AUTHOR: Roseveare, firstname.lastname@example.org
SPOILERS: Season 1, 'Bachelor Party'
SUMMARY: While Angel's away for Thanksgiving, Cordy and Doyle take on a case that's a little too close to home.
NOTES #1: Based on a plot originated by Evan Como.
NOTES #2: I started writing this over two years ago; I finished the last few chapters in June.
DISCLAIMER: Not mine, no profit, yadda, yadda, yadda.
The building where the auditions were being held was a far cry from the sort of glam and glitter Cordelia's earlier self might have expected to find, back when she'd first come to LA with more dreams in her soul than of being a glorified secretary to a vampire detective. Her current self, far too accustomed to shabbiness, had accepted with a weary sigh the narrow East Hollywood street the building faced onto, and sat down to wait on the broad stone steps outside.
The minutes passed and she was growing tired of counting still more couples hurrying on up the steps casting nervous glances back, tired of trying to gage how long they'd been in this town by how taken aback they were by the shabby address. The few passers-by walked with quick, staccato footsteps in keeping with the tone of the neighbourhood. Across the way, a couple of winos rooted through trash, cursing slim pickings.
Cordelia could identify with their annoyance. She needed to be elsewhere. Now.
The winos moved on, leaving her alone. She leaned against the banister, arms crossed.
She cursed auditions that required reading partners.
She'd be willing to bet Angel wouldn't have been late - heck, the guy couldn't go out in sunlight, but he'd still have managed to get there on time. But Angel was in Sunnydale, following a vision of Buffy in danger, so for now Cordelia was on her own.
Unless you counted Doyle. And she was fast discounting Doyle.
She ground her teeth.
Not that Doyle was actually late, as such. Not yet, anyway. But he wasn't the requisite early that everyone else was. "Memo to self," she muttered under her breath. "In future, when making appointments with Doyle, lie to allow at least a half hour extra."
She had begun to think he must have forgotten when she finally saw the familiar figure approaching. It was his shirt she recognised first. The bright orange of the fashion monstrosity made him stand out like a CalTrans worker in the midst of the grey-shadowed gloom. His crummy brown leather jacket swung loose from his shoulders. He approached at a guilty pace, his breathing audible.
She stood, bouncing agitatedly on her feet. He took one look at her face and flinched. "Cordy, I'm sorry, I..."
"I don't want to know! Doyle, how could you? You know what an opportunity this acting school's scholarship could be for me. I can't believe you wore that. In fact, I can't believe you wear that, period. I can't even believe any clothing manufacturer made that. Do you have to get something that ugly specially tailored?"
"Huh?" Doyle's chin squashed into his chest as he peered down to study his ensemble. His eyes were apologetic as he raised them again to meet hers. But not for the shirt. "Cordy, I am sorry. I know this is important. I had some trouble at the office. A client called..."
"Never mind." She quelled her temper and her urge to ream him out but proper. She so didn't have the time. She grabbed the collar of his nasty shirt and tugged him up the steps, through the doorway of the imposing old building.
On the other side of that doorway was a long, narrow, high-ceilinged foyer in a moderate state of disrepair not helped by a recent bad paint job in pale lime green. A big staircase ascended from the far end and corridors led off left and right. Remnants of fine decor indicated the building might have been grand once. The woman seated behind the reception desk glanced up and said, in a monotone which implied she'd been saying much the same thing all morning, "Audition? Up the stairs and through the door on your left into the student theatre."
"Thanks." Cordelia marched forward but was stalled by resistance and a choked, muffled protest.
"Cordy... need to... breathe."
She hurriedly let go of Doyle's collar and flexed fingers numbed from possibly a tad too fierce grip. "Sorry," she said, wincing. "Come on, we're late."
She swung back impatiently. "What now?"
With the hand that wasn't massaging his neck, he produced a black bundle from his jacket. "I thought this might come in useful."
The sparkle of mischief in his eyes confirmed that the bundle was one of Angel's nicer shirts. She breathed a sigh of relief. "Later, Doyle, I am so going to hurt you for doing that to me," she promised. "Right now..." she turned to the woman on the reception desk. "We need a bathroom!"
The woman's eyebrows raised and her gaze travelled between the two of them, the side of her mouth curling up in amusement.
"No, I don't want to go in with him, all right?" Cordelia snapped. "Except maybe in his pornographic dreams."
"Left hand corridor. Second door." Deadpan.
Doyle zipped down the corridor before Cordelia had a chance to say anything further. She waited, staring grimly at her watch as the second hand seemed to go into hyperdrive before her eyes.
"If I'm too late to audition, Doyle... you are so dead," she muttered.
An unreasonably long two minutes later, he emerged, drawing her attention with an embarrassed cough. She looked up and gawped.
"Angel's a giant!" Doyle's protest rose to an indignant squeak. He flapped the shirt sleeves which hung down over his hands.
"God! Men! Stand still." Cordelia grabbed his collar, adjusting, straightening. Pulled at his shirt sleeves, tucking. And, ignoring his bemusement and the receptionist smirking in the background, she efficiently rearranged the massive shirt around his much smaller frame.
She stood back to view her handiwork and was astonished with the result. It wasn't just Angel who looked good in black. "Doyle," she said, with some surprise. "You look... not skanky."
His face scrunched. "You think so?" he ventured cautiously, clearly unsure whether he'd just been complimented or insulted.
"Yeah." She smiled, and felt pleasantly smug as the receptionist's eyes also fixed on him appreciatively. "I - oh my God!" She waved her watch at him. "This is not getting us any less late!"
Bounding up the stairs brought them to a large hall packed with just about every wannabe in the city and they had to struggle through the press of bodies just to step across the threshold. Onstage, just visible over the crowds, two people were already reading to a panel of dour-faced individuals.
Cordelia swallowed and leaned closer to Doyle. "I am so screwed," she hissed.
"Chin up, Princess, it could've been worse," Doyle consoled.
"Don't you even speak to me. I don't want to talk to you." Cordelia hugged her arms tight across her chest and slouched into the coffee shop booth.
Doyle sighed, giving in to the silence that lasted for all of the two seconds it took Cordelia to draw in a breath and release it in a disgusted, heartfelt, "Hffft!"
Doyle cringed in anticipation.
"I have never been so humiliated in all my life! Well, okay, so I have, but this at least ranks among the top five premiere humiliations. You... it's all your fault. Why didn't you tell me you could act? If I'd known you weren't going to suck, maybe I wouldn't have been so surprised that I flubbed my lines!"
"I didn't know," Doyle mumbled defensively. It seemed fated that no matter what he did or how hard he tried - with her, for her - things always seemed to turn out badly. He'd even managed to show her up by trying desperately hard not to show her up. After all this time pretending to be something other than he was, he supposed pretence came naturally enough on demand. In front of that crowd, scared shitless, his mouth drier than hell, he'd been determined to give his all for the sake of Cordy's career.
Angel's shirt itched, making Doyle wonder if vampires had mites. Overly big and depressingly, swelteringly dark, however much it had been one of the high points of his existence to have Cordelia's eyes slide so appreciatively over him in it, he didn't much like being swamped by it. If fashion was a label of who you were, Angel's shirt shouted `Mr. Mysterious' a whole lot louder than Doyle was comfortable with. He preferred to stay Joe Public, in appearance at least: Look! Nothing extraordinary about me at all.
"Aw, hey." Doyle put out a hand to touch Cordelia's, and she immediately withdrew both of hers and sat on them. "You know, I don't understand what is it with you and this acting obsession anyway, Princess. This whole actin' thing... have you ever considered maybe that just ain't you? The 100 percent honest, genuine article, that's what you are. Up-front, no-holds-barred, uncompromising truth. Other than politics-" he was forced to pause, choking slightly on that concept "-I couldn't think of anything you're less suited for." Besides filing, answering phones, typing...
"Thanks a lot, Doyle," she snapped. "A bribe of cheap coffee does not mean that we are okay. We are nowhere near okay. Okay?"
Cordelia blew across the lip of the plastic mug of generic coffee and surreptitiously watched Doyle pull agitatedly at the collar of Angel's shirt. Who'd have thought that Doyle could pull off the black-on-black, creature-of-the-night ensemble?
She thought about Doyle, sitting uncomfortably in Angel's clothes, hunching from her anger. Doyle might not look like much - although he didn't actually repulse her as much as she'd sometimes indicate - but he was more than the sum of his fashion sense and his wallet. He'd rescued her from a vampire's attack that night outside the office when PrettyRichBoy Pierce had cut and run. Ordinary people didn't risk their lives to save others - it took someone extraordinary. The Scooby Gang. Angel. Doyle.
Reaching out, Cordy bridged the air between them to place her hand over his where it rested on the table. "Doyle, it's all right. I know you were trying to help. You just... surprised me. Caught me off-balance."
She felt the bony ridges of his knuckles under her palm, and he moved his fingers slightly, whether accidentally or by design, to brush them against the underside of her wrist. The touch sent a jolt through her and she let it linger for a second - until she realised the innocent contact was becoming a lot more intimate than she'd intended. Awkwardly, she withdrew her hand, curling it safely around her cup instead.
Doyle's expression collapsed into a sad smile.
"So," she said quickly, her fingers flexing on the hot plastic. "Who was the client?"
He stared past her, distracted.
"You know," she prompted. "You were late. You said you'd had to deal with a client. So, spill - what kind of a client?"
He shook his head. "Sorry, darlin', but I don't think it was the rich kind."
God, how one-note did he think she was? Not that the monetary situation hadn't crossed her mind, but it wasn't like it was the only thing she thought about. "Duh. I meant, vision or walk-in?"
"Phone-in, actually. Somehow I don't see the PTB sendin' any of those mind-splittin' headaches my way while Angel's out of town. Not for us messenger and secre... uh, actress types to deal wit'. Guy sounded pretty desperate over the phone, mind."
She nearly picked at him for that double-take, but let it go in favour of the rest. "I guess we'll have to keep this guy hanging until Angel comes back. Assuming Angel does come back, and he and Buffy... I hope it's something that can wait."
Doyle cleared his throat uncomfortably and her eyes shot up to target his suspiciously. "I, uh, kinda told him to come in this afternoon. Not until two-thirty, though, I didn't know how long the audition was gonna carry on -"
"What?" she shouted, and half shot to her feet with indignation before she remembered where they were. Her coffee slopped a pool onto the table at her sudden movement and she glanced around, glowering at the few faces drawn their way until they turned aside. She leaned over the table to hiss, "In case you hadn't noticed, we are currently minus one vampire superhero. Demon stuff right now, so not a good idea. Besides, no way are we open for business! It's Thanksgiving! In this country, that's an official holiday!"
"Well, actually, I guess since Angel's workin' and I don't think the PTB precisely give time off, technically that'd mean the Agency would still be open for business."
"This is so not happening." Cordelia groaned, already foreseeing her Thanksgiving going up in smoke if this case lagged on. Okay, so it wasn't going to have been the greatest of holidays anyway, but she'd been determined to make the best of it and actually have a holiday, damn it. She aimed a threatening finger at him, punctuating her speech with stabs in his direction, "Well, you better pray Mr. Desperate has just lost a pet that he's really, really fond of, because anything more than that and we're screwed. Or rather, you're screwed, because I intend to have the entire Thanksgiving weekend off. It's in my contract, or will be when I finish drafting it out and get Angel to sign it. So if this case is still active, you're on your own."
"'Preciate the support," Doyle mumbled.
She pursed her lips. "No... wait. I didn't mean that. At least, I think I didn't, and with some luck we can get this done quick enough that we won't have to find out. And I guess the business could use the, well, business. Have you seen the state of the accounts?" She didn't wait for an answer. "Because those are not healthy accounts. Those are very unhealthy, sick accounts. Accounts on their last legs. Undead accounts!"
"Yeah, I get the picture." His smile emerged again, and for a moment positively glowed, before frowning back down at his coffee.
"And the case?"
She watched with impatience as he dumped more sugar into the cup and stirred it with his finger, then gracelessly slurped the coffee from his finger and drained the remaining contents. A flick of his hand sent the empty cup sliding across the table. It juddered on the edge for a moment before toppling down into a waiting bin. "I wouldn't have agreed to take the case, except this guy sounded real urgent. Like it couldn't wait." A pause. "He said there wasn't anybody else he could go to with this."
"That doesn't sound hopeful from the lost-pet angle. Unless it's a zombie demon cat or something. Giles had one of those once."
"Huh? - no, never mind. Sunnydale, right? Anyway, I was sorta hopin', fingers crossed, that it'd be like a research thing, and all we'd have to do was hit the books. And if it turned out to be really dangerous when we spoke to him this afternoon, I figure we can always explain the boss-man is away and he'll just have to hang tight or find someone else."
She swirled her fast-cooling cup as she thought it over. "Well, I guess that's fair. So you don't know anything else? Way to go on the fact-finding."
"Said he'd have to explain in person, didn't he," Doyle came back defensively. "I don't think he thought we'd believe him otherwise, though I tried to tell him we've dealt with a lot of... stuff."
"'Stuff'. That's one way of putting it, I guess," she said, decisively pushing her still-unfinished coffee away. "Horrible demons that eviscerate you, horrible demons that eat you, or your blood, or just choice bits of you, and then there's the nice ones that'll just plain kill you. Gee, this job is just so fun..."
They walked back to the office with reasonable affability, although Doyle could tell Cordelia still wasn't exactly happy about taking on a case without Angel. "You know, Princess, you weren't the only one who had plans for the weekend," he caught himself saying aloud.
Okay, well, actually he hadn't had a whole lot in the way of plans, but that wasn't to say he couldn't have if he'd wanted to, right? His closest approximation to a plan was the message his ex-wife Harry had left to say she wanted to come 'round to his place later to talk, which wasn't so much a plan as more slow torture.
Cordelia gave no acknowledgement of having heard, instead fumbling in her oversized purse for the keys to the office.
"Besides, ninety percent of the cases are research and legwork you or I would handle for Angel anyway."
She dubiously scoped him while fishing at the bottom of her bag. "And what if this calls for heavy duty fighting? Huh, Doyle? OW! My manicure!"
"I shouldn't worry about that, Princess. That tongue of yours can strike fear into the hearts of demons everywhere as you mercilessly dis their fashion sense and bathing habits."
Cordelia smacked him in the arm without looking up and gave a small cry of triumph as she located the missing office keys.
They ascended the steps up to their building and Doyle pushed the door. As he held it open for Cordy, a shadow detached itself from the darker shadows in the corner of the ill-lit hallway.
Doyle automatically moved to place himself between this stranger and Cordelia. He heard the jangling of the keys silence in her hand and felt her body tense through the contact of his shoulder on hers.
She gave her patented markedly false Cordy laugh. "Ha ha. You scared the heck out of us, Mr...?"
The figure, in better light, was a man of no particularly remarkable appearance. Tallish and thin with stringy dark hair, at a guess somewhere in his thirties, dressed in poor and understated clothes finished off by a suit jacket which had seen better days. The ensemble gave a general impression of respectability but without wealth, or at least it might have done if it were not rumpled from wear, the wearer's face cut by haunted lines.
The man's eyes flickered between the two of them. "Are you... Angel Investigations?" he asked in a hoarse voice Doyle recognised.
"Mr... Lovell?" Doyle had thought the voice on the phone sounded panicky, but this? He felt his face set grimly, and wondered if himself and Cordelia could deal with anything meriting such a reaction.
"Yes... yes." Lovell looked as though he was about to pass out, or his legs to crumble, his thin form quivering.
Leaving Cordelia's side, Doyle moved to try to steady him, and Lovell's hands snared his with a little too fierce gratitude. "You help people with problems - problems that nobody else can-? I had to come to you. I had no options left."
"Now, calm down, Mr. Lovell." Doyle tried without success to retrieve his hands from the crushing grip. Lovell seemed completely unaware of the pressure he was exerting. "We can try to help," he soothed. He urgently darted a glance over his shoulder to Cordelia.
She was looking on as though wondering whether she ought to call the cops or the shrinks to drag the poor guy away. Her fingers balled into a fist protruding the keys like she was considering their use as knuckle-dusters.
She cleared her throat. "Excuse me," she said pointedly, "But I think you're squashing my friend. Maybe ease up on the knuckle-crusher a tad, huh?"
Looking horrified, Lovell let go of Doyle. "I'm sorry - I'm sorry. I can't - I don't - I'll show you." After a furtive glance around, he rolled up his sleeves to display his arms and wrists.
His painfully returning circulation forgotten, Doyle stared at the textured, dark ridges stretching up from the back of Lovell's wrists and along his arms. The skin around their edges seemed to darken and discolour before his eyes. He drew in an involuntary breath and saw his reaction met by raw despair in Lovell's face. Where the same discolouring was also, upon close inspection, starting to taint the skin around eyes and temples.
"You have to help me!" Lovell cried. "Look at me! I'm turning into a demon!"
The coffee filter looked like something had died in it. Cordelia frowned down at the murky grains, then shrugged and tipped a budget portion of fresh ones on top of them.
She clattered around the office fetching unwashed cups to rinse. Most of them still contained the residue of Doyle's post-Harry-drunken-brooding-binge. As she retraced her steps, her eyes were drawn to Angel's office.
Doyle had taken demon-guy straight in there, and she hadn't seen any sign yet of the promised "No, thank you, we're afraid this case is too much for us without Vampire Power, but come back if you lose your Chihuahua."
The half-drawn blinds allowed her to see Doyle and Lovell on the other side of the glass window, waiting in what she presumed to be a stilted silence. As she watched, Doyle's lips moved briefly, inaudible behind the glass and closed door. A pause, then Lovell's lips moved equally briefly in response.
Cordelia returned the cleaned cups to the coffee machine, which was gurgling and steaming away contentedly. Doyle, for all his routing for handling the case sans-Angel earlier, had gone grim enough when said case actually materialised in all its demony glory.
Anyway, Doyle had been fairly withdrawn since Harry's visit and non-wedding, which she supposed was understandable enough. Something like that must stir up the memories, crumble all the walls the mind built to cope with having been involved in a relationship that disastrous.
She remembered how the thought of Xander was like another stab through the stomach for months after.
She hadn't married Xander. God forbid...
Pausing in her task, she studied the dark haired figure on the other side of the glass - face sharply in profile, body language animated and uncomfortable as he tried to calm their client. She found herself smiling, watching him, and she frowned and turned back to pouring the coffee.
Her appearance in Angel's office a few minutes later was greeted with a look of profound relief from Doyle.
"Hey," she said, pressing a steaming cup into Lovell's hands and forcing a smile.
"Cordelia," Doyle introduced, with a wave of his hand.
Oh, good. So demon-guy now knew their names, at least, fifteen minutes in.
"Cordelia Chase." Since demon-guy's hands were busy holding the coffee cup, and trembling fiercely at that, she was happily excused from having to shake.
"Max - Maxwell Lovell." He gave a cough of wry laughter. "So, there's no real guardian Angel working here, then?"
Cordelia exchanged glances with Doyle. "Oh, sure there's an Angel. Not for real, of course. Ha, ha. It's his name. You know, one of those things, like your parents were sixties flower children or... He's out of town at the moment. But, hey, don't worry, we can handle your case just fine, Mr. Lovell, understaffed or not. We're professionals."
She pretended not to notice the decidedly unprofessional face Doyle pulled behind Lovell's back.
Doyle was relieved when Cordelia returned with the coffee. He'd been having a job trying to wrap his brain around the task of reassuring the jittery Lovell, and the atmosphere in the small office was getting downright uncomfortable. Cordelia's coffee ought to at least take the guy's mind off the rest of his problems.
Having been pretty much exactly where Lovell was right now - in the psychological sense, rather than that of sitting on the edge of a chair in the office frowning suspiciously into the depths of a cup of Cordelia Chase Special Brew, which come to think of it he'd also done quite a lot - this one cut a little too close to home. His skin crawled with the possibility that the only help in the world Angel Investigations could offer would be some hard and fast amateur counselling and, well, he didn't particularly want to think about that one. But it had already occurred to him to wonder if maybe there was a reason this case had fallen into their laps while Angel was out of town.
Taking the lead, Cordelia sat down in Angel's place, folded her arms across her chest and made a clear effort to appear businesslike. Doyle settled for half-sitting, half-leaning on the edge of the desk, a wary eye on their client. Although Lovell was calmer now than he had been, his transformation seemed to be giving him a frighteningly abnormal strength and the prospect of demon-powered hysterics struck him as a matter due concern.
Granted, a lot of his concern was based around the fact his location meant he was between their client and Cordy, and while that was definitely a good on the one hand, didn't that also translate into 'first in line for demonic disembowelling'?
"So, Mr. Lovell," Cordelia said brightly, causing Doyle to wince because her fake sunnyness couldn't really hide her revulsion. "Before you explain to us about your... problem, would you mind telling me where you heard about us? You know, business is business. We need to keep a check on how our advertising is working, right?"
Doyle winced again, but let it ride. Someday soon, somebody needed to have a chat with Cordy about client relations.
"I, ah..." Lovell's eyes shifted around the room nervously. "People say - in certain quarters - certain people - they say you help people with... other kinds of problems. A friend, one of the regulars at my church, she said you helped her. At the time I thought she was... well, she claimed she'd had a poltergeist. What kind of a detective agency deals with that? But when this began, I... had to hope she was right after all."
"Mrs Willis," Cordelia said, nodding. "You remember, Doyle? Although that spook was a cinch after Dennis's mom. Hey, don't worry, Mr. Lovell, you've come to the right place. Got a problem the police wouldn't believe? We can handle it. And if you'd care to pass that message along to any of your friends--"
Doyle cleared his throat. "Cordy..."
"Okay, okay." She flashed a dazzling grin at their client. The steely look in her eyes promised dire things on the way later for Doyle. "Mr. Lovell. Tell us more about your problem."
"Demons," their client replied, hesitantly as though he still wasn't convinced. He looked away, and finally dared take another sip of his coffee, stalling. His face twisted and he leaned forward, reaching to set the cup on the desk with a repulsed finality.
There was a clink as pottery met polished wood, loud in the silence. Lovell's hand shook, and he seemed to have to actively concentrate to force his fingers to uncurl. Considering the white-knuckled nature of his grip, and the enhanced strength Doyle remembered, it was a wonder the fragile pottery survived his touch.
He relaxed back into his chair, arms falling into his lap, and stared off into nothing.
"Demons?" Doyle prompted after a moment.
Lovell's eyes blinked back into focus and he coughed apologetically. "The neighbourhood where I live, it isn't a rich one. I suppose you'd call it a bad area, maybe even a slum, but I don't know that it really is. Just that the badness is all displayed on the surface, when most of the rest of this city has the wealth to mask it and hide it away. But there isn't much money there, and there's still some trouble, despite our best efforts."
"Our? Who's 'our'... us... you... whatever?"
"Our Neighbourhood Support Group, Miss. Myself and a good friend of mine, Father Adrian Jones, set it up a few years ago. We wanted to bring a sense of community back into the area. Most of the people, they've been there for years. Things didn't used to be like they are, they were allowed to slide, somehow. We wanted to pick things up again."
"Well, that sounds good," Doyle said encouragingly as Lovell hesitated again. His expectations had been baffled by the explanations so far, and nothing yet sounded particularly demonic.
"We wanted to take back the neighbourhood for the people - reclaim it from the elements who gave it a bad name and made us afraid to go out on the street. Not force them out, you understand. It wasn't like that. Just... re-humanise them, you might say. Bring them back to the fold. Or if they wouldn't return, to make it clear that the people weren't about to stand for their kind of behaviour any more, and there was no place for them. They make up such a small percentage, really, of the population. Anyway, we expected the gangs, the pimps and prostitution. Once everyone started pulling together and realised their actions could make a difference, I thought we'd started to make a real impression. We managed to set up a soup kitchen and a shelter, applying for grants from the authorities and from charities. We used our resources to put people in touch with other options, you understand? We didn't wipe out the problems, we didn't expect to, but you have to try, and it's better than it used to be. We've helped a lot of people to get off the streets and get respectable."
Lovell paused. "What we didn't expect to have to deal with," he said, "was demons."
Doyle nodded slowly. Once you started clearing up the grime, it was inevitable you'd find the things that used it to hide. He watched Cordelia's mouth round into a cute "ah" expression.
"At first, I thought they were just reclusive. It was only gradually I realised the truth, that they weren't even human. I knew demons were real, of course, but I never imagined they physically lived and walked among us. It was after that, that this... this--" He choked brokenly, thrust his hands out in illustration, and Cordelia's shoulders hit the backrest of her seat with a 'whump' "--this started happening to me!"
Doyle, who'd also tensed, relaxed again as their client did. Cordelia followed suit more cautiously, her hands returning to their poise over a notepad. Not that she had actually written anything down since the brief note about their publicising, Doyle noticed, frowning at the largely blank page with the words 'Mrs Willis spreads the word - yay!' scrawled on it.
"And what is 'this'?" Cordelia gingerly tapped one of Lovell's not-quite-human hands with her pen.
"It's a curse." For the first time, anger rose up in his voice to join the bitterness and fear. "They cursed me. To become like them."
"So it's some kind of spell?" Doyle tried not to let any of the profound relief he felt show.
Lovell nodded. "What else could it be?"
Cordelia made as thought to nibble on the end of her pen, then did a double-take as she evidently remembered where it had just been. She looked up from the notes where she'd now got written 'demony spell', circled, and underlined twice. "Some of them have like a gross biting thing, or infected demon blood, or other stuff like that," she said with the long-suffering tones she tended to use for all subjects demonic, rolling her eyes. "You get bit, or splashed and - yuck."
"Uh, that's right. Biting. And blood." Doyle wondered uncomfortably why he hadn't thought of those things first.
Cordelia shot him her 'Doyle, why are you so weird?' look and asked Lovell how he knew it was a spell, and did he know any details that might be helpful in countering it.
"I found this symbol scratched into my door. It looks - malign." He handed over a scrap of paper dug from his pocket, which she took daintily with the tips of her fingers. Doyle leaned across to join her in studying the symbol drawn there.
"It was yesterday morning, when I discovered the first signs. My arms, the skin felt... odd. Hard. Scaled. I broke things when I touched them, without even trying to exert pressure. I thought it was just clumsiness, that I must be catching something - you know, when you're coming down with an illness you're sometimes clumsy... But throughout the day it just got worse, and I could see it, in my skin. Last night I drifted in and out of sleep, restless, and every time I woke up it seemed to have progressed much more. By 3am I was just sitting up in bed watching my own skin, praying it wouldn't - couldn't - happen if I kept my eyes on it."
He took a breath that sounded more like a sob, his eyes wide with the shock of his experiences. "It didn't stop. And by morning, I knew it wasn't... anything human that was happening to me. I realised I was turning into one of them. They'd done something to me, corrupted me somehow, before I could have a chance to do anything about them. I looked around for how they'd managed to do this, and that was when I noticed the symbol." He laughed, slightly hysterically. "Curses, hexes... it's ridiculous. It's fantasy. But it was the only way to explain it. What's happening to me couldn't be natural."
He looked between them both, and Doyle experienced a brief flash, imagining himself in Lovell's place, staring into their unsurprised faces, and knowing.
"It's real, isn't it?" Lovell asked, in a voice little more than a croak. "It's always been real."
"It's real," Doyle agreed grimly. "But spells can be combated. Don't worry, man." If indeed a spell it was. He was still not a hundred percent convinced. The symbol looked persuasive, but Lovell didn't know his subject matter well enough to be the judge of these demons of his. Most regular demons rarely resorted to sophisticated magic and curses. And this all seemed kind of extreme for a dabbler.
"You can cure it?" Lovell snatched at the admission like a drowning man, and Doyle wished he'd kept his mouth shut because that was by no means certain.
Cordelia patted his misshapen hand soothingly, although the gesture might have looked more convincingly soothing if she hadn't wrinkled her nose up quite like that while she did, and said, "We can certainly try."
"He's in a bad way, huh?" Cordelia said, peering through to where Lovell sat hunched in Angel's office. She'd thought it pertinent to have a little private conferring before they discussed things further with their client.
"Uh-huh. It's not a lot of fun where he is at the moment - I guess. I imagine," Doyle said, sounding uncomfortable.
"Yeah, just imagine. Turning into... ew! I didn't even know you could be cursed all demony. Ugh. What a horrible thought. I mean, they could do that to anyone. What must that be like? Changing into some nasty, evil, ugly thing and not being able to do anything to prevent it. Poor guy. And, okay, he's a regular holier-than-thou, but even so." She shuddered. Glancing at Doyle, she caught the faint echoing tremor which had run through his form.
His preoccupied expression as he peered through the glass was strangely empathic and it disturbed her how much he seemed affected. She hadn't seen him react like this to a case before, and they'd dealt with things far creepier than Mr. Lovell's ugly and unusual skin condition. "You really feel for him, huh? Well, don't worry, we'll help him out with his demon thing. Although I suppose actual pay is going to be out of the question yet again."
"He doesn't look to have much in the way of cash," Doyle said quietly, breaking his gaze from Lovell and turning to her. "Seems to me, he lives off his friends and his faith, and his convictions won't allow him to turn to either with this particular problem."
"Right," she said. "So he came to us. Although it would have been nice if he'd held off his crisis for a few days until Angel got back and Thanksgiving was over. So much fun in store for us this happy holiday, searching through all those dusty old books. Have I told you how much I don't like Latin?" Since Doyle's Latin was even worse than hers, she had no doubts as to who'd get saddled with the bulk of the research tasks.
"I think there's a few other things we might do before hittin' the dusty old books." His weighted tone struck her as Not Good.
"Huh? Why? I mean, he said it's a curse. It all sounded pretty clear-cut to me. Isn't that what we wanted, right? With a bit of luck, all we'll have to do is flick through a couple of dozen volumes to come up with the anti-whammy."
Doyle's expression was strangely focused. "I'd kinda like to check out our new friend Lovell's home ground first - see what his neighbourhood is like. Look into his background."
"Okay." She took a deep breath and pasted an enthusiastic smile across her face. "Have I mentioned how much I love Latin when the alternative is checking out squicky demon-slums?" Considering what he'd said, she did a double-take. "Hold on, you don't mean you think he's lying?"
She'd been convinced Doyle believed Lovell's story just as she did, and Lovell - well, if Lovell was lying he had to be just about the greatest actor on the planet, in which case what the hell was he doing scraping out an existence in one of the crappier parts of LA?
"I think he could be mistaken," he hedged. "Look, Cordy, in this guy's world, demons are like it says in the Bible - all hellfire and pure evil incarnate. We know it ain't quite like that."
"It isn't? News to me."
He sighed. "No, it isn't. I mean, for instance, Richard's family may not be the most cuddly of folks, but they're not out and out evil, right?"
"Oh, please. They tried to eat your brains."
"One custom, Cordy. Just one remnant of their ancestors' evil days. I'm sure they could be... pleasant enough, under normal circumstances. They were more or less just like us, right? Diluted by human blood and contact over the years - basically people with an extra face. Anyway, my point is that Lovell doesn't know this world like we do. We should take a look first-hand, before we start throwing spells and accusations around."
She stared at him. "Thanks so much for including me on the list of those in the know. God, I hate my life. And, wait just one minute! What if you're wrong? It's not like it hasn't been known to happen. Okay, you seem to know more about this stuff than I do since half of these guys have been your drinking buddies, but what if these demons really are evil? What if they curse us?"
Doyle seemed phenomenally unworried by what struck her as considerable cause for concern. "I'd protect you?" he said lamely.
She gave him a Look. "It might not do much harm to your loser prospects, but I have a spectacular acting career ahead of me, and I don't see myself getting there looking like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, thank you very much."
He appeared to have no answer to that other than to roll his eyes around shiftily. She sighed and returned her gaze to the man in Angel's office, whose despair was so intense it could've been draping the air around him in shadows.
"We should tell him we're going out to investigate," Doyle said. "I wonder if he has anywhere to go."
"Not my apartment," she shot back instantly. "I already have a pet ghost. I don't need a demon-guy."
Doyle choked, then recovered his breath to rasp, "Well, lookin' like that, it's not as if we can really have him wanderin' the streets. He could stay here. In Angel's basement, I mean."
"Oh, sure. Upset the vampire. Angel's pretty attached to some of that antique junk down there, you know. If stuff gets broken, don't think I won't tell him it was your idea."
"Fine." He was barely listening. "Come on, then." He pushed open the door into Angel's office. "Mr. Lovell. My associate and I have been discussin' your case. We're gonna go check out your demons right now."
Lovell looked relieved. "Good. That's good."
"We were wonderin' if you had someplace to go," Doyle said hesitantly.
Demon-guy's eyes widened. "I can't go back out on the street. Not like this. It's almost beyond hiding now. And I - I feel different. Like I'm not in control... and so strong. What if I hurt someone?"
Cordelia's glare bored into the back of Doyle's skull. Great idea, Doyle. Let's invite the out-of-control maniac to stay.
"That's all right." Doyle patted Lovell's shoulder. "What I was gonna say was, I think you should stay here. I was thinkin' more of your own safety, mind. We don't want you to end up in some government research lab somewhere, right?"
"I'm not worried about myself - I'm turning into a monster. You have to keep me from harming others, whatever it takes. If we can't stop this from happening..." The words failed him, but his intent was clear.
"Mr. Lovell, no," Cordelia protested, appalled. "We'll sort this all out for you. You mustn't do anything... extreme."
"I can't let this happen."
Doyle gave a brusque cough. "It won't be necessary. Cordelia's right, we'll figure this out for you. You just stay here quiet and concentrate on holdin' it together."
"You'll lock me in?"
"Buster, we'll chain you up if it makes you happy," Cordelia volunteered.
"Yes! That should do it," Lovell agreed, nodding with focused, manic enthusiasm.
Doyle shot her a glare that could only be described as 'venomous'.
"Well, this is nice," Cordelia said, hugging her arms around herself nervously as they walked down a street which made the place the auditions had been look like Beverly Hills. "Why is it Angel leaves town and within less than one day, instead of the relaxing vacation from evil-fighting I was looking forward to, I end up getting a tour of Nasty LA while we've a client chained up in the basement?"
"Nasty LA, huh? I've seen worse," Doyle said, glancing around without much apparent interest. "Lovell said it used to be worse."
"Well, if this is the new and improved version, I don't think I want to know what it used to be like." She kept her voice low as a lone figure leaning against a wall across the street turned its head. A general impression of hostility was all she could distinguish of the face, its features shadowed by a battered hat drawn low. A cigarette stuck out from lips hidden in the gloom.
They walked past, averting their eyes. Cordelia shivered, for all that the temperature was still pretty warm in the shade. She'd thought her first apartment in LA had been bad, but this place upped the 1 to 10 scale of lousy to about point 100.
The streets here were largely composed of massive 1920s apartment blocks towering to block out the sunlight and narrow the sky to a delicate ribbon of blue she practically had to lean over backwards to see. Peeling paintwork streaked down doors and window frames, some panels boarded up. Graffiti adorned bricks and boards. A rusted framework of ancient balconies and fire escapes crawled up the side of the occasional building.
Despite all the grime and squalor, though, there were signs that people here had been making an effort. Some of the windows and doors had new paint the street artists had yet to christen. The odd fly poster announced "Neighbourhood Support Group", some adorned with various litanies, others with simply meeting dates and times. The posters were of varying age, some old and faded by the daylight, others new and crisp.
They stopped outside the soup kitchen to read the literature tacked onto the interior of the window, a collage which almost entirely blocked what lay the other side of the glass from view.
"Maxwell Lovell," Cordelia read off one of the posters, although her attention kept straying nervously to a gang of youths loitering further down the street, whose fashion sense couldn't have shouted 'violent, psychotic and dangerous to cross' much louder. "That's our guy. Which means, unless you think he's been going round putting posters up just for our benefit for the last several months, we can conclude he's genuine enough. So, okay, if he's not lying, can we go home now? 'Cause I want to keep all my money. And my limbs. Not to mention my virtue."
Doyle choked. "I never said he was lyin' about that, Cordy," he managed to cough out. "Fact, as I recall I never actually said he was lyin' about anythin'."
"Technicalities!" She hunched her shoulders and tried to wish herself invisible as a few of the youths waved and wolf-whistled. "Whatever. Those... people... are showing way too much interest, here. Can we go?"
He spared them a dismissive look. "Hey, y'know I'd protect you."
He glanced across again, more seriously. "They're just kids, Cordy. Those aren't any gang colours I recognise, at least."
"Oh, great. Now I have friends who recognise gang colours. I am so glad the folks in Sunnydale can't see me now."
Doyle rolled his eyes, "We've still got some demons to visit, if you recall."
"Unfortunately, yeah. Client, remember?"
"I could deal better if you could insert the word 'paying' in there." She patted her pockets, but came up empty. "Did I hand you Lovell's directions?"
He dug a hand into his jacket for a crumpled ball of paper. As he unfolded it, she recognised the note she'd written the address and directions on, which had been clean and crisp barely an hour before. She moved to take it, then thought better and drew her hand back.
"Do your pockets have, like, their own little ecosystem?" she asked, frowning over his shoulder at the writing barely visible beneath the grime. "I mean, have you thought about getting a new jacket instead of going to the races when you get your next pay check?"
He looked aghast. "This jacket's a piece of vintage fashion, I'll have you know. It's a classic."
"Cars become classics," Cordelia said. "Clothes just become old. And stinky."
"Gee, thanks." Doyle studied Lovell's posters again, leaning forward to peer at the smaller print which outlined how to find the church where the meetings were held.
Hearing somebody approaching, Cordelia turned around - but it wasn't any of the youths as she'd feared, just an old woman shuffling along the sidewalk, her squat form buried within a heap of clothes worn in defiance of the hot weather. She squinted at them with open hostility as she walked past, until she noticed the object of Doyle's study. "What's your interest?" she asked, stopping.
Doyle looked up. "Our interest? We met Mr. Lovell, just this morning. Seems like a nice guy. Very dedicated. Worthy causes." He nodded and smiled encouragingly.
Parroting him, the old woman nodded and smiled warmly back. "Yes, Maxwell. I've known him all his life. Who'd have thought he'd grow up to become the man who breathed life back into this place?"
Doyle beamed at her and Cordelia watched with incredulity. Talk about turning on the charm... talk about Doyle turning on the charm... talk about 'Doyle' and 'charm' in the same breath.
A gentle laugh and a casually interested not-quite-enquiry: "I can't imagine him as a kid. He struck me as very much the serious type."
"Yes, he was always serious, even back then. A strange child, a loner, a dreamer, always too busy with his own thoughts to say much of anything to anyone. But then he did have to grow up fast. Too much responsibility too early on. Terrible shame."
Cordelia asked, "Why was that?"
Doyle shot her a warning glance and she received a frown from the woman, who shifted uncomfortably on her feet before answering reluctantly, "Well, with his mother's husband running off, and her dying so soon after. The younger children needed taking care of. Maxwell took responsibility."
"Tough break for a kid," Doyle said, his tone deliberately not pushing. Then he hesitated, a breath sharply indrawn hissing through his teeth, held as he forgot to breathe out. His subtle, wheedling charm evaporated. "Hang on a minute, you said 'his mother's husband', not 'his father'?"
The old woman gave him a sharp look. "I don't like your tone, mister. He's a good man. Never mind the past, or the things his mother got up to."
"So he didn't know his dad?" Doyle persisted, not seeming to have grasped the big neon 'Do Not Go There' signs in the woman's attitude. Cordelia drove an elbow into his ribs. He gasped, but didn't even look at her, continuing to meet the old woman's disgusted gaze challengingly.
"I don't see any need for you strangers to be asking things like that," she said sourly. Her footsteps were quick and agitated as she retreated. Several yards further down the street, she shuffled in through the door of one of the tall brick apartment buildings and slammed it after her.
Cordelia swung around on Doyle, and if he hadn't already looked like someone had just delivered him a hefty slap across the face, she'd might've done just that. "Rude, much?" she burst out. "You know, I can't believe that you'd care about that stuff, Mr. 'I-Know-Every-Strip-Club-and-Gambling-Joint-in-this-State'!"
He choked out an indignant protest, "I don't... Cordy, believe me, I am the last person to care about somethin' like that. It's just... a theory."
"I'm not sure yet." He swallowed, and met her gaze. The strain in his eyes made her back down, quelling her annoyance. Something had gotten him majorly stressed, and that was weird, because usually only the mention of his gambling debts or his ex could do that. "It might be nothin'. Or, if it's not, Lovell's problems are sure as hell gonna be a lot more complicated than he thinks."
She was taken aback by the pain behind his eyes and the impression she got that he was pleading silently for her not to ask. She swallowed the argument that automatically rose.
Into the silence he finally said, his voice hoarse, "Come on. Let's go to church."
Doyle's first view of the church was the faintly gothic-styled frontage which faced onto the street. An imposing building crowded by enormous, untidy apartment blocks. A couple of old trees stubbornly entrenched in their urban setting obscured the lower portions of its front.
He approached nervously, fighting the feeling that it was somehow inappropriate for him to be there. Cordelia trailed behind him, apparently unconcerned, her sandals clicking loudly as they crossed the threshold onto the polished floors.
Closing the door behind them shut out the daylight and assaulted his unprepared eyes with a dark gloom thick and impenetrable after the brightness of the sun-drenched streets outside. He blinked as patches swam in front of his eyes. Vision adjusted gradually to show him the candle-lit church interior, flames reflecting from ornate decor which looked impressive in the semi-dark, although he had no doubt that it was only gold paint, or gilt plate at best. He scented the tang of the candles on the air.
Uneasily, he told himself there was no reason in the world why he should feel uncomfortable in a church. He'd been in enough of them in his previous life without ever feeling uneasy or unwanted. He was human enough. But his upbringing had been sufficiently stringent to instil a permanent mental association between the words 'demon' and 'damned', and while he figured he had enough of an admittedly tarnished soul to lose, there was sufficient doubt there still to give him pause.
A demon didn't belong in this place.
The church's lone occupant, an older man in the robes of a priest, was checking the candles on the altar. Cordelia cleared her throat with a certain air of caution, the sound echoing loudly in the high-ceilinged chamber. Doyle froze, half expecting an angry, accusing shout and a fierce instruction to get out. That this guy would somehow see through him and know.
He was left unsure of how to reply when the priest simply approached them, smiled politely, and asked, "Can I help you? Are you looking for something?"
"Are you Father Jones?" Cordelia said, after a moment, shooting a glare at Doyle while he tried to un-knot his tongue.
The priest nodded. Seeing him now closer, though his hair was completely white, his face did not look like that of an old man. It was weathered, true, but Doyle would have guessed his age at around fifty. "I am. What's your business?"
Doyle found his voice, although he still quailed under the mild gaze. "We're, um... friends of Mr. Lovell -- Maxwell. He asked us to... he's not been feelin' well, y'see..."
"He asked us to let you know he might not be around for a few days," Cordelia interrupted, her breezy tone considerably more casual. She punctuated with a dismissive wave of her hand. "Problems. You know." Her conspiratorial stage-whisper earned her a blank look from the priest.
"Minor problems," Doyle said quickly. "Nothin' to worry about."
Father Jones looked between the two of them. Doyle shifted uncomfortably while Cordelia met his gaze with a brilliant, disarming grin which only seemed to heighten the priest's suspicion. "Forgive me, but... you don't look like his usual kinds of friends. He's in trouble, isn't he? You... can tell me, you know. I'll help, if I can."
"It's under control," Cordelia said, as Doyle floundered. "We're relatively new friends, it's true, but we're helping him. You see, that's what we do. We help people." She fished a business card from her handbag and handed it over. "Here. Any worries, you just give us a call. And if you should happen to know of anyone else with any troubles, or if you ever have any of your own..." She trailed off reluctantly under the force of Doyle's glare.
"Angel Investigations," the priest read, sounding mildly amused.
"Yeah, what'd you know, huh?" Doyle laughed nervously.
"And that would be... you two?"
Cordelia's smile had the grace to be slightly embarrassed. "Well, there's our boss, but he just runs it in name 'cause he, ah, had the start-up capital. You know, we do most of the legwork anyway - he just strides in, looks good, and takes the credit."
Father Jones' eyebrows travelled about half an inch up his forehead, but migrated back home again quickly. "And you help people? For money?"
"Oh, we only charge those who can afford it," Cordelia said, making no attempt to hide her own disgust at that policy.
Doyle noticed the corner of the priest's mouth hitched up slightly, but his muted mirth didn't last long. He sighed and said, "If Maxwell trusts you, then so must I. If he doesn't want me to know about whatever problems it is that he has, then I must accept he has his reasons. It's so like him, not to share his troubles. He's a good man, but he seems so... apart, somehow. He's so focused on shaping a better world... It would be nice if he had more interest in living in it himself."
"I know someone like that," Cordelia said. "All serious and broody, the problems of the world on his shoulders, yadda, yadda, yadda, but it's not like he ever takes time-off to go out and enjoy the good things out there. Just deals with combating the bad - day in, day out. And that's not good for a guy, right?"
Father Jones nodded. "Some people need to learn to live in the world. Our duty to others is important, but life is a gift that should not be wasted, and even the most dutiful have to remember sometimes that that includes our own."
Cordelia looked unusually serious for a moment as she absorbed that. "Yeah," she said softly. "Yeah. I'll pass that on to him, sometime."
Doyle was becoming agitated, finding the atmosphere within the church oppressive and claustrophobic, beginning to feel as though his brain was being slowly squeezed in a vice. He caught Cordelia's arm and said, "Well, nice talkin' to you. Don't you worry about ol' Maxwell. We'll just be goin' now, then."
Cordelia grumbled under her breath as he shepherded her towards the exit. Pulling back the door and ushering her through, only a few steps from sunlight and the open air, a grip on his shoulder halted him.
It was an effort not to flinch from the priest's touch. He turned. Grey eyes filled with a wisdom that belied the man's visible years studied him intently. "You don't need to be afraid to be here," Father Jones said, gently but with firm conviction. "Whatever you've done, He already knows."
"I've done nothing." He tried to break the priest's grip, but the old man was strong and he didn't want to use all of his own strength. "Let me go," Doyle said tightly.
After a moment, the priest sighed, released his hold, and walked away. "Good luck," he threw over his shoulder, heavy with... what? Disapproval? Disappointment?
Whether he was referring to their case, or something else entirely, was anyone's guess.
"You believe in demons, yeah?" Doyle blurted, desperately, to the priest's retreating back.
"Of course," Father Jones said, not turning. "Everyone has them."
"What was all that about?" Cordelia wondered aloud, as Doyle tripped out into the sunshine and set off at a pace brisk as though he was trying to get away from the place as quickly as possible. "What did he say to you?"
She frowned, but he avoided meeting her eye. His hunched posture was all defence. "Anyway, you definitely seemed creeped out by that place. What was with that? It's only a church!"
"An' my old mum would kill me if she knew how long it'd been since last I was in one."
His manner was evasive, which puzzled her. But Cordelia had stumbled across more than enough of Doyle's emotional raw patches over the last few days, and she had an uncomfortable feeling that she didn't want to know. She pulled a shruggy face. "Anyway, demons next, right?" She sighed. "Has it occurred to you to wonder just how we're going to do this without ending up cursed, dead, or dinner ourselves?"
"Don't worry," he said. "I've an idea that might work."
She listened to it sceptically. "Yes, but what if they--?"
"I don't think there'll be any danger. In fact, I doubt they're even demons at all. Just be prepared to run if I'm wrong."
"Oh, thanks. Now I feel so much better." She hesitated, tracing the frown cutting lines into the face she had only recently learned could look that miserable. "What's gotten into you? Why so suspicious of Saint Lovell?"
"It's not him," Doyle protested again. "He just sees what's happened accordin' to his own frame of reference. I mean, for all we know these so-called 'demons', they probably jus' don't go to church, or somethin' else that he frowns on. All I'm sayin' is I don't think Mr. Lovell there is equipped to be gettin' the big picture, all right?"
"All right!" She waved her hands in a 'jeeze, calm down already' gesture. "Uptight, much? Okay, let's pay a house call to the demons and get it over with. Just so long as this bunch don't have Doyle-brains on the menu, too."
The address Lovell had provided led them into a shabby apartment block, along corridors of peeling paint and dubious stains, to a door which opened hesitantly when they knocked. The process was slowed by the clicking back of security bolts. A human-looking eye peered out at them through a narrow crack. Its owner saw Cordelia standing there smiling and automatically relaxed, letting the door fall open.
"What do you...?" the man standing there started to say.
Doyle rode into the apartment on the back of the Cordelia Chase tidal wave, as Cordy flounced through the doorway, enthusiastically embracing her role. "Oh, my!" she said, exaggeratedly peering around her. "This place is fantastic! It's perfect! The ambience, the atmosphere, the odours... no offence. This is Mavis and Benny's apartment. We have to have it for the film!" She darted around, her body language full of undue enthusiasm for the sorry little collection of rooms.
The guy still holding the door stood with his mouth agape, staring in astonishment as Cordelia waxed lyrical about his shabby home.
"We can't get this kind of immediate realism on a set. 'Dark Liaisons' simply needs this place. This movie will go stellar!"
The apartment was illuminated only by the natural light of the early evening that made its way through a small window facing out onto nothing more than a brick wall. Doyle could discern the features of the man sufficiently, though, to be sure he looked human enough. As did the woman who nervously appeared in a doorway, the peeling decor of a tiny, cramped kitchen visible beyond her form, artificial light from behind casting her shadow big on the floor.
"We have visitors, dear?"
The man could only shrug.
Doyle took in the details of the apartment; the poor furnishings, the general sense of make-do, the two small children playing in an adjoining room wearing clothes that looked like they'd been handed down not just through siblings but generations.
He felt slightly foolish, standing there listening to Cordelia singing the praises of the stained linoleum, the poor befuddled folks who lived in the place staring on in amazement. Lovell was wrong, he thought. The only demons involved in this were Lovell and himself.
But then an uneasiness struck him, and he looked around, trying to pin it down. He realised he was holding his breath, and breathed in... and then he knew what it was that felt wrong. Cordelia was right about the odour which hung in this place. But it wasn't a human odour. Senses that owed no part to his human genes whispered to him the certainty that Lovell had not been wrong at all. Yeah, so these folks might look human - but then again, Doyle thought bitterly, didn't he?
He looked to the man only to see his eyes narrow and an expression of realisation creep over his face that must surely match the one gracing Doyle's own.
"You people aren't film-makers."
"...Of course, we'd pay you - most generously - for the inconvenience of..." Cordelia, who'd been getting rather carried away with her role, stopped. "What? Of course we are. I'll have you know we work for..."
"Leave it, Cordy," Doyle said. He felt numb. It had been a mistake to come here like this.
He knew the man had recognised what he was. Seeing little other choice, he forged forward, taking the offensive, and anticipated the guy before he could say anything more in front of Cordelia. "No, we're not film-makers. But you folks aren't human. Right?" The woman gave a little gasp of shock. Her husband walked across the room to stand protectively in front of her. In the next room, their young children played on, oblivious.
"I know what you want," he said, "And who you are. And you can just go back to your bosses at Wolfram and Hart and tell them to stuff themselves. I don't know why you people keep coming here. We're not about to be 'recruited'. I've no interest in drawing on that part of my... ancestry."
"We're not from Wolfram and Hart," Doyle said grimly, hiding his surprise.
It was impossible to suppress his astonishment at their reaction to that, though - as the couple clutched at each other closer in sudden fear, horror in their eyes. "No..." the man said. "They sent you, didn't they? Those church people? That vigilante group? No, please, you can't... My wife, my children... My wife's human... she's human! I..."
The wife only clutched him tighter at that, a dark determination in her eyes that told quite clearly she had no intention of being spared should anyone come to slaughter her family as demons.
Doyle stared, appalled. He swallowed, then said hoarsely, "We're not here to harm you. I don't know what you're expecting, but that's not why we're here. We're just... we'll go."
Cordelia was staring at him in disbelief. "Hey, did we or did we not have a job to - Doyle!" She squeaked and spluttered in indignant protest as he grabbed her arm and pulled her towards the door. She dug her heels in, breaking his grip, and swung around on the couple.
"Hey! He might have this big 'demons are people too' issue going on, but I don't! No, we're not here to kill you, but you should be ashamed of yourselves! You can't just go around cursing people and doing evil stuff! That is so not on, you--"
Her voice died away. She'd seen the expressions on their faces.
"There's just a little demon blood in my side of the family," the guy said, his eyes never leaving Doyle's. "Only a little. But we don't use that part of our heritage. We stay out of the way, mostly - of humans, demons, everyone. We just want to be left in peace to get on with our lives, such as they are. I know some of the people in this neighbourhood suspect we're not... like them. They were threatening to make trouble for us, but we haven't tried to harm anyone, I swear."
His eyes were glassy with moisture, and utterly sincere. Doyle couldn't hold his gaze, and had to turn away.
"Oh," Cordelia said, in a small voice.
Doyle cleared his throat uncomfortably, but his voice still came out shaky, textured like gravel. He addressed the part-demon man and his human wife, his gaze flickering over to the kids in the next room. "We're sorry about this. A small misunderstandin', is all. No harm done, right?" He backed out of the door, pulling Cordelia with him. "Have a nice day."
"If you ask me, there's still something suspicious going on there," Cordelia grumbled as they headed back through the foyer and into the elevator up to Angel's office.
Doyle sighed. "They're just a normal family with a touch of demon blood."
"Oh, yeah. And can I mention once again the last time we encountered a family of 'nice' demons? I don't buy it, Doyle. Demons are bad, and that's that."
He felt numb enough that he barely registered the familiar stab. "Would 'preciate you not expanding on that argument in front of Mr. Lovell, thanks, Cordy."
"Well, duh." A brief silence while the elevator began to descend, then, challengingly, "Okay, so if the cuddly demon-people didn't curse him, who did?"
"I've an idea about that, Cor. There's a bit of research I think you could look into, while I - I'm gonna talk to Lovell. I'll take him back up to the office so you won't be disturbed."
"You know, I think that shirt is going to your head, buddy." She prodded him in the chest with a sharp finger. "Why do I have to do the book-work?"
"You'd rather talk to Lovell?"
"Ooh, goody. Let me at those dusty old books."
He gave a slightly hollowed laugh as the elevator drew to a halt and they stepped out into the basement.
"I hope he's all right in here," Cordelia said.
"Reckon so. It's more his paranoia than anythin' else, with the insistence on the chains." He shot her a hard look which he wasn't sure she even noticed. "I doubt he's gonna turn really dangerous."
He remembered how afraid he had been, back when he hardly knew what was happening to him; afraid that he'd hurt someone. Afraid he'd hurt Harry. Crashing out on the couch night after night so he couldn't harm her in his sleep, because those spikes were weapons and they were sharp and he didn't trust himself. Not the body that had become an alien thing not him at all - and not the mind and spirit that inhabited it, not any more. If they'd had access to chains, if Harry wouldn't have slapped him into the next century for even contemplating they might be necessary, he might've taken that precaution too.
He dragged out a couple of Angel's heftiest books on curses and magic, weathered the resultant barrage, and left Cordelia sitting almost hidden behind the enormous pile of volumes at the kitchen table. An ominous muttered tirade was still emanating from beyond the stack as he and his earache headed somewhat nervously to Angel's bedroom.
He knew it wasn't for the enemy captives that Angel kept chains on hand in the office; the threat of Angelus must hover always close to the surface of his friend's thoughts. But Angelus was a demon without conscience, unfettered evil, while Lovell had a human soul and that wasn't going to change.
Or so Doyle hoped.
Lovell had evidently been dozing, worn down by nervous exhaustion. At Doyle's entrance, he stirred and blinked blearily awake. After staring muzzily around for a few seconds he tried to sit up and, discovering he couldn't, shifted his gaze down to the chains. Comprehension and weary acceptance dawned.
"I'll get it, man." Doyle grabbed the key from the dresser. Inwardly cursing Cordelia, he knelt down to unlock the chains.
As he reached out to pull the heavy ironmongery aside, Lovell said, "No, I - maybe you shouldn't--"
"Look, you don't need the chains, all right?" He heard the bitter snap in his voice and tried to tone it down. Getting frustrated with their unlucky client wasn't going to solve anything. "Anyway, I wanna talk to you, upstairs. So just try to keep those demon impulses under control for, say, fifteen minutes?" He wrenched the chains off onto the floor with a violent clatter.
"Mr. Doyle, I can't help but think you're not taking this seriously enough," Lovell protested as he tried to sit up. Doyle lent down to help him, wincing in sympathy as the guy clumsily tried to rub the circulation back into his numbed arms.
"It's Doyle," he said, voice muted. "Just Doyle. All right? And... I'm takin' this very seriously, man." Thinking, 'You have no idea.'
Even in the dim apartment, it was possible to see the transformation had increased severely while they were out. Lovell's days of passing for human were over.
'Not to enthuse about the poor guy's plight, but thank God for small mercies. That could've happened to me. At least I can go out in public, live in the world. I never had to hide in the dark all my life.'
Yeah, when he thought about it, he'd been... lucky?
Doyle shuddered, unused to viewing the situation from that perspective. Harry's recent visit and the revelations she'd brought had thrown open the whole ballgame again, and then this so soon after... So much he'd believed for so long was falling down around him.
He realised as he pulled Lovell to his feet that his help was pretty much extraneous. The muscles tight underneath his fingers bulged with new, frightening strength, encased in hard, scaled skin under the thin cloth of Lovell's shirt. In an instant of fear, he wondered if maybe the guy was right about the chains. He threw the thought aside angrily. "Come on, man," he said, and kept his hand on the guy's shoulder, regardless, because not all support was physical.
Besides, once upright Lovell walked like a stranger to his own body, clumsily testing each step. As they approached the elevator he slipped and flung an arm out to catch his balance against the wall. Plaster cascaded down from the point of impact and he withdrew his hand with a whimper and an embarrassed apology.
Doyle eyed the small, fist-shaped hole in the wall. "It's seen worse."
They made it up to Angel's office without further mishap and Lovell sat gingerly in the client chair, hunched and curled in upon himself as though trying to present as few raw surfaces to the world as possible. Or maybe it was as much about damage control, trying for the minimal effect on the world around him. Doyle wasn't unfamiliar with either sentiment.
"Coffee?" he asked hesitantly.
Okay, evidently one encounter with the coffee had been more than enough. But in all honesty, Doyle could've used the distraction, something to string out a little longer what he knew he had to do. He wondered if Lovell drank Scotch, then thought probably not.
"Well, then." He sat on the desk, opened his mouth to speak, and stopped short. How did you work up to telling someone they were a demon?
Lovell looked at him in confusion, waiting.
Doyle tried to think fast, took a breath, and awkwardly launched in: "I have this friend. I don't know how much you know about demons, an' I've a feelin' it's perhaps not nearly so much as you think, but... this guy was one of the worst of these earthbound types we're talkin' about here. He was made a demon in the eighteenth century, and, you know, what with demon lifespans and all that, this guy caused bloody murder and mayhem for over a hundred years. Now there's a guy who's done some nasty stuff. A century of being the Scourge of Europe, feared even among his own kind. There's a guy you'd think, hey, there's no way in the world he could ever be forgiven. Right?"
Lovell blinked at him, seeming taken aback by the twist in conversation.
"But stuff happened, and it took its time, but eventually he got put on the right path again. Now, this guy fights evil. The good fight. And one day maybe he'll find his redemption."
He stopped. Breathed. Let it out again in a rush of words which were falling all over each other in their haste. "It's a thing like that which makes me think there's hope for the likes of you and me. If a vampire can be a warrior of the Powers, after over a century of acts so terrible... I think that just shows that anyone can be forgiven. Any debt worked off. I'm beginning to think maybe it doesn't matter so much, about what genes you're born with, about..."
"Vampire?" Lovell said weakly. "I - I'm sorry, I don't understand. We're talking about demons?"
"Yeah, demons. The point here, is, Mr. Lovell, that it's not like you think. I mean, those demons exist too, the pure evil and hellfire sort, but what we're talking about here aren't the same animal by a long way." He rushed on, afraid he was losing his audience. "Don't think 'demons', man. Too many associations there. Think... 'creatures'? No. I'm bad at this; I am so not the person to be telling you all this. Um, 'beings'? That's it. Beings. Different from humans, but not necessarily *evil* in the whole 'complete and absolute' sense. Like that demon family you sent us to. Harmless enough. They didn't hurt you, Mr. Lovell."
"Where are you going with this?" Lovell asked, scepticism written across his face. Doyle realised with mounting frustration that, as far as he was concerned, this was blasphemy and nothing more. It wasn't going in. It wouldn't go in. There wasn't any way he could prepare Lovell for what had to be said.
He took a deep breath. "It's not a spell or a curse, or anything like that."
"It's not...? How can you say that? Look at me?" Lovell stood, displaying his form like an accusation. In the harsher light of the office, the differences were startling. His face didn't look human any more, his thin features elongating all the more, bony protrusions taking the place of brows and jawline, and his skin had darkened and hardened like armour plating. The figure obscured by his clothing was beginning to take on odd angles and contours and a subtly different manner of movement, the weight the transformation had added straining the seams of his clothes. The tips of his fingers had fused into his fingernails and extended to claws. If Doyle hadn't known he'd looked fully human only days ago, he'd have never credited it.
"It's not... external," he said, and his heart bled for the man in front of him. "It's... you. I told you, there are demons and half-demons and all kinds of stuff out there. Beings that are different. Emphasis on different, not evil. Sometimes, these changes don't happen 'til late on in life. You think you're one thing, an' then.... Just think about it, man. You never knew your dad..."
Lovell gaped. "How did you know that? Who the hell told you that? What have you been doing?"
"Research." He swallowed, praying for Lovell to deal. "What you asked us to do. Trying to solve your problem." His tried to speak gently but his voice came out hoarse. "I only want to help you."
He reached out and touched Lovell's arm, only to be shrugged away. "I want to help you. I know what you're going through, damn it. I'm just like you."
"Yeah. I'm not human, all right?" Doyle snapped, then experienced a brief, irrational flash of fear that somehow his voice would carry to Cordy, downstairs. His voice muted down to a whisper, he continued, leaning forward to grip Lovell's shoulders, "All right? Half demon, half human. Just like you."
"No, no." Lovell had his hands over his face, shutting the world out. "That's impossible. You're mad. Aside from - well, you look... normal. It's obvious you're human--"
"Normal?" The change was already spreading across his form as he finished speaking. "I'll show you normal. Is this proof enough to fuel your belief?"
Lovell was wide-eyed and fearful. An expression that might've looked almost funny on his demon features, if there was anything remotely like funny here.
Doyle's determination was spiralling down into horror at Lovell's reaction. He didn't catch the exact point at which terror focused and intensified into something more dangerous, but he knew in retrospect that Lovell's hand had already been moving.
Powered by inhuman strength, the heavy paperweight from Angel's desk arched through the air and met the side of his face.
Doyle grunted in pain and fell, feeling spikes retract as the demon form melted away. He landed on hands and knees, shaking his head, trying to clear the ringing from his ears. The world felt muffled.
The brutally strong hands that grabbed his shoulders and pried him from the floor felt immediate enough. He choked as Lovell propelled him face-first into the wall with a violence that forced the air from his lungs and shook one of Angel's pictures loose from its nail. Glass smashed against the corner of the bookcase, brittle sound. The ruined frame fell the rest of the way to the floor with a duller thud.
"Demon!" Lovell shrieked. The wall receded then rushed back again. Breathing was only a happy memory. "Demon! Fiend! Foul demon!"
Doyle was only dimly aware of the man's incoherent sobbing. He was on the edge of passing out when another encounter with the wall split the skin of his cheek and the sharp pain grounded him, providing a focus to draw him back to himself. He brought a hand up to cushion the next impact, giving him enough respite to finally pull in a shuddering, difficult breath.
He shoved off from the wall using his trapped arm as a lever, throwing his weight back with all the strength he could muster.
The move unbalanced Lovell and broke his grip, leading to the discovery that grip had been all keeping Doyle upright. He fell drunkenly against the desk, his legs refusing to obey him, and struggled again to hold off unconsciousness. If he succumbed, he was very much afraid Lovell would kill him while he lay helpless. He gave in to gravity, hit the floor and crawled under the desk, hoping it would offer some protection.
Lovell lifted the desk and flung it aside like a toy. It hit the wall so hard it bounced several feet back and landed just short of them, one of its legs splintering.
Doyle backed away, scraping his heels on the floor. Desperation helped find his voice. "Mr. Lovell, stop! Please stop!" he choked out hoarsely, shuffling back from a swipe of a demonic hand and coming up against the barrier of the upturned desk's top surface. "I'm as human as you are-"
Lovell choked out a wail and seized a chair, lifting it high. Doyle's attempts to regain his feet were proving nothing more than futile; the original blow to the head had knocked him for six. He could only shut his eyes and raise both arms as Lovell brought the chair smashing down. It splintered against his forearms. Pain exploded from his wrists to his elbows, taking the brunt of the impact, but at least he had been saved a split skull.
Temporarily. Obviously there was a serious flaw in his approach to Lovell. This wasn't helping, it was only making things worse.
'Say something, damn it,' he thought furiously. 'You, if anyone, should know what to say.' He cast his mind back to himself when he'd first found out, which was not so very different to himself over the intervening half dozen years, and if there was anything that anyone could have said to offer any kind of real comfort.
'Damn it. Harry... I never realised...
'Damn it. Harry... I never realised...'
Of course, he hadn't tried to tear anyone to pieces... anyone else, at any rate. No, he'd never been a danger to anyone but himself.
Some things never changed.
There never was anything, was there? Words were insufficient, they rolled off him leaving no impression at all. Logic could never break through those walls. Pity and understanding could never really convince, because how could anyone really understand?
Maybe it took nothing short of a half-demon half-human maniac out to beat you to death in the pursuit of exorcising demons of his own to do it - a bloody, final catharsis--
Lovell, streaks of moisture chasing the wildly stretched contours of his face down from his eyes, had snatched up a leg from the broken chair. Wickedly sharp edges adorned a splintered end.
Doyle stared up at the weapon as Lovell prepared to strike down, bleakly aware of how much those splintery edges were going to hurt as they tore through flesh.
I'm gonna die, he thought, with a surprisingly detached calm.
He bit down on the impulse to yell for help. The last thing he wanted was to bring Cordy face-to-face with Lovell in this maniacal state. He'd die here silent, rather than bring her running and get her killed alongside him.
Better, of course, not to die at all.
It took everything he had to roll his battered, aching body out of the way as the twisted piece of wood descended. It tore a path through his shirt and grazed the human skin below as he moved. Momentum ran out and he rolled to a halt clutching his smarting shoulder.
He had to do something... he was dead if he didn't... but there was nothing which offered itself as a weapon even if he'd had the strength left to wield it. And he had nothing left.
Lovell raised the chair leg again.
A muffled thud sounded overhead and Cordelia raised her head from her bookwork to glare at the ceiling. What were they doing up there, rearranging furniture? She made efforts to return her concentration to the big, wordy tome Doyle had with nervous mirth presented to her, but another thud jerked her head back up like it was on a string.
She sighed through her teeth and purposefully stood, closing the pages of the book together.
Her eyes caught on a random phrase and her hands froze. She carefully separated the pages with her thumbnails and, slowly, read.
A thunderous crash that sounded like the ceiling was about to cave in almost made her drop the book and lose her place entirely. Putting a big fold in one of the corners which she just knew Angel was going to throw a fit over, she tucked the book under her arm. "Isn't it enough that I get research-duty?" she yelled up through the ceiling. "I'm coming up there right now, and you guys better have a good excuse for this!"
She didn't entertain any illusions that they would have actually heard, and it didn't take long to travel the elevator up to Angel's office. She craned her neck as she approached, trying to see through the glass window. There was nobody in view. Puzzled, she incautiously shoved open the door.
The sight that greeted her stopped her dead. Doyle hunched on the floor, and Lovell poised to--
"Stop!" she screamed. She looked for a weapon as Lovell spun to face her, broken piece of wood still raised to strike... She glanced down at the heavy book in her hands and hurled it at him with a shriek.
Her fearful reaction seemed to have more impact than the book, which bounced barely noticed off Lovell's arm. The improvised club slipped from his fingers as he gawped at her terror. Then with a wail, misshapen hands covering his face, he was past her and out of the room.
Cordelia cast a frown and a "huff!" after him, then spun back to Doyle. Her anger and fright melted. With a cry, she fell to her knees next to his huddled form. He blinked up at her, blood on his arms and face.
"Doyle!" She reached for his face, turning his head gently, studying the damage. "What happened?"
"I needed to talk to him... I figured out what it is we're up against here, and it's not pretty and it's no curse." He shook her hands away and spat blood on Angel's floor.
"What do you mean, no curse?" Her fingers scrambled over the floor to snag the book. She found her bookmark by touch and held the pages open to him. "I found the curse. And I haven't had much chance to read it through, considering I was interrupted by the sound of you being beaten to a pulp right over my head, but I think I might've also found the anti-curse, or un-curse, or de-curse, or whatever."
Doyle's forehead concertinaed beneath the bruises as he strove to focus his eyes on the pages. She could see the jumble of the thoughts crossing his face, even if she couldn't begin to pin down just what those thoughts might be. What had he said to Lovell?
He shook his head, groaned and sagged further into the floor.
"Hey!" Cordelia snapped. "You said research, I researched! What the heck did you tell him, Doyle? Not a curse? What, then?"
"A mistake." She barely heard him. His head had sagged onto his cushioning wrist, his short hair brushing the floorboards. "Bad mistake."
"No kidding. Whatever it was, it's sent him off all psycho-demon." But she said it without much force. She let the book slide from her hands until it rested up against her knees and the floor.
Doyle peeped one eye out of his huddle. The eye squinted again at the open book inches from his nose and he mumbled indistinctly.
"What is it?"
"Book's upside-down, Princess."
Doyle flinched from the touch of the cloth to the split skin over his cheekbone. Cordelia hissed through her teeth in sympathy. "He made a mess up here," she said. "You're lucky nothing's broken. I mean, you're no Brad Pitt as you are, and I know you can't afford reconstructive surgery."
Doyle's expression of pain developed a distinctly irritated cast. "Yeah, well, I've been beat before. It'll heal." He added something else, a mumble of which she caught little aside from the word 'Lovell', but could well extrapolate from there.
"Oh, he's gone. Gave a few pedestrians a scare and hared off down the street. Pffft." She flicked her fingertips.
She finished clearing the last of the blood, drew the cloth back from his face, and studied the result critically. He was right - it wasn't nearly as bad as she'd initially feared. The skin was broken in a long but shallow tear and impressive bruising discoloured the skin around it, but in evil-fighting terms it was nothing. She'd patched up much worse in Sunnydale. His arms were more nastily banged up, blackened with bruising that made her wince from the very sight, but they too would heal.
"You'll do," she said, patting his good cheek. He gave her a slightly drunken smile and leaned into her hand, causing her to withdraw it with a half-smile, half-cringe.
She gathered together the first aid gear, throwing cotton and antiseptic back into its box. That accomplished, she brushed off her hands and leaned back against Angel's desk, her imagination providing the big broody frown he wasn't there to frown at her. "Anyway, I figure when your client tries to kill you, you're out one case." She narrowed her eyes, then brightened. "Still, at least we weren't gonna bill him anyway."
Doyle choked, and his mouth moved soundlessly at what might've been halfway to a curse at whatever the abrupt movement had cost his battered face. But, an instant later, his expression was composed and determined as he said, "Lovell's not in control. It isn't his fault. Damn it, Cordy, he knew what would happen to him. He hired us to stop it. This isn't even his screw-up. We're not just giving up on him."
"Well, it's not my screw-up--" Cordelia began.
"No. It's not." His gravity and acceptance stopped her short.
She'd been near laughing when she opened her mouth to dismiss Doyle's idea they should carry on. Now... Doyle looked about as averse to caving in as probably he ever could. Determination sat weird on him, took her aback.
"All right. You... we need to help him," she said. "But we can't do anything more today and tomorrow... tomorrow it's Thanksgiving... and face-saving lies aside, I pretty much think neither of us has any plans to speak of. Why don't you spend the day with me and Phantom Dennis? Rest up from the, you know, latest serious pounding. Eat, drink, and be merry - not that merry. We can look for poor psycho-demony Mr. Lovell the day after." She blinked furiously. "You scared me, Doyle. I don't have too many friends in LA. If Angel doesn't come back, that kind of cuts the number by half. We're not vampire superheroes."
Doyle gulped slightly, but then rolled his eyes as though there'd never been any moment of temptation (and, hey! That had practically been a date, in a second-cousin-once-removed kind of way. Since when did a Doyle refuse a date with--? God, he really was serious about this Lovell business). He asked slowly, "What if he kills someone? What if he gets himself killed? I'm not going to carry that."
He cut himself off like he could've said more. Cordelia wondered, not for the first time, what the heck he'd done to land himself with the visions and redemption gig.
Cordelia pressed her lips together angrily. "Okay," she said finally, punctuating with a finger prodding the air in front of Doyle's face. "We need to find this guy and we need to find him tonight. I am tired of this crap, and I plan on actually having a Thanksgiving tomorrow. Capeesh?"
He nodded slowly, his eyes glued to her chipped nail. "Capeesh. But you might want to think about how precisely we're gonna look into this right here and now. I'm not exactly in any shape to go troll the demon bars."
She stared at him flatly, then grabbed for her handbag. "All right. I will."
He grabbed her arm. "You're not trolling demon bars either." He sighed, winced as he let her shake him off. "I'll manage the information gatherin', one way or another - pretty much my business. You fix up the rest of what we need for this de-curse, or un-curse, or... whatever, of yours."
"I suck at Latin."
Doyle set a hand to his head and closed his eyes tight enough to send deep creases out from their edges. "Cordy? You couldn't suck much more than I do."
Cordelia rolled her eyes. "And you're sure you feel all right? You don't think we need to get you X-rayed or anything? 'Cause if you're gonna collapse on me--"
"No. I feel okay." He wilted under her glare. "Okay, I feel dumb. Dumb, but okay. Okay?"
Cordelia smiled despite herself, and didn't bother supplying an answer.
Three hours later, Doyle was still phoning around just about everyone he'd ever met in LA, even the folks he usually avoided contact with due to the very real possibility of their sending someone out to kill him if they realised he was still alive.
Cordy's head was bent over the book where she was sitting at Angel's desk. Doyle dialled again, slouching half off a padded client chair with the long telephone cable in loops at his feet, watching her. She didn't notice the surveillance; didn't look up from her task.
He was surprised. Hadn't figured Cordy could do conscientious.
There was a click as the phone was picked up. A male voice slurred, "Yeah?"
"Ronnie? That you?"
"Who the hell is this?"
"It's Doyle, man. You remember me! That spot of cards Ernest ran back in the summer--" He listened, pulled a face. "Yeah, that shirt." He definitely heard Cordy snort a laugh in the background, but when he looked over at her, she still looked for all the world like she hadn't moved.
It became quickly clear Ronnie knew no more than any of the others. Doyle set the phone down, ran both hands through his hair and scrubbed them over his face to wake himself up. "You know, I reckon Lovell must be lyin' low right now. Whatever made him lose it, it must've abated enough for him to get cautious before he'd gone more than a few blocks."
"But what happens when his self-control fails?" Cordelia said pointedly.
"Yeah. In any case, it's no use to us right now that he's been behavin' himself. 'Cause the information network is drawing a fat blank."
"Maybe we should--" Cordelia stopped. Her eyes were over his shoulder. Doyle turned around.
"Hello," said the woman standing awkwardly in the door, balanced on slowly shifting feet.
"Harry?" Doyle gulped. "What are you doing--?"
She came into the office without self-consciousness, with a small smile for Cordelia that Cordelia wasn't in the mood to notice. "I'm glad you're so happy to see me again, Francis. I was looking for you. Remember, we arranged I would come to see you today?"
Doyle groaned, nodded affirmative. "I'm sorry, Harry. It's been a strange - we had some problems come up."
She opened her mouth, got as far as a thin, lonely note that hung on the air before she finally got close enough for a good view of his face, and whatever she'd intended to say - probably something about the long familiarity of the excuse - dried up. "You've been getting yourself beaten up again," she accused softly.
"Hoo boy, yeah," Cordelia agreed.
"It's not so bad, it's just--"
"Enough that forgetting an appointment is pretty low on your priorities. I'm sorry. I didn't realise you were hurt." Her hand went to the swollen cut on his cheek. "This looks bad."
"There are worse things."
Harry withdrew her touch and he only really registered the box that had been held under her arm after she set it on the desk. Cordelia peered at it in sudden perked-up interest.
"I brought this for you," she said, for the first time looking unsure.
Doyle eyed the box and didn't make any move towards it. Harry waited a few seconds before nodding to a Cordelia obviously chomping at the bit. She opened the card flaps and her hands dived in. He watched her enthusiasm turn to puzzlement at the mundane artefacts she drew out, then interest as she studied a framed photograph. She rummaged for more. There were more.
"Gee, Doyle. I always thought your fashion sense was some kind of Loser Chic. You know, the heavy-drinking man angst thing."
Harry pursed her lips and the serious lines of her face strained. Cordelia abruptly stopped her rummaging and sat back from the box as though embarrassed, the invasion of privacy finally proving too much for even her.
Doyle's eyes slipped from the box back to Harry.
"You took nothing with you," Harry said, and maybe you had to have been married to the girl to see the bitterness and anger underlying. "No part of us. Nothing of the years we had." She swallowed.
"Harry, I--" 'I'm sorry. I wasn't in my right mind. I didn't think I deserved to take anything. I didn't think I deserved you. It wasn't you.'
"These are for you," she said. Her hair hung around her face in its mass of ringlets and he remembered it shorter, slightly darker. "Because we existed, Francis Doyle. We existed. I don't care what you do with them. I don't want to know." She paused a moment, turned, said "Goodbye, Cordelia" with her typical politeness before she headed for the door.
"I'll keep them!" Doyle blurted frantically, half up on his feet to stop her, stumbling as the cables wrapped his ankles. He kicked at them to free himself. "Look, I'm sorry. Harry, I didn't think--" He froze, meeting her stare, eyes clear and pure, a soul that had been connected once to his. But not anymore. Nothing but memory left lingering.
"Thank you," Harry said, eventually. She didn't move to reverse her exit. "I'll see you around, Doyle."
"Sure. Hey, I--"
She was already gone.
Doyle leaned over the sink in Angel's office WC, forehead pressed to the mirror mounted on the wall. He shook his head slowly, side to side, and a drowsy half-open eye peered at him, growing and shrinking, out of darkness and glass.
A sharp rap shook the door. "Are you okay in there? Because if you think I'm coming in after you..."
"I'm fine, Cordy." It was a moment before realisation sunk in and he realised he actually was. The sick feeling he'd had when he retreated into the tiny room was gone now, leaving a strange, barbed emptiness in its place. Missing... there was something missing. Something he'd lived with now so many years it had become familiar, a part of him, routine. Ever since he'd discovered mum had been a little less than truthful about his wayward dad.
He didn't know how to fill that gap. The shame might be gone, but he still had to re-negotiate his life without.
"Are you setting up home in there?" Cordelia's voice demanded more stridently still, and Doyle concluded that possibly Angel's cramped bathroom was not the place to engage in a minor epiphany.
He caught the full glimpse of his face in the mirror as he pulled back from it. A face, just a guy; too pale, too thin, eyes too dark from too little sleep, bruises and scrapes extra. Just a man. No sign of spikes lurking beneath the skin. Would it matter if there were?
Something in his chest caught and he remembered Mr. Lovell - the urgency that he be found and stopped and cured, before he did anything that would destroy the man inside.
'Pizza and research,' Cordelia thought. 'My holiday is complete.'
She nibbled at her last slice, and her lips shaped a soundless 'oops' as tomato-stained grease dripped onto the page she read from. She started to rub it away with her sleeve, then caught herself. She was still wearing one of the better tops she possessed from the morning's audition. She left the grease to its own devices.
Doyle's empty pizza packaging was strewn on the floor, while the man himself was back on the telephone, having whomped through his food like he was being chased by wild dogs. The box Harry had brought lay either utterly forgotten or steadfastly ignored atop Angel's desk. She couldn't decide which.
Doyle slammed the phone down again and stared at it wild-eyed.
Cordelia observed him a moment, frowned at the steadily progressing hands of the clock, then sighed and made a decision. "We're getting nowhere like this. We need to quit."
"No." The denial was instant.
"I'll help you in the morning," she blurted, not giving herself time to double-think, the words tripping over each other in a rush.
He blinked. "Do you mean that?"
"I said it, didn't I? It's too late, and you need to rest. We both need to rest. Wearing ourselves out is not going to help Saint Lovell get un-demoned."
"Well, that's true." His clear eyes caught and held hers. "Damn it," he snapped suddenly, slapping a palm down against the desk. "I'm sorry about this. We should've just waited for Angel to get back. I should never--"
"Hey! Lovell did a pretty good job already without you adding to it by beating yourself up." She turned back to her desk and reshuffled her research into an untidy pile that nevertheless very clearly said 'abandoned'. Just to make a point of it.
"Y'know, Cordy, I don't think Angel's gonna be too happy when he sees all those turned-back corners."
"Angel would have to actually come back from his jaunt with Buffy the vampire boffer to even find out. And while we're on the subject, what kind of a vision was that? Angel's like in recovery! What are the PTB thinking? And you - couldn't you lie or something? After all, not much helping the helpless gonna be going on if you people have sunk him back into a major-mega-funk-brood."
"I didn't think that was so much a problem when he's got you around to drag him kicking and screaming out of it... You're pretty brood-proof." He smiled crookedly.
She crossed her arms. "I don't think that's funny."
"That's okay, 'cause I wasn't being funny."
"Okay, given my natural comedic charm, I guess that all depends what you -- ow, ow, OW..."
Cordelia, hands set on her hips, watched Doyle reel and narrowly eyed the bowed legs of the chair he slumped onto. Considering the ruin of its predecessor that they'd already scraped into a cupboard, she hoped Angel - if he came back - wouldn't take the damages out of employee salaries. Her salary, anyway.
When he looked up, there was something in his eyes that told her what he'd seen, that itchy discomfort in his wandering gaze that he'd had pretty much throughout this case. "Lovell?"
Doyle moved his head in two ungainly jerks it looked like he regretted, and said hoarsely, "Lovell. Tearing up a mall. Think I recognised the place." He straightened, wavering like he was drunk.
"Damn it!" She glared at him. "Have you seen the time? Don't the PTB have any consideration?"
"Strangely, I guess no."
"Do we have to go now? Are the PTB jerking us around or what? You're sure it's not like a time-delay vision, or--"
"Cordelia! It's now. Right now. As in 'as we stand here arguing' now." He stopped for breath, and she worried that he needed to. His face was paler than usual, stark contrast to the marks Lovell had left. He wasn't at his best. Not that demon-fighting was something he did especially well at his best. "The books, Cordy - do we have enough yet to give that spell a go?"
She twisted her lips to an unwilling, humourless smile. "I think so. I need to scatter a few stinky herbs and the like, but we had those from the anti-ghost spell and that demon the other week that - yuck - melted bone tissue." She scowled as she ferreted through drawers for the small packages. "I bet the PTB don't pay time-and-a-half on redemption, either."
Doyle pulled a face like he'd swallowed a wasps' nest. "What-? No, don't. Let's just go." He snatched up his jacket and pulled it on over Angel's torn shirt.
"And what are they doing sending visions when Angel's not here anyway?" She demanded, picking up her book and trailing after him. "The case, okay, we decided to take that. But the visions? Angel territory. And he's not here because of the last chase they sent him on, so where's the sense there?" She stopped in front of the weapons cabinet and hunted for something hopefully not too messy, deciding not to even ask if she'd have time to get changed.
"That's a good--" His hand was on her arm, pulling her back. "What are you doing?"
"Well, duh. Weapons?"
"There was nobody else in the vision, Cordelia. This is about Lovell. He's the one in danger."
"Yeah. And he didn't try beat you within an inch of your life last time we saw him. Me? Taking weapons." She set her hand on a small axe, and gave up on her ensemble.
"Jesus." Doyle wrested it from her. "All right. We take weapons. Just... leave the hacking and slashing part to me, if it has to come to that."
"Strangely, I have no objection there." She picked up a crossbow, eyed her already sorry-looking manicure, and followed Doyle as he wordlessly turned his back and headed for the door.
The mall from his vision was a massive array of glass and chrome, a jewelled glitter in the fading light. Security were trying to hustle out the straggling holiday shoppers, but if he ignored the protests from a head aching with vision aftermath and looked up to the strips of windows in the building's face, Doyle could see a good number still wandering around.
Everything looked a little too normal and quiet. The vision had given a definite impression of urgency, and it had taken longer to get across town than he'd anticipated. Unoccupied taxis proved a scarce breed on the eve of Thanksgiving. Whatever they were here to prevent could not be far from happening.
He and Cordy dodged past a security guard whose attention was claimed by a gang of drunk youths and slipped inside against the flow of pedestrian traffic.
Close-up, the festive cheer of the interior looked a lot more like harassed people carrying plastic bags bulging contents that distorted the logos of mid-price stores. Doyle felt the stares generated by his battered face and wished Lovell could've chosen somewhere a little less public.
"You saw Lovell here?" Cordy asked. The book was under her arm. A grass-green scarf she'd grabbed heading out of the office was bundled around the crossbow, but Doyle didn't think the weapon stood a chance of seeing much use in the midst of this place. It did rather pose the question of how they were going to bring down Lovell in here at all. They didn't exactly have the heroic demeanour to swoop in, do the Batman act, and make a clean break.
The axe he'd taken from her was stuck through a belt loop under his jacket, a distracting prod in the ribs at random intervals.
Doyle's brows knotted as he peered around a vista where nothing looked particularly out of the ordinary. "Pretty sure. I know I saw the Idyllic Snowy Country Village display that's so incredibly appropriately in tune with the holiday climate here in Southern California--"
Cordelia eyed the display in question. It stood to greet shoppers like a big, false grin of cheer in the midst of the square of ground-level stores nearest the main entrance. Her gaze shifted to the second, third and fourth floor levels arrayed over their heads. "Maybe you saw it from above?"
There was too much background noise from voices and seasonal music to hear any sound of commotion from above. Doyle shrugged. "I suppose that's more than possible."
Perspective tended to reel and distort in a vision, even if he discounted the unreliability of memory. He followed Cordelia through the glitter to a glass elevator just touching down in the centre of the mall.
When it reached them, people got off; nobody else was waiting to board. Cordelia pushed all the buttons. "We can stop at each floor with time to check for anything that looks out of place, and we don't even have to step out of the elevator."
Doyle eyed her up appreciatively. Not that he didn't take any opportunity that offered itself to do that anyway. "You know, you're really not so - and I'm completely not gonna finish that sentence."
"Please don't," Cordelia snapped, but the irritation was running on autopilot. Her attention was elsewhere. Doyle broke from his trance and scanned the level they were rising to greet. The elevator car settled and he leaned on the door control to be sure.
"There's nothing here." Cordelia impatiently smacked his arm away. The doors slid closed and they continued upwards.
A middle-aged couple got on at the third floor, and Doyle almost didn't spot the figure shuffling along a distant wall until the elevator car was leaving. A figure almost running and bent over like a hunchback with a dirty, hooded jacket obscuring his face. Doyle jammed his arm in the last inches of the closing doors and forced them back, cursing as their edges bit at the bruising he'd forgotten in the urgency of the moment.
Two security guards armed with radios followed in the figure's wake. "Of course," he muttered to Cordy, dragging her out with him and ignoring reproachful looks from the two other passengers. "The parking garage at the back of the mall comes out onto this floor down that way. It must have sewer access - that's where he's been holed up. He couldn't go back to any human hangouts, not looking like that, and he doesn't know this world - he couldn't go to the demon ones. Looks like security flushed him out."
"And, boy, has he picked a lousy direction to run," Cordelia said.
"I'll say. Come on." A tug on her arm, and she kept pace as he broke into a sprint to intersect Lovell before Lovell intersected with the general public and gave them the shock of their lives.
"Doyle!" she said. "The plan! What's the plan?"
"I keep Lovell occupied long enough for you to do the spell--"
"He's got super-insane-demon-strength and you've got a dumb little hand axe you won't even use. That's a completely suck plan!"
"Yeah," Doyle grunted again breathlessly. That part, he knew.
The expression on Lovell's face as he caught sight of Doyle was super-weird, more there than mere guilt or recognition for a guy he'd trashed hours before. Cordelia wished she could figure out what the hell she was missing. What wasn't Doyle telling her about what had happened in the office?
Lovell was backing away, his head twisting between the two of them in front and store security behind. Doyle's grip transferred from her wrist to the book she held, and he opened it up in her hands.
"Get chanting," he advised.
Then he broke away, leaving her with her mouth hanging on the start of a protest.
"Mr. Lovell?" Doyle advanced slowly, holding his hands out in front of him with the palms spread flat and empty. "You remember us, yeah? You asked us for help..."
Something moved under the hood, as though Lovell was trying to speak. Only a hiss emerged. Cordelia wondered if he could even manage human speech with whatever demony mutations he had hidden away under there. Oddly, she would've sworn it was fear that tensed the demon's form when the shadows beneath the hood regarded Doyle.
Doyle was still inching forward. "We think we know how to help you. I was wrong before, made a mistake... I messed up, okay? But that doesn't matter now. What matters is we've found the answer. You've got to let us help you."
The demon had paused, and seemed to be listening.
"Just... think calm thoughts, okay? Easy does it..." Doyle was almost close enough to touch, but when he reached out, the skittery Lovell turned to flee again. Putting on a burst of speed that belied his out-of-shape form, Doyle caught a shoulder and spun Lovell around. "I said--"
The hood fell, revealing a face that didn't much resemble human any more. Cordelia heard herself gasp, the sound involuntary. She hadn't gotten much of a look at Lovell back in the office, and although Doyle had described the changes in more detail, the sight of them shocked her anew now. The security men, faced with what they'd been chasing, stopped dead in their tracks. There were further gasps from nearby shoppers, and from somewhere not far, a woman's muted shriek.
Lovell's lips pulled back from his teeth, but no sound emerged. Doyle paused notably at the animal ferocity in the bared expression.
"Mr. Lovell--" A quiet compassion filled Doyle's voice as he tried again. His hand was loose on Lovell's shoulder, fingers flexing, and it was way too much like sympathy, way too little like restraint or like apprehending a dangerous, demonically-cursed, and definitely unhinged man. Cordelia opened her mouth to shout a warning even as Lovell shrugged the hand off and threw the first punch.
It seemed to her that if their vision assignment had been to stop Lovell causing a scene in the mall they weren't exactly succeeding.
Doyle's head snapped back with the impact and his waist twisted as though his spine were composed of elastic. Somehow his feet only rocked fractionally on the floor, and he recovered with a shake of his head to catch Lovell's next punch on the palm of his hand. His mouth opened silently in a surprised pain that spoke of either Lovell's demon-enhanced strength or the severity of the bruising on his arms.
Cordelia realised she was standing uselessly holding the book. Annoyed with herself, she tore at the pages, scrabbling to find the right place. The spell, the spell... Little packets of herbs fell from the opened book to the floor. One of them burst on impact, not that it was about to make much difference. She scraped up the spillage, tightened her hand into a fist she loosened as she arched it through the air, scattering the contents. She parted the lips of the second bag and repeated the motion, book clutched to her chest, bundled-up crossbow abandoned at her feet.
While Doyle got swatted against a nearby store, she peeled the book from her bosom and tried to focus on words that jiggled with the trembling of her hands.
She didn't need anyone to tell her that her pronunciation of the syllables was atrocious. Her skin crawled as her chant pulled in more stares. A part of her brain started concocting ways to explain this all off as some kind of wacky performance art, and she hoped the adage about no such thing as negative publicity was right. Being involved in public incidents of violence mixed with suspected Satanic ritual wasn't exactly the first claim to fame she'd have hoped to gain for her resume, but a claim to fame was better than none, right?
Doyle peeled his face off the store window, which contained a display of menswear that made him look like the 'before' caption to their 'after'. He pushed off from the window and spun, ducking under Lovell's arms and burying an elbow in his ribs.
Lovell stumbled, recovered, and tackled Doyle hard enough to send them both falling back through the glass.
Its shattering echoed through the hollow space of the mall like a fanfare. Any heads still left to turn, turned.
Cordelia saw them crash down amid the splinters, demolishing the display, even as she raised the book to shield her eyes from flying fragments.
She faltered in her chant.
His head was ringing. There was a weight on top of him, and a dozen sharp points trapped underneath that the weight wouldn't let him escape. Attempting to move squeezed a groan from his lips. When he opened his eyes the weight transformed into Lovell, demon face inches from his own, clawed hands tightening in his collar.
Great. Shards of glass digging into his back and an insane man/demon sitting on his chest. Could this plan get any better? He noticed the silence, inched his eyes to the side and saw Cordelia looking around nervously, the book hanging limp from her hand, her form twitching in indecision. He couldn't see the security uniforms, and none of the regular folks he could see were making any move to intervene.
"Cordelia!" he choked. "Keep readin'--"
She gave a little jump, directed at him a frightened but defiant glance that said "of course!" and raised the book again, shouting stilted phrases that made his own Latin look like that of a Classics professor.
Doyle wrenched his body under Lovell's, trying to throw the heavier man off. He managed to roll aside and land a punch in the guy's midriff. When he tried to stagger to his feet a hand around his ankle brought him back down. Broken glass embedded his palms, and what breath he'd managed to reclaim since the last spill deserted again.
A kick blindly backwards bought the time to stand, reeling, hands curled bloodily. He could feel his own demon barely contained beneath the surface. He shook the glass splinters out and picked with clumsy, hurried fingers at the few that stubbornly remained as he retreated from Lovell, also now risen, backing in circles.
Lovell's lunge forward brought them nose-to-nose again. Doyle's shoulders hit a smooth, hard surface, and before he knew it he was pinned. Lovell's hands pressed to his throat and chest. The pressure on his neck tightened and his breathing became laboured, then nonexistent. He scoured Lovell's altered face for any trace of sanity or humanity and saw nothing of either. Shaped his mouth in a silent, "Please..."
The arms he'd reached up to wrestle Lovell's grip fell limp, his strength gone. The trailing fingers of his left hand were as numbed as the rest of him, but he had enough awareness left to detect they'd fallen against something protruding from the flat surface at his back. It moved down fractionally at his touch.
He'd been in enough tight spots over the years to recognise a last chance when he found it. He put everything he had left into throwing his weight backwards as he yanked the door handle fully down.
Next instant, there was no solid ground beneath his feet and his stomach was left some yards behind, but the pressure on his throat was gone. The instant after, he stopped thanking all the powers he could name for that mercy when he landed heavily enough to be briefly convinced he'd broken his back. Edges of steps carved into his ribs. Then, Lovell landed on top of him, and he figured now he knew what a car felt like inside one of those doohickeys that crushed it into a small, mangled cube. The steps scraped down his spine, and he slid uncontrollably, not sure where his arms and legs were, which were pinned and which weren't, what was broken (everything?) and what wasn't. He felt the axe, for all the use that had been, dig into his side one revolution, the next nothing, the weapon lost somewhere further back. A corner in the staircase tipped them over and killed their momentum, until Lovell's struggles and Doyle's token resistance bounced them off a wall and sent them falling again.
Doyle heard the sound of stilettos above. Cordelia, running in her heels but way behind. He remembered the bend in the stairway.
He took his chance, drew his demon side to the fore and used the burst of strength and adrenaline it brought with it to gather himself. He slammed a foot against the wall, stopping their momentum just before they started descending the next flight, and shoved Lovell away -- the brachen demon stronger, or Lovell dazed by a lucky knock, or himself just pissed to the point of acts he couldn't have accomplished under normal circumstances. Lovell smacked back into the wall and his legs wobbled.
Doyle was up and on him in a second, and not averse to a little payback. He wound his hands in Lovell's hair and bashed his head into the wall a few times. Remembered Cordy in the same instant Lovell started to fight back and dissolved his demon side as they fell through a door.
The door led from the service staircase onto the second floor. A host more gasps and gawps greeted their appearance.
He still retained much of the advantage. He held Lovell up, swaying dizzily and drawing stares - but it was Lovell's legs that were sagging, his own grip all that kept the taller man upright.
Cordelia burst through the door after, yelling out a final burst of Latin before she flopped, her body bending in two, hands on knees.
"That's it," she said breathlessly. "It's done."
Doyle turned back to Lovell. The face so close to his was slowly twisting, distorting - no, he supposed 'normalising' would be more accurate. The features smoothed back to human, rewritten as he watched. Done. It was done.
He sagged to his knees, taking the human Lovell with him in a sprawl. Mission accomplished, with no thanks to his own stupid error, to letting himself get too close and identify too much with the case.
But Lovell started to struggle again, his limbs flailing with panic. Doyle caught a knee in the gut and squirmed around to grasp Lovell by the shoulders. "Mr. Lovell, it's over. You're back to normal. You're you again. Human again!"
Verbal reassurance seemed to have little effect. Doyle frantically looked around for anything he might - and the protective barrier bordering the chasm in the centre of the mall caught his eye. Thanking the Lord for flashy design that included an excess of reflective surfaces, he pressed Lovell's nose to the glass.
"Look," he urged. Dizzying space sat beyond their reflections, the floors above and below reeling before him. He shut his eyes to quell the vertigo.
Struggles easing, Lovell reached out to touch the reflection of his human face. A tiny noise escaped him, not a sob, not relief, not distress, and the tension dissipated from his form as he sagged. Its absence hit home just how tightly wound up the man had been, and Doyle was left to wonder at how his heart hadn't failed him from the strain. He turned them around, away from the chasm and the mirror, setting his back to the glass and keeping hold of their client, who clutched him back with mere human strength.
Doyle looked over Lovell's shoulder to Cordelia. He wondered how much she'd seen, wondered how much he'd be able to prevent Lovell giving away.
He had to tell her sometime. But... 'please,' he silently begged, 'please, let it not have to be today.'
She joined the two of them, slumping against the barrier. The book slid down between her inelegantly parted thighs. She rolled her head around to face him, utter exhaustion drawing her face into tight lines that made her look older.
"Okay, check one de-cursing," she said. "Which just leaves us with the knotty question of who the heck cursed him in the first place?"
He nodded slowly. "I reckon I got a theory about that one."
She didn't say, "I hope it's better than the last", but it hung silent in the air between them.
As his heart rate slowly subsided to something approaching normal, Doyle regained sufficient presence of mind to spare a thought for the gaping onlookers. He met their stares with a roll of his eyes, and offered loudly to no-one in particular, "You know how it is. Costume party, some comedian spikes the drinks--"
Doyle knocked on the door, his spine set rigid, body language skittish. Lovell, leaning against the flaking wall to the side of the door, looked withdrawn and almost as beat-up as Doyle did. Cordelia fidgeted and yawned into her hand. At least they'd stopped exchanging the stilted apologies and awkward glances.
The knocking was greeted by the kind of silence that was only to be expected when hammering on folks' doors at a little past 3am in the morning - the amount of time it had taken to extricate themselves from mall security, ease Lovell back to some semblance of rationality, and make their way across town.
Cordelia leaned over to hiss in Doyle's ear, "What are we going back here for anyway? I thought you said we'd ruled these people out?"
"This time, we're going to do it properly," he said. "Not be blinded by all the wrong conclusions."
The door opened, curtailing her response. A mere crack at first, but it said something about the neighbourhood that when demon-dad-guy saw it was the two of them back again, it was relief that crossed his face more than anything, and he responded by opening the door for them fully, unlocking a thick security chain.
"What do you want?" he asked reluctantly, sounding tired. As well he might. "I told you everything I know. I can't help you."
"Yeah, and I 'preciate that fact," Doyle said. He regarded the husband a moment, and Cordelia saw there - thought she saw - puzzlement, then clarity, maybe even a kind of weird relief. His gaze shifted. "But I didn't come to talk to you."
Back in the shadows of the shabby, darkened apartment, the wife waited nervously, slim and tall and less drab than by day in a gossamer-thin white dressing gown. She flinched just as much as her husband did when Lovell moved away from the wall to stand next to Doyle, in their full view.
Maybe she flinched a little more.
Doyle's gaze was fixed over the man's shoulder. "I came to talk to her."
The wife made coffee while her husband looked in on the kids. The wife's name was Niamh, the husband was Michael, and Cordelia was weirded out by the normality of it all.
Michael came back before the coffee was finished - apparently the children were still asleep - and everyone stood around in a silence punctuated by the opening of jars and clatter of spoons, generally contributing to the awkwardness of the scene. Doyle fidgeted, Lovell looked as if he'd rather be anywhere else in the world (although to be fair, he'd looked like that for the past several hours; a man uncomfortable in his own skin even now it was his own again. Maybe he always would be).
The demon folks looked nervous. Cordelia felt like a spare part.
Niamh took the first coffee to Lovell, pressed it into his hands, and guided him into a shabby armchair. Cordelia didn't think her worry was just for herself and her family. She wondered if the woman had realised the possible consequences of what she'd done and had already been regretting. At least, she didn't seem like the type to loose a demonic psychopath on the world on purpose.
"This mine?" Without waiting for the wife's shrug, Doyle seized up a mug from the table and downed it in one go. From his raw desperation anyone would've thought it was some kind of life-saving elixir.
Cordelia could empathise with the sentiment. What was that thing called 'sleep' again?
"I didn't mean for this to happen," Niamh said. She stopped, shrugged again, the coffee jumping and sloshing in her grasp as she quickly handed it to Cordelia, clumsy and awkward with nerves. "No - I don't know. I don't think I knew what I wanted to happen. He--" Her eyes were big and scared as she looked at Lovell. "--he was digging. He knew what we were." And she said 'we' without hesitation, demon-by-proxy, unafraid in that at least. "He was causing trouble. People have never liked us easily. I think they always have sensed... something. And of course we could never afford to get too close. But this was - the way people were talking, the whispers. I was afraid. Him, he leads them. They listen to him. I thought, if I could make him see what it was like to have to hide, to be seen as a freak, unclean, evil--"
Her voice shook. Her husband stepped to her side, and their hands clutched into a ball of white knuckles. "Michael didn't know," she added unnecessarily. "I spent the money I was saving for Christmas on the curse."
If Michael was cross under the sympathy, then it wasn't a conversation he was entertaining having while the rest of them were present. For now, solidarity; the hands entwined, the comfort real.
"It was only supposed to affect his appearance," Niamh added, with a trace of resentment, like it was Lovell's fault the curse she'd put on him had gone wonky. "Something went wrong. I didn't mean for anybody to get hurt. It wouldn't even have lasted for much more than three or four days, a week at the most."
"That's dabbling in black magic for you," Cordelia said sourly, for the sake of saying something. Doyle was oddly quiet, and Lovell seemed to have no words. "Curses? Seldom a good idea." At the odd looks she received from Lovell and the demon couple, she twisted a corner of her mouth up into a false smile. "Hey, it was practically a part of the curriculum at my high school."
Niamh shot her a weak, confused smile back and Cordelia just felt tired. She gulped at her coffee as an excuse to look somewhere else. What were she and Doyle supposed to do here now, after all? It wasn't like they could do any slaying to resolve the issue. Plenty of demons here, yeah, but no monsters. She thought about the little demony children asleep in the next room. Yet somehow, it didn't feel right either to end this with a "don't do it again" and a metaphorical slap on the wrist. People could have died. Lovell could have. Doyle almost had.
From the looks of him, face all screwed up like he had a bad taste in his mouth, Doyle was thinking similar thoughts.
As she watched, he shifted on his feet and finally seemed to register just how inanely he was fiddling with his empty mug. An instant later, it clinked down on the table, and he took a deliberate step closer to the wife. There was a flow to his movements she hadn't seen too often, and something else, something dark and sinister and maybe even dangerous - if 'dangerous' hadn't been a word that made her smirk a little at the thought of applying it to Doyle.
His hands were clenched at his sides, and when he raised one, it took a moment to un-clench, easing bone-white knuckles, to point a finger into the woman's face. "We don't forget about this." Cordelia felt a shiver run up her spine and swallowed, freaked. "We don't shrug this off with a 'you meant well'. You almost drove him mad." Doyle's throat jumped as he faltered. "You did damage here. You think about that."
Cordelia wasn't sure what she'd heard at first. Then she saw Lovell had stood from his chair, saw his eyes, finally sharp and alert - and thank goodness he'd come out of it, because she'd been half-convinced his trip to Demonsville was going to leave him fit for the loony bin - focused on Niamh.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I made you feel afraid. I didn't know... so many things."
He looked, then, at Doyle, and it wasn't the first time since the mall that he'd shot a very peculiar look at Doyle. But this time, Doyle seemed to... crumple. The anger that had carried him to confront the woman disappeared, leaving him just beat-up loser guy wavering shabbily on his feet while Michael and Niamh stared, incredulous, at Lovell.
"Okay, so I get it," Cordelia said flatly, punctuating her words with some rather incensed swipes of her arms that made Doyle sway out of the way and almost overbalance. "Lovell had his bunch of do-gooders victimise and terrorise them in the name of do-gooding, because they were different and he didn't understand. She wanted to protect her kids."
"She loves her family--"
"Yeah. Whatever they are."
"I get it, okay? And I don't see why you're being so snippy. I know you don't think he should have forgiven her any more than I do."
"No, I don't. But I guess we can't all be saints. What she put him through..." He swallowed. "Suffice to say, I figure he's been given a lesson in perspective that'll last him a lifetime."
"I suppose it was as good an ending as we could've hoped for, in any case." Doyle tried to brighten up, but it wasn't easy with tiredness dragging at his feet, after the strain of the last near-twenty-four hours, the last one of which spent in the company of three people who knew exactly what he was and could mangle his chances with Cordy pretty finally by a careless word alone.
She stumbled at his side and cursed. "Have I mentioned how much I am so going to track down that cab driver and do him some severe damage for not waiting?" she asked through grit teeth, stopping briefly to slide off her shoe and rub an ankle he could see was chafing even in the yellowish street lighting.
Doyle frowned nervously around the deserted street, and chivvied her onward as she slipped the shoe back into place. "I don't think we should be lookin' to linger, Princess."
They continued, Cordelia's feet scraping the pavement in an exaggeration of exhaustion that had Doyle rolling his eyes, though he had no doubts she was tired enough. He himself ached bone-deep.
"Next time Angel feels like running off on some jaunt, if he wants us to agency-sit then he's leaving us the car, or no deal," she stated. "That is, if next time..."
"Hey. What is it with this bee in your bonnet? I'm sure Angel will be back. You'll see."
"How can you be so confident?" she retorted. "You never got treated to the Angel and Buffy show. They had angst you could divide up into plots and sell for contractors to build on!"
Doyle chuckled. "Someone's got to fight the good fight." Picked at the torn shirt that still hung on his shoulders. "And no offence, but I somehow don't think it's gonna be you and me on any full-time permanent basis. We're not exactly cut from the hero cloth."
She reached to poke a finger through one of the holes in his shirt (Lovell's claws, a shard of glass, a random tear in some or other of the fighting). She scraped bare skin underneath, and he felt a tingle at the contact of her skin on his. "I don't know," she said, "Lovell's not a demon anymore and we're not dead. I call a victory. We could be the next big thing in Champions." Her trailing finger caught a bruise and he flinched away; cursed himself the instant after. "Sorry. Plus, of course, less brooding. And less brooding is always a plus." She beamed at him. "I'm kidding."
"'Preciate the heads-up."
"Well, duh. You got beat to a pulp and I'm gonna be sleeping through my Thanksgiving. Save me from the whole superhero deal any day. And I kind of think this area's crappy." She eyed the mouth of an alley in which something metallic had definitely clanked.
Doyle squinted into the shadows, but only silence waited within. They carried on past. He released a slow sigh. "Yeah. I'm sorry about screwing up your holiday. I know you didn't want to help out with this. Don't think I don't appreciate that you did."
"Pfft." Cordelia flicked a hand. "It's not like I wasn't going to spend it doing anything but say, oh, sitting mourning holidays past with just a ghost for company. Missing the expensive vacations... and the expensive food... and the expensive gifts... All that expense that friendship and altruism just can't buy, you know? And feel free to stop me any time from revealing anything of a cringingly embarrassing nature about the patheticness that is my life, thank you Doyle."
"Least you've still got a ghost," he offered.
"Well, that's true." She continued after a moment, "Anyway, the cuddly demon-people are fine, Lovell's human again, and we end up walking home. So much for the conquering heroes. We so need to set up a Union."
They walked. Cordelia intermittently cursed her shoes. Doyle bemoaned his bruises. The first trace of dawn started to wash over the city-light tainted sky.
"You should come over," Cordelia said eventually. "By the time we've woken up it should be about tea-time in any case. You can come spend the evening at my place. Eat food, watch TV, hang out."
Doyle brightened considerably. "You mean it?"
"Well - yeah."
"Then okay. Great. I'll see you at your place."
She wasn't listening. She was, instead, glaring suspiciously into the shadows at the edge of the none too welcoming street along which they walked. She swung around and asked flat-out, "Do you still have that axe?"
He spread his hands helplessly. "Got left behind for mall security to puzzle over. Sorry. Maybe we can go back later and retrieve it from lost and found--"
She huffed. "I left the crossbow, too. And - oh my God! - my scarf! Do you know how much that cost?"
Doyle winced at the volume, his hands rising automatically to his head. "You wanna dial it down a fraction, Cordelia? Bit of consideration for the thugs and drug dealers tryin' to get some shuteye?"
Her eyebrows raised, a little pained. She looked nervously around, and fell silent. Doyle was sorry. He missed the chatter, the noise, the way she could light up a dark and disenchanted night - almost morning, now.
He spoke finally, hesitantly, the thought which had been weighing on his mind. "Do you believe what Niamh said? That it was the spell that went wrong?"
"Huh?" Her brows crinkled.
"She thought it must've screwed up, because it was only meant to affect Lovell's physical appearance. Me, I think maybe not so much."
"You mean you don't reckon it was the spell that sent the guy round the bend? How's that work again? You said yourself, the guy's practically a saint. What else could cause--?" She trailed off, and looked at him, waiting.
It took a moment to find his voice, even though the raw, weary monotone of hers spoke amply enough of how little right now she actually cared. And, well, maybe he was way off base again, judging the world too much through the filter of his own experiences. But he didn't think so. "Just a scared man losing it, Cordy." He smiled. Sadly, and grim. "Only Lovell knows for sure."
"Wow." The idea seemed to bring her back to life a little. He watched her process it. Head down, she focused on the toes of her shoes, their scrape, scrape, scrape on the sidewalk. "Figures, I guess." She looked up, smiled tiredly into his eyes. Her own were liquid, not so hard as their norm, but maybe he was only imagining too that he was beginning to see the ice in there melt. "I guess at the end of the day there's a little bit of demon in us all."