wrists. But he felt stronger, too. Lo'oran tried to move the sword, but Doyle held it as he pushed Angel away to the side and threw Buffy forward on the ground at Lo'oran's feet, surprising the demon. Doyle then took the sword and plunged it forward into Lo'oran's chest before Buffy could rise.
Angel smiled when he saw Doyle change, but he frowned again when he felt the energy hit him. Giles was just getting up as Angel fell into him again, followed soon by Buffy as she was sent flying over them, causing Angel to doubt Doyle's ability to fight Lo'oran's control.
But the sword was just behind Buffy, and he saw Lo'oran double over as it hit him, releasing energy that Angel could almost swear was visible. It hit Doyle, pushing him backwards and driving him through the wall until his motion was stopped by a bench in the room beyond.
Disentangling himself from Giles, Angel turned and saw Buffy rise; gripping the sword with both hands as she pulled it free. She then snapped a kick at Lo'oran's knee, bringing the demon down. Raising the sword, Buffy then struck the final blow, plunging it straight down through the back of its neck. The wind picked up as Giles and Angel helped each other off the floor. Buffy then put an end to the threat of Lo'oran once and for all as she put her weight on the sword and, slashing down, lobbed off the demon's head.
For just a moment, all air was sucked out of the room and then it exploded outward again. Angel felt himself propelled through the air as a brilliant white burst of light emanated from the demon's body.
The air that poured from the room was cool and welcome against Doyle's skin. He could see, from where he was lying, the white light that flared from Lo'oran's corpse. He thought he heard voices. He saw a face and then more. Thousands of faces, millions, and they spread themselves in every direction, passing through the walls and away to whatever lay beyond. One came close to him. Spiked like his own face, he recognized it. Lucas. Lucas who had come to him for help. Lucas whom he'd turned away.
Lucas smiled and touched Doyle's arm. The shackle on his wrist turned cold. Then he was gone and Doyle knew he'd been forgiven.
Angel opened his eyes and put his hand to his head. It was quiet and dark around him, and it took him a moment to recall where he was. He ached everywhere. Doyle! He had to find Doyle. He stood and felt a wave of dizziness, but he held onto what was left of the wall and kept going. He ducked through the splintered hole and stepped into the station's waiting area. It was quiet out here, too.
Doyle was lying awkwardly at the base of a broken bench. Angel didn't like the position of his head, but he noticed the green color of Doyle's hand. Still in demon form. There was a chance. He stepped over him and pushed the next bench out of the way so he could kneel down. Doyle's eyes opened when he did.
"Angel?" he whispered. He didn't sound good. And he didn't move.
"I'm here," Angel told him.
"I can't move," Doyle said, and Angel thought maybe he'd broken his neck. But his fingers moved, just not his arms. "Too heavy," he added, changing back to his human face.
Angel smiled. Not broken, just weak. "You don't have to," he replied. He pulled off his jacket and wrapped it around his friend as he raised him from the floor. Doyle groaned a bit and Angel held him until the pain passed.
"Cordelia?" Doyle asked.
With the walls broken, Angel could see into the room. Cordelia was getting up. She held her head and swayed on her feet, but she stood. "She's okay," Angel reported, still smiling. "She's getting up."
"And Harry?" Angel heard the guilt in that question.
Angel peered around the benches. He saw Willow and Anya being pulled up from between some benches by some soldiers. Riley was one of them. He looked the other way and saw Xander hack something on the floor. Demon leftover, Angel guessed. Harry was with him. "She's okay, too."
Angel smiled. He'd ask about every one of them in turn. So Angel called them off. Buffy was kicking a toe at the demon's remains. "Buffy, Giles, Xander, Willow, Anya. They're all fine."
"You forgot Spike."
"No, I didn't," Angel replied. But Spike was up too, and he gave the demon a much more vicious kick.
Cordelia pushed past him and came to Angel's side. She had blood in her hair and bruises on her arms. But she smiled and touched Doyle's face. "So are we ever going to get that dinner?" she asked.
Doyle smiled. "Anything, if it involves food."
Giles was next out the hole. "How is he?"
Angel just smiled. "Hungry."
"We have something in the car," Giles replied. "Riley says the demons retreated just before the explosion. We've won. We should go before the vampires decide to celebrate."
Angel nodded, and Giles helped Cordelia up again. Angel slipped his other hand under Doyle's knees and lifted him from the floor. He caught a glimpse of Buffy with Riley but decided he'd rather be happy about having Doyle back. He ignored them and followed Giles to the back of the train station. As they left the building, they could see what remained of the battle. Bodies littered the grounds. Many wore uniforms. Many didn't. But then the survivors were walking among them. Half-demons, and Angel saw Rieff among them. Rieff raised his sword in salute and Angel nodded back to him. And then all the half-breeds knelt as he passed them, or rather, as Doyle passed them.
Cordelia sighed heavily. "Like that's not going to go to his head!"
Angel laughed. Fortunately, Doyle was asleep.
Harry finished buttoning the top to the pajamas Giles had donated to Doyle's wardrobe. At present, the pajamas were the only clothes he owned. As Cordelia had surmised, the clothes he had been wearing were soaked through with blood, and they now resided in a plastic garbage bag beside the bed. Well, except for the brown leather jacket. She and Angel had decided to have it cleaned.
Harry wrung out the washcloth and stood to dump the water. It still didn't seem real somehow. All that blood and there was hardly a cut on him. He had a few scratches from the wall he'd been thrown through and the burns on his wrists. Otherwise he was just extremely thin and tired. And weak enough that he couldn't so much as raise an arm to help her change his clothes. He was embarrassed at first but they'd both reasoned that there was nothing she hadn't already seen. He'd fallen asleep as soon as she'd gotten his shoes off.
He was asleep now and Harry wondered if he still had nightmares of the Nether and Lo'oran. If he did, it didn't show. He looked peaceful, like he had looked when they were both younger. She hated to wake him, but she knew he wouldn't mind. He was as hungry as he was exhausted.
Harry shook the can, poured the other half of it into a glass and set them both on the nightstand. The nutrition shake was Giles' idea. Francis had already had half in the car. Then she touched his face. "Francis," she said softly. "Time to eat."
He hadn't woken no matter how she turned or moved him to get him cleaned and changed, but now his eyelids snapped open. Not that they didn't droop or threaten to close again. Harry smiled. "I see you have your priorities in order," she teased as she propped a pillow behind his head. She put a straw in the glass and held it for him while he drank.
"It's not a steak," he said, when he stopped for a breath, "but it'll do."
"I don't think your stomach could take a steak just yet," she told him.
"A man can dream," he replied. "At least it's vanilla."
Harry smiled and replaced the empty glass on the table. "I remembered," she said. "you never liked the 'melty' part of chocolate ice cream."
"And those things," he flicked a finger in the direction of the glass, "are all melty."
Harry laughed and lowered him back down again. He kept his eyes open, watching her, but his brow creased. He looked so serious now, vulnerable. "Harry?" he whispered. "You think we could maybe forgive and forget, you know, all the bad stuff?"
She took his hand, careful not to touch his wrist. "I did that months ago."
His fingers squeezed hers lightly. "So we can maybe be friends again?"
Harry shook her head. "Oh, Francis, we can never be just friends." She gave him a light smile. "We're family. Maybe not the same roles we used to have. But we're still family."
Doyle relaxed into the pillow. Harry brushed a stray bit of hair off his forehead. "I'm leaving, Francis. I have to take Gherosha back."
"I know," Harry laughed, "I guess he thought it a more dramatic exit. Anyway, I wanted to tell you how glad I am to see you again." Her throat hurt, but she didn't want to cry. Not now. "And I wanted to tell you to stop punishing yourself. You don't deserve it, Francis. You never did."
He looked away for a moment, taking a deep breath. "Old habits," he said, leaving it at that.
He couldn't promise. She knew that. She tucked the blanket around him and leaned forward to kiss him softly on the forehead.
"I still love you, Harry," he whispered. "I always will."
She stood. "Me, too, Francis."
He closed his eyes. He waited until she got to the door before he spoke again. "But do you think you could call me Doyle now?"
Harry laughed and shook her head. She called back over her shoulder. "You'll always be Francis to me, Francis."
Doyle struggled to lift his eyelids and then lifted an arm to rub at his eyes. The latter was now easier than the former. Every time he woke, he found himself stronger, though it still felt like lifting weights just to move his own body. And each time he'd been relieved to find he wasn't alone. Harry had been there the first time, another time it was Giles, changing the bandages on his wrists.
But usually it was Angel, and he just sat in the chair beside the bed pretending to read a book. In the short intervals of Doyle's wakefulness, he filled Doyle in on what he missed while he was asleep. Harry had borrowed Angel's car to take Gherosha back to his clan. Buffy and Willow had returned to campus and to classes, while Xander and Anya had left to "celebrate." Spike had simply left, which was good considering he was still a danger to Angel, if not Doyle as well.
Cordelia had been taken to the hospital and diagnosed with a mild concussion. She now slept beside him on the bed, an afghan carefully tucked in around her and a bandage on her forehead. She had no make-up on and her hair was tangled around her head. She was beautiful.
When Angel didn't say anything, Doyle looked and found him also sleeping. His head rested on an arm slung over the back of the chair. Doyle was thirsty-and hungry, but he was always hungry-and the glass beside the bed was empty. But he didn't want to wake either of them. He wasn't sure how long he'd been sleeping, but he figured they'd probably been awake for most of it. He had to get up sometime, and lying down was becoming uncomfortable.
He was still weak and it took a lot of effort to sit up. He went slowly, backing himself into the headboard until he was sitting. He felt a little dizzy and had to close his eyes until that passed. He almost fell asleep again, but he forced his eyes open and looked around the room from this new vantage point.
He'd figured he was still at Giles', but he'd never seen this room before. He'd never seen the bed he was sitting on. He smiled. He was upstairs. And he was sitting on a bed, leaning on a headboard. He was real and whole and alive.
But he was still thirsty and uncomfortable, and now he was determined to walk himself down the stairs that he would have fallen through the day before-at least he guessed it had been a day. He just wished he didn't have to walk down there in pajamas.
Careful not to make any noise or jar the bed too much, Doyle let his legs fall over the side. He used the bedside table for support and stood. His body felt a lot like it had on the way to the station, rubbery and weak, and the floor moved like waves beneath his feet. Doyle had to sit down again, but he was too determined to give up. The foot of the bed was close to a dresser. He could hold on to that until he reached the door.
He slid himself to the end of the bed and stood again, reaching out for the dresser with his eyes closed against the dizziness he felt. It passed and he opened them, surprised to find a nicely folded stack of clothes right next to his hand. The shirt on top looked a lot like the shirt he had been wearing all this time, but it was still crisp and new. Someone had bought him some clothes.
It took nearly twenty minutes to dress, but he managed, only standing when he had to get the pants over his hips. He checked over his shoulder to make sure Cordelia was still sleeping, and then stood again, using the dresser for support.
The dizziness subsided, though it didn't go away completely. He kept one hand and a good amount of his weight on first the wall and then the banister and concentrated simply on moving one foot in front of the other. He wanted to sit and rest on the steps but he wouldn't allow himself to stop. He felt he needed to get downstairs. Downstairs was life. And food.
Giles saw him when the stepped onto the landing. "Oh dear," he said, coming to the foot of the stairs. "Let me help you."
Doyle stopped, both hands on the banister to steady himself. "Thanks," he replied, "but I think I can make it." He kept both hands on the banister, locking his arms to support his weight, and stepped down again. "Who do I get to thank for the wardrobe?" he asked, trying not to sound as strained and fatigued as he felt.
"Riley," Giles replied, not moving from the end of the banister. "He and Buffy went shopping this afternoon. They weren't certain of the sizes."
Two more steps. Doyle felt like he'd run a marathon already. "I'm not sure of the sizes," he quipped back. The clothes were a bit big, but he was still a bit small from the ordeal. He spotted his target behind Giles. The table. Then he hesitated, one step left to go. There was nothing but open space between the bannister and the table.
Giles rightly read his hesitation as doubt. "Are you sure you can make it?"
The man had played a large part in saving his life, Doyle reasoned. He'd seen Doyle at a weaker state than this. This was an improvement. Nothing to be ashamed of. Still his cheeks flushed a bit. "No," he replied, "I'm not sure at all."
Giles nodded and offered his arms. "You do the work, and I'll see that you don't fall."
Doyle smiled. "Sounds like a good deal to me." With Giles holding him up, Doyle walked, slowly, to the table. Giles pulled out a chair, and Doyle dropped himself into it, resting his arms on the table top.
Giles moved toward the kitchen. "I was just about to have some tea. Can I get you some?"
"I'd like that," Doyle answered, allowing himself the small wonder of running his fingers over the solidity of the wooden tabletop. "But I'd really like something more substantial than tea."
"Perhaps a sandwich?" Giles offered from the kitchen. "You should probably avoid anything too heavy for the time being."
Doyle nodded, remembering the sandwich Willow had tried to give him. "That would be great, thank you."
Giles returned after a few minutes with a sandwich and two cups of tea. He pulled over a chair opposite Doyle. "Really," Doyle added once Giles was seated, "thank you."
"You're more than welcome," the Englishman replied. "I could thank you as well. You did your part, and a bit more, the other night. The world is safe for the next day or two. Now dig in, and try not to eat too fast."
Doyle smiled at both Giles and the sandwich before him. The bread was soft when he picked it up. It was simple enough. Just soft white bread, a few thin slices of ham, and a touch of mustard. Still, it tasted like the stuff of heaven when he took his first bite. He couldn't help but take the second as soon as the first was gone. The sandwich was half-gone before he stopped for a breath.
"How long have I been out?" Doyle asked.
Giles took a sip of his tea. "It's Wednesday afternoon."
"Wednesday," Doyle repeated, a bit surprised. Nearly two whole days.
Giles offered a smile and raised his teacup in salute. "Welcome back."
Doyle finished the last bite of sandwich and raised his own cup in return. "It's good to be back." His hand shook, so he lowered it again quickly. The tea had cooled while he was eating, so he drank half of it down at once before it could get cold.
"Rieff came by to see you yesterday," Giles told him. "He wanted to say good-bye. He was going to return to his family on Briole."
Doyle let out a sigh of relief. "He's alright then?" He'd been worried about Rieff and the others.
"A little haggard, perhaps, and sore," Giles replied. "But he appeared uninjured."
Doyle finished his tea while he tried to decide how to word his next question. "How many," he finally asked, "died, on our side?"
Giles put down his own glass and steepled his fingers. "Sixty-three," he answered.
Doyle felt his heart drop in his chest. So many. More than he'd saved that night on the Quintessa.
"I met some of them," Giles went on, "in the Nether. They gave their lives. They knew you were the one to stop the Scourge. Try to think of all those who will live now that Lo'oran is gone."
Doyle nodded, but such things were always easier said than done. He was tired again. His vision blurred, and he felt dizzy. Then his skull seemed to contract around his brain in a familiar and completely unwelcome manner. A spasm hit him with the vision and his head dropped painfully to the table. His right hand clenched the teacup and squeezed so hard that it broke.
Doyle wasn't aware of Giles jumping up from the table. He didn't hear the man call for Angel. He could not even make himself breathe. His hand gripped the broken glass, driving shards through his palm. But that was nothing compared to the pain in his head.
Angel was awake and down the stairs before the vision was over. Doyle's body relaxed and he distantly felt someone open his fist and remove the glass. Doyle just concentrated on breathing and trying to open his eyes so he could tell what he saw before he forgot.
Strong arms gripped his waist and half-carried, half-dragged him to the couch. "Doyle?" Angel asked, as he placed a cool cloth on his forehead. He was worried.
Doyle still couldn't get his eyes to open. But he could talk. "Goldfingers," he whispered. "Vampires. We have to go home." He didn't hear Angel's reply.
Someone woke him later. Cordelia. She helped Doyle to sit up. "Sun's down," she said, smiling. "Time to go home."
Angel helped to haul him to his feet. "I guess, since you made it all the way down the stairs I won't have to carry you."
"Harry has your car," was all Doyle could manage, remembering that she'd left soon after the battle was over.
"We're taking the train," Angel answered. "Put this on."
He held up Doyle's familiar leather jacket and helped him get his arms in. Giles and Angel helped him to the car. Doyle managed to stay awake for the ride, and he was even able to stand on his own when they arrived at the train station.
He was a little surprised to see the rather large crowd that had gathered to see them off. Buffy, Riley, Willow-everyone but Spike. "We had a pool in your honor," Xander announced. "The one who guesses farthest from your actual wake-up time has to make dinner for everyone else."
"I lost," Riley said with a grin and an extended his hand. Doyle smiled back, glancing at his own right hand now bandaged and swore. He offered his left hand instead and the two of them shook hands. "I was hoping to meet you when Buffy and I dropped off the clothes." Riley added.
"That was you?" Cordelia began before Doyle could thank him. "You bought the same thing he always wears. The man literally has no clothes. It was a prime opportunity for upgrade."
Doyle grasped Riley's hand with both of his own and shook it again. "Thank you," he said, exaggerating his sincerity.
Xander was next in line with Anya and Doyle shook hands with each, thanking them. Giles shook hands too, and Doyle apologized for the nearly week-long invasion of his house. Then there was Willow. "I believe I owe you a kiss," Doyle told her, throwing a glance at Cordelia. She didn't look happy.
Willow rescued him from that predicament. "I saw what happened to Cordelia after one of your kisses, so I think I'll settle for a hug."
She had a little girl quality about her that Doyle liked. She was cute. But Cordy was gorgeous. "Deal," he replied, letting her pull him into a brief embrace.
Doyle had purposely saved Buffy for last. He owed his life to each of them, but nothing they did would have been possible without Buffy. Doyle took a step toward her and pulled her into the strongest hug he could manage. "Thank you," he whispered in her ear, "for seeing me."
Her arms, much stronger than his, wrapped around him in return. "I'd like to see you again someday," she told him, then held him back. "Just leave the apocalypse in L.A. next time." She was smiling. "I have something for you."
She turned to Riley, who held a gym bag out to her. Doyle could tell by the way it hung that there was something long and thin inside it. She unzipped the bag and pulled out the dark sword that had killed Lo'oran. She held it with one hand under the hilt, the other under the blade. "You earned it," she said, presenting it to him.
Doyle didn't know that he wanted that sword. "You defeated him," he whispered back, wishing now that they were alone.
"Not without you," she returned, whispering also. "We Ones have to stick together." She leaned in and gave him a kiss on the cheek and placed the sword in his hands.
When she let go, they weight of it nearly pulled him over. So he let go and it clamored to the pavement. Buffy chuckled and Doyle just shrugged, amused himself. It was a good feeling.
Angel retrieved the sword. "Why don't I carry this for you?"
"We're going to miss our train," Cordelia stated, taking Doyle's arm. She smiled at the others the same way she had when Buffy came to visit, a mixture of annoyance and jealousy, with just a touch of affection hidden under pride. She was complicated, and he let her turn him away towards the station. "Bye, everyone!" she called back.
Angel lagged a moment behind but it wasn't hard to catch up. He slipped one arm around Doyle's back and the walking became easier. Still, to one so weak, the distance to the gate and the waiting train was long. They found an empty compartment and Doyle laid across the seats on one side. He was asleep again before the train left the station.
Wesley covered a yawn as he entered the concourse. It was still relatively early as far as LA nights went, and the station held a fair crowd. He found the information booth and the gate for the train from Sunnydale. He also noted that, while he was early, so was the train. It had arrived five minutes ago.
Wesley scanned the crowd for Angel's face and dark coat as he strode toward the gate. The gate's doors were closed, the train having already discharged all its passengers. A few likely candidates still milled about, but most had either headed for the exit or the benches where they could rest to wait for friends who weren't expecting them for another ten minutes.
Angel was fairly tall and his dark countenance was generally noticeable. And Cordelia always managed to stand out in a crowd. But Wesley could see neither of them. Of course, they wouldn't have expected him to be here so soon, but he'd been anxious to hear how things turned out.
They might simply have wandered off for a snack, Wesley reasoned. Well, a snack for Cordelia at any rate. He could have them paged, which would undoubtedly annoy one or the other of them, or he could wait for them to return. But they might not think to return to the gate. They might head for the concourse or expect to meet him at the curb. They could be there now, waiting for him while he was at the gate waiting for them. And if they were outside, they might not even hear a page.
Wesley turned, trying not to look too obvious in case the unfamiliar, accented voice had been speaking to some other Wesley. A sickly-looking young man was watching him, though his eyes wandered frequently to a man across the aisle who was trying to coax his child into eating a graham cracker without success. Wesley could have been the boy's name. He turned away again, and went back to scanning the crowd.
Wesley spun again and this time the young man was watching him intently. He was more than sickly. He seemed poured onto the bench, uncomfortable but not inclined-or unable-to sit up. He spoke again, quieter, but with the same light brogue, "Former slayer watcher and rogue demon hunter."
Wesley stepped closer, darting his eyes to see if anyone had heard. Closer, but not too close. "How do you know that?" he asked, whispering.
The man's mouth turned up into a small grin. He whispered back, "You work for a vampire named Angel."
Wesley grew alarmed, though he tried not to show it. "Do I know you?" he asked, hoping he sounded authoritative.
The man's smile widened. "No, I don't suppose you do. They didn't talk about me much. But I know you."
Talk about him? Who was 'they'? He'd only mentioned Angel. "Who are you?"
The man held out a shaky left hand, and Wesley noted the right one was bandaged. Actually the left was too, but only at the wrist. Incapable seemed more the reason for his posture. "Doyle," the man said.
Wesley's eyebrows lifted, and his heart sped up in his chest. "Doyle who?"
"Who Doyle, more rightly," the man corrected, dropping his hand wearily to his lap. "But I think you'll figure it out."
Wesley felt a chill. "The one . . . who is . . . is-" he stammered, knowing but unable to put the word out.
"Dead," Doyle finished for him, sounding a little too amused for Wesley's taste. "Yeah, that's me."
"But-" Wesley didn't know how to finish. He'd never knowingly talked with a ghost before. No wonder he looked sickly. But that didn't make sense. Wesley hadn't heard much but he knew that Doyle had died suddenly and heroically, not of illness. And why would a ghost be bandaged?
Wesley spun around again, still unsure how to proceed. Cordelia waved. She and Angel were still a few yards away.
"You're early," Angel said in greeting as they neared. "Good. I've got to work tonight."
They weren't aware. Maybe he wasn't visible to them. Maybe he wasn't Doyle at all, but an imposter who knew Wesley wouldn't know the difference. And why was Angel carrying a chocolate chip cookie and a small carton of milk?
"I got you a present," Angel added, walking right past Wesley to the man . . . ghost . . . whatever . . . seated on the bench. "I had one of these that day I was human."
What day as a human? Perhaps things hadn't gone as well in Sunnydale as Wesley had hoped.
The man watched the cookie more than Angel who handed it to him. Cordelia sat beside him and opened the milk. Wesley now noticed the bandage on her forehead. That could explain her acceptance. But Angel?
"Have a seat, Wesley," Angel encouraged. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
Wesley stared down at him, still unable to form a word.
Doyle, or whoever he was, laughed. And nearly choked. Angel helped him sit up, while Cordelia patted his back. "Okay, let's wait a few weeks before we try laughing while eating again."
Doyle could only nod since he was too busy coughing. Cordelia helped him with the milk, but Angel just furrowed his prominent brow at Wesley. "You didn't think. . . . You knew he wasn't dead."
Wesley knew no such thing. "Then where has he been all these months? And the grieving and moping?"
"He always mopes," Doyle offered, apparently thinking he was being helpful.
"He's unusually talented at it," Cordelia added.
Angel wasn't as entertained. "You called us. You knew about the N'thirae demon. You gave us the way into the Nether so we could get him out."
Him? Wesley shook his head. "Buffy," he replied, not at all sure anymore. "Buffy was in the Nether."
Doyle finished the rest of his cookie and reached for the milk. "He's got his adjectives all confused," he said, clearly thinking he'd explained it all.
Angel apparently agreed. "Buffy's the Chosen One, Wesley. The Promised," he indicated Doyle, "One was in the Nether."
Wesley still didn't understand, but he realized he wasn't going to win. "Doyle-your Doyle, the dead one-is the Promised One?" He dropped to the bench beside Cordelia.
"Not dead," Cordelia corrected. She leaned forward to address Angel on the other side of Doyle. "We should have talked more about how he died."
Angel just shrugged, standing and held out his hand to Doyle who stood with visible effort. "We'll explain it in the car," he offered Wesley.
Wesley stood up, too and took up Doyle's other side. It already made some sense. And if Doyle had spent the last few months with the N'thirae demon, he had good reason to be too weak.
"Wesley," Cordelia said, putting a bag over his other shoulder and clapping his back, "meet Doyle." And Wesley didn't think he'd ever seen her happier.
©copyright 2000 Gabrielle Lawson
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