DISCLAIMER: All Angel and BtVS characters belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, WB, etc. not me. Not making any profit from this, yadda yadda yadda.

The Substitute Teacher

Chapter 5

The rain had washed the blood from Doyle's hands, at least physically if not metaphorically. But it had stopped now, leaving the air feeling still and heavy. The night was oppressive around him.

He'd called the police about the corpse, after Cordelia Chase had stumbled across him and run away, as soon as he'd recovered enough to stagger to a phone. He'd kept the call anonymous this time. He could imagine what conclusions the police might reach if he tried to tell them he'd innocently stumbled across two dead bodies in as many days. He imagined they were already digging into his background, sifting through the lies he'd told to gain employment at Sunnydale High... he wasn't very optimistic of his chances he'd be keeping that job much longer. Not that he particularly cared; it would be a relief to have done with it.

Since making the call, he'd been walking aimlessly through the streets of Sunnydale, sunk deep in depressed thoughts.

He wasn't really afraid of what Cordelia might do with the knowledge he was a demon. Who could she tell, after all, that would believe it? The police might be after him if she or anybody else simply placed him at the scene, but as far as his demon side went... people didn't believe in things like that. And in Sunnydale, where the supernatural was stronger than in most places, denial permeated the air.

But he couldn't get the image of her frightened, heartbreakingly lovely face out of his head. He'd scared her, and he felt awful about it. There was nothing he could do to make it right, either. He couldn't apologise to her for being a demon. She'd never be able to look at him again now with anything but fear.

He'd hoped, slim as his chances had been, for something different. Now, his chances were worse than zero.

Despite his aches from his encounter with the creature, he felt too restless to go home. So he just walked, not looking for anything any longer.

But he found it nonetheless, suddenly there in front of him.

The small rickety bar, hidden down the back of some crumbling housing in the bad part of town, greeted him as he turned a corner. The smell hit him first; the scent of the unhuman. Doyle stared at the patched up doorway and battered sign in disbelief.

In every big city there tended to be some place, some sort of joint where the demons gathered. And, okay, Sunnydale was no city but it was on the Hellmouth, and he'd known there would be a place like this somewhere.

It was past time for him to have a bit of luck, he thought, approaching the door. Here, he might just find the information he needed.

He pushed open the door onto a dimly lit little room. The bar didn't exactly have a bustling clientele, just clumps of figures hanging around the darker corners. He couldn't make out faces in the gloom but the shapes of their shadows weren't entirely human. A slumped figure on a stool at the counter had two small protuberances pointing up from the top of his head.

This was the place, all right.

Doyle approached the counter. A weasel-faced guy with shifty eyes stopped washing glasses and turned to serve him. Unexpectedly, the guy was human.

"What'll it be?" There was surprise in his face as he studied Doyle in return. "We don't get many humans..." He hesitated, comprehension dawning. Leaned forward and said, his voice low, "You might want to think twice about hanging around in here. Some of these guys, they can get a bit rough after a few beverages. And, y'know, hybrids ain't exactly popular with all. No offence."

"Yeah, yeah, I know," Doyle said. He dug into a pocket and unrolled a small wad of notes. Peeled a few off and placed them on the counter. "Give me a shot of that scotch there and a few answers and I'm outta here, no trouble."

The guy looked nervous, although that could have just been his natural expression, but he fetched the bottle from the back. "What do you want to know?" he asked, pouring a rather generous shot due to a slight shaking of his hands.

"Angel," Doyle said, snatching up the glass and downing the contents gratefully. "Vampire. You know of him?"

"Yeah." Hesitantly. "Hey, you don't want to mess with that crowd. He hangs with a slayer, you know. Though not of late. Haven't seen him around so much these last few weeks. Word is the girl shucked him off and he's lying low, keeping to himself like. You wouldn't want to cross a depressed vampire."

Doyle pushed the glass back at the guy along with another handful of bills. The guy poured again. And continued, with a sigh. "Last I heard, he was back at the old place. Big grand mansion, decor like a crypt, over across town." He related an address, which Doyle scribbled down after a brief search for a pen.

"Thanks, man," he said, downing the second scotch.

The weasel-faced guy gripped his arm as he turned to leave. "Wait," he said. "You don't want to do this. I don't know what interest you've got in Angel, but take my word for it, he's trouble. People have a tendency to drop like flies around that crowd. And you, you're okay, man. Most people round here, they're much less sociable about asking for information. I wouldn't want to see you come to any harm."

Doyle managed a smile, despite the nerves the warning generated in him. "No problem," he said. "I'm not lookin' for trouble. I've a message to deliver, is all."

He turned to go, and that was when the doors burst open with a loud crack of shattering wood. A slim, decidedly female figure stood, braced in the doorway in silhouette. The reaction from the occupants of the bar was instantaneous and extreme.

Doyle had never seen any place cleared so fast as in the mass exodus via the back door which he now witnessed. He noticed some of those running for the hills were no small fry in the demon world themselves, and wondered what fearsome being could possibly strike such terror into creatures such as they.

And then he realised he was still standing rooted to the floor only feet away from whatever that being was.

His eyes, adjusted to the dim light, managed to pick out blond hair, a few facial details. It was enough. He knew who it was.

Buffy Summers.

His heart felt like it had stopped.

"Hell! Get out of here, man! It's the slayer!" the bar man yelled, ducking behind the counter.

The slayer.

Buffy was the slayer. Not a demon. Not, after all, a demon.

'Thank God for that', Doyle thought. The tension drained from his body and left him feeling weak with relief. Finally, he knew. He could do the job he'd been sent to do.

He stepped forward and opened his mouth to speak, expecting to have to make a few pretty comprehensive explanations.

He was totally unprepared for what happened next.

The vicious kick caught him in the chest and there was a hell of a strength behind it. It sent him flying backwards, unable to catch his balance. His back hit the counter with crushing force and he slid to the floor in a boneless sprawl, trying desperately to catch a breath while his lungs refused to obey him.

Incredulous, he stared up at Buffy, utterly confused, unable to fathom what he'd done to provoke such a reaction.

As she took a few steps further inside the bar room, two others fell into step at her side. One of them was the dark haired youth, something Harris, who'd been sitting next to her in class earlier that day. The other was Willow Rosenberg.

'Well, that explains a few things.'

Buffy faced the barman accusingly, although Doyle noticed how her eyes flickered constantly back to himself with a warrior's alertness. "Harbouring murderers now, are we, Willy?" she asked, the threat in her voice unmistakeable. Murderers... God, she'd come to the same wrong conclusion about him as he had about her.

'Sure, nobody would believe Cordelia Chase,' he thought, reminding himself bitterly of his earlier complacency, furious with himself for his carelessness and stupidity. 'Unless, of course, she happened to know a slayer.'

Doyle rolled over onto hands and knees, trying to get up, to look her in the eye, to explain. To somehow convince her that it was all a mistake. But he couldn't get any words out. He hadn't the breath. And when she saw him move she took two quick strides and stomped on his back, crushing him brutally to the floor.

Which didn't help his attempts to breathe any.

"Jeeze, Buffy, lay off!" the bar guy, Willy, protested. "You let worse scoot out the back. He's just some kind of halfbreed... Murder?" Doyle couldn't see them from his uncomfortable position - his face was full of floor and Buffy's foot planted solidly between his shoulders wouldn't allow him to turn his head - but he could sense the guy's sudden nervousness, his doubt. It hung on the air. "You mean all those mutilations? Damn... I would never have thought..."

"It wasn't me!" Doyle managed to choke out. It sounded appallingly lame, to his ears; the automatic protest of all the guilty. "This is a mistake!" He managed to get one arm wedged between him and the floor and used the leverage to try to get up again, or at least try turn around to face them so he wasn't talking to the beer-stained, smelly floorboards. The pressure on his back lifted for a moment... before slamming down again. Doyle yelled in pain, and felt his form change automatically.

Buffy fell back in surprise at the transformation, which allowed him to roll aside out of her way. He staggered unsteadily to his feet, clinging to the counter for balance. He looked at Buffy. She looked back at him. She hadn't encountered a Brachen demon before, evidently. A pity, because though they looked fearsome enough, Brachen's weren't really much so far as demons went. And right now, she only had the looks to go on.

Rosenberg and Harris, behind her, seemed equally apprehensive.

"Spiky demon," Buffy said, her tone flat. But her composure had returned almost instantly. "That's new."

Then she shrugged, and smiled, and plucked a knife out of her shoulder bag.

"No, no, no!" Cordelia sighed in frustration and threw another book aside onto the growing reject pile, earning herself a disapproving glower from Giles. "It wasn't like any of these you keep showing me! It was... shorter! And less yucky, at least so far as demons go. No slime!"

She started picking up books at random and flicking through them, ignoring the pages Giles had marked for her attention with little scraps of neatly torn paper. Giles was obviously a good deal less than happy as she started whisking through the pages and throwing the books aside. But she was fuelled by her feelings of anger and betrayal, which all twisted up inside her in a knot she didn't entirely understand, and she ignored the watcher.

And it wasn't long before a picture caught her eye. "Hey! I knew those ones you marked were no good. See?" She leaned across the table and thrust the book under his nose. "That one. That's it!"

"Cordelia..." The librarian had that weary, impatient air about him which she knew meant he wasn't taking her seriously. He regarded the picture stonily and opened his mouth to say something probably not too complimentary. Then he hesitated, his irritation dispersing. "Are you sure?"

"Yes! Blue spikes, greeny skin, glowy red eyes - boy, yes! That's exactly it!"

But Giles didn't look happy at having put a name to their demon, though. In fact, he looked positively disturbed. "Cordelia, that's just a Brachen. As demons go, they're relatively harmless, fairly benign. They certainly don't kill people to steal their internal organs. And furthermore, their species cannot as a rule take human form." He frowned at the picture, his forehead creasing with worry.

"Well, newsflash! This one can!"

Giles apparently didn't consider that merited an answer. He was preoccupied, muttering under his breath, thinking almost-aloud in that annoying way he had.

"I suppose he could be some sort of hybrid," he said finally. "It's been known. I seem to recall Brachens are particularly known for it... But that still wouldn't explain the other business, the killing..." He stood up, closing the book with a decisive thud. "Something's not right here. This is not the demon that could have killed those people. We have to find Buffy, and tell her, before anything happens we'd regret..."

Cordelia stared at him, convinced he'd gone nuts. They were talking demons here, after all. "Huh? Like what? Buffy slays the wrong demon? So big deal! They're all demons, right? And demons are bad! She's supposed to slay them! She's a slayer!"

"Not all demons are necessarily evil. As I said, Brachens are really quite benign. Curious to find one around here. I shouldn't think they'd venture anywhere near a Hellmouth, normally, which would be why we haven't seen any before despite the fact they're quite numerous. The Hellmouth draws far too many stronger demonic forces..."

Cordelia barely heard anything beyond the first sentence, which her brain was having trouble processing. "There are good demons?" she asked, in disbelief.

Giles squinted at her. She returned the look challengingly, then continued, a fraction less certain, "...'Cause, you know, I kind of thought the definition of demon was..."

Giles sighed. "Do stop being tiresome, Cordelia."

"I am not being tiresome!" she snapped. "Demons are evil! We've never been led to believe any different, in nearly three years of general demon-related ickiness. Wouldn't it have been a good idea to mention something like this before?"

He blinked at her, then looked away. Uneasily, he fumbled for words. "Well, being on the Hellmouth, which the, um, less unpleasant breeds would be likely to avoid, it has never been an issue... Anyway," he said, suddenly testily. "As I was trying to say, the issue is academic. Didn't you hear what I said? He could be some sort of hybrid." At her blank look he explained, "That means he could be half human, Cordelia."

"Half human? You mean a human and a demon, they... Euww! Yuck!" She thought about it and felt a chill as she realised the implications. Human... She remembered how Doyle had been nice to her, and looked at her in a way that had made her feel good about herself again, even if only for a moment.

She stared at Giles in horror, and asked, in a small voice, "You mean I sicced Buffy onto him and he might not be evil?"

They made it to the scene of the latest killing in record time - and on foot, because it was quicker than taking Giles' car - only to find it alive with flashing emergency lights and noisy people. There was no way they were going to find Buffy or Mr. Doyle anywhere around there.

Cordelia's heart was racing and she felt sick. Had she made a mistake? Was the only guy who'd been nice to her for weeks, demon or no, getting pounded into little soggy pieces by Buffy because she'd jumped to conclusions?

Not that there hadn't been pretty big neon arrows pointing to said conclusions in the form of his being a demon, and kneeling all covered in blood next to a corpse but...

She'd never got anyone killed before. Well, not people, anyway. Things, sure.

She wondered how human you had to be to qualify as people.

They found her car where she'd left it outside the Bronze, and she drove them slowly around the streets of Sunnydale, looking for any sign of Buffy, Doyle, or the trouble which generally seemed to follow either.

They'd almost done a circuit of the area of the bad part of town which stretched for the few streets immediately around the Bronze when they saw a figure hurrying along, hesitating every so often to glance behind him in a way that was definitely shifty.

Even if the shadowy figure hadn't had two distinct little horny points sticking out of the top of his head.

"Demon!" Cordelia said. "A kind of scrawny one, though."

"It's one of Willy's regulars," Giles said. "I've seen him around. Stop the car."

Cordelia pulled over next to the walking demon, who turned around, saw them, and made as if to run for it. But Giles rolled down the window and snagged his arm. "Buffy," he said, managing to dredge up a fair imitation of 'threatening' from somewhere within his librarian persona. Cordelia was impressed. "Where is she?"

"The slayer crashed Willy's. Again. Shouldn't you know, watcher?" The demon pulled away and ran off before Giles could do anything to stop him. But he didn't need to. They knew enough.

Cordelia rammed her foot down hard on the accelerator and kept it there throughout several short streets and sharp corners, ignoring Giles' gibbering pleas for mercy.

Buffy flicked the knife. It spun in the air and she caught it again by the handle. "Well?" she said, challengingly, expectantly. "Don't you want to play?"

Doyle couldn't imagine anything less appealing. With some effort, he returned to his human form, feeling the additional strength of the demon ebb away as he shook off the spikes. It was no matter. He couldn't match a slayer as a demon any more than he could as a human. His only chance of survival was to reason with her. And it would be easier to reason with her if she wasn't seeing him as a monster.

"You've got this all wrong," he said. "I'm no killer. I was just tryin' to save that woman..."

"Yeah, right." Buffy looked unimpressed. "And you're gonna try tell me you're not a demon, now, I suppose."

"Well, no, so my parentage may just be a little murky, I can't deny..." He backed up a step too far and tripped over a loose floorboard. Flailed for a grip on the counter in an attempt to maintain his balance, but his hands slipped in somebody's spilled drink and he crashed to the floor, knocking over a chair.

Buffy was on him in a second, moving like lightning, setting the knife to his throat. He felt the point draw blood unintentionally as he gulped in a shuddering breath.

'Oh, this is even better than just plain gettin' myself killed - gettin' myself killed by the gal I was sent here to help!' Doyle thought giddily, convinced he was about to die. He closed his eyes. He didn't want to watch her as she killed him.

But the knife didn't go in any further. In fact, it drew back a hair.

"All right," he heard Buffy's voice say slowly, sounding a little annoyed, a little disturbed. "This one's not playing fair! They're supposed to fight back. Ideas? - Wil, Xand?"

"Well, they don't usually try to explain themselves." That was Willow Rosenberg's distinctive soft voice. "I think perhaps we should listen? That is, if it's not a trick and he's not suddenly going to go all 'grr-rr' and spiky on us again. Which is possible..."

"And there's the vote from the society against cruelty to the forces of darkness," quipped the irreverent, nervous voice of the Harris kid. "But for us humans here - kill it! You remember, Buffy? Demons, bad!"

Doyle opened his eyes to glare at the youth. Possibly not the wisest of moves. He felt Buffy's tension increase through the sharp metal edge she held against his skin.

Buffy sighed and restrained her reflexes, studying Doyle's face intently while she spoke to the boy. "You never liked Angel either," she said. "And he..." Whatever she saw caused the knife to retreat a few inches. "I almost killed him, too, when I first found out..."

"And that would have been a mistake?" Harris sniped, at the same instant the door burst back on its abused hinges for a second time.

Cordelia Chase flew in like a small localised hurricane, pausing only the briefest instant on the threshold to take in the situation. Doyle watched her eyes widen at the sight of Buffy with the knife and to his astonishment she flung herself between him and the slayer with a cry of alarm.

"It's a mistake!" she shrieked piercingly, facing off against an astonished Buffy. "You can't kill him! He's not evil!"

It would have been impressively dramatic if she hadn't then added, in a very small voice, "...I think."

Chapter 6

Doyle sat nervously in the back of Cordelia's car, sandwiched between the hostile Harris youth and a worryingly introspective slayer who had retained a vice-like grip on his arm throughout the journey thus far.

After Cordelia's entrance - which was closely followed by that of an older guy, evidently Buffy's watcher, who'd explained their reasons for not slaughtering Doyle in more coherent detail - the group had made a rapid decision to relocate somewhere more private. Turned out that Willy 'the snitch' was rather well known in these parts for collecting and imparting information.

Although Doyle considered his situation vastly improved, there was no mistaking that these people didn't trust him in the slightest. And he was pretty much their prisoner, at least until he could convince them he was (quite literally) on the side of the angels.

He couldn't deny the anger and embarrassment he felt at being treated like... well, like a demon.

He was intensely aware of Cordelia Chase's nearness in the close confines of the overloaded car. He could smell her hair. She'd washed it not long since, and the clean, cosmetic scent flooded his not-quite-human senses.

She was driving, but she kept snatching glances at him in the mirror, her lips a thin, worried line and her expression indefinable. After she had leaped in the way of Buffy's knife (an act which had impressed him despite knowing the slayer had at that point already made up her mind not to kill him) she'd turned around and asked, in a small voice, "Are you all right?" Then the watcher had staggered in and everyone had started talking before he had chance to tell her yeah, he'd survive.

He couldn't figure her out. She'd seen him as a demon - not that she'd been too fond of him even before that - and it must have been she who'd set the slayer after him in the first place. So why had she then interrupted to save him with such desperate drama? And why this concern?

When the watcher had told Buffy and the others about their research and how Brachens were not generally dangerous demons, Buffy's response had been a resounding "Huh?"

Doyle figured they didn't encounter much in the way of non-hostile demons living on top of a hellmouth, and that made Cordelia's reaction all the more confusing.

His head ached furiously. In the past few days, he reflected, he'd been beat up by a vampire, a demon and a slayer. Was this some sort of traditional Sunnydale welcome? He'd had enough. This was a really lousy job. How did a guy go about delivering a resignation to the Powers That Be?

Cordelia glanced back at him again and their eyes met in the mirror for an instant before she dragged her gaze away back to the road.

Okay... so maybe there was the odd bright point.

The car pulled up outside the school. Oh, yeah, that was something else. The English watcher guy, he was the school librarian. It was just typical of his actions just lately, Doyle considered sourly, that he'd done thorough checks on all the teachers at Sunnydale High but managed to overlook the non-teaching staff. Looked like this little slayer group used the school library as their base of operations, too. Doyle hadn't even got around to visiting the library yet.

They piled out of the car, Buffy tugging Doyle along by her unyielding grip his arm. "Come on, Mr. Demon." It was not spoken unkindly - more of a weary sigh - but all the same the name cut.

"Half," he snapped, irritably. "I'm not a bloody demon. It's half demon, okay? Half demon, yeah, but half human too."

She frowned, and opened her mouth to say something, then subsided upon receiving a severe glance from her watcher. "Whatever," she muttered.

Cordelia could have done without the embarrassment of having flung herself between Doyle and a Buffy who it turned out had already decided to talk before she slayed. Let alone doing so in front of an audience of the entire gang.

She hadn't meant to be quite so dramatic, but she'd been so afraid of being too late, and upon apparently arriving at the crucial moment, well...

Now, as they walked through the darkened corridors of the school to the library, she found her eyes endlessly drawn back to the man... demon... whatever... who she'd been so desperate to save. Her thoughts were in a confused jumble.

She couldn't account for her reactions back in the alley outside the Bronze or in Willy the Snitch's bar. She didn't understand what had happened to her. She'd been trying so hard to be the old Cordelia again; the person who didn't give a damn. The world had seemed so much easier to live in back then. Selflessness sucked, and only resulted in hideous, yucky puncture wounds that left ugly scars and chafed when you tried to wear jeans.

So why had she gone down a dark, smelly alley, following a trail of blood, to save a person who she'd known was probably dead already? And why had she faced off Buffy to save a demon?

This was all Xander's fault. And Buffy's, too. Cordelia wasn't sure precisely how, but she was certain that it was.

They reached the library and Giles fumbled at the side of the door for the light switch. After a few seconds he flooded the room with bright artificial lighting.

"Nice place," Doyle commented with a hint of tired sarcasm. "So this is the batcave itself. Slayer HQ."

Cordelia turned to him, poised to deliver a biting comment about Buffy and her gang of losers, and stopped, with a sharp, appalled gasp.

She saw him clearly now for the first time that night, away from dingy bars and dark streets, and the glaring lighting in the library mercilessly picked out every bruise and scrape on his pale skin. A particularly nasty bruise darkened the left side of his forehead, and there was blood in his hair above it and blood on his neck from Buffy's knife.

God, this was her responsibility! She'd been the one to send Buffy after him. She felt so small, knowing what she'd caused. She so much wanted to apologise. But in the event she couldn't, not in front of all the others, and when she opened her mouth all she could get out was the caustic observation, "Do you know you've got a footprint on the back of your jacket?"

He cast a sour glance at Buffy, who wouldn't meet his eyes, and grumbled, "I should imagine I've got a footprint on my back."

"Oh!" Cordelia exclaimed, upset. She wrung her hands and couldn't think of anything to say.

Giles coughed pointedly, drawing their attention to him. "What's happened already can't be helped," he said authoritatively. "We have more pressing matters to deal with. We can't be sure yet that our suspicions aren't justified." He frowned towards Doyle. "He is, after all, a demon..."

"Half-demon," Doyle insisted.

"...And even if he is one of the generally less hostile breeds and couldn't have carried out the killings himself that doesn't mean he isn't in league with the killer. We know he was connected with at least two of the murders, and it seems a little unlikely he'd have stumbled on both by accident."

"As a point of fact, the first time was accidental," Doyle interrupted. "Are you gonna give me a chance to talk here, or jus' decide whether or not I'm slayable material without lettin' me get in a word of explanation?"

"What he said," Cordelia backed up, since she definitely owed him one. "Only without the fakey accent."

"Hey..." Doyle started to protest, then evidently thought better of it.

"I think we should listen," Willow said nervously after a moment's uncomfortable silence. "Since he should know whether he's evil or not, really..."

Slayer and watcher exchanged glances. Giles shrugged and inclined his head amenably and Buffy said, "Go ahead." She finally relinquished her grip on Doyle's arm, a little awkwardly, and stepped back a few paces, although she continued to watch him like a hawk.

"Right." Doyle rubbed his arm and sauntered the few steps to the nearest table, which he perched on the edge of with a ragged sigh. "Don't suppose you've got anythin' to drink in this joint? I talk better after... never mind." He seemed more than a little uncomfortable at being the object of all their attention. He looked around them all, as though to examine them each individually. He displayed no reaction in his expression, but all the same Cordelia had the feeling he saw deeper into people than most.

"To begin with, I ain't any evil demon," he said finally. "So get that right outta your skulls. I'm half human an' don't you forget it. In fact, I was sent here to help you people. By the Powers That Be."

They stared at him blankly. He sighed and continued. "The higher powers; whatever you want to call them, it doesn't matter in this instance. Only that they're there, and they're runnin' the show." Cordelia listened with growing incredulity as his explanation unfolded. So this guy was, like, some kind of cosmic messenger...? She'd have expected taller, personally. "Anyway, I get these visions - of people in danger, of trouble that's gonna happen. And, prior warnin' of danger bein' a pretty useful thing for a slayer to have, I was... instructed, if you like, to come here and lend a hand. Also, and in fact primarily, to help this elusive Angel guy, who rumour has it you're fairly friendly with?" He addressed this last part to Buffy alone.

"Willy said you'd been asking questions about Angel," she said, harshly. Cordelia winced. She could have told Doyle not to bring up that subject with Buffy. Angel was a major sore spot at the moment. "What's your business with him?"

"Well, the Powers, they've got plans for him, too," Doyle said, sounding surprised. "There's big things to come, an' all that. Your boy Angel could be a pretty powerful force for good in this world if things go right, y'know?"

Xander made a snide comment under his breath, and Cordelia shot him a black look. She knew Xander didn't like Angel, but at the moment she was much more amenable towards Mr Cuddly Vampire than to Idiot Boy Harris, whether he had a major killing spree in his recent past or not. Plus she wanted to hear what Doyle had to say.

"'Course," Doyle continued, "I was hardly expectin' to have all this trouble over the demonic killings complicatin' my task all the more. That dead woman, the other night, I happened across by pure chance. Then this evenin' I got hit with a vision of the next victim. Went out because I thought I might try to stop it from happenin' - big mistake." He absently put a hand to his bruised and cut forehead, exploring the wound with his fingers, and winced.

Cordelia was somewhat relieved at the implication that not all the damage was her fault.

"I reckon the only reason I'm still alive right now is because I'm not human enough for this creature to cannibalise." You could tell that really stung him, too, Cordelia was surprised to note - even though it had saved his life.

"Okay," Buffy said. She sounded sceptical and concerned all at once. And concerned she should be, facing the possibility that she'd beat the crap out of one of the good guys, Cordelia thought tritely. "All this stuff about Powers That Be aside for the moment, why didn't you just come to us? Why all the skulking around?"

Doyle shifted uncomfortably. "Well, these visions I get, as well as hurtin' like the very devil, they ain't too specific. An' I'm supposed to be findin' Angel really - I know what he looks like, an' a few things about his recent activities which give a guy pause for thought. But I haven't seen him around any, for all I've been lookin'. Guess that's maybe somethin' to do with the business between the two of you. When a vampire wants to hide I suppose he really knows how." He shrugged and managed half a smile. "I didn't have any names or faces, other than his. I looked... I thought I'd found. I was pretty sure you were the slayer. But then, with the killings... well I... I had to consider another possibility. I have to admit, for a while I wasn't certain you weren't the demon yourself."

Buffy gawped and Cordelia found herself grinning at the turnabout.

"Well, your permanent record makes pretty demonic reading," Doyle added. "And you were at the crime scene too, that night."

"I... M-me... demon...? Giles!" Buffy spluttered, clearly aggrieved.

But Giles was nodding slowly. "A slayer is hardly a normal human, Buffy, really. He probably sensed that. I've heard Brachen demons do have an instinct for the magical and supernatural...?" He glanced at Doyle, academic interest alive in his eyes, and received a reluctant nod in confirmation. "It isn't an unreasonable assumption, all things considered."

"Hunh!" Buffy whined. And changed the subject. "So, Doyle, these Powers That Be you claim sent you - why didn't they give us any warning you were coming? I mean how hard is it to just drop us a note - 'Hi, guys, demonic messenger on the way, don't kill him' would do." Doyle let out a short bark of laughter at that. "And why make your visions so vague in the first place? Its almost as if they wanted us to half kill each other!"

"Yeah, and why do they feel we need more demons here anyway?" Xander added.

Doyle ignored him. "Maybe they did want things to happen this way. Maybe they wanted to make a point. Who knows? Man, they're the higher powers! I'm just a messenger, I don't claim to understand how they tick." He paused and looked around at them all, rather confrontationally. "Now have you decided whether you wanna believe me or stake me, 'cause if you're not gonna kill me I'm after goin' to find somethin' to drink. Not to mention some aspirin. So make up your minds." He rubbed his head pointedly.

"Nobody's killing anyone," Cordelia snapped, glowering around the group fiercely. But they all seemed to have reached the same conclusion themselves without her needing to bust any eardrums over it.

"You got that right," Buffy said shakily. "No slayage." She cast Doyle a somewhat besieged look but didn't say anything, although it looked for a moment as though she intended to. Cordelia thought she was probably still having trouble absorbing the concept of nice friendly demons. It had to screw with your head a bit when you'd been intent on the slaying of all demons as evil for the last few years. What if there had been a couple in there that weren't evil? In the middle of a fight you didn't exactly listen to explanations from monsters. Yeah, Buffy was probably feeling pretty unsteady right now. And there had to still be at least a spark of distrust there, too.

Giles nodded slowly. "I believe you're sincere. Although the idea that you were actually sent by... other forces is, admittedly, a little hard to take in. It makes me suspect I'm lucky to only have to answer to the Watchers' Council."

"Man, you are so right." Doyle rolled his eyes.

"There should be some aspirin around here somewhere," Cordelia said, eager to try make amends. She looked around for the emergency box.

Giles cleared his throat awkwardly and volunteered, much to everyone's astonishment, "I have some scotch. I'll get it. And, um, Doyle, you had better tell us about this creature... you say you actually encountered it?"

Doyle nodded. He hopped off his perch on the table to join the watcher as he produced a bottle from a desk drawer. He clapped a grateful hand to Giles' shoulder and mumbled a muted, "Thanks, man," as he took the bottle, pulled off the lid and tossed back a good quarter of the contents in one go.

"That's good stuff," he said, looking at Giles with a new respect. "Anyway, this creature..."

Giles kicked into gear with his librarian-man act and started spouting off demon lore or whatever. Doyle, at least, seemed to have no trouble following it, although everyone else was left way behind.

Everyone else was still digesting the news Giles had alcohol on the premises. Willow and Buffy looked stunned. Cordelia kept her mouth firmly shut, determined not to look as though she was catching flies, and concentrated on rooting through the first aid kit for the aspirin.

Giles caught sight of the expressions and sighed and scowled and generally looked as though he was wishing he'd never shared the information.

"Aspirin!" Cordelia said brightly, snatching up the container. Mission successful! She fished a couple of tablets from it and handed them to Doyle, who washed them down with another gulp of the scotch.

Feeling pleasantly as though she'd made up for her earlier mistakes by now, she smiled around at everyone brightly, challengingly.

She'd been right, damn it. Doyle wasn't evil. She should have trusted her first impression and not let herself be affected by their doubt.

It was only then that she realised what she'd let them do to her yet again. So much for her intentions to cut clear of their stupid monster club operation. Here she was, back in with the group. Xander. Willow. Buffy. Whom she hated.

She decided, determinedly, that she was going to walk out of the door now, and not come back. But her feet wouldn't move, seeming glued firmly to the floor.

She stared around the group, her gaze settling finally on Doyle.

Why couldn't she leave?

Doyle was relieved that the situation seemed to have improved. Okay, so the slayer and her people were still tip-toeing around him as though he was about to sprout horns - spikes? - and start breathing fire, and they kept casting distrustful, guilty glances in his direction... but at least they'd stopped discussing the option of putting an end to his sorry life.

Cordelia's efforts to back him up seemed a definite plus; she'd made it bewilderingly clear that she was on his side ever since she'd burst through the door of the bar. He appreciated it, even though he wasn't at all sure what was going on there. And the Watcher, Rupert Giles, seemed a decent sort. Certainly he kept a decent whisky, which in Doyle's book was much the same thing.

The rest of them... well, he felt a little lost in the midst of all that youth and energy. He had to remind himself he wasn't all that old; he just sometimes felt it.

The set-up here mystified him. Buffy was the slayer and okay, tough deal for a girl so young, but Slayers were built for tough... the others, Willow and Xander, and Cordelia too, they were little more than kids. Kids fighting evil forces that would send him running any day of the week. He felt all the more ashamed of his past cowardice in the face of that.

Buffy was a spry little thing, that was for sure. He winced at the memory of the strength behind that kick. He was glad they weren't going to be enemies - but he wasn't sure yet if, after what had happened and almost happened, they could ever be friends.

Not that he blamed her; they'd each been blinded by their suspicions of the other. Their roles could have been reversed - okay, only in some other reality where he was built like Arnold Schwartznegger, but in theory anyway. And she wasn't a senseless killer. He hadn't failed to notice she'd stopped before Cordelia's dramatic entrance, though she'd had precious little to go on in taking him on trust.

He pulled his attention back to Giles as he became aware the guy had asked him something a couple of times. "Huh? Sorry, man. Bit distracted." Perhaps he shouldn't have drunk down quite so much of the scotch quite so quickly after all.

"This one?" Giles held a book open at an illustration drawn in a brownish-red substance which looked like some form of demon blood. Doyle had been describing the creature he'd seen to the watcher in as much detail as he could, given that his recollections were mainly of big teeth and unreasonably large claws and a general impression of immense size. But he must have described it better than he'd thought, or else Giles was very good at his job, or both, because now he was looking at the creature again.

Doyle swallowed, remembering the encounter, and shuddered slightly, involuntarily, as he said, "Yeah, that's it. That's it exactly."

"What?" Buffy demanded, all aggressive excitement. "What is it?"

Giles squinted at small, over-dramatic handwriting in some language Doyle didn't recognise. "Greltock demon," he said.

"Gee, that explains everything."

The watcher coughed and continued. "Although technically it isn't actually a demon. It's a product of malign magic, a creation of some particularly dark spellcasting."

Well, that would explain why Doyle hadn't had a clue what it was. He was unfortunately quite familiar - firsthand, no less - with the majority of common demon types that populated the underbelly of the human world. This thing was something entirely different...

"So someone created this?" Buffy asked. She paused, and re-thought, and re-phrased. "A person... a human created this."

Giles fumbled for a moment, then nodded wordlessly.

"But why?" Cordelia demanded, piping up suddenly from the sullen quiet she'd fallen into for much of the last half hour. "Aren't there enough one-hundred-percent naturally grown demons in Sunnydale? Why the necessity to make your own?!"

"Designer demons?" Xander suggested.

"Hmm, actually not an inaccurate assessment." Giles frowned at Xander. He seemed, Doyle had noticed, to have a special disapproving expression he reserved almost exclusively for the youth. "Though, as always, you mask your insight in ridiculously flippant terminology. These creatures are often created with particular purposes and tasks to perform. Usually unpleasant. And they are under the total control of whomsoever created them."

"So someone's having this not-demon collect body parts?" Willow asked, appalled. "Or, um, body organs rather? Someone human? Yuck! Why would someone do that? What's the point? And again, yuck!"

"More to the point, who are they, where are they, and how do we deal with them?" Buffy said. "Especially if they're human. I can't kill a human!"

"I'm sensin' some double standards here," Doyle pointed out, a mite irritably.

"No, she's right, she can't," Giles said, equally irritably.

Doyle had barely begun to reply when the vision hit him and drove all thoughts about anything else running screaming from his brain.

Chapter 7

When Doyle suddenly keeled over clutching his head, Cordelia's initial impulse was panic, thinking it some sort of life-threatening delayed reaction. His head injury certainly looked yucky enough.

But, watching him grind the heel of his hand into his forehead in what looked like terrible agony and twitching and shuddering as though he were having some sort of fit, she remembered those visions he'd mentioned.

Hurt like the very devil, he'd said.

Huh. No kidding.

It only lasted for a few seconds, but she could tell even that was more than too much. She wondered what he'd done to deserve this, and it occurred to her that in all his lengthy explanations about the Powers That Be and his own role working for them, he'd never once mentioned why.

When he straightened, cautiously lowering his hands and raising his head to face them all, he looked pale, shaky and ill. He'd started the cut on his head bleeding again and red was painted over his hands.

So that's a vision, Cordelia thought. Didn't look like much fun for Doyle. Boy, was she glad the Powers That Be hadn't chosen to bestow that particular gift upon her. As gifts went, she'd rather have a new pair of shoes, thanks.

"Are you okay?" she blurted, without thinking. She heard the concern ring out in her voice and uneasily registered the curious glances she received from the others. She added quickly, "'Cause, you know, you look like hell."

She regretted it instantly when she saw the puzzled, hurt look enter his eyes at her sharpness. God, she was really getting good at hurting this guy.

He blinked at her, obviously able to think of no reply. By the time she'd scraped together the courage to voice an apology in spite of all those present, he'd turned to Giles.

"Bottle?" he rasped, almost a plea. Giles handed it over wordlessly. Awkardly, his hands shaking, Doyle poured a good deal more of the contents down his throat.

He sure could absorb the booze, she observed critically. Like he'd had a whole lot of practice.

"That was one of those vision things, right?" Buffy asked. "So... spill. What did you see?"

Doyle lowered the bottle, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand... then changed his mind and took another long draw before he answered. "It's gonna kill again, people. I just got it fed direct to my brain in glorious Technicolor and state of the art surround sound." He looked sickened. He glanced around the others. "In front of the school, not far from the main entrance. We gotta go... there's a girl, just a kid..."

"Right." Buffy was already on her way to the weapons' cabinet. "Giles, does it say anything about the best way to kill these Greltock things?"

The watcher coughed uncomfortably, and ventured, in flustered tones, "I believe your usual term is 'slice and dice', but I doubt it's going to be so simple or easy as that makes it sound. From what I've read, these creatures can be extremely large and vicious."

"You can believe that," Doyle said heavily. "Might take more than even you got, slayer."

"Okay. Back-up, then." Buffy was unfazed. "Doyle? You've fought this thing before..." she looked to him expectantly.

Doyle spluttered and choked on another mouthful of whisky and, after a brief furtive look around the group, belatedly discovered a backbone and nodded slowly. Cordelia didn't miss his quick glance in her direction, presumably to see if she'd noticed his hesitation. She pretended to be engrossed in the pattern of tiles on the floor, faintly disturbed by the idea of Doyle being dragged off to face the creature again.

"Guys," Buffy began, turning to the rest of them.

"Sure," Xander chirped up instantly, before she could finish, eager to play Mr White Knight Protector as usual. Cordelia glared daggers at him.

Buffy looked dubious, then reluctantly acceptant, "Okay, Xand, you're with me and, um, Doyle here. The rest of you... I guess you better start looking for some magical solution to this thing, if it's as mean as all that, just in case. We'll go do what we can to stop it picking up another order from the Sunnydale High menu."

Giles nodded. "We'll join you as soon as we find anything to help. Willow, we'll need..." He started rattling off titles as Willow went to a shelf and started pulling down the big old smelly volumes.

Buffy was handing out weapons to Xander and Doyle, the three of them engrossed in a debate about who'd best wield what. Doyle shot her a nervous, rather besieged smile over his shoulder.

He might not want to go, but at least he'd been asked. Well... okay, Buffy-bludgeoned into it was really more accurate. But still... he had a place, a purpose. Cordelia felt herself being ignored again, and her irritation arose anew.

"Hey," she snapped. "Have I suddenly become all invisible-girl around here? Don't I even get asked?"

"Why?" Xander sniped back at her, hefting an axe and nearly cutting off his own ear. "Are you feeling sudden urges to come hunt some monsters? 'Cause unless you plan on screaming them to death, I'm not seeing any part of that plan that makes sense."

"And like Snack-Fetching-Boy is going to be a whole lot of use? No, wait, I've thought up a good plan where you're plenty useful! Hey, guys, we can hack the monster to pieces while it's distracted snacking on Xander's head!"

"Cordy, he's right. It's dangerous. Besides, do you really want demon slime on that dress?"

She stared at Buffy's exasperated, mildly amused face for a long moment, trying to figure out at exactly what point she'd made any reference to actually wanting to go with them. She knew she hadn't... but they'd interpreted her objections that way. And they didn't want her.

Well, she'd be damned if she was going to back down now.

"Dangerous? More dangerous for me than him?" She pointed at Xander. "Or him?" The bemused Doyle. "Who, by the way, looks totally cruddy." She winced as she realised she'd done it again, but continued anyway. "How useless do you think I am?"

Buffy hesitated a moment before not answering that one. Cordelia's fists clenched, nails digging into her palms. "I just don't think it's a good idea..." the slayer began.

She had to agree on that one, angry with herself and the world in general. The last thing she wanted was more carnage and mayhem to round off the evening. But she'd said too much to back down now, and... well, Doyle was going, and he looked as though he'd had a truck fall on him...

"Back off, Little Miss Slayer. After everything that's happened tonight, I am so not in the mood to argue. I'm coming with. Pass me that crossbow, Xander."

Xander picked up the weapon from the shelf but hesitated, trapped between her and Buffy's glares.

"Guys," Doyle interrupted, stepping between them. "This is not a good time for debate! Big nasty monster, remember? Helpless victim, not getting any safer?"

Cordelia smiled broadly at him. She snatched the crossbow out of Xander's hands and directed a withering glare at Buffy.

The last thing Doyle had expected to be doing that evening was walking through the corridors of Sunnydale High clutching in one trembling hand a bloody great knife about a hair's breadth short of a sword.

And particularly not alongside Cordelia Chase, who was slipping and cursing in her ruined shoes, and carrying a crossbow in her own hands.

Cordelia kept glaring daggers at Buffy and Xander, who walked ahead of them. The kid was nervous, the Slayer relaxed and businesslike - which was unsettling. A girl of just seventeen, dealing with these kinds of horrors... Doyle could imagine how having a friend like her would leave a guy eternally feeling like he had something to prove. Had to be difficult to impress a girl when the lady in question was the closest thing to a superhero.

Cordelia, on the other hand... he wasn't sure what she was doing there at all. It was obvious her presence also confused the hell out of the other two.

He felt rather guilty knowing it was down to him that she was there and in the line of fire, though he suspected she'd probably have won the argument inevitably anyway if he hadn't intervened. She seemed the persistent type, to put it mildly. He determined to watch out for her; he didn't want the guilt of another death on his hands.

Heck, not that he wouldn't have watched out for her anyway. Fact, the problem was trying to drag his eyes away from her when she was wearing that dress.

He didn't want to be there, and the very thought of attempting to take on that creature again, even with a slayer at his side, made him shudder. But Buffy had been right to ask him to come. Though he might not be as strong as a slayer, or even a vampire, he had more chance of making a difference against this thing than most, with the demon strength he seldom utilised.

He'd held it off for a couple of minutes, before, after all.

And, as she'd said, he had the advantage, if it could be called that, of being the only one of them who had tackled the creature before.

He desperately hoped Giles and Willow came up with the goods quick.

They had not gone far beyond the main entrance of the school before he began to feel extremely uneasy, seeing things around him he recognised from his vision. And there was something else.

He stopped them with a edgy whisper of, "It's here."

"I don't see anything," Buffy said.

"I can smell something." He hesitated for a moment, then reminded himself severely of the girl he'd seen, whose life was at stake. "'Scuse me," he muttered and, uncomfortably aware of his audience, he shifted into demon form and sniffed the air...

Shifted back again almost instantly, even as the sound of a gasp and a quick movement from Cordelia cut deep. "That way." He pointed.

The demon itself, constructed from magic, didn't smell of anything beyond the slight but distinct tang of sorcery. Its last victim's blood was stronger, though, still lingering despite the earlier rain. Thankfully, it smelled neither fresh enough nor strong enough to belong to a more recent victim.

Cordelia, having backed away from him when he'd transformed, determinedly returned to his side. He felt her fingers brush his arm in a silent, awkward apology, then retreat back to the crossbow she held in readiness.

Even her slight touch turned his legs weak and banished the pain he'd felt when she flinched away. But in the face of the upcoming fight, he told himself sternly to ignore it, and that dress she wore, and set his brain back onto more practical tracks. Like the very immediate danger of them both being torn to shreds by the Greltock demon.

"Wow," Xander was saying, sounding both unnerved and reluctantly impressed. "So you've got, like, super demon senses?"

"I can smell stuff," Doyle allowed grudgingly.

"Say, Buffy's been branching into that too..."

Buffy growled something under her breath that sounded none too pleasant, and led the way cautiously in the direction Doyle had pointed out, sword held ready in her hand.

The school grounds were ominous in the dark. Low walls, steps, lawns and bushes all developed threatening shadows in a variety of demonic shapes. Doyle wished he could switch his imagination off, startled at the sight of a darker patch on the grass which upon second glance looked distinctly and embarrassingly shrub-shaped.

An instant later, while he was still collecting his balance from the scare and the subsequent embarrassment, a shadow burst out from a bush and ran across the grass, emanating a shrill noise.

Laughter, he realised as his heart started to beat again. The shadow was laughing, a delighted, ringing sound echoing oddly in the night air.

It was a girl of maybe twelve or thirteen, out too late and courting her parent's anger.

He'd seen her somewhere before.

He'd heard before, too, that child's cheerful laughter... in his vision. And he'd heard, and expected, the barking dog that followed after her a moment later. It circled the girl, leaping madly while she teased it with an empty raised hand.

He knew what was going to happen next...

"Look out!" he yelled. He was already running out over the grass towards her, aware of Buffy following close behind, when a much larger shape exploded from the bushes across the yard, sending displaced leaves scattering into the air in clumps; he felt them raining down onto his back as he tried to move faster.

Oblivious to their presence, the creature was headed straight for the girl.

"You fought that? Alone?" Buffy demanded breathlessly, glancing back as she overtook him.

Stronger and faster than he was, she intercepted the creature with her sword raised high, targeting its featureless wall of a face.

Doyle left her to it and lunged for the girl. He gripped her shoulders and hustled her away from the fight and out of harm's reach, ignoring her terrified screams and struggles.

The creature, seeing its intended prey about to escape, swung away from Buffy. Doyle placed himself between the girl and the creature, pushed her onwards in the direction of houses and safety and snapped, "Run! Run home now!"

Even as he spoke he was staggered as something hit his shoulder from behind. He heard and felt the arm of his jacket rip as he fell forward, landing on hands and knees. The girl, her eyes widely staring beyond him, shrieked, stumbled, picked herself up - and finally fled, the dog going noisily insane dashing around her feet.

She disappeared into the dark.

Still reeling from the glancing blow, Doyle pushed off from the ground and spun around.

He found himself practically nose to nose with the creature. It loomed over him, claws poised. His mind seemed to freeze... but his hand, the forgotten knife still clutched in it, moved forward apparently without instruction from his brain and buried the length of steel up to the hilt in the creature's body.

It shrieked and hit him. The damage those clubs it had for limbs could do hadn't lessened since their last encounter.

The next he knew, he was lying dazedly on the ground several metres away, spitting out new-mown grass.

One moment they were just walking through the dark. The next moment the quiet of the night had exploded and everything seemed to be happening in the same instant.

Buffy and Doyle were suddenly several feet away and engaged in some kind of twisted race against a thing which... well, Cordelia had seen a lot, but even so this creature was well within the top ten on the yuck list.

She couldn't tear her eyes away or make herself move to help as she saw them split off - seeming as though they'd been working together for much longer than an hour or so - Buffy to the monster and Doyle to the girl.

Xander, likewise, had hesitated, but he predictably shook himself into action when the creature thwacked Buffy across the face.

Cordelia's hands tightened on the crossbow, flinching now automatically from his touch as he gripped her shoulder. But he only said, urgently, indicating the weapon she held, "Come on, Cordy, you wanted to be here - cover us!"

With that he dashed into the action, axe raised, to fight at Buffy's side. Combat Xander, Cordelia thought with sour sarcasm, lifting the crossbow. But she was afraid for him all the same, despite everything.

Habit, she supposed.

Buffy, ignoring the mess daubed across her forehead, save for the necessity of dragging an occasional distracted hand across it to keep the blood from her eyes, appeared to be trying to keep the creature occupied while Doyle got the little girl away.

But the creature seemed to have figured out the plan. It was trying to get around her, to reach Doyle and the frightened girl.

Cordelia lifted the crossbow, aimed and fired at the creature's head. Dead on target, but then it was difficult to miss when the target was about the size of a juggernaut. The bolt sank into its skull.

The demon didn't even flinch.

Irritably, she struggled to reload, and fired again. She might as well be throwing pebbles at it for all the reaction that got.

She was aware with a small relief of the child, screaming and crying as she ran off into the relative safety of the night. She'd recognised the girl as the janitor's daughter, and she lived close by. She should be safe enough.

Cordelia watched helplessly as the monster knocked Xander sprawling, flattened Buffy with a sweep of its arm, and turned on Doyle.

Then it's bulk blocked her line of sight, and she couldn't see what was happening.

The crossbow was useless. If she wanted to help Doyle and the others, she'd have to intervene more directly.

'Oh, great. I am gonna get so killed. All covered in blood and with messy hair, too...'

But before she'd gone more than a couple of steps, Buffy was back on her feet and back in the action.

Cordelia breathed a sigh of relief and raised the crossbow again, a little annoyed with herself for the concern she felt because Xander hadn't gotten up yet.

And neither had Doyle.

Somehow, the knife was still in his hand. Somehow, he'd managed not to skewer himself with it on his involuntary flight.

However, it was covered in a sludgy demonic blood substance which ran down the hilt to coat his palm. Where it burned. He threw the knife aside and wiped his hand frantically on the grass.

Buffy was hacking at the creature with her sword, a dark line across her forehead indication that she hadn't escaped unscathed. He couldn't see Xander. Cordelia was standing a safe distance away trying to reload the crossbow. A couple of bolts already sticking out of the back of the demon's head detailed the success that weapon was having.

Doyle looked at the length of the knife lying on the grass, coated with goo. It had sank into the creature, all the way to the handle, and that hadn't slowed the Greltock demon down in the slightest either.

'We are so screwed.'

Buffy hacked with the sword. It sounded like somebody chopping wood. His brain kicked back into gear.

"Watch out for its blood!" he half-yelled, half-groaned, trying to get his feet under him. His hand stung.

"Thanks," Buffy grunted, and backed off a step to hack from a safer splatter-distance.

Doyle dizzily regained his feet and almost fell over again. The knife lying on the grass was the only weapon he had, but the skin on his palm had already begun to peel and bleed. He flexed his fingers experimentally and leaned down, reaching again for the coated handle. Hesitated almost touching it.

Another crossbow bolt zinged through the air to embed itself in the creature's back where, by rights, a spine ought to be.

"This is useless!" Cordelia snapped, throwing down the crossbow. "Oh my God! Buffy!"

He looked up in time to see the slayer hit the wall of the school with a deadly-looking impact, and fall several metres to the ground below. Her huddled shape lay unmoving where it landed.

'Oh, shit.' He looked around for that Xander kid, for Giles and Willow running to the rescue with their spells. For anyone else. But there was nobody except himself, and Cordelia, and the creature.

His hand closed around the knife, and he winced as the burning started up again instantly.

He spotted Xander now. The boy was sprawled motionless almost at the creature's feet and the demon had bent over him. It held its claws poised to cut.

"Get off him, you ugly, creepy, disgusting thing!" Cordelia screamed, with a fury and fear for the boy's life which was rather surprising, given the abrasive nature of their relationship. An object which looked a lot like a shoe bounced off the creature's head, effectively drawing its attention away from Xander. And drawing Doyle's astonished attention, too, to where Cordelia was hopping up and down on one leg, trying to pull off her other shoe.

She was way too close to the demon for Doyle's liking, taunting it, trying to lure it away from Xander.

"Oh, shit," Doyle groaned.

No choices left, for the second time that day he shifted into his demon form and ran at the creature. The knife ate steadily into his hand, Brachen demon skin making no difference at all to the corrosive effect.

He managed to duck the first swipe of its clawed hand and embed the knife into what passed for its elbow joint. But it caught there, wedged between bone when the creature bent the limb, and he was forced to let go of it. At least he'd weakened that arm. It dragged visibly now, hanging virtually useless.

Whatever help that would be when this thing was stronger even than a slayer and had wiped the floor with him once already that night.

Out of the corner of his eye, Doyle thought he saw Xander stir slightly. He backed off, trying to bring the creature after him away from the youth... give Xander room to get up and get his butt - not to mention that bloody great axe - over to lend a hand before Doyle ended up dead.

Cordelia had the second shoe in her hand and seemed to be wondering what to do with it, apparently torn between helping him and going to see what had happened to Buffy.

Doyle prayed she'd stay well clear. If he couldn't stop the creature, and the slayer herself couldn't, no normal teenage girl would stand a chance, especially one still recovering from an injury which had near killed her.

He risked a glance back at Xander and found that, to his dismay, the youth was once again motionless, and not in any position to offer assistance.

The creature's arm fell without warning while his attention was distracted, slamming him to the ground before he could even attempt to defend himself. He saw the other shoe bounce off its head, heard Cordelia shouting again, trying to repeat her earlier distraction, but it didn't work. The creature was oblivious to her, its attention focused upon him...

'Must remember me from earlier,' Doyle thought.

"Cordelia!" he choked out. "Get the hell out of here! Get back to Giles! Go!"

She didn't go. She'd started edging around the creature, towards where Xander lay. Doyle felt sick with fear for her.

Not to mention the fear he felt for his own life.

The creature towered above him raised its arm to strike down a killing blow. Behind it, he could see Cordelia picking up the axe Xander had dropped.

The youth groaned and stirred. Blood caked one side of his face but he managed to choke out, "Cordy - no...!"

Cordelia favoured him with a distasteful glare. Unsteady in her bare feet, she hefted the axe, swung it around in an impressive arc, and embedded it in the creature's back just as the claws descended and Doyle thought he was dead for sure.

As the axe left her hands, the creature spun and knocked her aside.

The demon bucked, trying to dislodge the blade from its back. Doyle narrowly avoided a couple of random sweeps of its limbs and ducked under its reach to crawl to Cordelia's side.

She had a hand pressed over the old injury in her stomach and her face was rather white, but she shook her head in response to the question in his eyes. She was okay.

A shadow fell across them. Doyle looked up.

The creature, looking pissed as anything, loomed over them both. It was obviously damaged bad, but it still had more than enough strength to finish them... and he had nothing left to fight it with.

"Hey, didn't anyone ever tell you to play nice with the other kids?" a chirpy voice quipped.

The relief was overwhelming. Doyle followed the direction of the voice, knowing what he'd see.

Buffy stood there, in a fighting stance, the sword in her hands.

They picked themselves up while Buffy finished off the Greltock demon.

Doyle had wrapped his right hand in a strip torn from his nasty shirt (the T-shirt he wore underneath managed, unbelievably, to be even nastier), but Cordelia could see no other indication of serious injury. The cut on Xander's head looked awful, though, and she wouldn't be surprised if he was concussed.

She watched as Buffy, her arms carefully wrapped in the rest of Doyle's torn shirt, finished cutting the creature up into bite-sized demon nuggets. Doyle was looking rather ill at the sight, and she remembered he had almost been on the wrong side of Buffy's slayage only a few hours earlier.

The thought made her shudder. An entirely more normal reaction, she supposed, than indifference to the sight of any creature being sliced and diced.

She'd seen way too much, the past few years.

She sighed, and winced at the twinge from her stomach. Her attention was drawn to a movement on the edge of her vision. She turned and saw Giles and Willow hurrying over, Giles holding an enormous, ancient-looking book in his arms.

"I see you managed to kill it without our input," the watcher said, eyeing the carnage of the battle scene. He rested a hand on Buffy's shoulder, a gesture of restrained affection and obvious relief. "Well done. From what I've read, these things are hideously difficult to take down."

"You can say that again," Buffy sighed. "But... the help was indispensable." She cast a grateful glance to encompass the others and stuck the sword into the ground in a final decisive motion. Then with a soft, exhausted sigh she allowed the tension to leave the set of her shoulders. Xander rested a worried hand on her arm, and she patted it affectionately before shrugging it off.

"We've still got spells to say over this thing, though," Willow put in with her own weird brand of enthusiasm for all things magic and yuck. "Otherwise it'll just regenerate itself into an all-new nasty murdering demon. Plus there's the spell to find out who's been controlling it," she added. "Yep, spells-r-us."

Cordelia wished she wouldn't sound so cheerful.

Her stomach injury ached with an increasing fury. She pressed her arm to it, suppressing a groan, promising it she'd go home and take some painkillers very soon.

The others seemed busy with the spells, so she looked around for her shoes. She spotted one fairly close by and retrieved it, then hopped around the grass looking for the other. Only to find it in a pile of demon-gick, half eaten up by the corrosive stuff.

With a sigh, she left it where it was and took off the other one again, tossing it resignedly over to join its fellow. She'd just have to get some more. It was only money, after all, and there was always more money.

She glanced at the little cluster centered around Giles and Willow. Only Doyle stood aside, looking as out of place as she felt. She hesitantly approached him. "You okay?" she asked.

"Yeah. You?"

"Only my poor shoes damaged beyond repair... ow!" The pain, rising in a swift crescendo, slammed through her suddenly, taking all the strength from her legs. She was only vaguely aware of Doyle's hands catching her and preventing her from falling.

Doyle swore. "Oh, hell!"

The arm she'd been holding over her stomach had fallen limply aside, and she could dimly see now the blood coating the front of her dress. And evidently so could he.

She realised Xander had appeared from somewhere and was helping to support her weight, but she didn't have the strength to pull away, and her attempt to protest just came out as a muffled squeak.

"Giles! Giles, man! We've got to get to the hospital right now!" Doyle yelled, sounding oddly far away, though the panic was still loud in his voice.

"Yes, we do. Principal Snyder's not going to like this... oh." she heard Giles begin, also sounding a long way off, and sounding too like he was in the wrong conversation. "Oh, good grief, yes. Willow, will you..."

The rest blurred into darkness.

Chapter 8

Doyle stood in the waiting area of Sunnydale's hospital, trying to ignore the exhaustion and pain which seemed to have settled deep in his bones. It had been a very long night. Well... technically it was day, now. He was supposed to be starting classes in just over an hour. Not that that's gonna happen, not today nor any other day again. The PTB can just think up a new plan.

Nearby, Xander leaned against a vending machine, looking pale, a bandage around his head. Doyle had expected he'd be leaving once Buffy returned, but it appeared he too was determined to wait it out until they knew what was happening with Cordelia. Buffy herself was slumped against the wall. She'd only been back a few minutes, and she hadn't said much. Doyle grasped that the matter was dealt with, and she didn't want to talk about it.

Willow had reluctantly stayed behind to lock up the library, and as for Giles... he had gone in search of a doctor to corner to find out if there was any news yet.

'And what I ought to be doing', Doyle thought, 'Is going to see Angel. It's not like it hasn't taken me long enough to find him.' But he couldn't leave, not until he knew.

"What is it with the teachers at our school anyway?" Xander grouched, breaking the silence, with a pointed glower in Doyle's direction. "If they're not demons or psychos or giant bugs, they're at the top of the menu for..." Before Doyle could interrupt to say he at least wasn't planning on staying around at Hellmouth High any longer, even if he didn't get sacked anyway, the youth's eyes fixed on something and his expression grew abruptly grim, "Okay, shutting up now."

Wondering why he'd halted, Doyle followed his gaze down the corridor.

Giles was returning.

He nervously tracked the Watcher's progress towards them; wasn't sure now that he wanted to hear what the guy had found out, despite the anxiety of the hours spent waiting for news.

If Cordelia was hurt badly... he'd been the one responsible for her being there with them.

It would be his fault.

Although, without her, they'd probably all be dead now. They'd needed everyone who'd been there, in the end, to defeat the Greltok demon.

Giles halted a few feet away, cleared his throat apologetically, and answered the question hanging over them, "The doctors say she'll be all right. She's pulled the stitches and re-opened the injury. She's done it before, apparently, but this time was worse. Anyway, they've sewn it up again, and the anaesthetic should wear off before long. They're moving her to a private ward and, since her parents appear to be terminally unavailable, you'll be able to see her in a short while."

Doyle let out the breath he seemed to have been holding for about an hour.

Giles turned to Buffy, his manner grave as if he didn't want to know the answers either.

"Don't worry, I didn't kill him. He's still alive," Buffy said, before the watcher could even ask what had happened. She hesitated, looking disturbed. "Not... not for long, though. He's over two hundred years old... and without the creature to gather the spell components - human parts - to extend his life..." She shrugged.

After a moment's uncomfortable silence, she continued, "I didn't need to do anything but tell him the creature was dead. He practically had a heart attack right there in front of me. He's not going to last long. Who'd have thought it? Mr Matthews was like a whole Sunnydale High tradition in himself. He's been teaching at school for, like, forever."

"Yeah, literally," Xander snickered.

Though Buffy was obviously disturbed, Doyle couldn't say he felt any pity for the guy. The memory of the young woman he'd failed to save, torn open by the creature while she was still alive, was far too raw and vivid. Matthews had got what he deserved, and he for one was glad the bastard had been stopped.

But he was also glad Buffy hadn't had to kill him. Asking a seventeen-year-old girl to fight demons was one thing. This... was something else. And evidently he wasn't the only one who thought so.

"Well," Giles said, his relief clear. "Now I know that's done, I'd better attempt once again to get in touch with Cordelia's parents to let them know she's in hospital."

Xander frowned at the watcher's retreating tweed-wrapped back. "Huh. Go for lost causes much? Good luck with that one," he muttered. "I'll guess I'll go find out what the doctors have done with Cordy."

As they trailed after the youth, Buffy fell into step beside Doyle. Her expression was nervous and intense, as though there was some heavy thinking going on behind it. After a moment, she ventured, "I wanted to apologise, for, uh, almost slaying you." She laughed uncomfortably. "Boy, that sounds stupid, huh? - 'Gee, I'm sorry I nearly killed you. My bad, won't do it again...'"

"No harm done," Doyle said, uneasily trying to make light of it. His mind still flinched from the thought of what had almost happened, but it hadn't been her fault.

"It nearly didn't go that way." Their steps had slowed to the point where they barely progressed at all. Xander forged on ahead, oblivious, down the long white corridor. "Anyway, all that aside, I might have died there tonight if you hadn't been there - though I have this worrying feeling I could say the same about Cordelia - so if you're going to be staying around, doing your messenger thing, maybe we could forget the embarrassing stuff and start afresh." She extended a hand and a slightly guilty, impish grin. "Buffy Summers. Slayer of bad demons."

He took her hand and repeated his own introduction, but he couldn't share her determined cheer. He wasn't sure he deserved her apologies, with the mess he'd made of things. The slayer carried enough responsibility for her young years, without taking on the weight of his mistakes. She seemed so ordinary in so many ways, and yet he had trouble imagining all that lay on her shoulders.

"You know," he admitted awkwardly, wanting to reach her somehow, to make her understand she hadn't been at fault. "I can't say I was vastly pleased myself when I found out I was half a demon. So I can understand it coming as somethin' of a shock..."

She silently took that in.

Maybe he'd said too much, trusted too much. But, damn it, in spite of everything, he liked her. "Hey, lets catch up with him, huh?" Doyle suggested, changing the subject with a nervous laugh.

Ahead of them, Xander had conversed briefly with a white-coated doctor before disappearing through a door and closing it behind him.

She nodded, and they started to walk again. "I can't wrap my brain around what Mr Matthews did," she admitted. "I mean, we always knew he was a bad tempered old buzzard, but... He told me everything, when he was asking me... begging me... to help him, so scared of finally dying. It goes back a hundred and fifty years. Murders across seven different states, which was why Willow didn't pull it up on the computer. He hadn't been in Sunnydale much more than twenty years. Hadn't needed to call on his demon familiar to renew the spell in that time. Imagine, all those stolen lives..."

"Yeah, well. Some of the demons are human."

"Yeah," she said softly, her clear eyes contemplative. "I'm getting that."

They halted outside the door Xander had walked through. "Well," Buffy said, "I should make myself scarce. I'm not exactly Cordelia's favourite person, and you can bet this one's going to be my fault too as far as she's concerned." She hesitated, as though weighing carefully whether or not to voice a thought. "She doesn't like Xander either," she said finally. "She... could use someone else there for her when she wakes up."

He watched Buffy walk away down the corridor. Then, after a moment's hesitation, pushed the door open slowly.

Within the hospital room, Xander was sitting by Cordelia's bedside, holding her unconscious hand with a nervous, sad tenderness. As he watched, the boy's fingers trailed down her wrist in a curiously mournful, caressing gesture.

He remembered what Buffy had said, recalled Cordelia had made some reference to an ex - and it hit him then, taking his breath away.

As yet, Xander was clearly unaware of his presence. He backed out of the room and shut the door quietly... then opened it again with deliberate noise. Walked in to see Xander standing a guilty few feet back from the bed.

"Hey, Doyle," the youth said, fake-casual.


"She's... sleeping," he added, lamely.

Doyle hauled an uncomfortable-looking plastic chair over to the bedside and sat down. At the other side of the bed, Xander also sat down again.

Cordelia looked pale and fragile, and a long way from the girl with the deliberately sharpened tongue who had first humiliated him, then almost gotten him killed, and then later saved his life. Twice.

"I guess I should thank you for saving her," Xander said. "Which is nicely ironic, considering a few hours ago I was trying to persuade Buffy to slay you."

There was a pause, in which Doyle realised no apology was likely to be forthcoming from that direction.

"But don't think for one minute that means I'm okay with the demon thing," the kid added belligerently. "And if you show any sign of turning evil and going major serial killer on us like certain other allegedly 'good' demons I could mention, don't think I'd hesitate to stake you on the spot."

Doyle stared at him. "I ain't a vampire."


At that point, Cordelia shifted slightly and moaned softly, drawing both their attention.

Cordelia returned to consciousness slowly, aware of a keen agony centred around her stomach. 'Xander. Xander, with Willow...'

But no, that had been before. That had been weeks ago, now. And Xander wasn't with Willow. But he wasn't with her any more either.

Still, this was all way too familiar; the sheets of the hospital bed tucked tight around her body, the unreasonable bright white sterility of the hospital room. The sleepy, heavy feeling of the anaesthetic that was wearing off. The presence of people, close by.

People. Huh.

"Xander...?" she asked. Her voice came out as a soft croak.

"Cordy!" she felt hands clutch at hers, heard the pathetic eagerness in his voice, and wrenched her hands away.

She put all her effort into shaping the words, clear and strong: "Go. Away." Again...

There was a silence. She struggled to focus her eyes, hearing whispered voices and knowing someone else was in the room. She lifted herself up on her elbows with some effort and some pain, just in time to see Doyle talking a reluctant Xander out of the room.

She felt bad about the kicked-puppy-dog expression on her ex's face - for about half a second.

The events of the night rushed back into her brain entire and she cursed herself for being drawn once more into anything involving risk of personal harm or of blood stains or disgusting demonic goop on clothes or accessories. "I liked those shoes," she muttered disgustedly, remembering their horrible and undeserved demise with a shudder.

"Hunh?" Doyle turned from the door. "What was that?"

"Doyle," she said, with false sugary brightness, or at least as much as she could muster. "What are you doing here?" Okay, she hadn't expected her parents. Giles, perhaps, or even Buffy.

"Giles is tryin' to contact your parents. I... I... are you sure you should be sittin' up?"

"I've been here before," she reminded him pointedly. "Stitches again, right?"

He nodded, and hesitantly rearranged the pillows to support her more comfortably.

Cordelia sighed as she let herself relax back against the pillows. 'Buffy had so better be aware I totally saved her butt,' she thought, finding a degree of satisfaction there despite the familiar ache in her punctured side. 'Who's useless now, huh?' She'd bill Slay-girl for the shoes and the dress tomorrow.

Doyle sat down in an ugly plastic chair at her bedside. His hands fidgeted, until he forcibly stilled them, resting them on his knees. The right one was crudely bandaged - he clearly hadn't dared risk professional medical attention with that demon heritage thing.

He studied her... all big pale eyes whose colour she couldn't be sure of; they seemed to change with the light. "You saved my life," he said quietly. Awkward as it was, his voice still managed to make her shiver pleasantly. She remembered her caustic remarks to Willow that day in school... a lot seemed to have happened since then.

"As if I ever wanted to be the kind of jerk who'd run into a fight with a demon instead of away from it?" she replied with weary frustration. "That bunch of losers have ruined my life. Before I got involved with them, I had everything I wanted. I didn't need to know about monsters and vampires. I certainly didn't need to fight the forces of evil as my top extra-curricular activity. It's not as if you can even put that on your resume... And, like, how many times have I been involved in saving the world from destruction anyhow? Uncredited, might I add!" She sighed irritably. "I just want to go back to shallow. I liked shallow. Shallow was good. Shallow didn't get me skewered!"

The besieged expression on his face quieted her rant, but before she could say anything else he hesitantly ventured, "Maybe they didn't change you. Maybe ... maybe it was always there in you. I mean, can you even be sure the other you wasn't the lie? The one you made to match your... your world..." His voice drained away to nothing.

She stared at him. Her eyes played tricks on her for an instant, placing a fleeting image of his spiky, demonic visage over pale skin and dark bruises. She shook the image off and reached out to take up his undamaged hand in hers. His skin felt smooth and human. She couldn't feel any trace of spikes under the surface.

"You saved me, too," she said softly. "And Xander." She added it automatically, before remembering she wasn't supposed to care anymore. "And maybe Buffy - not that that's a huge issue to me. And I'm not actually sure whether the demon would consider slayers appropriate for its organ foraging. But anyway, Xander and me being one-hundred percent human, it'd have killed us for people-parts in a shot if you hadn't fought it and given Buffy chance to recover." She frowned, thought about it, and shrugged. "Call it a team effort if you like... what's wrong?"

He'd pulled his hand loose from hers and stepped back, knocking the chair aside. She stared up at him in dismay. He was leaving...?

"You said it," he replied, tired and haunted. "I'm not human."

"If you'd been human, you'd be dead," she said.

He just looked at her, on the verge of walking away, carefully not reacting.

"If you'd been human, I'd be dead," she added.


"So, anyway - right now, kind of glad you are what you are. See - not about to complain, here."

He stared at her for a moment, as though he just couldn't figure her out. "Well. Yeah. Okay. Now that I know you're gonna be all right, I'll be headin' out, then. There's a guy I gotta go see."

He started another step away from her and she reached out, snagged the edge of his nasty jacket, and tugged him back, wincing at the strain the movement put on her stitches. He stopped trying to pull away instantly.

'Ha. Got you. You're not walking away from Cordelia Chase.'

"Don't. You'll hurt yourself..."

"Then sit." She pointed to the chair. "I am not having one more potential date turn his back on me this week, no matter how ugly he looks as a demon. Or how badly he dresses. And believe me when I say, the demon part is the easier of the two to take in."

Doyle sighed, set the chair back in place, and did as requested. She watched his brain ticking over, as he assimilated what she'd just said. "Potential date, huh?"

She grinned, feeling a little embarrassed now it was said. She looked at him expectantly. "Well - I'm waiting," she said, as the seconds passed.


Men! Did she have to do all the work in this relationship? "Go ahead and ask me out already."

He managed to look astonished, and nervous, and insanely happy, all at once.

"Cordelia..." he began hesitantly. "Would you...?"