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Walking Wounded

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Even in Los Angeles, it took some work to find a bar that was open this late, which was probably why Kate found herself at a vampire bar. Or maybe it was some kind of subconscious self-imposed punishment: to commingle with those she had been trying to eradicate. But the bar had a good whiskey, which was all that mattered, and Kate had a stake with her if it came to that, which she doubted it would. Her reputation--loathed, but feared enough to be left alone--preceded her. Plus she was tipping well, and she doubted that the bartender would take kindly to losing the business.

Oh it had been a horrible night, and she probably should have been at County General getting stitches in her arm, but what was one more scar, really, in the scheme of things? Who was good, who was evil, who was dead, who was undead--one never knew, lately. She'd veered from homicide into these supernatural cases, and she'd never thought she'd miss the murder work--ceaseless, in this beautiful, bright city of death. But at least her murder victims had stayed dead instead of coming back to bite her in the ass--occasionally literally--and you could find the bad guy and be done with it. Whereas with these cases, Kate was beginning to realize, it might take her most of her life and a couple of theological and history degrees to attain even the foggiest grasp of who was good and who should get a stake through the heart.

And if you judged by actions alone--Kate signaled, and the bartender poured her another--she was as guilty as any un-souled vampire, or any Wolfram and Hart sleazebag, barging her way through cases armed with self-righteous rage like an Inquisition priest with a Bible. She hadn't actually burned anybody, not yet, although it had been touch and go with Angel for a while. Kate drank the shot--her fourth--and gestured for another. The bartender poured accordingly but lingered for a moment. "Darlin', let me offer you a hint of advice: I can smell that blood at the other end of the bar. Might wanna get it cleaned up before someone mistakes it for an appetizer."

A few weeks ago, the comment might have made her sick; one week ago, she would have puffed up with holy anger. But tonight she just nodded her thanks at the bartender and said her next stop was the hospital.

"I'll make sure she goes," a mild baritone voice said, and how had she known that he would surface here.

"You're drunk, Kate," Angel said.

"Not yet. Getting there."

"How many have you had?"

"Four. Working on five. You should know it takes more than that to get an Irish girl drunk."

"Bartender's right, you know. That was a nasty gash."

"So I'll wear long sleeves to my next social engagement."

"I was thinking more of whether or not your tetanus shots are up to date."

"They're fine."

"Getting lockjaw isn't the way to atone for your mistakes, Kate. Won't do anyone a bit of good, not even the vamps you're trying to kill."

"And which vamps might those be, Angel? The ones with souls or the ones without?"

"You meet any more with souls, send them my way. I'm thinking of starting a lunch group."

She wanted to smile, bitterly, but she was afraid her face would warp itself into a sob. She settled for downing shot number five.

"What happened tonight was not your fault," Angel said quietly.

"It was someone's fault."

"It was Rocco's fault. He set the fire. You did the right thing."

Kate didn't answer. The bartender looked at her and nodded at the whiskey bottle, but she shook her head.

"Kate, let me take you to the hospital."

"Angel, I'm sorry," she said, and he even looked surprised for a moment, if only at the non sequitur. "I met you and you seemed like a knight in shining armor, defending the weak and helpless. And then my father died, and all evidence pointed to you. I know it wasn't you, and I shouldn't have done what I did, but I can't change that now. We were working for the same thing all along, but I set us back years, decades, even. I don't know if I can go into police work again, not with the blinders I seem to have. I'm too--you'll excuse the expression--human for it."

"No one can change the past. Not you, not me, not the PTB, whatever they are. But you can learn from it."

This time the bitter laugh did come out, and there was a hitch in it, but not enough to turn into full-scale tears. Not here, not now, not in front of Angel. "You're so good at redemption, Angel. You ought to bottle it and sell it."

"Not many people are buying nowadays. Let me see your arm."

She rolled up her sleeve and let Angel inspect the wound. She wondered what the sight of human blood did to him, whether it was like a twenty-year AA veteran smelling Jack Daniels again. Whatever the effect, Angel betrayed nothing. "My car's out front. Come on, Kate. We don't need another casualty tonight."

"I'm already a casualty."

"You're walking wounded. I'd prefer it if you remained walking."

**********************

 

The nurse cleaned the wound and asked minimal questions after Kate flashed her LAPD badge, but she did say, effusively, that it was a good thing Kate had come in. She was an older woman, wearing a gold necklace that spelled out "Grandma," her wedding rings sunk deep into her left hand. "This would have gotten infected, young lady, if you had even waited until tomorrow to come in. It's a good thing your friend talked to you into it. Take it easy tonight and tomorrow to get over the blood loss, and try to eat red meat or leafy greens to get some iron back into you." She finished the stitching and crooked an eyebrow. "And I suspect you'll be wanting water and orange juice to avoid a hangover."

"Where's your car?" Angel asked on their way back out to the parking lot.

"Back at the bar. I'll get someone to take me tomorrow."

"I'll take you, or Wesley can. You can stay over at the hotel tonight."

"No offense, Angel, but your associates are the last people on Earth I feel like seeing right now."

"Gunn's with his troops and Wesley is in Palm Springs with his girlfriend."

"Which leaves Cordelia. Always my favorite to deal with when I am exhausted, guilt-ridden, short on blood, and half drunk."

"She should be back at her apartment by now. And you're more than half drunk."

***********************

 

But Cordelia was, of course, there, and if she'd been undead, Kate thought, she would have gone into game face and taken Kate's head off her with teeth. As it was, it looked like Cordelia was considering it. "Is this another specimen for your save-the-evil-women collection, Angel? I don't know if she'll fit in the same cabinet with Faith, although we could always use the one you were saving for Darla."

Angel gently marshaled Kate into a sitting room and installed her on the sofa. "I'll be back." He left, and she could hear his and Cordelia's voices carrying through the empty echoey spaces of the old building.

"Save it, Cordy. She's staying over tonight."

"Doesn't she have an apartment of her own?"

"Don't you?"

"Angel, in case it escaped you, I was waiting up to make sure that you didn't get, oh, say, burned, staked, or beheaded. You could have at least done me the favor of calling to let me know you were still undead, but apparently you had a more pressing engagement with the Bride of Fuhrman here."

"I took her to the hospital."

"And where else? The local saloon? She smells like she dunked her head in a vat of Cutty Sark."

"She took herself there. I won't argue with you about the odor."

"I know your intentions are good, Angel. I just… I wonder sometimes if you forget the people who love you in favor of the ones you're trying to save." No anger in her voice now, just tired concern.

A silent moment; Kate wondered if Angel had hugged Cordelia to reassure her. She was tall but so fragile-looking, all bones and posturing, brittle to the point of breakage. But strong enough to face down subterranean pyromaniacal evil, and still tell off Angel afterwards for not calling.

"I'll be in around noon tomorrow," Cordelia's voice echoed, a bit more distantly. "Call me if you need me before then."

A few more words exchanged, but Kate didn't hear them because she was asleep.

**************************

 

She woke, later, in a dark room, in a huge soft bed, confused, trying to figure out where her futon was and why the cat was not purring vibrantly at the foot of it. She fumbled for the light and then remembered where she was, in this Art Deco hotel, with a vampire of whom she had no reasonable cause to be afraid lurking about somewhere.

Kate felt for her cross; it was still on her neck. After a moment, she found the light, switched it on, and sat up. Her shoes and socks were lying neatly next to the bed, but her jeans were still on. Her bloody shirt had been traded for a clean black one that she took, by the size and color, to be Angel's. She was still wearing her bra. This was reassuring.

She was thirsty. She climbed out of bed, brushed the alcohol taste out of her mouth with a toothbrush that had been set out for her, drank a bit of water. Didn't want to sleep in this strange room in this huge empty hotel with God knew how many secrets to hide. Went out into the hall; saw that a door at the end of the corridor was open, a sharp angle of light coming from within. "Angel?" Barefoot, a little unsteady, likely still drunk.

He was stretched out on a four-poster bed. The book he put down looked older than he was. "Are you alright?"

"I woke up. Wasn't sure where I was for a minute."

Definitely still drunk, because she climbed up next to him and somehow wasn't bothered by the lack of body temperature. She didn't know that vampires breathed, but why shouldn't they; perhaps they didn't usually but Angel breathed in deeply when she curled up alongside him. What was it like for a vampire, a vampire with a soul, who had obviously been tempted on more than one occasion since receiving said soul, to lie close to a human being and listen to the faint persistence of heartbeat, smell congealing platelets, and touch bloodheated skin?

Maybe he was afraid of her, too, so recently so violent towards him. She reached behind her neck, took off her necklace, and pooled chain and cross on the bedside table. Not a surrender but a cease-fire: I trust you not to kill me, sometime maybe you'll be able to do the same.

"Keep reading," Kate said. "The light doesn't bother me."

But Angel didn't move to pick up the book. She fell asleep to one unwarm hand on her back, the other carding its way through her hair.

********************

 

She woke up alone. There was a note on the bureau: "Kitchen is on ground floor through the dining room. Breakfast will be ready." Not signed. Her cross was where she'd left it.

She put it back on; her shoes too. Angel's shirt swamped her, but she didn't have another option. She brushed her teeth again and found, mercifully, that her head didn't hurt, although she was ragingly thirsty again. The kitchen was not hard to find: it connected through double doors to the enormous formal dining room. She smelled food; did vampires cook?

Apparently Angel did; the table was set and the British man was sitting at it, drinking what looked to be nuclear-strength tea. He didn't glare at her; Angel must have warned him. "Angel said you were in Palm Springs," Kate said, for lack of anything better.

"I returned early when I heard what happened." A pause. "Is your arm alright?"

"It's fine."

A nod, and he returned to the L.A. Times. "Good."

Breakfast was quiet--sausage, fruit, pancakes, sharp maple syrup. Angel, to Kate's surprise, drank coffee. She normally avoided pork, but she remembered the nurse's admonition and ate two links of sausage. She would pick up some spinach and kale at the grocery store later. She watered down the tea with milk and sugar and drank some. Angel said he'd take her to her car. "Where is it?" Wesley asked.

"Ernie's."

"Good Lord. You were at Ernie's? With an open cut?" Wesley shook his head. "I don't know if that shows incredible chutzpah, or just stupidity."

Angel smiled; it was brief, but like a shooting star unmistakable. "Both," he said.

Maybe it was a kind of truce.

****************************

 

As it turned out, Ernie's was ten blocks away. Kate declined Angel's offer of a ride and said she'd walk. "The air will do me good." Wesley stayed at the table and poured more tea, and Angel walked her to the door.

"I'll see you," he said, a statement rather than a farewell. "Call me if you need me. For anything."

Kate nodded. "Thank you for breakfast. And for taking me to the hospital."

Angel would have kissed her forehead, but she stood on tiptoes and arched up to press her lips to his. They were cool to the touch. Kate didn't stay to see the expression on his face. She walked out into the light of a Los Angeles day, as bright and as dazzling as any she had ever seen.