I'm feelin' kinda loose I'm feelin' kinda mean;
I've been feeling kinda wild since I turned seventeen,
Or is it madness?
~Melissa Etheridge "Ain't it Heavy"
The demon's footsteps retreated into the shadows, a small trail of greenish blood the only sign of its presence. Erin Lerner smiled to herself as she listened to the pleasant strains of an enemy fleeing in terror. Whatever the creature was, it wouldn't be coming back to L.A. anytime soon after the beating it had received. //You'll have to do a helluva lot better than that to take down a Slayer, ugly-boy.//
Brushing a hand through her short brown hair--a style blatantly borrowed from Sarah McLachlan--Erin looked around to get her bearings. //Should be just around that block...// Though a sense of direction remained one attribute the young woman did not possess, Buffy's directions had been relatively easy to follow. Erin picked up a stake dropped during the fight and began striding purposefully toward Angel Investigations.
After only a few months as an official Slayer, Erin was already completely at home with her new occupation. A lifetime of training made the transition from bookstore clerk to heroic-fighter-of-evil much easier. //I'm even starting to look the part,// Erin mused with a glance at her newly-acquired black baby-t and flared jeans. //Buffy must have rubbed off on me more than I thought.// It wasn't that Erin disliked her model-esque counterpart. On the contrary, the two had formed a tight bond during Erin's relatively brief stay in Sunnydale. Still, the newest Slayer was unsure as to how far she wanted their similarities to go.
//The girl doesn't have the cleanest track record ever.// Though Erin admired Buffy's immense strength-both mental and physical-she wanted to keep her life more on the simple side. //I've gone this long without any messy emotional entanglements. I sure as heck don't want to start now.// In the past, keeping people at arms' length had been to preserve her own feelings. Now that every second she drew breath meant another chance to get killed by a heinous creature, Erin saw no reason to drag anyone else down with her. //I'm pretty much a walking time bomb. Nobody deserves to be chained to me when I finally run out of fuse.//
Upon finding the correct building, she sprinted up the stairs, then stopped short of throwing the door open herself. //You're working on your complete lack of manners, remember? Just because you don't need to make any new best friends doesn't mean you can't be polite.// Instead, Erin knocked firmly three times. //If they don't answer, *then* I can knock the door down.// She felt something akin to disappointment when the door swung open.
An attractive, dark-haired man of medium height with clear blue eyes stood before her. "You need help?" he asked.
//Oh, sure, he would have an accent. That's one fetish I really should have taken the time to get over before now. Focus. Maybe you can play with the nice boy later.// "I don't, but you do. Where's Angel?" She knew from Buffy's description that the man in front of her was *not* Angel. Forgetting her resolution to be more polite, Erin stepped past the cute Irish guy and entered the small office. A pretty young woman with long brown hair sat nearby, looking at Erin with almost as much disdain as the demon had before she beat it to a bloody pulp.
"He's out," the girl replied shortly. "And unless you need help, you should be too."
"That's okay. I'll wait." Erin sat purposefully down in the nearest chair and glared at the girl while propping her feet up on the nearest desk. //I dare you to get up and try to move me...//
Obviously attempting to get a handle on the situation, the man asked hurriedly, "Who are you?"
"Erin Lerner. I'm the new Slayer. I'm here to help you save the world."
The snippy girl groaned and looked extremely put-upon. "Again?"
Hope you got your things together;
Hope you are quite prepared to die.
Looks like we're in for nasty weather
One eye is taken for an eye.
~Creedence Clearwater Revival "Bad Moon Rising"
Doyle studied the Slayer critically. She was tall, almost statuesque, and pretty in a tomboy-ish sort of way. Still, sitting so close to Cordelia, she looked plain at best. "Save the world?"
Her harsh green eyes turned to him again, and he could feel the same scrutiny he had just used on her. "Well, maybe not the world... Honestly, if it weren't for all the weird crap I saw in Sunnydale, I might not even believe it was true. But library guy swore up and down that it is, and he wasn't wrong about anything else while I was there."
"His name," Cordelia began pointedly, "is Giles, not library guy."
"Whatever. When did you say Angel will be back?"
"We don't really know," Doyle broke in before Cordelia could respond. //I've gotta keep them from slitting each other's throats before he gets here.// "So, uh, can you tell us exactly what's goin' on?"
"Not until Angel gets here." Her expression softened a little. "Nothing personal. I just hate repeating myself."
"Well, judging from your outfit, you have no trouble repeating the rest of the world," Cordellia replied with a smirk.
"Clever." Erin's mouth set into a thin line. "Look, I'm not here to socialize. I know everything I need to about both of you."
"Do you now?" /If I can keep her talking to me, maybe Cordelia will stay quiet for a minute.//
"I do. I know that chicky over there is a former cheerleader/rich girl whose family went belly-up. She ran away to L.A. to become a famous actress and ended up here. Big surprise." With a grin, she turned her full attention back to Doyle. "Now nobody down in Sunnyhell knew anything about you. So this is all coming from me. Feel free to break in and correct me if I'm really off." As Erin spoke, she stood and stepped closer to him, circling him slowly as she continued her analysis. "You live on the edge. You don't do it because you like it. It's just all you know how to do anymore, and changing seems like a lot of effort. And where's the guarantee the past won't follow you even if you do change? You have no taste in clothing." Erin drifted back, staring hypnotically into his eyes. "You're a demon--no, half demon."
//Sweet Jesus, how did she know?// Before he could put the question into words, Cordelia spoke. "What?! A demon?"
"Half demon," Doyle corrected softly.
"You mean she's right? And you never said anything?"
"Well, it's just that... and then there's... uh..."
"What he's trying to say," Erin offered, "is that he didn't know how to tell you. And he apparently still doesn't." She cringed and put a hand on Doyle's arm. "Look, I'm sorry. I wouldn't have said it if... I didn't know she didn't know."
Doyle, studiously avoiding Cordelia's accusatory glare, watched as Erin returned to her former seat and crossed her arms over her chest. "You never said what you're here for. Saving the world isn't somethin' you do every day. What's the story?"
"I told you already. I'll tell you when..." Erin let her sentence drift to a close and cocked her head. "He's here."
"How'd you... Never mind." After her revelation, Doyle felt even less like making small talk with the new Slayer. //Pretty or not, she's too obnoxious to be worth the stress.//
Angel walked into the room, his tall, broad frame filling the doorway. "Who's your new friend?"
Cringing, Doyle replied, "She's not our friend. She's Buffy's friend."
"Erin Lerner," the Slayer offered with a smile. "I'm the new Slayer."
"New Slayer? Something happened to Faith?" Angel's brow furrowed more with confusion than concern.
"She just never made it out of that coma. It went downhill and they pulled the plug. I could pretend to be sad about it, but really it just gave me a way to use my abilities. I'm happy to be employed, so to speak. Buffy sent me to warn you guys." She looked at Angel. "Well, you, really."
"Warn us about what?" Angel prompted, sitting on the desk facing her.
"Okay, this is going to sound bizarre."
"To a half demon and a vampire?" Doyle asked incredulously.
"Fine. It might sound bizarre to the prom queen over there. Point is, it's weird. Anyway, library guy - Giles," Erin added after a poisonous glare from Cordelia, "got an email from some girl who heard of him through 'channels,' whatever that's supposed to mean. Her name is Avalon and-get this-she's pregnant with a child she claims is the reincarnation of King Arthur."
"Okay," Doyle started with a smirk, "what's the punchline?"
"The punchline is that according to her, the reincarnation of Mordred - you know, the illegitimate son of Arthur who eventually killed him - has already been born and grown up. And he's trying to kill her unborn child." Doyle could see in her face that Erin knew exactly how ludicrous the claim sounded. "All that wouldn't matter to anyone except English teachers interested in discussing the finer points of //The Once and Future King// with the baby if it weren't for the fact that Avalon claims her baby is fated to save the world from sinking even deeper into the hole of crime and hate it's fallen in. Oh, and she's the reincarnation of Vivianne, the Lady of the Lake. So."
Tell me, do you think it'd be all right
If I could just crash here tonight?
You can see I'm in no shape for driving
And anyway I've got no place to go.
~Gin Blossoms "Hey Jealousy"
"Why didn't Buffy come?" Angel asked after a few moments of silence passed.
Nervous for once, Erin knit her fingers together. "She didn't think it would be a good idea. Besides, there's only so many bodyguards one pregnant woman needs."
"I assume this Avalon lives in L.A.?"
"Convenient, huh? I figure tomorrow we head over and start duty." She passed him a small scrap of paper. "Here's the address. We could pull shifts or something." //Or you could stand there and stare at me like I'm speaking Greek. Yeah, just like that... good boy! I hate guys.// "How does that sound?"
"Oh." His reverie ended, Angel shook his head. "That's fine. You can do day shift and I'll take the nights."
"Makes sense." Erin rose and was about to make a hasty exit when the thought hit that she had nowhere to exit to. //This is really comfortable.// "Um, I don't really have anywhere to go. Can I sleep in one of the office chairs for the night or something? I'm a little short of cash." //Try completely and totally tapped.// She smiled and tried to look pleasant. //They're helping. Be nice. Nice. Think happy thoughts: dead demons, staked vamps, closed Hellmouths... staked prom queens...//
Doyle stepped forward, looking for all the world like a shy teenager trying to talk to a particularly forbidding teacher. "You can stay with me for the duration if you like. My place isn't much, but it's livable. And the couch turns into a bed."
"Perfect. Thanks." For once, her smile was genuine.
"Yeah, great. Uh, shall we go then?"
"Fine by me." Staring pointedly at Cordelia, Erin forced a grin. "It was a pleasure meeting you. Really. Angel, I'll see you tomorrow when my shift is over."
"So, your Watcher back in Sunnydale?"
"No," Erin replied. "I don't have a Watcher anymore. When I turned twenty-one, I sent her packing. I'm not a child, I don't need a baby-sitter. Besides, she was obnoxious."
"What about your parents?"
Erin absently kicked at a rock in her path. "My dad died before I was born and my mom dumped me on my aunt. Once the Watcher showed up, my aunt left me to her. It didn't make much difference to me. At least the Watcher cared whether I lived or died."
"How did you get so old? I mean, I-"
"I know what you mean. Most Slayers don't make it past eighteen thanks to the Council's little games. But I wasn't a Slayer when I was eighteen, ergo, I didn't die. I've come close a couple of times, but... I've been pretty lucky so far." //Not that my luck is likely to hold out for very long. It never does.//
"Here we are." Doyle led her up the stairs to his apartment and Erin threw her backpack down beside the couch and headed for the door.
"Where are you going?" Doyle asked.
"But you've got a shift in the morning," he protested.
Erin shrugged. "Nervous energy. I won't sleep tonight anyway."
"Oh. Be careful, then."
//Yes, mother. Don't say it! He's being nice. Nice!// "I will be."
I know your heart's in danger
And so is your life
I said you learn to trust a stranger
And stop and rest for the night.
~Indigo Girls "Sister"
"What are you doing in here?"
Erin's voice woke Doyle from his state of half-slumber. He started and sat up straighter on the couch. "I, uh, guess I was waiting up."
It took the half-demon a few seconds to realize that the scowl on her face had little or nothing to do with him. //She looks like she went a few rounds with a tank.// "Are you alright?"
"No. I will be. Some vamp had a little too much attitude for his own good." She tried to lay back against the cushions, but recoiled, letting out a hissing breath.
"Your muscles took on a little more than they could handle, looks like. Let me see if I can do anything." //Why am I offering her a massage? She's rude and arrogant and she was mean to Cordelia.//
She started to shake her head, then thought better of it. "Sure." Erin slid painfully out of her coat and turned her back to Doyle. "Anything's better than this."
"Nice to know you have such faith in me. Relax." Gently, Doyle began kneading the tense muscles in her shoulders, carefully working the knots out. "You need to learn how to de-stress."
"Slaying is my relaxation," she countered.
"With your muscles like they are, I find that hard to believe." As he worked lower on her back, Doyle couldn't help but notice the almost complete lack of any fat on her body. //Solid muscle. She could wipe the floor with me in a fight. Probably Buffy too.// He moved up her back, assuring himself that her shoulders were loose again.
A small sigh of pleasure escaped her. "You're good at this."
"I've had a bit of practice." //No, you haven't. This is - what? - the third massage you've ever given? Why should you lie to her? Maybe because of that little smile on her face. And the fact that she's so relaxed that you could probably... Bad idea.// "There you are. All finished."
Turning back around, Erin grinned and kissed him on the cheek. It seemed to Doyle that she lingered a second or two longer than necessary. "Thanks. I owe you one. I guess I'll try to get a few seconds of sleep now."
"Oh. Yeah. Good night." Doyle stood and headed for his room, silently berating himself for having perverted thoughts about the Slayer. //You've gotta get yourself together, man.// He pulled his pants and shirt off quickly and fell into bed. //Now, sleep. Just relax. Don't think about how soft her skin is. Or how cute she is when she's half asleep. Or how tight that blouse was. Damn! Cordelia. You like Cordelia. Remember? You're just tired. And delirious. Very delirious. Half-insane from lack of sleep. Yeah, that's it. Besides, she's only here to help Angel. She doesn't give a damn about me. She's here to get the job done, then I'll never see 'er again. I'm just confused and lonely. Yeah, lonely. And tired. It'll make more sense in the morning. I hope.//
I am looking for someone who can take as much as I give,
Give back as much as I need,
And still have the will to live.
~Indigo Girls "Blood and Fire"
Erin awoke the next morning to the sound of pans clanking and the smell of bacon frying. "Food?" she mumbled softly, rubbing her eyes with the back of her hands and yawning. Turning, she spotted Doyle in the kitchen cooking. "Breakfast?"
"Yeah. Couldn't sleep, so I figured I might as well make something. No sense keeping watch on an empty stomach." He half-smiled and turned back to the stove.
"Guess not. I'm just not used to real food. Or people making me food. Especially people I barely know." Erin sat up and stretched, then stopped as she saw the look of shock on Doyle's face. "What?"
"I-I just didn't realize you sleep in the... that you don't wear any..."
Erin glanced down at her bare chest. "Oh. Sorry. If it makes you feel any better, I do wear underwear." After a moment of fishing in her bag, the slayer found a plain white shirt and pulled it on. "Better?"
Doyle nodded mutely, apparently unable to speak.
//And that's just what you wanted, isn't it? You know yourself too well to lie. You wanted him to look at you, to think you're attractive. But what's wrong with that? You've flirted before. No big deal. He's cute. And nice. And he's making you breakfast. Where's the bad?// "I really am sorry. I'm not used to staying with anybody. I usually fly solo."
"I - it's no big deal. I mean, so long as you're comfortable."
//Besides, he didn't really seem to mind.// Erin rose and entered the kitchen area, sitting down in the nearest chair. "I'm always impressed by people who can cook. I can't even boil water right."
With a smile, Doyle set a plate of eggs, bacon and toast in front of Erin. "I'll let you in on a little secret," he said. "Instead of worryin' about all different kinds of food, just learn how to make one meal right. I can make breakfast."
"So that's how Martha Stewart does it!" //Yep, using humor to avoid the real issue. Clever. Not. Erin, you're sinking to a new low. And now you're not even listening to the lecture you're giving yourself. You're thinking about that massage last night...//
"No, that's different. She's an alien." //And that sexy accent...//
They laughed together, enjoying a few moments of peaceful eating before Erin looked up at the window. "Damn! Almost sunrise." She shoveled a few more bites of food into her mouth, then dashed over to fish a pair of faded blue jeans from her bag. "Great. I seem to have left my comb in Sunnydale. Do you have one I can use?"
"A comb? Yeah." Doyle reached into the bathroom and grabbed a slim black comb from the counter. "Here you go."
"Thanks." //Hurry up and get the hell out of here before you start using bad lines to try and get him as interested as you are at the moment.// After running the comb quickly through her shorn locks and returning it to Doyle, Erin grabbed her wallet and shoved it into a back pocket "Ready for action. See you tonight, Doyle."
"You-you can call me Francis if you want," he offered shyly.
//Well, that came out of nowhere.// "Francis?"
"Allen Francis Doyle."
"Ah!" Erin considered for a moment, then shook her head. "Nope. Doyle." With a wave, she walked out the door.
Underneath that rude exterior,
There's got to be a heart of gold.
Underneath that hard exterior,
Is a little girl waiting to be told
You've got a heart of gold.
~The Kinks "Heart of Gold"
Doyle couldn't go back to sleep. Although at five in the morning he'd hardly had a full night's sleep, his mind rejected the notion of drifting back into dreamland. "Hate it when my own brain betrays me like this," he grumbled while surfing through a dizzying array of morning shows and weather programs. He turned the TV off with a sigh and fell back onto the couch, which was still folded out into a bed. //The sheets smell like Erin... You've lost it, man. Completely lost it. She's obnoxious. And rude! And... and she's beautiful. And smart. And you're falling for her big time.//
//What about that torch you've been carrying for Cordelia? She was just starting to thaw out. Guess I've lost any ground there thanks to Erin's big mouth.Besides, you remind 'er too much of her old boyfriend, and she'll always be too good for you.// Grabbing his jacket, Doyle gave up on going back to sleep. "I might as well see if Angel found out anything interesting about that Avalon woman." //Maybe that'll keep my mind out of the gutter for a few minutes.//
As Doyle opened the door of his apartment and started out, a sudden, intense pain brought him to his knees. In his mind's eye, he saw a fair-haired young man smirking. With another flash, Doyle knew he held a knife. A knife covered in blood. He saw Erin laying on the floor, blood spreading out from a wound in her stomach.
The vision receded and Doyle remained on his knees for several moments, gasping for air. "Oh, God..." Hoping he wasn't too late, Doyle ran out the door to find Angel.
Through the wind end the chill and the rain
And the storm and the flood,
I can feel his approach
Like the fire in my blood.
~Bonnie Tyler "Holding Out for a Hero"
Erin knocked on the door of Avalon's apartment. It was only seconds before a pleasant-looking woman with long, wavy dark hair appeared. "Hello there! You must be Erin." Though barely tall enough to reach Erin's shoulders, the woman had an inner grace that made her seem eight feet tall.
"And you must be Avalon," the Slayer said, stepping inside the apartment, which teemed with plants of all descriptions. "Nice... green stuff."
"I suppose I went a little overboard with the plants. But they make the place seem less like a dingy downtown apartment." As she sat, Erin noticed Avalon's bulging stomach. //She must be due any second now!// "And call me Ava. I never could get your friend to do that. He kept calling me 'Ms. Medaline'; that's my last name, you see. Nice young man, just a little uptight."
Erin smirked. "You've got his number. He's the tall, dark and brooding type. Not my kinda guy. He's nice enough, though." //Well, now what?// "So, what did you and Angel do?"
"Stared at each other, mostly. I don't think he trusted me entirely. Not that I blame him. I mean, if someone fed me the story I'm asking the two of you to believe, I'd probably laugh in their face. But it's true."
"How do you know?" Erin inquired, eager to have some element of reality to hold onto.
"Goddess told me. Yes, I know, hearing voices doesn't make me seem more credible. It's true. That's the best I can do to ease your anxiety, assure you that I know the truth of my claim. You'll know soon enough too. I sense that Mordred is near." A shudder ran through the woman's slight frame. There was a fragility about her despite the swelled stomach. Her dark eyes were large, reminding Erin of a deer but with the insight to peer into person's soul. "I don't mean to frighten you, Erin. Besides, you are a Slayer. Such things don't trouble you, do they?"
"Not at all. He's just a guy, right?"
"A guy who just happens to be drenched in power. He will not be easy to defeat. If he does arrive here, do not attempt to vanquish him alone. You're just here to get the baby and I out of here safely. Defeating him entirely will require something more... mystical."
"I don't have any, uh, mystical powers. I'm just a Slayer."
"Don't worry. There is a spell which will give you all the power you need."
Avalon shook her head knowingly. "No. The spell gives a chosen priestess the power of the Goddess. You are that priestess. When the time comes, you will choose your priest."
"Um, okay." A sudden noise outside the window drew Erin's attention. She jumped up, crossbow already in hand. The window nearest the couch rattled dangerously and Erin motioned Avalon away from it. The woman drifted toward the back wall, almost concealed in the shadow of evening and plants.
Even as she concealed herself, the picture window blew open to reveal a tall young man with shoulder-length blond hair. His almost colorless blue eyes burned into Erin's. "Hello, Slayer. I was wondering when you'd finally get here." He jumped off the window ledge.
"Ava, get out!" Erin yelled, shielding the pregnant woman with her own body as she fled the apartment.
"That wasn't necessary. I didn't come for her... yet. I'm here for you." With that, he drew a long, sharp knife from the folds of his velvet jacket. "I think it's time we had a little chat."
I never jumped in and rescued you,
But I wanted to.
I didn't tell you which way to go
Cause I thought you'd know.
~Barenaked Ladies "Told You So"
When the phone finally rang, Doyle lunged across Cordelia's desk to grab it. "'Ello?"
"Doyle, I need you to head over to Memorial Hospital right now," Angel's voice said. "Erin's still in surgery, and someone needs to go watch over Avalon. Do you mind?"
"I'll be right there!" Doyle slammed the phone back into its cradle and started for the door.
Cordelia's voice stopped him momentarily. "Rushing much? What did Angel say?"
"Erin's in surgery. I'm goin' to the hospital so Angel can go back to help Avalon."
"Some Slayer. Here a day and already she's in the hospital."
Though Doyle felt a sudden surge of anger at Cordelia's words, he fought the urge to say anything, instead turning and exiting the room. //It's not like she can think any less of you.// Even as the thought crossed his mind, Doyle realized that he cared very little what Cordelia thought of him anymore. //I just want to know Erin's going to be okay.// "I'll call you later on."
"I'm here to see Erin Lerner," Doyle said to the severe-looking woman behind Memorial's reception desk. "She was brought in a little while ago? She was - and maybe is - in surgery?"
"She's out," the woman answered shortly. "But no visitors yet. Unless you're family?"
"Family?" //Oh, she's going to kill me...// "Yeah, I'm 'er husband."
"Name, please." Plump fingers snagged a clipboard and a pen, waiting impatiently for his reply.
"Doyle. Allen Francis Doyle."
"But her last name is Lerner?"
//Good that she's such a kind, accepting soul.// "She's kind of the independent type. Didn't want to change 'er name."
"I see. And the young man who was here earlier... Angel, who is he?"
"Friend of the family."
Despite the fact that she looked less-than-convinced, the woman set the clipboard down. "Fine. She's in room 210. Take the elevator over there on the right. Have a nice night."
"Thanks." //With a sparkling personality like that, it's a wonder she isn't in the social services.// Doyle jumped into the elevator just as it was closing on a small group of nurses. "Night, ladies." He waited impatiently as the elevator went first to the third floor, where the nurses exited. "C'mon, already.” He punched the second floor button again and was soon rewarded with a pleasant chime signaling the stop.
"Now all I have to do is find the room." Luckily for him, 210 was located just to the right of the elevator area. He pushed the door open slowly, almost afraid to see her injuries. //Why couldn't I have gotten that vision before she walked out the door?//
A weak, uncertain voice called to him from the bed. "Doyle? That you?"
He hurried to her bedside and pulled up a chair, eyes avoiding the bulge around her midsection that signaled the location of her bandaged wound. "It's me. Oh, and if any of the nurses ask, we're, uh, married."
She half-smiled and shook her head. "Great. I'd always dreamed of a lavish ceremony. And here I don't even remember it!" She winced a little as she moved to look at him. "That was not the most fun I've ever had. Angel showed up in time, though. I wouldn't be here if he hadn't. But Angel had no way of knowing Mordred would be there... did he?"
"Vision," Doyle assented. "I'm just sorry I didn't have it sooner. Then maybe you wouldn't be in here."
"No. Don't blame yourself, okay? You saved my life, worthless though it may be. I owe ya one, Francis. Besides, now I know how strong Mordred is. Avalon's right; it's gonna take a little bit of the supernatural to pull this off." She bit her lip and turned back to Doyle. "Would you mind staying? I-I don't really want to be alone here. Hospitals give me the creeps."
"Me too. Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere. I'll be here twenty-four hours a day if that's how long you need me, alright?"
"Okay." //There's that smile again. They're far-between but worth the wait.//
"So, what would you like to talk about?"
The best thing you've ever done for me
Is to help me take my life less seriously; it's only life after all.
Well darkness has a hunger that's insatiable,
And lightness has a call that's hard to hear.
I wrap my fear around me like a blanket
I sailed my ship of safety till I sank it; I'm crawling on your shore.
~Indigo Girls "Closer to Fine"
"You don't have to bring me dinner, Doyle. I can get it myself. The stitches don't hurt so much anymore, really."
"I said I was going to take care of you when they let you out, and I'm going to. Is it really that bad having a manservant?" he joked, setting down a bowl of soup and some toast on the nightstand beside his bed.
"I can't complain. But I still think you should get to sleep in your bed. I mean, it's your place and your food I'm eating. Starting to feel like a real lowlife wheezing all your stuff like this." //Besides, it's damn hard not to ask you to join me. Down, Erin. Get a grip on yourself, take a deep breath. STOP IT.// "You don't have any reason to be so nice to me."
"Sure I do. You're helpin' Angel out here, plus you're a friend of Buffy's. And since her and Angel have connections, we're kinda friends-in-law. Good enough?"
"Good enough." Erin picked up the tray and laid it across her lap. "And thanks again for the food."
"Anytime, Erin. You'll call me if you need anything, yeah?"
She nodded dutifully. "Will do. Now, go get some rest. I'm not going to be the reason you collapse from exhaustion. All we need is another person in the hospital!"
"Whatever you say."
"There you go. Slayer knows best." //Everything but how to control her damn emotions.//
Dark and dangerous like a secret
That gets whispered in a hush
When I wake, the things I dreamt about you last night make me blush.
~Indigo Girls "Ghost"
//Well, that was a doozy. Might never be able to make eye contact with Erin again. That girl can see right through you.// Doyle rubbed his eyes as if it would banish the traces of the previous night's dream. "You're in trouble, man. You've got it bad for this girl."
The problem, of course, was that every attempt he made to make a crack in her emotional barrier met with another barrier. //She's got herself locked up tighter than Fort Knox.// Doyle caught himself wondering if anyone had ever been able to get inside the barriers, to see the real Erin. //Somehow I doubt it. She doesn't seem the type to get very touchy-feely with anyone.//
Peeking over the back of the couch, Doyle saw Erin pouring herself a glass of Mountain Dew. "Little early for the hard stuff like that, isn't it?" //It's easier to joke than to tell her how I feel.//
"I'm laughing on the inside." She made her way slowly to the couch, careful of her still-healing wound. Erin sighed with relief as she lowered herself onto the mattress beside him. "Of course, that's where laughing would tear the most stitches."
Glad that she felt comfortable around him, Doyle extended his arm around her shoulders so she could relax completely. "I'll try to tone down my brilliant sense of humor, then."
"Thanks." She sighed and Doyle savored the feeling of her body leaning gently against his. "You know, if I stay here too much longer, I'm going to be too darn lazy to go back to Slaying."
"Fine by me. You're welcome as long as you want." But they both knew they were only avoiding the thought that Erin would soon have to face Mordred again. "It's all gonna work out. That Avalon will help you with 'er magic, and you'll beat the tar out of Mordred."
Erin seemed uncharacteristically pensive and drew closer to Doyle. "Yeah. Sure I will. No problem."
Leads me to believe
With all my shields and protection,
It's only me I deceive.
~Melissa Etheridge "Dance Without Sleeping"
//All I have to do is fight a guy with bizarre magical powers who has already kicked my ass once. And I have to win. I can do that. I hope.// Erin shivered despite herself and wondered if Doyle thought she was coming down with something. //I'm not usually this clingy. Or ever, come to think of it.// "Thanks."
//He has absolutely no idea how nice he's being. Man, what most girls wouldn't give...// "For being here for me. For taking care of me while I'm healing. For believing I can beat Mordred when I don't. It means a lot." //Well, there's my monthly show of emotion. Takes a special sort of a person to get that much out of me.//
"It means a lot having you here too. I mean, not many people are really keen on demons, ya know? The fact that you're here and you're not uncomfortable bein' in the same room with me... it's a big deal."
//Guess I never really stopped to wonder about the shields he's had to put up. Getting self-centered in your old age, Erin. You're not the only one with a cross to bear.// Erin had known for almost a week that she would have to see Avalon again soon. //I'm going to have to face Mordred again. I'm the Slayer. A Slayer can't just refuse to help someone in need.// "Looks like we're helping each other, then."
"Yeah, guess so."
With his arm wrapped around her shoulders, Erin felt as if nothing in the world could touch her. Safety and comfort were not things she knew well. In truth, both sensations made her almost uncomfortable, paradoxical as that seemed. //I shouldn't be here, feeling sheltered and secure. I should be with Angel protecting Avalon. But it is nice not feeling like I'm about to die for a few minutes. Chances are, when I face Mordred again, one of us won't come out alive. And I'm not all that sure it won't be me who ends up dead.//
//And then I'll be dead. And what wonderful legacy will I leave behind? Not a damn thing. Sure, I saved a couple of people from vamps. Big wow. Oh, this is SO not the time to focus on what's wrong with my life.// With a sigh, Erin pushed herself into a sitting position and swung her legs over the edge of the hide-a-bed.
"Hey, what's wrong?"
//What isn't wrong?// "Nothing. Don't worry about it." //Good. Shutting him out will help your problem a lot. Not.//
"I may be dense, but... Erin, you can talk to me."
She closed her eyes and bit her lip. //It would be awfully easy to start spilling my guts. What's wrong with that? Why the hell shouldn't I get close? Everybody else has someone to confide in. I never have. My aunt never gave a damn and neither did my Watcher. Doyle cares. He's worried about you. Can't you just for once let your guard down?// "I... I'm... I'm tired. That's all. Tired."
You disconnect yourself from it all
'Cause you know that you're so beautiful and so untouchable,
And I want to get in so bad, and I don't know how,
No I don't know how.
~Goo Goo Dolls "Cuz You're Gone"
"You should get some rest, then. Getting over-tired isn't going to make you heal any faster." //She's lying, of course. Not tired at all.// Doyle got up as well, contemplating whether or not he should try harder to find out what was wrong. Deciding against it, he said, "Erin, I'm going over to the office. Maybe Cordelia and Angel will come up with a way to fight Mordred."
"Maybe." She smiled nervously and retreated to the bedroom.
Doyle watched her go with a heavy heart. It seemed the closer they grew, the more she pulled away and retreated into her own mind. "Sleep tight." He opened the door and stepped into the warm L.A. night. Doyle didn't feel right leaving Erin alone, but he knew he couldn't do her any good. //Not until she lets me in, anyway. You can't help someone who doesn't want it, even if you do... care about them.//
"Oooo! Hey, Angel, look who's decided to grace us with his presence!"
"Funny, Cordelia." Doyle looked hopefully at the vampire. "Anything?"
Avalon, who sat on the nearby couch, cut him off, "There's no point in looking for a shortcut. You won't find one. Mordred must be defeated on his own terms."
"Yeah? And what are those?" Something in the woman's depthless brown eyes made him uneasy.
"He has the soul of a magician. To defeat Mordred, Erin is going to have to delve into his realm. Not even a Slayer will be able to defeat him otherwise." She smiled kindly at him, reassurance on her lips. "But I'll help her. I think she has a great deal of potential all on her own. I know rituals that will tap and unleash that potential without the years of training most people would need to undergo. She will succeed." A trace of worry lit the liquid eyes and quickly dimmed. "She has to."
Electric blue eyes where did you come from?
Electric blue eyes who sent you?
Electric blue eyes always be near me.
Electric blue eyes I need you.
~The Cranberries "Electric Blue"
//Well, Erin, you lied to him again. Beautiful work!// She punched the nearest pillow gently, fully aware that using much of her Slayer-enhanced strength would rip a hole through the pillow and probably the mattress too. //Why do you do that? Dammit!// Taking a deep, calming breath, Erin lay back down on the bed and tried to collect her thoughts.
//Why are you so damn worried about what Doyle thinks anyway? What does it matter? Just because he's been nice doesn't mean you owe him anything. You didn't ask for any kindness.// She sighed. //But he gave it anyway and that's why it matters. He was sweet to you because... because why? Because he likes me?//
Erin rose and went into the living room, lying down on the foldout bed Doyle had insisted on sleeping in for the past week and a half. //It smells like him.// A mix of cheap cologne and aftershave. //That does it! I'm buying him decent cologne for his next birthday. Next birthday? And you're planning for that why? Erin, you'll be in Sunnydale slaying something unpleasant. Or dead. Damn.//
Relaxing and letting her muscles untense slowly, Erin melted into the soft mattress. //Pretend you aren't the Slayer for a minute. Pretend for just one blasted minute that your life isn't in danger at this very moment, that you have everything in front of you, a lifetime of memories to build. What would that mean for you?//
It took less than a heartbeat for her mind to fix on an idea. //Well, I guess that's why I care so much what Doyle thinks.//
You're so beautiful,
With an edge and charm
And so careful
When I'm in your arms.
~Sarah McLachlan "Building a Mystery"
Doyle slipped into his apartment quietly, not wanting to wake Erin. He was shocked to see her sitting up on the foldout bed, staring into space. "Erin? You alright?"
Her large, dark eyes turned to him with all the intensity of an X-ray. "I am. I... Could you come over here?"
"Sure." Throwing his jacket onto the nearest chair, Doyle sat down on the bed beside Erin. "What is it?"
Her eyes were bright and almost glassy. //She was crying,// Doyle realized with a start. She looked more triumphant than scared, however. "Scared?"
Erin nodded, biting her lower lip. "I'm afraid that I'm going to go and fight Mordred and... And I'm afraid to die."
Doyle, uncertain what she wanted, pulled her into a gentle hug. "You aren't going to die." //I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I let that happen.// "I told you before, you could beat Mordred with one hand tied behind your back. Besides, Avalon's going to help. She'll make some kind of spell. It'll work, Erin." She didn't respond, but Doyle felt her grip around his waist tighten. "I'm not going to let anything hurt you again. I promise."
"There's something else too," she whispered so faintly he hardly heard.
"What is it?"
Erin slid back far enough that she could look into his eyes. "This." Leaning forward, she captured his lips gently, gauging his response. And respond he did, pulling her tight against him, relishing the release of long-withheld desire. //She's only doing this because she's afraid. She just needs to be comforted. This is stupid.// But no amount of pleading by his more rational half could tear Doyle away from the embrace, away from her warm lips against his, the heady sensation of her body soft beneath her thin silk nightgown pressed against the length of his, pushing him back onto the bed.
//Not a good idea...// It was too late for rationalizing or for turning back. Far too late.
This night never happened
If it's alright with you
Not a word of our weakness,
So much as a clue.
~Gin Blossoms "Whitewash"
When Doyle awoke the next morning, Erin was pulling her clothes back on with an intense frown on her face. //I should not have let that happen. It was stupid. You're about to either die or leave, and you shouldn't be dragging him into your screwed up little mind.// The touch of his hand on her arm made her halt in the business of pulling her pants up. "Morning."
"What are you in such a hurry for? It's not like there's anywhere you need to go."
"Yeah. There is. I need... I should go talk to Avalon. We need to figure out what's going to happen when I face Mordred again." Erin returned to dressing, unsure what else to say.
"Oh." There were a few moments of silence. "This isn't going to happen, is it?"
At this, Erin turned, stomach tied up in knots. //Not often you get as nervous as you are right now...// "What?"
"Us. I mean, it happened, but... we aren't going to, are we?"
Erin ran almost-shaking fingers through her hair. "I just don't think it would be a-a good idea. I'm probably going to be dead soon, and even if I'm not, I'll be going back to Sunnydale. Buffy needs back-up down there. It wouldn't be fair to either one of us." //Well, that sounded moronic. Go, Erin!//
Doyle sat up as well, averting his eyes and reaching for his pants. "I sort of figured."
"Because I've been falling for you since the first day I met you. I haven't the faintest idea why, but... there's somethin' about you, Erin." He stood, pulling his pants up. "And even if we aren't, you know, together, I'll still be here for you. I care about you. I know you don't really want anybody getting involved, but I already am. Want me to come with you to the office?"
"No," Erin replied hastily, shoving her wallet into a back pocket. "I'll go alone. I... I need the time."
"I'll see you later."
Fighting tears of shame, Erin fled the apartment almost at a run. //What the hell have I done?//
What's the matter, girl,
Don't you think I'm good enough?
This old heart's had a whole lot of breakin' down.
She's got all these reasons in her head.
~Matchbox 20 "Damn"
Doyle fell back onto the bed and covered his face with his hands. "Could that've gone worse?" //Probably not. What is it with my taste in women, anyway? And then when I do find one who doesn't mind...// He pushed away thoughts of Harriet. //No sense pickin' at old wounds when there are perfectly good new ones to attend to.//
He made the bed, questioning himself about why he was bothering. //I never make the bed! Jesus, I must be upset.// Sitting down proved a concentrated effort. Every muscle in his body screamed to get up, to do something... to run out of the apartment and try to talk some sense into Erin. "Yeah, man, running after her like an idiot, that'd sure make 'er fall. Maybe I'm the one who needs to get some sense."
It certainly wasn't the first time Doyle had been involved with a woman who didn't want any strings. He wasn't exactly the most committed man in the universe anyway. It had never bothered him at all. //Until now.// Everything felt different this time. Doyle tried and failed to think of anyone he had cared for as much except for Harry. //The difference is, Harry felt the same way. Erin doesn't.//
//This is gonna be a fun couple of weeks.//
Love is like a barren place
And reaching out for human faith
Is like a journey I just don't have a map for.
~Savage Garden "To the Moon and Back"
Erin entered the office breathless from running the entire way. "H-hi," she gasped with a patently fake smile. //Oh, yeah, everything's just ducky here. I'm looking really cool, really together.//
"Trying to trim the waist a little? It'll take more than late-night jogging," Cordelia noted with a smile.
//It's rude to kill the help...// Erin sat down beside Avalon in one of the office chairs. "Bite me. I'm here to talk to Avalon."
The woman smiled and reached for Erin's hand, smoothing it gently in hers. "You're ready to
talk about the ritual?"
//No. I'm scared to death to talk about it.// "Mm-hm. Figured I should start learning what I need to do or memorize or whatever." //I feel like I'm getting my lines for some cheap school play.//
Avalon lifted an eyebrow, eyes shining. "It's more of a 'doing' than memorizing. Entirely doing, actually. I'll take care of reciting the silly, boring old spell. You'll just have to do."
"Do what, exactly?" Erin asked, suddenly uneasy under Avalon's penetrating gaze. She smiled lasciviously and Erin knew with deadly certainty what the woman meant. "Oh. //That// do. Uh... with who?"
"Your priest. You may choose whomever you want, of course."
"Don't look at it as something romantic. Whoever you choose, it won't be the two of you joining, really. It will be... beyond you, controlling you. You are vessels, priest and priestess, nothing more. Not unless you choose to make it so, anyway," Avalon finished with a comforting pat to Erin's hand. "Any idea who the lucky man will be?"
Erin shifted in her seat, but Cordelia chimed in, "She doesn't know anybody here. Well, except Angel and Doyle. And Angel might lose his soul so..." Cordelia glared at Erin with quiet rage that Erin dismissed as petty jealousy.
Angel walked out from his office and leaned against the doorframe. "I guess you don't get much of a choice."
"I-I guess not," Erin stammered, wishing she could keep her cool more effectively. //Why me? Why now? Why the Hell did I have to go and sleep with him?// "But I don't know if Doyle will... will do the ritual with me. I mean, it's kind of... I mean..."
"You may as well ask, child. What's the worst that could happen?"
Erin's mind reeled and she had to force her voice to remain level. "Right... what's the worst that could happen?"
Well, you got to think with a girl like that
Any love at all is better than nothing,
It's better than nothing.
~Matchbox 20 "Girl Like That"
Doyle stared at Erin for what could have been years, mouth slightly agape and eyes wide. "Are you serious? That's the ritual?" //I'm going to have to find the author of that one and offer him my soul for this.//
"Well, my part of it. Avalon has some chanting and stuff to do." Erin waited for a response, but when none came, she continued, "You don't have to. I mean, it's your choice. It's just that you're the only person I know. Even if you weren't... I trust you. I don't trust a lot of people. I can't afford to. But I can't not trust you, Doyle. Don't ask me why--I don't know myself--but I do."
He rubbed the back of his neck, careful to avoid any eye contact. //If you look at her, you'll crack, man. Keep it to yourself.// "I'll do it. Can't exactly let the world go to Hell in a handbasket because of me, can I?"
"You don't have to do it," Erin insisted.
"Yeah, I do." //Because it might be the last chance I get to be near you. Because you're going to walk away after Mordred's gone and never look back. Because I'm falling head over heels in love with you and you're acting like we're drinking buddies.// "Anything I can do to help, ya know."
"Sure. Maybe... uh, I'm tired. I should probably sleep."
//Well, she's not acting altogether normal...// Doyle arched an eyebrow at her nervous stance and rushed voice. "Good idea. I maybe should too. When are we doing the ritual?"
"Ava thinks that I'm ready. She thinks I've healed enough. I guess I really have healed enough if..." Erin visibly halted her babbling explanation. "Tomorrow night. Is that okay with you?"
"Fine. Tomorrow is... is fine." A short nod later, Erin disappeared from the room. Doyle pulled off his shirt and climbed into bed, silently berating himself for not finding something dazzling to say. //Fine. Brilliant, stimulating answer. Fine. No wonder the ladies love you, man. Fine.//
Oh now feel it comin' back again,
Like a rollin' thunder chasing the wind,
Forces pullin' from the center of the earth again;
I can feel it.
~Live "Lightning Crashes"
Erin and Doyle lit the six candles they had scrounged up around the house and placed in a semi-circle around his bed. Ava had assured Erin that the candles were a symbolic part of the spell, but the Slayer was almost completely sure they were purely to set the mood. //Knowing Ava, she's trying to play matchmaker.//
Once they finished, they each sat on one side of the bed. "So," Doyle began, "when do we, uh, start?"
Erin glanced at the digital clock on the bedside table and looked back to Doyle. "About now."
Suddenly Erin burst out laughing. "This is ridiculous! I haven't been this nervous since... since I went out with some guy I had a crush on my freshman year of high school. I had never kissed a guy or even been on a date. When he dropped me off at my house, I was sure I was going to screw everything up, but he didn't touch me. And he never called again."
Doyle lay back on the bed and grinned. "Well, I promise I'll call. I'll even send flowers if that'll help."
Laying back, Erin affected a southern accent. "Why, I declare, you know just what to say to make a girl feel special." She positioned herself on top of him and began unbuttoning his shirt. "You city boys are all after the same thing, though."
"I'm not the one doing the undressing here," he reminded her with a laugh before pulling her shirt over her head.
"Spoke too soon, obviously." Erin leaned over and pressed her lips to his. The moment the kiss began, something above and beyond them took over, guiding every movement, every action. Neither one was entirely aware of what was happening, nor were they in control. Seconds passed like years, every aspect of reality blurring with a strange feeling of power, of growing awareness of the things normally glimpsed only in the most intense of moments, the most spiritual of acts.
The next time Erin could clearly attest to what she was doing or where she was, almost an hour had passed. Doyle was sleeping by her side, looking angelically peaceful in the candlelight. Smiling, she brushed his hair back and wished briefly that she didn't have to go kill Mordred. //Now's not the time to get sappy. I've got a job to do.// Erin dressed quickly and grabbed the sword Avalon had given her. Power seemed to hum in the air around her and whisper strange messages in her ear.
She knew clearly where Mordred was. Something showed her a glimpse of him sitting calmly in Avalon's apartment. Waiting for her.
I am intense, I am in need,
I am in pain, I am in love.
~Indigo Girls "Blood and Fire"
When Doyle woke up, he silently cursed himself for ever falling asleep. Glancing at the clock, he noted that it had been roughly an hour since they started the ritual. //She's probably fighting Mordred by now,// he realized, feeling suddenly sick to his stomach. //Maybe if I had been awake...// But Doyle knew there was nothing he could have done either to help or stop her from going. He would only have been in the way.
He had the distinct feeling that even her safe return wouldn't mean a happy reunion. Erin liked being alone. She liked the freedom of it and the lack of emotional ties, the ability to go wherever she wanted and do whatever she wanted without worrying who she would be hurting.
Doyle punched his pillow and cursed to himself.
//Erin's not going to want to settle down and get comfy with some guy she's known for a couple of weeks,// Doyle reasoned. //You're fooling yourself if you think any different. Get over it now and save yourself a scene when the time comes.// But he knew it wouldn't be that easy.
No feet to fall,
You need no ground,
Allowed to glide right through the sun,
Released from circles guarded tight,
Now we all are chosen ones.
~Indigo Girls "Secure Yourself"
"It took you longer than I expected," Mordred observed grimly, a cruel smile twisting his lips. "You must have enjoyed the ritual."
Erin leaned against the doorframe and smirked, unaffected by his taunt. "Yeah, actually, I did. But you wouldn't know about that, would you?" She held in her hand a small knife with a mother-of-pearl blade that Avalon had given her. "I can't imagine many chicks go for your type. You know, dog ugly." Grinning at the clearly perturbed man, Erin smiled even wider. "Not that I'd want to hurt your feelings or anything. No offense taken, right?"
Mordred lunged forward heedlessly, only to miss Erin by several feet when she dodged to the right with a laugh. "I saw that coming a mile away. Not your greatest move, Mordred. Kind of sad, really. Don't you have anything better?" The man growled low, eyes narrowing and body tensing. "You really should try to relax."
Moving almost faster than the human eye could detect, Mordred withdrew a long knife from his boot and rushed at Erin. This time her newly-acquired sensitivity to her surroundings failed her and the knife connected with her cheek before she could turn away. //A couple of inches more and I'd be blind.// "Lucky hit," she said aloud, externally shrugging off the wound while doing her best to center herself internally. "Don't count on me letting any more by."
"Oh, but I do." Mordred straightened a bit, allowing the knife to lower fractionally. "You see, I know you can't win. Of course, the Lady Avalon assists you, but I still hold greater power at my command. Even if I didn't, I have control beyond what you can comprehend.”
That was how Erin knew he was scared. No one certain of victory ever proclaimed it beforehand. She smiled slowly, ignoring the sting from her injured cheek. "No, you won't win. And now we both know it."
The slayer felt the building of power before she saw the glow that enveloped Mordred like a shining cloak. A green mist seemed to cling to him, rising above and spreading around his body until it almost hid him from view. "Now, little girl, you see what true power looks like."
Unimpressed, Erin shrugged. "You glow. Your mom's gotta be proud. Personally, I prefer substance to show." Safe in the knowledge that she could defeat him, that Avalon's power and her own skill and strength would sustain her, Erin walked calmly over to Mordred, standing well within the reach of his knife. Had he been less involved in his own show of power and more attuned to her physical action, he'd have seen the knife she clutched long before it slid into his heart. "What was that about winning, Mordred?"
A pained gasp issued from his lips and Mordred slumped forward, the glow instantly gone. "Guess you aren't quite as good as you thought." She frowned, unsure of how Avalon might want the body dealt with.
"A pyre," said a soft voice from the doorway.
Erin whirled to see Avalon standing with a sad smile on her face. "I'll take him to the woods somewhere and do it. Your role is complete." She stepped forward and kissed Erin on each cheek. "Thank you." When Erin began to speak, Avalon raised one hand. "No questions. You know. Look inside. Looking outside hasn't helped you so far, and it will help you even less as time goes by. It won't be easy, but... try."
I've been waiting around all night
Your warm kiss is on my mind.
A piece of you is all I've got
But the whole damn thing is what I want.
~Gin Blossoms "Hands are Tied"
Doyle, Angel, and Cordelia followed Avalon into the room. At the sight of Erin, blood running down her left cheek and a weary smile on her face, Doyle thought he would faint in relief.
"God, Erin!" He rushed forward and pulled her tight against his chest, disregarding entirely what anyone else might think. "I was afraid that..." he stopped, unable to finish the thought.
She pulled away and forced another smile. "Yeah, well, you should have some faith in me. I'm a Slayer after all."
Even Cordelia's smile seemed genuine, if strained. "Good. You aren't dead." Doyle shot her a quizzical look and she shrugged. "What do you expect, cartwheels?"
"I need to get some sleep," Erin informed the group at large, letting out a sigh. "It's been a long night."
"Yeah, of course," Angel said. "I'll drive us."
Despite a burning desire to interrogate Erin about whether she would consider staying, Doyle remained silent, assisting Erin to the car with little protest from her. //She really must be tired.// She nodded off twice on the way home, her head resting on his shoulder. He found it somewhat amusing, since he knew she would never do anything of the sort if she were awake and in control. When they arrived at his apartment, Doyle waved away Angel's offer of help and lifted Erin himself, carrying her upstairs and then to bed.
He moved to leave the room and felt a jolt of shock when Erin sleepily asked, "Stay with me?"
"Sure, just you go back to sleep." Doyle pulled off his shoes and stretched out on the bed beside the exhausted Slayer, putting one arm around her waist. //It may not last, but it's damn nice now.//
But I fear
I have nothing to give
I have so much to lose
Here in this lonely place,
Tangled up in our embrace.
There's nothing I'd like
Better than to fall
But I fear I have nothing to give.
~Sarah McLachlan "Fear"
The sound of a garbage truck outside roused Erin from her much-needed sleep earlier than she'd have liked. Her heart pounded as she rose quietly, praying to anyone who would listen to let Doyle sleep. Leaving L.A. would be hard enough without having to look into his eyes and try to explain. //It'll be best for both of us if I go. Now,// Erin repeated to herself for the hundredth time. //Pretty soon maybe I'll actually start buying this.//
Erin grabbed her bag and made to exit the room, stopping dead when Doyle rolled over onto his back. She held her breath for a beat, peering across the dark room at him. He certainly wasn't handsome in a classic, typical way, but there was something there, something in his crooked smile and bright blue eyes. //Something I'll probably never see again.//
As she hurried from the apartment, Erin comforted herself by rationalizing. //I probably won't live much longer anyway. All I'd be doing is leading him into wasting his life. He should... What? How is he ever going to have a normal life even with you gone? Most girls don't go for short poor drunks, not to mention him being half demon. Damn.//
Forcing back her rational side, Erin boarded the bus bound for Sunnydale. //It's better like this. I hope.//
If you're gone - maybe it's time to go home
There's an awful lot of breathing room,
But I can hardly move.
If you're gone - baby, you need to come home
Cuz there's a little bit of something me
In everything you.
~Matchbox Twenty "If You're Gone"
Angel looked up in the closest expression to surprise anyone was likely to see. "Where's Erin? Is she still sleeping?"
Swallowing past a lump in his suddenly-tight throat, Doyle replied with blatantly false indifference, "Nah, she left before I got up, I guess. She'd said she needed to get back to Sunnydale. She's must've done it."
"Are you, ya know, okay?" Cordelia asked, sounding surprisingly earnest. "I mean, I hated her and all, but..."
"I'm fine. No big deal." He sat down and began reading the nearest magazine, hoping his friends would drop the issue. //"Twenty Ways to Leave Your Lover,"// Doyle read silently to himself. //I just had to pick up Cosmo, didn't I? What did I ever do to The Powers that Be? They sure seem to be nursing a helluva grudge.//
Cordelia held out a mug of some dark, murky liquid. "Coffee?" she offered hopefully.
"Only if it has whisky in it," Doyle replied with a forced grin.
She cocked her head and peered into the mug. "Honestly, I don't know what's in it. There could be whisky."
At that, Doyle did laugh. It hurt to feel happy, so he let the smile fall. "That's okay, Delia, I think I can live without it."
"If you say so," Cordelia responded with a shrug, dumping the coffee onto the plant she'd purchased for her desk. To "liven the place up," she'd told Angel. "Personally, I think shopping is the best cure for depression."
"Look, I'm not depressed, alright?" Catching Angel's wary gaze and the flash of hurt in Cordelia's eyes, Doyle realized he'd put more force behind the words than he intended. "I'm gonna get some air." Without another word, he stepped out the door and headed for the nearest bar.
Bad blood and ghosts wrapped tight around me,
Nothing could ever seem to touch me.
I lose what I love most
Did you know I was lost until you found me?
~Garbage "Stroke of Luck"
Erin wasn't prepared for the round of hugs when she appeared on Giles's doorstep. Buffy came first, squeezing her so tight that only a Slayer could have survived; then Willow, whispering a quick blessing; then Xander, never one to miss the chance to grab a pretty girl; and Giles, who expressed his admiration for her speed. Conversely, Anya glared at her from beside Xander, Riley gave a respectful salute, and Oz merely nodded and offered a small smile.
Spotting the vampire - //Spike,// she recalled - hovering behind the group, Erin asked, "What, no hug?" It was easier to make jokes than to examine her own conflicting emotions.
"Not in the habit of hugging people who'd as soon kill me," Spike replied with a petulant frown.
"Have I ever threatened to kill you, Blondie? You think far too much of yourself." Erin smiled at the group. "Well, he's dead. Avalon and her baby are just fine." Before Buffy could ask, Erin continued, "Angel is doing good. His business is really taking off. Not enough for Cordelia's taste," she caught a snort from Xander, "but enough for them to get by."
"That's good," Buffy said with some relief, leaning back into Riley's arms. "I imagine Cordy's going kind of nuts, though."
"I don't know. She hated me so much, I never really got to talk to her."
"What did you do, step on her best shoes?" Xander asked.
Erin shifted uncomfortably. "I think I stole her crush. She may not have thought she wanted him before, but after I got there, she got territorial."
"And who, may I ask, is the poor guy who's fallen into her trap now?"
"Good that you're not bitter, Xander. His name's Doyle." It was an arrow through her heart to say his name so casually, to talk about him like he didn't mean anything. "He works for Angel."
Buffy grinned. "You go, girl. Hey, how 'bout we go get some pizza and catch a flick to celebrate?"
"Sure. Sounds fun," Erin said. //And maybe it'll be distracting enough that I can actually forget for a few minutes.//
Every couple nights or so
You know you pop into my dreams.
I just can't get rid of you
Like you got rid of me.
~Ben Folds Five "Fair"
Dreaming again. Doyle knew the dream backwards and forwards now. When he woke up, it was always a struggle to decide whether he loved or loathed it. Having Erin again, even in a dream, was amazing, but he always had to wake to the reality that she was gone and that she had no intention of coming back.
In the dream, she was smiling at him, eyes bright. There were no apologies needed. He didn't care why she had left, what her reasons were. It only mattered that she was there, that when he reached out and pulled her tight against him, she didn't pull away. On the contrary, she smiled and put her arms around his neck. "Miss me?"
"Every second." Aside from her presence, the only other indication that the dream was indeed a dream were Erin's clothes, a flowing white skirt and blouse, gauzy enough to almost see through. "Let's not be apart like that again, huh?"
"Never." And she kissed him. There were a thousand promises in the kiss, a million unspoken oaths. There was love.
And then Doyle woke up again. Alone, with tears sliding from his eyes.
What I need is a good defense
'Cause I'm feelin' like a criminal,
And I need to redeemed
To the one I've sinned against
Because he's all I ever knew of love.
~Fionna Apple "Criminal"
Erin climbed out of bed and ran a hand through her short hair. //I did NOT just do that.// Looking back at the form of the naked man sleeping in her bed, she was forced to admit that she had. It hadn't helped anything. In fact, she felt worse. //How can I feel like I just cheated on someone I'm not even with?//
She could feel tears of shame burning her eyes. It took a lot to make the Slayer feel as though she had done something wrong. //This is stupid! You're a grown woman. You can sleep with whoever you want whenever you want so long as you're careful about it. You don't owe anyone anything.//
"What's 'e matter?" came a sleepy, slurred English voice from the bed.
Turning again, Erin saw Spike squinting at her in the darkness. "Nothing. I need some air." She tugged on some clothes while Spike watched, senses dull from sleep. "I'll be back later. Sleep."
"Whatever you say, luv." Spike's head fell back against the pillow and Erin walked out of the room. Padding quietly down Giles's steps, she slipped out the front door, breaking into a dead run. She couldn't quite ascertain whether she was running from something or to it, but she never got anywhere. //Just keep running.// After a mile, her lungs burned and it was hard to breathe even with her Slayer stamina. //Keep running.// Everything disappeared except the pain and sweat.
Finally letting herself fall onto a bench, Erin's chin sagged to her chest. //Well, that was a bust. Still thinking. Still thinking about Doyle.// No matter how hard she tried, Erin couldn't seem to shake the image of his smiling face or bright blue eyes. He was with her wherever she went. //I'm going nuts.// She knew better.
//It's worse. I fell in love.//
Since you've gone I've been lost without a trace.
I dream at night, I can only see your face.
I look around but it's you I can't replace.
I keep crying baby, baby please...
~The Police "Every Breath You Take"
"Still moping?" Cordelia asked with a toss of her dark hair as she walked into the office. The words might have stung had they not been said with a sympathetic half-smile.
"Tryin' not to," Doyle replied. "Wouldn't wanna drag down the happy-go-lucky atmosphere Angel has goin' here."
Cordelia laughed. "Yeah, well, at least he does his brooding alone in the dark instead of out here where it can disturb potential customers."
"I promise I'll work on it."
"Good then." She smiled back at her friend, then let the smile fall. "Are you okay? I mean, really okay?"
The half-demon shifted uneasily in his chair. "Sure. Why shouldn't I be?"
"Oh, I dunno, maybe because the chick you're so hopelessly obsessed with hasn't come back."
"Delia, I really don't-"
"Don't wanna talk about it. Mmm-hmm. Not a good sign." She squinted at Doyle and pursed her lips. "You're in love."
"Delia, I'm n-"
"Don't even try that!" Cordelia warned him, wagging one finger. "I know better. You aren't the kind of guy to go all stupid and moony over some girl you don't really care about. You love her."
"Delia, I don't-"
"I don't-" Cordelia glared. Doyle swallowed. "Alright, I love her."
"That wasn't so hard, was it?"
"Actually..." Catching Cordelia's warning glance, he shook his head. "No, not hard at all."
"Then why didn't you tell her?" Cordelia's voice was softer and she came to sit at the desk across from Doyle. "I mean, it's pretty obvious that she liked you too. Why not just, ya know, say something?"
Cordelia frowned. "Huh?"
"She liked me?"
Doyle sat back in his chair. //Damn. Why couldn't I have noticed?// "You really think she did?"
"Doyle, quit being dense for just one minute! God men are stupid sometimes. She had the hots for you and maybe even more. If she wasn't such a huge bitch I might've asked," Cordelia replied bluntly. "Look, if you care about her, call her or go see her or something... quit moping. That's Angel's style, not yours. It's just creepy when you do it."
Doyle opened his mouth to reply and suddenly pressed a hand to his forehead and gasped. Cordelia knew the signs and grabbed a bottle of whisky from the desk drawer, holding it out before Doyle had a chance to ask. "Bad?"
He nodded weakly. "Real bad."
What in the world you thinking of,
Laughing in the face of love?
What on earth you tryin' to do?
It's up to you, yeah you.
~John Lennon "Instant Karma"
Erin hadn't expected a warm welcome when she waltzed into Angel Investigations, but she hadn't expected dead silence either. "Doyle?" she called. "Yo, Francis, where are ya?"
Cordelia appeared in the doorway to Angel's office looking pale and tired. "Doyle's... gone," she said, voice barely more than a whisper.
"What do you mean? He left? Shit! Where did he go?" Erin demanded as Angel stepped into view behind Cordelia. "Where is he, Angel?"
"He's dead." The words were blunt, but Erin could feel the man's grief behind them. "He died saving an entire race."
Erin swallowed and sank into a nearby chair. "Shit." //I'd probably be bawling my eyes out about now if I still remembered how to cry.// "SHIT!" She shook her head as if it would clear away reality and then looked up to Angel, face stony. "You talked to the oracles?"
"First thing. No deal."
"What about... I just... There has to be something," Erin finished lamely, one hand smoothing back her hair. "We can't just..."
Cordelia was leaning against the door, wiping at tears. "He's gone."
Erin's eyes flashed and she rose, almost knocking her chair over. "Not if I have anything to say about it." Without waiting for a response, Erin rushed from the office.
"Ava?" Erin knocked on the door desperately. "Ava? Please answer! Please..." She finally felt the beginning of tears and fought them back. "AVA!"
"I'm coming!" The shout from inside was muffled, then the door swung open to reveal Avalon holding a tiny baby in her arms. "Erin? Well, I certainly didn't... Come in. What's wrong?"
//You're not at all obvious, Erin. Way to be subtle.// "Doyle. He... he's... he..." Suddenly the tears began to flow, streaming down her face faster than she could wipe them away. Dimly, she sensed an arm wrapping around her, but she was shaking too hard to push it away. "Help me..."
"I will, Erin. I will."
Erin pushed back from the woman, blinking her eyes to clear them. "How?"
"It's a simple spell, really, if the love shared between those parted is strong enough," Avalon replied with a smile, wiping the tears from Erin's face with her free hand. "I doubt we'll have any trouble on that count."
"You... you can...?"
"No. But you can," Avalon replied quietly, stepping back from the young woman. She began chanting quietly, voice a flowing whisper that bordered on singing.
"How will I know what...?"
Erin started at the voice inside her head, then her eyes locked with Avalon's and words poured from her mouth. Words she had never heard before in a language she didn't recognize. Words whose meaning she knew instinctively. ~Return to me, my love.~
A faint red haze surrounded them, growing until it enveloped the room and thickening until Erin could see nothing around her. //What the hell is happening?//
~A miracle, Erin.~
//I can't see!//
~You don't need to. Just feel.~
Suddenly she felt wind rushing around her, warm and comforting. //Outside? How the fuck did I get outside?// And then there were hands on her waist. She gasped and pulled back, but the hands held firm. "What are you-" The fog cleared in a heartbeat and Doyle was standing in front of her, smiling, eyes the same clear, beautiful blue she remembered so well. "What took you so damn long?"
"Sorry 'bout that. The Powers That Be are a bit slow." Smile falling away, Doyle's hand stretched up to cup Erin's cheek. "You're here."
"Yeah. So are you."
"Yeah." He watched her quietly for a moment, then ventured, "Erin?"
Her hands moved to run through his hair. "Yeah?"
"I love you."
She grinned and nodded. "I know. I love you too."
"You... you do?" Doyle seemed genuinely surprised, mouth hanging slightly open.
"You're awfully cute when you're shocked. Much as I'd just love to show you how grateful I am to have you back right here and right now..." Erin looked around them and raised an eyebrow. "How the Hell do we get out of this place?"
~Easy enough,~ Avalon's laughing voice replied in her mind.
As soon as the laughter faded, Erin found herself standing, still wrapped in Doyle's arms, in Angel's office. "Uh, hey," she said with a slight wave.
Angel's mouth fell open and his eyes went wide. "Doyle?"
"Yeah, man, it's me. In the flesh, thanks to Erin 'ere." He released his grip on her waist and settled for gripping her hand while they spoke.
"Not just me," she replied as Cordelia walked into the room, wearing an expression that was a clone of Angel's.
"Oh my GOD! DOYLE!" The girl let out a squeal of delight and threw her arms around Doyle. "You're HERE! God, we missed you!"
"Missed you too, 'Delia," he replied, patting her back as she pulled away. "Can't imagine how you two went about fightin' evil with me not here."
"It wasn't fun."
"We're both glad to have you back," Angel agreed.
"We all are," Erin chimed in, releasing Doyle's hand to slide her arm around his waist. "And don't get any funny ideas about going anywhere else. I'll beat you up if you try. You know I can!" she threatened.
"Don't worry, Erin, love." Doyle smiled and kissed the top of her head gently. "I'm not going anywhere. Not anymore."