The Substitute Teacher
Monday morning. She hadn't used to dread the start of school like this.
Cordelia Chase walked down the deserted corridor, hearing only the click of her heels on the polished floor. The noise echoed around the walls and was bounced back at her from every side by all the empty space and smooth surfaces. Everything was far too quiet. Morning lessons had already begun.
She knew she ought to hurry, but couldn't make her feet move any faster. She was never usually late for class, but a lot of the certainties in her life had changed recently.
Lately, she'd been finding out just how much life really could suck. It was an alien feeling. In the past, she'd felt bummed when Harmony got to the dress she liked in the sales before she did. Or when somebody came into school with the same hair. She'd had no concept of how low down on the scale of lousy that actually was. And she so much didn't appreciate the world deciding to give her a demonstration.
Notable among her problems was the puncture wound in her stomach which was taking its time to heal. That was behind her lateness this morning. She'd accidentally left the house without painkillers, and had to go back for them when the injury started hurting as she pulled up outside Sunnydale High.
She approached the classroom door nervously. From the noise level inside, she was in luck; the teacher hadn't arrived yet. Rumour had it Mr. Matthews wasn't somebody to get on the wrong side of. Clutching the strap of her shoulder-bag so hard her nails left marks in the leather, she peered through the glass window in the door.
No teacher. She noticed it with small relief. It wasn't really what the staff thought of her which bothered her the most, whatever she might have heard about Matthews.
No empty seats. That was what she noticed next. No, wait - there was one, at the front of the room...
At the front of the room next to Willow Rosenberg.
Cordelia leaned back against the doorframe, closed her eyes for a pained moment, and sighed. It would be too much to hope that life would decide to make anything easy for her, the way her luck had been recently.
She pushed the door open, stalked in, and sat down, determined to remain unmoved by anything that happened.
She felt the stares. Everyone knew what had happened between Willow and her; between Willow and Xander.
Willow had been her opposite number for years. While Cordelia was the most popular girl in school, Willow was the least. It had been like that since kindergarten. They'd never got on until recently, when Cordelia had begun to date Xander, and hence started to associate with Willow because the two of them were like geeky matching bookends.
They actually got along quite well. When she'd walked into that basement and seen Xander and Willow making out, it had been a double betrayal.
And now they were enemies again.
After a moment she felt the stares get bored and direct their attention elsewhere, and the noise level in the classroom rose once more to its previous volume.
Hesitantly, nervously, Willow said, "Hi, Cordelia. You look well... better. A lot better. I'm glad..." Willow tended to talk when she was nervous... or terrified.
Cordelia knew from experience that Willow could gabble on for hours given sufficient tension and no interruptions. She sighed and let it roll right on over her, not hearing a word.
Actually, it was the first time in a couple of days that anyone had made much effort to talk to her at all. Harmony and the rest of Cordelia's old crowd - they'd used to be called the Cordettes, but nobody used that name any more, not in a while - were still in full bitch mode with her. In the aftermath of being cheated on by Xander Harris, she didn't have any cred left to speak of. With anyone.
Her parents were no less indifferent than usual, wrapped up in their own worlds.
She wasn't unused to feeling lonely, as she'd once told Buffy. Being popular didn't mean you couldn't feel alone in the crowd. But this was the first time she'd ever had to feel lonely while she was, well... alone.
She contemplated the irony that the only person who was making real efforts to be nice to her was the one who was largely responsible for her current situation of unpopularity in the first place.
Then she started working on a put-down which ought to leave Willow's fragile ego in shreds for at least the next few hours.
After all, she was definitely owed some malicious amusement at Willow's expense.
Thankfully, it was only a few minutes before the classroom door swung open. It wasn't Mr. Matthews who walked in, however, but a man she hadn't seen before. Cordelia brightened up, her interest caught by this substitution, and studied the new arrival critically.
This guy was considerably younger than Matthews - which wasn't difficult, because Matthews was practically mummified - and was at a guess somewhere in his mid to late twenties. He had dark hair, pale skin, blue eyes, a slightly nervous smile. A pleasant enough face; features comfortably approaching good-looking if not precisely dazzlingly handsome.
Unfortunately, he was also way short and his taste in clothes was like a Greek Tragedy.
He drew everyone's attention by dropping a heavy file onto his desk with deliberate volume, and waited for the room to quieten before he started speaking. His stance - arms folded across his chest, leaning back a fraction - was slightly too casual and slightly too nervous all at once.
"Mornin' class," he said. "I'm sad to say that Mr Matthews was taken ill last night. The doctors say he'll make a full recovery in time, as I'm sure you're all happy to hear. Meantime, I'll be takin' your lessons."
"He's going to teach us english?" Cordelia muttered. "Come off it - most of that wasn't even recognisable english. And what's with that fakey accent?"
"It's Irish," Willow whispered. "Shush."
Cordelia rolled her eyes in exasperation.
"I'm Mr. Doyle," the guy said, unpacking papers from his file. He stumbled slightly over the 'Mr' - or it could just have been the unfamiliar accent, Cordelia wasn't sure. "I was to start here anyway in just a few days, but with Mr. Matthews being indisposed I agreed to come in early." He grinned lamely. Cordelia wondered if his nervousness was as clear to everyone else; looking around, she couldn't see that they'd noticed anything.
"Goody for us," she breathed sourly. As if it wasn't bad enough that most of the school treated her like a leper and the almost-healed injury in her stomach still ached like anything, now she was going to have to sit through several lessons with this clown every week.
Mr. Doyle looked around, a query in his eyes as they searched the room and finally rested on Cordelia. "What's that you say? Do you have something you want to share, ah, miss...?"
"Cordelia Chase," she filled in, her voice a bored monotone, trying to keep her face from burning with the embarrassment of being singled out.
"Oh." He squinted down at the papers on his desk, and he frowned as his eyes flickered back to her. Then he carried on as though the incident hadn't occurred, saying nothing further on the matter, turning instead to Shakespeare.
His reaction only made Cordelia feel more angry and embarrassed. 'He's got some sort of file on me there,' she realised furiously. 'He knows all about all that time in hospital. He's sorry for me.'
God! She so did not need pity right now! She was Cordelia Chase. She was not someone to be pitied. She was, had always been, the envy of Sunnydale High!
And that was why she subsequently sat through the lesson bitching to Willow about every little thing she could find fault with about Mr Doyle - his method of teaching, his clothing, his accent, his B.O, and anything else she could think of. Just loud enough so he had to hear at least some of it, although too quiet to reach the other students sitting further back. As she'd expected, he continued his policy of being nice to poor pathetic Cordy and didn't even look in her direction once.
It didn't give her any satisfaction. She just felt madder, and increasingly guilty because he was after all only trying to be nice to her, and consequently even madder. Willow shifted embarrassedly in her seat the whole time, obviously itching to get away.
At the end of the lesson, when she sauntered last out of the room - having hung back in the perverse hope he'd see fit to say something - he merely gave her a tight smile and inclined his head in an ironic little gesture she found intensely annoying.
Cordelia forced the muscles of her face into returning her most dazzling smile.
"Cordelia!" Willow gasped, obviously appalled, once they were well clear of the classroom and in the midst of the busy corridor full of students. "Why did you do that? He was nice! And you were... And I was sitting next to you! I'm now tainted as the associate of the class bad girl!"
Cordelia sighed. She couldn't even remember that put-down now, the teacher guy had got her so riled. And she'd worked hard on it too. "He pissed me off," she said. "And he's not the only one. Some people seem to be forgetting that their place right now is merely to grovel."
Willow huffed but predictably didn't retaliate. "Didn't you even think he was just a little bit nice?" she ventured, after a moment, as Cordelia paused by her locker and searched for the key. "I mean, that accent, and those eyes... And oh my gosh please don't tell Oz I said that!"
"Oh, yes," she retorted scornfully, ignoring the last part - let Willow sweat that she'd just given the person with the most reason to harm her the ammunition to decrease whatever chances she had of winning back Oz. "That accent! And those clothes! So he's about two decades younger than any of the other staff at this mausoleum of a school. So what? That does not by definition make him droolsome. And I'll remind you that most of the staff here end up turning out to be monsters! He's probably some kind of really yicky demon. Remember what you said happened when Xander dated a teacher?" She broke off. "Which reminds me, why am I talking to you?"
Cordelia threw her work at the back of her locker and slammed the door shut before it could all cascade back out again. She stalked off, leaving Willow standing there speechless.
Man, what a morning.
After the door swung shut behind the last of the departing class, Allen Francis Doyle sighed and looked around the empty room which seemed, at the moment, the most wonderful sight in the world.
He closed his eyes and leaned back against the door. He tried to breathe deeply and regularly. Tried to force the tension away.
Didn't work too good.
It was ironic to think that, not so many years ago, teaching had been his life. And now, six or seven years down the line - down the drain - he'd never felt so terrified as upon this, his first day back in teaching.
It was nerve-racking enough to face a class of teens when he'd previously only ever taught kids half their age, and that a good few years ago. The Chase girl, and that sharp tongue she had on her, hadn't helped any. But that was nothing to the overwhelming fear of something as simple as a mere sneeze, which could so easily reveal his demon heritage before an audience of so many young eyes.
Yeah, there was a bloody good reason why he'd given up teaching in the first instance when his demon side had begun to show. Far as Doyle was concerned, it was damned unreasonable, not to mention impractical, of the Powers to demand that he take it up again.
He hoped it was only a temporary measure. Aside from everything else, Cordelia Chase was a real stiffener, and he really, really shouldn't be entertaining thoughts like that about one of his students.
He walked around the room, restlessly rearranging chairs and tidying desks. His hands were shaking slightly. Had been all morning; he couldn't stop them. He could definitely use a drink... but he couldn't drink. If the kids smelled it on him, he'd be sunk.
He felt trapped, and afraid, and alone.
When his visions had told him in their usual vague, painful bursts of disparate detail what he was meant to do, he'd spent the following several long weeks losing himself in a bottle and telling himself, bugger the visions.
The teaching, that was a part of himself he'd left behind long ago. That old Doyle, he'd been a human being, a person, with a proper name, a wife, a job, a normal life - hell, any kind of a life.
He'd been a fiction.
He wouldn't go back. He couldn't. That other Doyle had never been real. He might not like the drunkard shadow of a loser he'd become, but at least he wasn't a lie any more. He'd sunk neatly into the kind of existence he best fit and deserved.
So he'd ignored the visions.
But they hadn't ignored him.
After a time they'd become too insistent, too regular. Until finally they shattered his resolve. He could only take so much pain. And so eventually he'd come to Sunnydale, as they wanted, because he couldn't live with that level of agony assaulting his brain on a daily basis. He'd thought it would hurt less to just go ahead and do what they required of him.
He was beginning to suspect he'd been wrong.
And it had only been one lesson, he thought, with growing horror. How many more were still ahead? Today. Tomorrow. The rest of the week... The rest of the year?
It had been remarkably easy to get the teaching job at Sunnydale High. They seemed to have no small amount of staff casualties. Teachers missing, attacked, murdered, eaten... He shuddered to think of some of the reports he'd heard. It seemed word was spreading, and people were becoming unwilling to work there. When Doyle had applied, they'd snapped him up eagerly. They hadn't looked too closely at the mass of fabrications that constituted his resume.
He realised he was straightening chairs that were already straight, and forced himself to sit down and attempt to relax. He was way too keyed up.
It was about an hour before his next lesson of subbing for Matthews. Research time, he told himself.
Pushing the file of school papers aside, he dug into his case for a thicker sheaf of paper. He sorted through it until he found the list of names. He ran his finger down the list until he reached 'Cordelia Chase'. He took up a pen and crossed her name off.
Well, it was a start.
The unmarked remainder of the list looked long, and daunting. If he was going to do this by process of elimination, he realised, it was going to take him a very long time.
He sighed, leaning back in the chair. Through the window across the room, he could see teenagers haunting the grounds of the school in little untidy clumps. A half-hearted game of basketball was going on. It was a sunny, pleasant day.
He wondered how many of them had ever suspected their nice little town was a hive of activity for the undead. He'd heard only that morning about another couple of murders with a supernatural whiff to them. The population of this town were dropping like flies, and the populace... just didn't seem to notice.
Somewhere here too, among the monsters and the regular folk, there was a vampire with a soul by the name of Angel. He was the guy Doyle was supposed to help, the one who had the potential to serve the Powers That Be in the fight against evil.
Somewhere. The where part being the problematic area.
He'd been supposed to be in Sunnydale much earlier, he knew. Something had happened while he delayed all those weeks in LA, getting himself acquainted with every gutter there was to know in the city. And Angel... well, he wasn't turning out to be so easy to find.
Doyle sincerely hoped the guy wasn't dead... dead as in dust, at any rate. The Powers seemed to have left him high and dry since he'd given up his resistence and come to Sunnydale. He liked to entertain the fact they were sulking, but they probably didn't feel he deserved their making it easy for him after the last several weeks. He'd had no contact at all, no visions, nothing. And that hideous, repeated vision which had trawled its way through his brain too many times to count in the past month or so, it hadn't had much detail as to where Angel might actually be found.
However, his mission was twofold, and the vision had also indicated he was to assist the slayer who currently resided in Sunnydale. Since the slayer knew Angel... if he found her, problem solved.
But the only information he had to go on was that she was one of the girls in his classes. That was the reason for the teaching thing. It was supposed to be his point of contact with the slayer.
And of course, with the remaining girls on his list of possibilities, he'd hardly be fortunate enough to have their absence records and doctor's note handed over with the class lists. If it hadn't been for that, he'd have considered the Chase girl a good bet to start his search with. But a slayer would have healed much quicker than that; which meant Cordelia Chase was just a normal girl with a high level of aggression and a very sharp tongue, who was in the process of recovering from a truly horrible accident.
Doyle wished he knew exactly what he'd done to upset her so much. He'd been trying to be kind, that was all, and had hardly expected that sort of reaction.
With a deliberate effort, he turned his mind from Cordelia Chase and his eyes from the sunny, deceptively innocent scene outside the window. He had an hour, he reminded himself, sternly. Enough time to begin his search for the slayer in earnest. No more delaying. After all, it hadn't done him any good so far.
He went to the computer in the corner of the room, switched it on and sat down. Time to examine a few student records. Actually, he hadn't yet been officially granted access to the school's computerised records system, but it wasn't too difficult to get around that.
He buried himself in research.
The time until his next lesson ticked by far too quickly.
Cordelia stopped by the library on her way out of school later that afternoon - for purely academic purposes, for once. She needed to get some more books to catch up all the work she'd missed while in hospital. But it wasn't a visit she made with much enthusiasm.
She pushed open the door and, as she'd feared, discovered the whole gang was gathered in there as usual. They looked up, their surprise evident, as she walked in.
"Don't look at me like that," she said, irritably fending the stares off with a flick of her hand. "You people are nothing to do with me any more. I'm merely here to use the library as an actual library, which should be a unique experience for it." She stalked past the little group and headed into the stacks.
Behind her, she was aware of Giles shrugging and turning back to the others. She heard him say, "Well, as I was explaining, there is clearly something going on here. All the signs indicate some new kind of demonic menace in town. What happened to those two youths last night..."
At that point Cordelia deliberately switched her ears off. She didn't want to know. So long as it didn't come near her, the supernatural in Sunnydale was no longer her concern. No, thank-you! No more demons, monsters, losers or other freaks of any kind. From now on, she was going to ensure her life remained freak-free.
Which totally included the ones clustered around the library table.
She found the books she wanted and returned to the main reception where Giles was still yakking away. Something about demons and entrails, and some big bad evil he was sending a protesting Buffy out after.
Buffy had some clear grief about this and she was volubly outlining her soon-to-be-cancelled plans to go to the mall with her mother.
"Hey? Librarian-man? Can I get some service here?" Cordelia interrupted, waving the pile of books in pointed illustration.
"Can't you see we're busy with something important, Cordelia?" Giles replied crisply. He glowered at her for a moment, an expression she frostily returned. "Oh... everything's over on the desk there, you can issue the books yourself." He waved her away and turned back to the others.
"Gee, thanks," she muttered to his tweed-clad back, and leaned over the desk to do as he said, wincing at a brief twinge from her injury.
"Demons," she heard the detestable Xander Harris prompt Giles, as the librarian clearly tried to remember what he'd been saying. "And entrails."
"Well, any internal organs, really," Giles said. "I suspect it just happened to be entrails in this case, if I'm right about the creature we're looking for."
"If you're right?" Willow asked nervously. "So you're not sure? You mean it could be something entirely different?"
"Certainly. As I believe I have mentioned before, there are a number of demons which require parts from humans to sustain them in some way, and in this case the clues we've had are few and far between. This fellow here is only the most likely out of a number of almost equally likely possibilities."
"But we'd know it if we saw it, right? Organ- pinching demon. Big, nasty and ugly, yes?" That was Buffy's input.
"Aren't they all?" Xander put in.
Giles dithered, and answered Buffy hesitantly; "Well... this one, yes. But many of the other possibilities, they can look quite human. Some of them, you wouldn't know from anyone else if they didn't want you to. It's interesting, actually, but in some cases the theft of body parts is what allows them to appear normal..."
'Yuck. And goodbye,' Cordelia thought, picking up her stamped books and stalking out of the door. Nobody even appeared to notice her leave, which didn't help to improve her mood. Lately, it seemed, she was invisible to everyone but the people who considered her a laughing stock.
The sky was darkening by the time Doyle trailed home from Sunnydale High and headed back to the depressing little apartment he'd rented in a cheap, shabby area of the town.
As he walked he considered his findings from looking through the student records. As well as eliminating several more as possibilities, he'd actually managed to pick out a handful of young women he deemed very likely slayer candidates, whose lives in the last few years had contained more than their fair share of curious or violent events.
Among them was Willow Rosenberg, the quiet girl who'd been sitting next to Cordelia Chase in his first class. He hadn't met any of the others on the list yet. One of them, Buffy Summers, had a very colourful record indeed.
Unfortunately, he was stumped as to how he should proceed in finding out which, if any of them, was actually the slayer. He could hardly go up to them and ask, causal-like, "Say, do your extra-curricular activities happen to include slaying vampires?" His imagination filled in the rest of the scene: "No? Well, never mind - no, don't phone the board of Governors... What? No, not the psychiatric hospital either..."
He knew the slayer's Watcher was also one of the staff at the school, but hadn't had opportunity yet to even compile a list of possibilities.
And he had to admit it would be easier if he stopped avoiding the staff room. But he didn't want to answer friendly questions about his previous - fictional - teaching jobs, or be welcomed by the people he was lying to.
It occurred to him it shouldn't be too hard, anyway, if he investigated the students on his shortlist, to find out if any of them associated closely with particular members of staff. That should make it simple to narrow down both slayer and watcher.
It didn't take him long to near his new apartment. It was necessarily close to the school, as he didn't have a car. It was also opposite a graveyard, but since there were about a dozen cemeteries in Sunnydale it was kind of hard to avoid living in close proximity to at least one.
There were broken railings interspersed with trees and bushes bordering the cemetery, running parallel to the path Doyle was walking along.
He was almost home when a figure stepped out from the shadows of the shrubbery, blocking the path.
He stopped, squinting at the figure through the dingy light. His distracted brain kicked into gear and formed a few unhappy connections.
Sunnydale. Hellmouth. Vampires. Figures lurking around cemeteries in the dark... Not good.
Whatever - or, indeed, hopefully whoever - it was, it had made no move to attack. In fact, it didn't appear to have noticed Doyle there.
That was when the smell of fresh blood hit him, so strong it was dizzying. It made him feel ill.
He reached into the pocket of his battered leather jacket and gripped the sharpened stake of wood he'd figured to be the best form of self-defense he could carry around in Sunnydale.
He couldn't say the possibility he'd encounter something hadn't been squatting in the back of his mind since he'd arrived in the town, and he realised now he should really have been more wary, walking alone through the darkening evening.
He'd kind of hoped that perhaps the vampires which were known to infest Sunnydale would smell the demon in him, and stay clear.
On the other hand, perhaps not.
The figure turned around, its twisted and demonic face visible in the dim evening light, and hissed threateningly upon seeing him there.
It was a tall, lanky man, or at least it had been once. Its clothes were covered in a layer of mud, and Doyle realised it must be a newly risen vampire that had just dug itself free of the grave.
Already it had made a kill, though. There was blood messily daubed all over the lower half of its face.
It took a few steps towards him, then hesitated and sniffed the air. Evidently it could tell there was something amiss with him - but it was too new risen for caution. It lunged forward, and Doyle barely managed to back out of its reach. He raised the stake defensively. "You don't wanna do this," he warned it - although the shake in his voice probably spoiled the effect. "A little more here than meets the eye, y'know."
"Yeah. Dessert." The vamp, wary of the stake, circled around him. Doyle, knowing it was expecting him to hold back until it attacked, stabbed at it before he had time to think about what he was doing and be afraid. Took it by surprise, but his aim was slightly off and he only stabbed it in the arm. It retaliated with a blow which sent him flying backwards to finish up in an untidy, hurting sprawl on the pavement.
And without a stake.
The stake was still sticking out of the vampire's arm. It pulled it out, studied it for a moment, then laughed and threw it aside.
'Well, this is just great!' A little voice in his head jeered. 'I get killed first day on the job. Some messenger. The Powers That Be sure know how to pick 'em!'
Unless, he realised sourly, they'd had enough and given up on him already.
Doyle tried to pick himself up off the sidewalk, but the heavy fall had shaken him and his limbs weren't responding too well, and by the time he managed to get to his feet it only made things easier for the vampire. Meant it could grab the collar of his jacket without even having to lean down. It shoved him roughly backwards.
His shoulders slammed against metal railings, hard enough to finally shake loose his control. He felt the change sweep over him, bringing with it the increased power and strength of his demon form.
"Damn it!" He shook it off, feeling his face smooth back to human.
The vampire watched him warily. Doyle could practically hear its brain ticking over. Then, after a moment, it snorted in digust, turned its back on him, and started to walk off.
Doyle watched its retreat incredulously for a long moment, before it occurred to him that if he let it go, it would only find somebody human to bite. And that it was really, really annoying for the thing to beat the crap out of him and then decide he wasn't even worth bothering to kill.
He staggered unsteadily over to where it had tossed the stake, scooped it up from the road, and sprinted after the vampire. It didn't hear his approach until the last second, by which time it was already too late. It occurred to him that probably it wasn't too wary because it considered him one of like kind, a concept he found all the more annoying.
He had to use all his strength to drive the stake through the vampire's heart from behind, slipping into demon form again for the instant it took to deliver the blow.
The thud as the stake went in felt appalling. It jarred his arm right up to the shoulder. Then, abruptly, there was no pressure on his arm, and no vampire, and the stake was falling to the ground amid a cloud of dust.
Doyle backed away, shaking the demon form off once again, unable to take his eyes off the spot where the vampire had been. He'd seen a lot of things, the past few years, but he'd never actually killed anything before - although, he supposed, the vampire was technically dead already, and he had no cause for guilt.
Much the reverse, in fact. He'd probably saved someone's life, somewhere.
It occurred to him then that there was at least one life the vampire's destruction had been too late to save.
With some reluctance, he parted the branches of the bush the vampire had first emerged from and followed the scent of blood back to its source.
What he found, in the shadow of a huge headstone, would have made him lose his dinner if he'd had any. The corpse...
'Oh, man, that's no vampire kill. Vampires don't do... that. The vampire must have just found the fresh corpse and drained it of its remaining blood.'
He turned his gaze away from the gaping hole where most of the poor woman's chest had been ripped open.
But even from the brief glance he'd had, he could tell that there was a lot of stuff that should have been in there that was missing.
Cordelia pushed open the door onto an empty house. A few token calls - loud calls, it was a big house - affirmed what she already knew. Nobody was in. She went straight upstairs to her room, and dumped the library books in a pile on the bed.
As soon as she turned her back on them, all thoughts of the work she'd been planning to do evaporated from her mind.
It wasn't fair. She was hurting, but the world continued to turn, oblivious. Buffy and the Freaky Gang continued to fight monsters, without her (not that the latter part ought to be a bad, she could do very well without the weekly doses of terror). Harmony bitched and bleated her way to popularity. That Doyle guy taught english, badly. Her parents went out to expensive dinners without a second thought about leaving her alone with her pain.
It shouldn't be allowed.
She felt a little like she was drowning, with everybody watching and nobody noticing. Like the kid in the swimming pool everyone thinks is fooling around until it's too late.
There was nothing left to cling to. It had all gone, result of a single act.
She remembered there were still photographs of him - of them - she hadn't yet destroyed. Her mother had found the used film in the camera only the other day and taken it to be printed.
With intent, she dug them out and tore open the packet. Pictures scattered all across the floor and the bed.
She stared around in dismay at all the faces, smiling in the sunshine. Buffy. Oz. Willow. Xander. Herself.
He'd been two-timing her with Willow, even then.
She got the scissors out and set to work, and continued until there was only the one remaining. The one with everyone on it, taken by Giles, in a hurry, impatient to get back to his dusty old books.
To the left of the group, Xander, holding her, trying to lick her ear, while she swatted at him half-heartedly with her open palm. Buffy, Willow and Oz looked on, amused.
She hesitated, then put the picture away, whole.
Not for sentimental reasons, of course.
Only so she could destroy it the next time she was feeling down.
Amid all the sirens and lights and people, Doyle felt like the centre of far too much attention. He was beginning to wish he'd kept his call about the body anonymous.
He ached after the battering he'd received from the fledgeling vampire. He hoped desperately that no visible bruises would start to develop before he could make himself scarce.
It would just about cap the misery of the whole day if they began asking him if he'd, say, been in any fights recently, and began to question the innocence of his involvement in all this.
Damn it all, he'd done the responsible thing for once. He could hardly have just left that poor woman's body lying there until somebody else chanced across it, maybe kids.
He stood alone on the edge of the action, watching as the body was lifted onto a stretcher, nothing more now than a huddled shape under a white plastic sheet.
The female police officer who'd questioned him had gone to talk with one of her fellows some way off. Too far away for Doyle to hear what they were saying.
It was frustrating to observe the police going about their work, so blind to what was really going on. How could they protect the public from things they didn't even believe in? They seemed to have decided the woman had been attacked by wild dogs, and the missing organs eaten. All the same, Doyle couldn't see it being a good idea to educate them about the variety of very unpleasant demons who were far more likely suspects.
The female officer strutted back to join him. She said, "You can go now, sir. Don't leave town for the next few days. We may need to get in touch with you again."
They'd already taken his address and details. His fake details. He felt like kicking himself. Man, he so much should have kept that call anonymous. He hadn't been thinking straight.
"Of course." He nodded.
It was as the woman turned away from him that he noticed the girl.
She was standing across the road, among a group of passers-by and street residents who'd decided to nosy in on all the excitement.
She was a pretty young blond thing, quite the stunner, slim and delicate. The hard look in her eyes, however - which was directed right at himself in a penetrating, fixed stare - was much older than her evident years.
He had the impression she'd been there a while, and watching him for as long. She didn't turn her gaze aside when she saw he was looking back at her.
Two thoughts hit him almost simultaneously. One was, 'Could this be the vampire slayer?' The next, slapping down its predecessor, 'Could this be the demon?'
He was aware of a number of demon types who might be responsible for the body he'd found, and some of them were quite capable of appearing human.
Whatever she was, it was clear from the hostility in her expression that she wasn't loving him.
He couldn't help flinching away from her direct gaze. When he looked back, a few seconds later, she was nowhere to be seen.
Unnerved, he turned and hurried back to his shabby apartment - all of a twenty yard journey further down the street.
"Cordelia!" Just what she needed to brighten her morning - Willow ambushed her outside the classroom door before the day's first lesson. "I know you don't like us very much right now, but you need to hear this. It's serious!"
She could tell it was from the concern in Willow's eyes; she let the girl draw her aside to a quiet corner as the other students filed past, oblivious, into Mr Doyle's class.
"All right," she said, before Willow could speak. "How's the world going to end this time? Sucked into hell again? - because that's always fun, y'know."
"Cordy! It isn't apocalypse stuff this time. It's just a demon... something really nasty, though. We were talking about it in the library yesterday, when you... Anyway, the point is, there was another murder last night, and guess who Buffy saw on the crime scene?"
"Jean-Claude Van Damme?" She was bored, already. Demons were old news. There never seemed to be a time when Sunnydale wasn't packed with new and exciting varieties to delight and disgust.
"Mr Doyle! He was the first one there. Apparently he found the body and called the police, but Buffy thinks it might be a cover-up. Cordelia, what if you were right yesterday when you said he was probably some kind of monster? Giles says it could be him that's been killing these people and, um, pinching bits from their corpses."
"Oh, come on. I was joking yesterday!" She didn't believe it for a moment. 'I totally chewed him up and he was nice to me. And now they want to tell me he's a demon? Don't think so!' "Short stuff in there? A psychotic, murdering demon? Give me a break. Sure - annoying, tasteless, ugly. But demony? I don't see it. Tell Buffy to ease off with the slayer paranoia already."
Willow gave her a strange look. "Why don't you believe he's a demon?" she asked intently.
"I just don't!"
"Please, Cordy. It could be important. It could be a clue."
She rolled her eyes impatiently, looking for an escape route, determined to pursue her resolve to spend as little time in Willow's company as possible. "I don't know! Instinct! Just a feeling. We hated each other on sight - so there's a connection made there, right? I don't think he's your killer."
"A... connection," Willow repeated slowly, seeming confused at Cordelia's definition. "Right."
"Are we finished now? Or do we want to explore the possibility that the staff of this school are made up from all the hordes of hell?" She thought about that for a moment, then added sunnily, "Which would make Snyder the devil. Which, actually, I can see." She smiled brightly and turned to head into the classroom.
Mr Doyle was standing in the doorway watching them, with his arms folded across his chest, a laconic expression on his face. "Are you both goin' to join us today?" he asked in a bored, level tone.
Cordelia sensed the tension in Willow's form as she stiffened abruptly. Her sudden heightened nervousness... she really did believe the guy was some sort of evil - which Cordelia, looking at him, found ridiculous in the extreme; evil tended to dress better... still lousily, but nonetheless better - and now he'd overheard them.
But from his reactions Cordelia thought he couldn't have heard more than the last few remarks of their conversation. If he'd heard any more, he'd never be so calm about it.
"Sorry, sir," she said meekly, covering for Willow before she remembered she was trying to forget she'd ever been friends with the girl.
"Well." The little irritation he'd managed to muster to tick them off faded away. He smiled gently. "Come along inside. Othello isn't so bad as all that."
"Just don't try to upset him again," Willow whispered into her ear, as Mr. Doyle ducked back into the classroom. "Just in case. I mean, if Buffy's right, it'd be sort of like painting a big target on yourself that says 'demon-bait', y'know?"
The lesson passed without incident despite the presence of Cordelia Chase. Doyle would have liked to know what she and her friend - or not-friend, rather, as he was sensing a weird hostility between the two girls, which made it seem odd they sat together and talked together - had been talking about outside.
What he'd heard... had sounded strange. He wondered exactly how many of Sunnydale's residents really knew what went on in the town. There had to be some. He rather thought the two girls might be among them.
And Willow Rosenberg, he reminded himself, was on his list of possible slayers. She didn't exactly look the slaying type, but... well, you never knew.
At the end of the lesson Cordelia Chase filed out of the room among all the others without comment, casting a slightly nervous glance back at him.
Perhaps she'd had a particularly bad day yesterday, and he'd just got the brunt of her irritation. Perhaps she wasn't usually like that at all.
He reminded himself sternly that she was a student, and that his flirtations with girls younger than she in the bars of LA were not an issue here in Sunnydale, where he was a teacher, and could not afford to jeopardise his position of responsibility.
Man, this job sucked.
He was packing up his notes into a file when he heard the voices outside in the corridor. One of them, an unpleasant feminine mewl, was unfamiliar to him. The other, raised in anger and upset, belonged to Cordelia.
She saw Aura strutting along the corridor in some painful looking new shoes as she left Mr Doyle's classroom. "Hey, wait up!" she yelled. Aura appeared to hesitate before deciding to hear her - she'd noticed a lot of people doing that before they spoke to her, lately.
Never mind; she was going to rebuild her image. The all new Cordelia Chase was to be born today. That was why she simply couldn't wait to hear the news Aura had for her.
Cordelia hurried over to her, deliberately ignoring the way the girl cuddled the file in her hands in front of her chest like a shield, and the way her eyes shifted around as though in search of escape. "Well?" she said brightly. "Did you put in a good word for me? What did Mark say? Tomorrow? Friday? Or maybe... this evening?"
"Cordelia..." Aura was looking decidedly uncomfortable. She sighed, in that pained way which meant she was about to tell the Horrible Truth. Cordelia's hopes sank. "He said totally no way ever, Cordy. He said he may not be the best catch in Sunnydale but he's still not about to sink so low as to date Xander Harris' castoffs when every more popular available guy has already said no." She hugged her work tighter to her defensively. "Jeeze, Cordy, I mean, what did you expect?"
"Well, a simple yes would have been nice," she managed to venture, albeit in a rather small voice. God, she could remember the time maybe a year or so ago when Mark had been begging her to give him a chance. Even serenading her with some of the worst poetry she'd ever heard. "He really said that?" Doubt crept up on her, and she forced a smile and a laugh. "You're kidding me, right? Ha ha funny! No - not funny! Not funny at all. I'm annoyed, Aura! That wasn't funny!"
But Aura just looked at her and said disgustedly, "God, Cordy, get over yourself, will you? I wasn't joking. He really said that. Actually, he said worse than that, I was being diplomatic. Come back to the real world - which doesn't revolve around you. You did it to yourself, you know. Xander Harris! Honestly! Live with it."
And with that, she marched off, skidding down the corridor in her new shoes.
Cordelia stood there, lost for words. Hardly able to form a coherent thought - except to keep a tight rein on the tears which threatened to escape her eyes and cement her total humiliation. Thankfully, the corridor was now almost empty after the initial rush at the end of first lesson, and there were few around to witness her state.
"Sheesh," said someone behind her, with a low whistle. "No small amount of venom there."
She knew who it was without needing to look. That weirdo accent was unmistakeable. She sighed and closed her eyes for a moment, trying to force calm upon the turmoil in her mind.
He was about the last person she'd want to see her like this. Well, not entirely. Better he than Harmony. Or Buffy. Or Xander. She breathed in, gathering her self control.
"Every hear of privacy?" she snapped, swinging around angrily to confront him. "You know, someone else's conversation..." She abruptly remembered that the person she was using that tone of voice on was a teacher, and her voice dried up as she tried to finish. "...is their own business... and nobody... else's..."
"Yeah, I'm sorry," Mr Doyle said, seeming slightly embarrassed. It registered slowly upon her traumatized brain that he wasn't angry with her, that his eyes were kind, and his tone was comforting. "But I couldn't help overhearin'. And you sounded like you could use a little help."
"I'm fine," she muttered, almost inaudiably, reminding herself how much she didn't like him.
"I can see that." The gentle sarcasm was unmistakeable. "She's just jealous, you know."
"Yeah. I can see it a mile off. I don't know precisely what it is that's between you and she, mind, but that much is very clear."
Cordelia laughed bitterly. "My boyfriend was a jerk who cheated on me, the whole school thinks I'm a loser, and I have a hole right through my side that still... really... hurts... not to mention looking ugly as hell and totally ruling out all this season's short-cut fashion tops! Why would she be jealous of me?"
Mr Doyle shrugged and smiled nervously. "Ah, there's the mystery." He seemed as though he'd like to say more but stopped himself. "Must be somethin', huh?"
She noticed how his eyes sparkled warmly, looking at her.
Abruptly, she remembered what Willow had said. And she couldn't help but feel apprehensive at the possibility, despite the fact she now found Buffy's theories about him being some kind of demon even harder to believe than before.
She dredged up a smile for him anyway. He'd made her feel better, monster or no. And, well... if he was a demon, she didn't want him to suspect she knew, did she?
So she smiled at him. "Thanks," she said. "I'll... see you tomorrow, Mr Doyle."
"Doyle," he corrected, apparently automatically, sounding a little distracted. "Just Doyle."
'Damn it.' She'd only smiled at him. And it had felt like she'd thrust her hand through his chest and closed her fingers about his heart.
'This is not good.'
Doyle wondered what the Powers That Be would think if he lost his point of contact with the slayer because he'd been fired for hitting on one of his students. Not that it had come to that yet. Well, honestly, he'd only seen her twice. You couldn't rush into these things.
No. Stop that thought right there. Not gonna happen, ya dirty old demon. She's seven or eight years your junior, and a student to boot.'
'Also, I'm bettin' she'd be none too happy to find out ya not completely human. That'd be enough to send any woman runnin' screamin' in the opposite direction. As has been proven more than once.'
He realised abruptly he was going to be late for his next lesson. He was covering a different class next, not Matthews'. It hit him then that he wasn't even certain where the room he should be teaching in actually was. Cursing, he hurried back to snatch up the paperwork forgotten in his concern for Cordelia Chase.
What he wasn't expecting - although perhaps, if he'd bothered to check the class list for that lesson, he would have been - was to find the girl who'd been at the crime scene the previous night sitting near the back of the room.
Seeing her gave him something of a jolt, and he must have betrayed some reaction which caught her attention. She glanced up and her eyes widened briefly in surprise and apprehension. Then she lowered her gaze determinedly back to the open book on her desk.
The dark haired boy sitting next to her looked confused and leaned across to engage in a brief, whispered conversation.
Doyle discovered who she was from the class list. Buffy Summers. One of his prime Slayer suspects. Or, alternatively, possibly a rather hostile demon.
He'd done some research last night, though he'd been exhausted and battered and really hadn't felt like it. Not to mention wondering why he was even involving himself in this at all. After all, he was just the messenger. With the blinding agony of the visions alone, he figured he was doing his duty. Except what had been done to that young woman made him sick. He didn't want to think about the next victim. He wanted to stop it, if he could, before there was a next victim.
He'd looked into the recent spate of murders. They had all occurred within the last two nights. That didn't necessarily mean anything; some demons needed human organs to sustain them every few months or even years in cycles. It could be someone who acted as a perfectly normal member of the community the rest of the time.
Or of Sunnydale High.
It could be a coincidence, but of the three victims so far, the woman last night had worked in the school canteen and the two youths the night before had been senior students at the school.
It didn't take much in the way of intuition to figure the killer probably had some connection to the school.
He conducted the lesson very much aware of Buffy Summers sitting hunched over trying to make herself invisible at the back of the room.
He'd been sent here to contact the slayer. And this girl might well be she. Damn it, what should he do? Approach her anyway? Take the risk that she might turn around and rip out his insides in return? - Or she might just kill him for the hell of it; it could be that whatever she was needed human parts, and his weren't precisely a hundred percent the real deal.
'Couldn't the Powers That Be damn well be a bit more specific just for once?' he thought irritably. 'A name, a picture would have been helpful. "Hey, Doyle, here's the Slayer, you go play nice and find her now." I swear they're sat up there laughing at me.
He needed more possibilities. If he could find another suspect, he promised himself, he'd approach her.
Plus he needed to look into the staff at the school. One of them was a watcher. He'd done some checking on staff nationalities, when he'd got in that morning, bearing in mind that the Watchers were reportedly an English institution and hoping it would be as easy as that. But he'd checked all the teachers records and found no Brits, so maybe the Watchers Council were recruiting overseas talent these days.
Before he could do anything, though, he had to conduct another two lessons after this one, and sit through a staff meeting about student vandalism.
It was bad enough trying to juggle teaching and his search for the slayer, but throwing demon-hunting in as well... man, where was the room for a social life?
He really needed that drink.
'Tonight,' he promised himself. 'After the demon-hunting. Say, maybe I could even check out that club all the students frequent and mix the two. You never know, there may be some evil lurking there.'
"So remind me again, why am I here?" Cordelia asked irritably, glowering around at the group who'd once again somehow managed to pull her back into their world. She didn't know what had possessed her to listen to Willow. "I'm bored already."
They were in the library - as ever, they never would agree on a slightly less image-damaging place to meet - waiting for Buffy to decide to show up. And Cordelia was getting very tired of watching Xander trying not to watch her, shifting his big awkward feet nervously whenever she glared in his direction.
"Yeah, Giles," the big doofasaurus himself put in somewhat plaintively. "Remind us why she's here?"
Giles sighed, but was saved answering by Buffy's entrance.
Cordelia watched the others greet Buffy with typically sickening enthusiasm. Even though Xander was totally nothing to do with her now, it still annoyed her to see how he hung on Buffy's every word, gesture, movement like he did. He'd never really stopped doing that, all the time they'd been so close, and now they'd broken apart he was still there, the slayer's faithful lapdog. Nothing had changed, except for her. It made her feel physically ill, watching him, and remembering what he'd spoiled.
She couldn't believe she let these people do this to her. She'd been the Queen of Sunnydale High, before Xander. She'd risked all that for him, and he'd destroyed it all.
'What am I doing here?' She abruptly turned for the door.
"Nah-ah!" Buffy said, catching her arm. She tried to pull away, but couldn't match that slayer strength. "This is serious, Cordy. You could be in danger."
Cordelia sighed, shook Buffy's hand away, and sat down huffily in a nearby chair. "Well, get on with it then," she snapped. "What's the big?"
"Demons," Willow said.
"Isn't it always? Can't we we move on, here? 'Cause the demon thing is just old now. And I didn't want to come to your crummy meeting anyway." She glared sourly at Willow, who'd caught up with her at lunchtime and talked at her until she'd agreed to show.
Giles coughed. "I do think you should take this seriously. Buffy had an encounter with one of the staff whom according to Willow you made a rather adverse impression on yesterday. This new teacher, Mr Doyle..."
"Yeah, he could be a demon, yadda yadda yadda. I've heard it. I don't believe it. He's too short."
The librarian sighed, took off his glasses and pinched his nose in that way he had when he was getting peeved. "I hardly think his height has any bearing on whether or not he is demonic in origin, Cordelia. And some new evidence has come to light since Willow spoke to you."
"Well, 'evidence' could be a misleading term," Xander chipped in cheekily, albeit in a subdued mutter. "More like a, um, smell."
"A smell?" She looked around the group in disbelief.
Buffy looked embarrassed. She hesitated, looking apprehensive, before finally admitting, in a muted voice, "He doesn't smell human."
"I said he doesn't smell human!" Buffy snapped. "And don't you start as well, I've heard it all from them." She glowered at the other three, and Cordelia enjoyed a private moment of pleasure at the thought of dissent among the group. "I was in class with him earlier - which I did not expect and I swear I almost died when he walked through the door, after last night - and I had to walk way too close to him to leave the room. And I... smelled him. And it was like instant warning sirens screaming 'not human!'"
"Is this a 'slayer senses tingling' thing?" Cordelia asked sarcastically. "Because, you know, I wasn't aware you did smells."
"You don't believe me?"
"No! Yeah, he smells weird, I'll grant you that. But no, I don't think it follows that he's a big evil! Although his fashion sense may well be demonic. God! How many times do I have to repeat myself on this?"
Giles frowned. "You do seem uncommonly sure of this, Cordelia. How can you be certain it isn't because something is affecting your judgement? Some sort of spell, or demonic mesmer?"
Xander muttered something about hormones and Giles gave him a withering glance. "Do speak up, if you have anything relevant to add."
"I just said -" Xander's eyes flickered around nervously, avoiding Cordelia. "- that it might not be supernatural. What if it's simpler than that? Maybe she just has the hots for demon-guy and doesn't want to admit he might be..."
"Right, that's it." Cordelia stood up, knocking the chair over in her annoyance. "I've had it with this. I now officially do not know any of you people. Get that? I'm not listening any more. You keep your demons and your icky slayer stuff to yourselves. And I... will attempt to get back to something resembling a normal life."
She stalked out of the library. This time, Buffy didn't try to stop her.
She was still fuming when she got home. She unlocked the front door and yelled, "Hello?" Found the house empty again. Knowing her parents, they could be anywhere. She went to her room and started sorting through her clothes.
Cordelia had decided, driving home, that she was going out to the Bronze tonight. She hadn't really been much since the accident. She'd generally been too aware of what would be said, had known she wouldn't enjoy herself and hadn't seen the point.
Now, there was a point. She was going to win back her popularity or die in the attempt, she thought grimly as she tossed aside designer dresses that just weren't up to the job.
As for the rest of her old friends, if they didn't want her around they would just have to deal with it. Because they weren't going to chase her away. Whatever they had to say about her, she would ignore. She would rebuild her image until Xander Harris was nothing but a little insignificant speck in the way distant past. Even if she had to listen to Harmony's bitching for a few weeks, she was determined that eventually it would all be forgotten.
Whatever she might have done, she was still Cordelia Chase, she told herself firmly. And none of them had ever been able to match her in anything. Harmony could never reign queen for long. She hadn't the imagination. She would always be a sheep by nature.
Cordelia finally picked out a slinky green dress and carefully slid into it, anxiously smoothing down the material over the bandaging on her side to reassure herself it didn't show. She admired the result in the mirror and nodded, satisfied. The dress looked expensive, and flattering, and though it didn't show the bandaging it showed a good deal else, and if it didn't knock 'em dead with lust or envy, nothing would.
She pulled out a pair of new shoes she'd not yet had opportunity to wear and was delighted to discover they complimented the dress perfectly.
She twirled around for the mirror, grinning. Feeling almost like her old self. A feeling she'd not experienced in way too long.
It was going to be hard, cutting the ties to Buffy and her Scooby freaks. They were too used to coming to her when they thought there was danger, to warn her... or more often than not because they needed wheels. But this was it, she promised herself. It would end, now.
She contemplated the photograph of herself and Xander and the others, which still lay where she'd left it on the dressing table. She could hardly start afresh with that lying around, she thought, irritably, and looked around the room for the scissors.
But then the clock on the wall caught her eye and she yelped in panic, the picture forgotten. There were only two hours to go until things started humming over at the Bronze, and she hadn't even started work on her hair yet.
It was raining a rare, lazy drizzle as the last of the sunlight slowly vanished on the horizon. Looking out from the small window of his rented room, Doyle could just about see the thin strip of light that remained where earth met sky, sandwiched in a gap a foot or so wide between two intervening rooftops.
The night seemed to fall quicker here in Sunnydale than it did in LA. He wondered idly if it was the effect of the Hellmouth or merely psychological.
He left the window and glanced around the messy apartment. If it could even be called an apartment. It was a single floor of a terraced house which was not overly large to start with, and was basically one room with a bathroom and a kitchen - both about the size of closets - leading off from it.
It was currently strewn with junk. Mostly consisting of his lesson plans for the next few days, his research into the entire populace of Sunnydale High, and a variety of articles on demons and mutilated corpses.
This was a lousy job. Both of them.
The paperwork alone was killing him. And with the bruises and the risk of actual painful, brutal death on top of that, he wasn't feeling particularly happy about the way all this was going.
Not to mention the stress of having to pretend to be respectable. He'd buried himself in drink and the seedier parts of LA for the last four years. He didn't consider himself in any way prepared for all of this.
Trust the Powers That Be to ignore that fact.
He walked back across to the battered, flickery-screened computer, a recent back-of-the-lorry acquisition, and switched it off. Research time was over.
The sun had set. The nasties would be out in force... and along with them one very dangerous demon, a slayer, and a certain vampire he still had to find.
Not that he had any real idea how to go about doing that. But if he went out and walked around for a bit he'd at least feel like he'd tried to do his duty. And maybe then the Powers would forgive him for settling down in a nice comfy pub for a good few hours until closing time.
He threw some stakes into a bag. Wondered what he might have that was any good against demons, and settled finally on a small knife. He didn't have much in the way of weapons. Had always been a pretty firm believer in talking a way out of trouble - excepting, admittedly, the occasional bar fight.
He pulled on his leather jacket and slung the bag over his shoulder.
Took two steps towards the door.
...And fell to his knees on the floor as the sudden familiar pain slammed through his skull.
A club. The Bronze. An alley, presumably nearby, dark and strewn with junk. A woman's face, contorted in terror and agony. And something... something behind her, in the dark. A whole lot of blood. And then darkness.
Doyle moaned and clutched at his head. To think he'd actually been worried about how long it had been since the last time the Powers had seen fit to turn his skull inside out...
Although the images had stopped assaulting his brain, it often took the pain more than a little while to catch on and follow suit. Doyle staggered into the kitchen where he found and swallowed some asprin from his generously-stocked emergency hoard. He then leaned back dizzily against the fridge, trying to think things over.
Difficult, when his brain felt like it'd been mushed.
The urgency finally kicked in.
What he'd seen, that was tonight. Maybe minutes away. Maybe now. That woman could be dying while he delayed over his headache. He had to get over to the Bronze fast as he could.
Cursing, he hurried unsteadily back into the living room, picked up his demon-fighting supplies, and staggered out of the door.
The rain was heavier than it had looked from inside. Only a few minutes after leaving the shelter of his apartment he was soaked to the skin and feeling even less happy with the world.
The Bronze was not too far from his apartment - he'd checked on its location earlier as he'd meant to stop by there anyway on his evening patrol. But he was still a stranger to Sunnydale and on the unfamiliar streets the journey seemed to take forever.
When he finally reached his destination, everything was quiet. Well, quiet disregarding the lurid strains of some student band who were obviously torturing a cat on stage. The sounds floated on the air on the edge of hearing, muffled, shut in behind the doors of the club. He couldn't hear anything else.
He looked around, seeing a number of small streets branching off from this one which, in the rain and the darkness, all looked pretty much the same and very much like the scene of his vision. He cursed.
As he stood there thinking, a couple of younger students from one of his classes walked past, heading for the club. They directed stares of blank incomprehension back at him, obviously baffled by his presence so close to their popular haunt. Obviously he was encroaching on the students' territory. He heard them burst into giggliing laughter behind him.
Hesitantly, Doyle turned down one of the alleys. He walked along searching for anything recognisable from his vision.
He hadn't gone more than about thirty yards when he heard a scream from close by.
It stopped him in his tracks, and for a few seconds he hesitated, something he'd regret later when he had a chance to think about it. He forced his feet to move and headed at a run in the direction where he thought the scream had come from.
Back where he'd just been. Damn it, he'd come the wrong way. Okay, so there'd been more than a few streets to choose from but sometimes it seemed if he was given a choice of only two he'd be guaranteed to pick the wrong one every time.
The screaming changed to a weak sobbing. He could hear the sounds of a struggle. He rounded the corner into the alley which was, infuriatingly enough, right next to where he'd been standing minutes earlier.
A monstrous figure, cloaked by shadows, was towering over a woman who crouched on hands and knees on the ground with blood staining the front of her white dress.
The other victims, Doyle recalled from the autopsy reports on the corpses, had been ripped open while still alive. It looked as though the creature... whatever it was... had started the job but hadn't finished yet. The gash in the woman's stomach looked serious, but he thought she'd live if she got medical attention quickly.
And if the demon didn't get chance to finish. It reached for her again, big claws glinting at the end of a shadowy, misshapen limb in the faint light.
"Hey!" Doyle yelled, barely thinking about what he was doing, utterly sickened by the creature. "Leave her alone, you lousy bastard!" He scrabbled inside the bag for the knife, hands closing only on useless sharpened wood. Gave up on the knife and instead picked up a solid length of plank from the junk strewn on the floor of the shabby alley. He ran at the demon, makeshift weapon raised over his head, and brought it down in as heavy a whack as he could deliver across the demon's midsection as it turned.
He would have aimed for its head, if he could have reached it. The thing was about two feet taller than he was.
It growled and batted at the plank with a careless slap of one of its big hands. The plank wrenched from Doyle's grasp and flew several feet through the air to crash loudly against a wall.
Great. He'd done nothing but irritate it. How the hell was he supposed to kill it?
Behind the demon, he could see the woman struggling to her feet. He prayed silently that she'd have the strength left to make it. 'Run!' He thought at her urgently, not daring to speak aloud and risk drawing the demon's attention back to her. With her arms hugged around her cut stomach, she took several unsteady steps and collapsed against the wall, barely keeping her footing.
Unhelpful thoughts flitted through his mind. If he'd got here a bit earlier, it wouldn't have had time to harm the woman. If he'd found the slayer or Angel as he was meant to, he wouldn't have to face the creature himself. This vision had been meant for them, the warrior types, to provide them the means to stop the creature. Doyle... didn't think it was possible for him to do so himself. He simply wasn't strong enough.
It was his own incompetence in failing to find the slayer that had brought him here, that meant this poor woman was probably going to die, and probably he was too.
The injured woman was moving again, slowly and painfully. It was agonising to watch.
Doyle backed away from the demon, keeping its attention on him. "You're not much of a one for pickin' fair fights, are you?" he asked it, hearing his own voice raw with fear and anger. "Women, kids... Lousy coward."
It lurched towards him and he backed away again. It slapped at him with one of its long arms, its movements awkward and ungainly but all the same the move batted him aside as though he weighed nothing. He hit the wall face-first and felt his demon form sweep over him. Felt a rare acceptance of that extra strength and agility it granted; it was needed to save someone's life, and he couldn't let his hatred for his demon half stand in the way of that.
"Now you're really annoying me," he snarled - aware of the woman falling again, and pulling herself bloodily back onto hands and knees - and threw himself at the thing.
His own demon strength was greater than a normal human's, but all the same it was rather drab in comparison with the majority of other demons including, apparently, this one.
He tried to fight it, he genuinely did, throwing everything he had into the effort. But this was meant to have been the slayer's fight and Allen Francis Doyle never really stood a chance.
Its height and extra reach were the killers. He couldn't head-butt it, rendering the spikes that were his demon form's primary weapon useless. And he couldn't get close enough to it to do any damage without coming within reach of one of those long, misshapen arms. He lost count of the number of times in quick succession he was sent flying across the floor of the alley, or crashing into a wall, by one of its infuriatingly casual, sweeping blows.
Then there finally came one time too many, and his consciousness cascaded down into oblivion.
After several minutes of sitting listening to the rain drumming on the roof of her parked car with a growing depression, Cordelia made her decision. She snatched up her handbag from the passenger seat beside her, swung open the car door, and made a dash for the Bronze.
Tripping in her heeled shoes, splashing thorugh the pooled rain on the ground, she almost didn't hear the sounds coming from the narrow back street as she passed by it.
It was a scuffing sound, like somebody was moving around down there, in the dark.
She hesitated. There had been a time when she'd have continued right on past without a thought, but those days were behind her. And she hadn't been hanging around Buffy and all her associated evil for all that time without developing her own measure of instinct for when something was amiss.
She slowly stepped backwards, retracing her footsteps to the mouth of the alleyway, horribly aware of the rain soaking into her expensive dress.
There was a sweet, cloying smell on the air and she recognised it immediately as blood. She looked down and was horrified to see it staining the water that swirled down the slope of the ground, drawing patterns of red in rivulets around her feet.
Cordelia moved her three hundred dollar shoes elsewhere. Her breath was coming faster. Where was Buffy when you actually needed her?
She wondered if the noise she'd heard was whoever the blood belonged to, still alive but hurt and in need of help. Or if they were already beyond any help, and she'd heard whatever had put them there.
She reached into her handbag and gripped the stake which she still kept in the bottom of it, underneath the hairspray and the cosmetics.
Once you knew certain things, it was impossible to go back to exactly the way you were. She'd had no intention of becoming vampire food just to spite Buffy.
Aware that it was dangerous and she was getting soaked, but also increasingly pissed off that something was now out there trying to scare her on top of all the rest of the crap the last few weeks had heaped upon her, Cordelia walked determinedly onwards, following the trail of blood back to its source.
In the darkness and the rain, visibility was poor, and by the time she saw the figure hunched over a shapeless bundle on the ground she was already no more than ten feet away. She blinked, her eyes slow to pick out detail in the dim light.
Nothing could have prepared her for what she saw. The shapeless bundle... wasn't. It was... it had been... a young woman, not much older than herself. Something had torn her open, violently and messily. She'd seen gross before, but this... David Cronenberg would have barfed.
The guy - the killer - leaned over the body, his hands on the wound and painted with blood up to his elbows.
She had been standing there a few seconds staring at the back of his head when he seemed to become aware of her presence for the first time and looked up.
The sparse light fell across his face, to reveal the familiar features of Mr. Doyle.
Consciousness returned slowly, as though it wasn't sure why it bothered.
It was discomfort that dragged him back to the world, as he became gradually aware of how cold and wet he was, of how much he hurt from absorbing blows so violent they'd have killed him in human form, of the rough, hard concrete surface he lay upon. Of the fact he was still a demon.
He changed back to human automatically the instant he realised, even though his brain had barely started to tick over again. The reaction was ingrained. It wasn't until a few seconds later that everything flooded back to him, and he remembered the fight with the demon, and the woman he'd been trying to save.
He was on his feet almost instantly, despite the violent ache in his head and the protests from his battered body.
What was left of the woman, he found some distance away, nearly at the other end of the street. She'd almost made it, must have come so close to getting away. But he hadn't distracted the demon for quite long enough.
Recalling what he'd tried to do, and how futile his attempts had been, he reflected that it was a wonder he was still alive.
A pity she hadn't been so lucky.
His heart heavy, he knelt down beside the dead woman and forced himself to examine the wound carefully. It couldn't hurt her now, and it could help prevent the next killing if he found out more about whatever the creature was. He hadn't got a real good look at the thing in the dark, but he'd seen enough to be pretty sure he'd never come across anything like it before. He felt sick, remembering those huge clawed hands as he examined the tears they'd made in human flesh.
This could have been avoided, he thought, staring at the woman's dead face. If only he hadn't delayed in LA. If only he'd found the slayer as he was supposed to. If only he hadn't spent so much time sunk in his own depression and pining for a drink instead of working at his mission. Or worrying about his petty lesson plans and hang-ups about returning to teaching.
He'd as good as killed her himself.
It was on that thought he finally realised there was someone or something behind him. He could hear breathing, underneath the sound of the rain. For an instant an almost overwhelming fear flooded through him, that the demon had returned to finish him off. He spun around, feeling his demon form surface unbidden in response to his fear before he could hold it in check.
He found himself staring up into the appalled, terrified face of Cordelia Chase.
One moment it was Mr. Doyle there, then the next... a thing was glaring back at her, all ugly pointy spikes and glowy red eyes.
Cordelia could do nothing but stand there with her mouth hanging open while her brain absorbed the implications that Buffy, damn her, had been right.
She watched as the creature shook itself and its form melted back into that of Mr. Doyle.
That was when her reactions kicked in. She screamed, threw the stake at him - it bounced ineffectively off his shoulder - and turned and ran.
She heard him shout after her, but she didn't hear what he said. She kept running, skidding on the damp pavement in her new shoes, feeling the stitches in her side pulling more agonisingly with every single step.
As she fell through the library doors, exhausted, drenched and feeling unfashionably bedraggled, the anger started to kick in. She was back here again, after all she'd said, all her resolve, all her plans for rebuilding her life. And after she'd insisted oh-so vehemently that of course Mr. Doyle wasn't a monster.
Giles, Buffy, Xander and Willow were all there, obviously. It wasn't humiliating enough that she should have to admit she'd been wrong to just one or two of them. No, the whole gang had to be present.
"He's a demon!" Cordelia snapped, getting it over and done with. It didn't come out quite right because she was breathless from running all the way from the Bronze, and she had to repeat it. "A demon! All right? A nasty, spikey, glowy-eyed ugly demon! You were right. And... I need to sit down."
She slid bonelessly into a chair. Her hand pressed to the wound in her side, which was hurting like anything for all she couldn't actually see any blood soaking through her dress (and thank God for that, the stains were impossible to get out and she'd ruined enough designer garments through blood and gore the past few years). But she thought she'd felt a few stitches pull... again.
The others regarded her with concern and mild confusion. Willow was sitting at the computer, the other three stood around her as though they'd been reading over her shoulder. "You're referring to Mr. Doyle?" Giles asked. "What happened?"
Cordelia shook her head and spent several minutes just trying to breathe normally again. Xander handed her a glass of water and she drank it down without comment. Then, she hesitantly explained what had happened.
"So as if finding him leaning over the corpse covered in her blood isn't enough of a shock," she rounded off, "He then looks up at me and suddenly his face goes all 'bleh!' and he's this horrible, ugly thing! And I totally ruined my shoes running all the way here. Look at them!" She regarded them herself, mournfully. They looked very sad indeed in the electric lighting of the library. "They were new!"
Nobody seemed especially sympathetic to her shoes' pain. Cordelia sighed. She felt all torn up inside. Somehow it hurt that Mr. Doyle turned out to be evil, and it wasn't just because she'd spoken up for him and he'd shown her up by proving her wrong.
She couldn't explain it. Except... She looked around at the others. "He was, like, the only person that was nice to me, today in school," she said quietly. "The only one. Not because he felt obliged to be, but just because. And he's an ugly, disgusting demon. What does that say about m...?" She realised she was dangerously close to starting sobbing openly and dredged up her annoyance again.
"So what are you doing hiding in here anyway?" she snapped. "I thought you were supposed to be out fighting the forces of evil. Maybe if you had been doing your job that woman would still be alive!" She glared pointedly at Buffy.
"Um. I hardly think that's fair, Cordelia." Giles was annoyed. "We've dug up some interesting information since you left. It's all valuable..."
"No, she's right," Buffy said, sounding strained, causing Cordelia a little stab of guilt because she hadn't intended to be quite that harsh. "I should have been there. I'm gonna go see if I can find this thing before it can kill anyone else. What's this guy's address?"
Willow read her it off the computer; she must have the school records on there or something.
Buffy wrote it down. "Right. I'll check that out if I can't track him from where Cordy saw him." She quizzed Cordelia on the location again.
Then she left, taking with her a whole lot of weapons, and also Xander and Willow tagging along in the rear like the useless baggage they mostly were.
'That was me, once,' Cordelia thought, watching them go. "So, Giles," she said, in subdued tones. "What do we do?"
The Watcher cleared his throat uncomfortably. They'd never got along incredibly well. There'd never been anything for them to connect over, they were so different. But he was a decent guy. And unlike Buffy and Xander and Willow, he'd never really done anything to seriously annoy her. "Well, you could help me find out what it is we're dealing with," he said. "The demon you saw, that this Mr. Doyle really is, must be listed in one of these books somewhere."
Book work. Cordelia sighed. "So what was it your research drug up that was so fascinating?" she asked, in afterthought.
"A little matter about Mr. Doyle's teaching credentials."
"You mean they aren't real? Duh! Well, what do you expect - when did demons ever go to teacher training college?"
Giles sighed. "They're real enough. If you happened to be in the third grade. Which is what the real Allen Francis Doyle taught, up till about six years ago, around which time he seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth."
"Gee," Cordelia said, softly. "I wonder what happened to him."