I am watching the world burn.
Then I wake up and it is still burning. The glow of the setting sun crawls across the bed and the walls, covering everything with an eerie reddish gleam. I would not move save for the four riders announcing the ultimate end of everything – and that would only be to greet them.
A goddess is waking at my side; not of the blue kind, but equally lethal. She throws away the sheets, gets up, stands on her toes and stretches. The light streaking in between the curtains slides across her strong shoulders and arms.
There is something intoxicating in sleeping with a woman who could kill me with her bare hands... with her one bare hand. Each time I feel like missing death by the skin of my teeth, and it isn't even about surviving, but letting go of this pathetic farce absolutely willingly – and seemingly once and for all.
Faith yawns and lights a cigarette. I watch her through half-closed eyelids. She starts looking for her clothes, the fag dangling from the corner of her mouth. Puts on her bra, knickers, socks, trousers and boots, sits down on the matress to tie her laces. When it's clear she's about to leave without saying a word of goodbye, I pretend to slowly wake from my slumber. She freezes for a moment, then goes on.
"Would you like a drink?" I ask, my hand resting on my chest.
"I can't stay," she replies with her back still turned away from me. "I'd love to hang around with you all night, Wes, but I've gotta kill me some critters down at the harbour."
"Oh, all right. I've got to get back to work anyway."
"The night shift, huh?"
"It's always the night shift around there."
Once, this girl was supposed to be like a daughter to me. Now we would make a fine pathological family.
My phone rings. I scramble to find it among the heap of my clothes on the floor, and answer.
"Wes." It's Angel. He doesn't sound too content but, then, he's never really content. "I've got a problem. Can you come?"
"I was just about to get to work," I reply, looking for my trousers.
"No. I'm not at the Wolfram & Hart. I'm at South Spring Street 135. At the back. Just... come here as soon as possible."
"Be right there."
Well, that was a little odd, wasn't it?
I look at my cell phone for a moment, brow furrowed. Faith walks up to me, reaches out her hand and ruffles my hair lightly. Looks like somebody's been teaching her human gestures because I highly doubt she learned that all by herself. She's always kept her hands to herself... with the notable exceptions of fighting and sex.
"See ya around, boss." She leaves, shutting the door behind her.
I dress and stumble to the bathroom to wash my teeth. Illyria's sitting on the toilet lid.
"Dear God! You gave me quite a scare, Illyria."
"I watched the Slayer and you sleeping. Then I grew bored and decided to explore this place of hygiene."
"It's called the bathroom."
I start to brush my teeth. What was it that I said about a pathological family? Illyria would make a great weird cousin. Twice removed, at least.
"Why did you come here?" I ask, spitting out the foam.
Illyria doesn't respond. She probably felt a disturbance in the force or something equally unsettling. She takes off on her own while I put on my coat, grab the helmet, the gun holster and take the lift down to the car park.
One of the perks of working at the Wolfram & Hart – aside from the all-evil all-the-time vibe that gives each and every one of us the impression of being a major player – is the garage. I haven't moved out of my flat (even though the pay at W&H is so good I could easily get a penthouse opposite Angel's) but the workers take extremely good care of my motorcycle while I'm at work. The bike cuts across the streets of the city like a well-sharpened blade.
When I arrive at South Spring Street, Angel emerges from the shadows, wrapped in his enormous coat. He has lots of cuts on his face and hands.
"What happened? You look like hell."
"Had to jump through a window." Angel makes a pained expression. "Look, Wesley, someone set me up. Nina's dead."
"You killed Nina?!" The werewolf girlfriend of our vampire boss, that is.
"No, I didn't." He looks a little disgusted. "Someone else did. In her bed. And I was there too, incidentally."
Looks like we all hoard secrets of the romantic – if one may call it that – nature.
"And you didn't wake up while someone was murdering your girlfriend?"
"She was not my..." Angel turns around. I realise I've gone too far.
"I'm sorry for your loss," I say, mostly because it's the appropriate thing to say. I should be sympathetic but my compassion went to hell hand in hand with Fred. I'm a hollow man, a stuffed man. "But this just doesn't make a lot of sense."
"I know," Angel says bleakly. "What's more, somebody made a call to the police and they came barging in. I had to run. Or, rather, jump. That's why I'm here. They're still camped in that apartment, I guess."
"Well, you're the boss of Wolfram & Hart. You can cover it up just like that." I snap my fingers.
"Yeah, but that would be just like admitting I did it."
"Then don't cover it."
"And everybody's going to think I did it."
"Well, first we have to find out who set you up." Buckle up, cowboy, I think in a fake American accent. "Then we can think about cleaning this mess. Who do you think has it in for you?"
"Pretty much everyone", Angel says matter-of-factly.
Angel's luxurious Mercedes SLK is still parked in front of the building. We take off on my motorcycle.
This time I don't make Angel wear the pink helmet. I don't even have a pink helmet anymore. I think I threw it out or sold it along with all other useless things after Angel fired me by trying to suffocate me with a pillow.
Sacking by near death experience. I don't think the Labour Code allows that.
Just as we stop at a red light, a nearby shop's window explodes in a shower of glass shards. A man in a balaclava lands on the pavement, cursing helplessly. Illyria – and that's somehow almost self-explanatory – drags another man out by his ankle. He's thrashing wildly, his human face rapidly changing into a demon mask and back again.
The light turns green. I get off the motorcycle and get a little closer to them.
"Illyria, let him go."
"I wished to take a closer look at this half-breed." Illyria peers into the guy's scared and infuriated face. "I may have interrupted an act of unwanted violence."
Have some of my lectures on the rules of human societies possibly penetrated her thick royal skull?
"Can we go?" asks Angel, still seated on the motorcycle, hands on hips, clearly aggravated. "I'm under suspicion of murder here. And you were supposed to take care of her!"
"I'm not her babysitter," I snap. I notice something move with the corner of my eye. I turn, instinctively reaching for one of my guns, and fire, shooting the guy in the balaclava in the knee. He screams bloody murder but lets go of his gun.
"Will you accompany us to the Wolfram & Hart?" I ask politely. Illyria nods and lets go of the half-demon's ankle. He just lies there, motionless, clearly in shock, while his comrade is lamenting over his now useless knee.
We drive away in silence. Illyria dives into the shadows of the back alleys but we meet her as soon as we enter the garage. The three of us take the elevator up to the office.
Harmony seems to be packing her things but Angel is merciless.
"Harmony! Quick, I need a cover-up job at South Spring Street 135," he orders as he walks to his office. "Send our forensic team there as soon as possible. I need to know who killed Nina."
"NOW!" Angel looks like an angered capo di tutti capi. He shuts the door behind him, as if he's going to need a cigar rolled on the thighs of dead Cuban women or something. I don't particularly feel the need to disturb him now so I just take Harmony aside.
"There's also been a robbery attempt at West Boulevard. Tell them that one of the robbers shot the other one in the knee. Shock made them hallucinate about a blue woman. They weren't very experienced robbers, you see."
Harmony just stares at me with her mouth slightly open.
"Sometime this night would be nice," I tell her, the edge probably apparent in my voice.
"Consider it done, boss!"
And she's off. I order a coffee from one of the lesser secretaries – the news has probably already spread so the night crew is on high alert – and retreat to the safe haven of my office. Illyria is already there, probably counting the molecules in the wooden panels on the walls. I sit at the desk and pour myself a small drink. It has to get me through this night.
After a while Spike wanders into my office, sits down in the armchair opposite my desk and stretches his legs out.
"Hi, Wes." He lights a cigarette.
"I'm fairly certain smoking isn't allowed in here, Spike."
"Yeah, that's exactly what Angel told me – well, in slightly less civil terms – before he threw me out of his office, the ponce."
"And he was right."
"You're a party-pooper, that's what you are," he says but extinguishes the cigarette on a marble sculpture of a nymph, dating back to the Hellenistic period. "So tell me something about this murder thing, 'cause Peaches there was so pissed off he could hardly tell me to get the fuck out."
"There's nothing to tell. Angel's been set up – or so he says – and someone murdered Nina."
"The werewolf girl?"
"The werewolf girl."
Spike contemplates this in silence, then sniffs the air and looks straight at me.
"You've got something on your cheek, Wes. Say, is that by any chance blood?"
I really hate vampires, have I ever told you that?
"Angel cut himself while fleeing. He probably got that all over my jacket, too."
"It's not his blood. I know what his blood smells like, he bled on me too many times to bloody count." Spike gets up, leans across the desk and sniffs again. I lean back in my chair. "I know that scent, though. Smelled it somewhere before." His face suddenly lights up and he lets out a laugh. "Oh, Wes, you kinky bastard, you!"
"I think it's high time you were gone, Spike." I wipe Faith's blood off my cheek with a handkerchief.
"I never knew you had it in you! You think you know a man... Here, have some coffee!" He quickly intercepts the cup from the secretary who's just entered the office and shushes her out. "The girl's probably wearin' you out, I know the feeling."
"You don't want to get on my bad side, Spike."
"Not when you're datin' a Slayer, no."
Spike leaves and I sigh. There's no way I can fantasize about getting back into that bed now.
Aside from the occasional outburst of violence, Illyria is surprisingly easy to maintain. She mostly just stares at things and taunts me with questions. I suppose I'm getting used to her and that thought alone makes me a little queasy.
I order some Chinese to fight that feeling. When I find Illyria staring at me, I offer her some and – there, she's occupied again. I'm able to continue my pointless research on the current apocalypse and the senior partners.
Angel bursts into my office some time after that. He still has a large bruise on his forehead. It makes him look like he walked into the wrong bar at the wrong time.
"I think they've found something, Wesley."
We move to his office to watch the CCTV video of a man entering the building at South Spring Street at 7:02 PM, and then leaving at 7:25. Angel stops the tape. The picture's a little blurry - as usual - but the man looks absolutely non-descript anyway.
"Are you certain that's not just one of Nina's neighbours?"
"We're checking that but I'm pretty sure that's the guy. That would fit with the estimated time of death."
"So what now? How are we going to track him down? This is a very big city, Angel."
"And we have a lot of staff," Angel replies smugly.
"Let's hope our staff doesn't track that back to someone from our staff," I say.
"That's not going to be a problem," announces Gunn, who's just arrived at the door. "He isn't from around here. He's got a room at the Paramount Motel."
As he passes the files to Angel his gaze drifts over to me, perched on the arm of a leather armchair. Our eyes meet. The temperature in the room drops and rapidly reaches the freezing point.
Gunn still seems to hold some grudge against me, after my stabbing him in the gut. He isn't big on forgiving. Neither am I.
Angel's always cold, so he doesn't notice a thing. Gunn and I exchange glances and decide to postpone the proper Mexican stand-off until a later time. For now we have a werewolf-turned-girlfriend killer on our hands.
We drive down to the Paramount Hotel. It's a run-down place at the outskirts of the city. Spike keeps sneaking knowing glances in my direction and I just pray he keeps his mouth shut. Otherwise... It wouldn't be good.
Angel looks ready to kill. If the guy is actually inside, Angel is going to make quick work of his sword. Blood everywhere, the works. Another cover-up job, I suppose.
But he isn't there, of course. The bed sheets are undone, the TV is still on, a half-empty cup of coffee stands on the table next to some porn magazine, but that's it.
Angel throws his hands up in frustration.
"This is unbelievable! I hate being played like this! This is just... argh!"
He kicks the dust bin, sending scraps of paper flying everywhere.
"Stop compromising evidence," says Spike. "Your acting like a child isn't exactly helpin', you know?"
"Just save it, all right?"
I leave them bickering in the room and walk outside. The car park is almost empty save for a rusty Ford Taurus. The pavement is concrete, so there are no traces, but next to the doormat lies a single cigarette butt. I turn it over with my shoe toe and kneel to inspect it.
It's a Chesterfield. I have a sudden flashback to the pack of cigarettes lying on my bedstand. Chesterfields are the same brand that Faith smokes. Could be coincidence.
I walk back inside.
"If you're through with this pointless argument, I am going to check out some bars downtown," I say. "See you back at the office."
I almost say "y'all". It's time for some BBC.
Spike catches up with me outside, his long coat tangling with his legs.
"You think your Slayer Secundo could know a thing or two about this?" he asks.
Spike both only plays stupid in front of everybody and knows a lot more than he ever lets on. I learned that when we were working on constraining Illyria's powers. I suppose it's rather convenient as no one ever expects him to come up with anything.
"I highly doubt that. She doesn't mingle with us for a reason."
"And that is?"
"Not mingling with us."
"She mingles with you." Spike waggles his eyebrows suggestively.
"And here I thought you wanted to go with me."
"I do! I'll keep my gob shut about what you two crazy kids are up to, I promise."
I drop Spike off at the biggest vampire bar and head straight to the only hunter one in the vicinity. It's so low-life and cheap there aren't even any strippers. Truckers, bums and hunters alike are huddled together in a small room full of smoke so thick that it is difficult to see anything. If I had glasses I would probably clean them using my shirt.
Most men inside wear leather, look like they haven't shaved in a while and have already had at least one drink. I fit right in. We all look alike after a couple of years in this occupation – the only difference is that I am at the top of the food chain.
I sit at the bar, order a whisky on the rocks and wait for the bartender to come and have a little chat with me. I pay him good money to keep an eye on his patrons. It counts as research and as such it's included in the budget of my W&H division.
I ask him about foreigners and people from out of town. He points out a man in his late twenties, slouched over a bottle of cheap beer, a hill-billy if I've ever seen one. I make my way there slowly, seemingly lacking an actual purpose. The man looks up lazily.
"Good evening," I say, sitting down next to him.
"Oh, hello there, pal. Is there anything I could help you with?" he asks so pointedly it's obvious he doesn't want to help me with anything – with the notable exception of fucking off, perhaps.
"I'd like to ask you a favour. I've been having problems with a werewolf and—"
"Hey, are you the guy with the blue woman? I think I've seen you around."
"I'm not certain—"
"D'you, like, lend her out? There's this vampire nest I'd like to take out and I kinda need some extra muscle—"
Why don't you just call a Slayer, then?
"I was asking you about a werewolf," I repeat patiently, as if talking to a child.
"Werewolf." The man cocks his head a little, his eyes never leaving my face. "Huh. Been there, done that."
"Then you won't mind telling me who else approached you about the same thing," I say, pressing the barrel of one of my guns to his thigh through the coat.
The hunter plays it cool.
"I dunno who you are, man, but just get off and I'll try not to remember about this incident. If not, let's take this outside."
"I strongly suggest doing this my way." I switch the safety off.
"This is ridiculous. You're not going to shoot me here," he says in disbelief.
"No, you're right, I'm not." I turn the safety catch back on and withdraw my hand. "But I'll make the blue woman go after you. And I have to tell you – human, werewolf or vampire – it's all the same to her. She doesn't discriminate."
And she doesn't. She hates everyone with an equal passion.
When I ask her my question she just looks at me for a long time, as if seriously offended. I have no idea what's going on in her head, so I just sit down at the desk and make a neat pile out of the papers I need to take home. I prefer to think about the impending apocalypse in terms of documents rather than a rain of fire or perpetual darkness.
"I have seen the Slayer get up," says Illyria all of a sudden. She leans on the desk in a mannerism she must have adopted from Spike. "She ascertained that you were unconscious by poking a finger into your side. Then she picked up a device you use for wireless communication and contacted a person I have no knowledge of. It took 37.3 seconds. After that, the Slayer put the device down, pressed her lips above your right hip and lay down next to you." Illyria's tone grows agigated, which usually happens when she finds it hard to understand something. "I am not certain if that is what you were asking about."
"Yes, yes, it is. Thank you, Illyria."
I've watched enough CSI to know that this is called circumstantial evidence. Even the hunter could have lied or described another person. He wasn't what I'd call specific.
Still, it was enough.
"Would you like to accompany me home?" I ask Illyria. She looks at me with her usual blank expression.
"I wish to do some hunting. The blond one is waiting for me downstairs."
Illyria treats Spike like a good sparring partner and he seems to genuinely like her. As long as he doesn't teach her anything dumb, I'm all right with that.
I drive home slowly and carefully. I'm weary to the bone and a little tipsy, and I can hear my stomach rumbling yet the first thing I do back at the flat is go through Faith's things: several black tank tops, some knickers, another pair of tight blue jeans, a pack of stakes and, finally, a wallet. There is a plane ticket and a fake I.D. inside.
Now that I'm sure she is coming back I settle in an armchair and prop my legs up on the nearby chair, resigned to just wait for her. I turn off my phone and lace the fingers of my hands on the back of my head, staring at the generic pictures on the walls. There is something unbearably gloomy about all this. I don't even feel compelled to call it treason.
Faith comes in about an a hour later, with her usual swagger and a grin she calls 'shit-eatin''. She has dirt in her hair and smeared on her jacket.
"Oh, his, Wes. You're back already?"
"Were you planning to leave before I come back?"
"And why would I do that?" she asks amiably. The glances she throws at me are, however, a little suspicious.
"Because your conscience isn't clear."
"Well, I thought we've already been through this, Wes," she says, shrugging off her jacket. "Been to prison, reformed, blah blah blah, all is well."
"Stop that. I know what you've done."
"Shit." Her tone changes immediately and she sits on the couch with one sleeve still on. "How did you..."
"No offence, but you're no criminal mastermind."
"None taken." She stares at the floor.
"Why did you do it, Faith? Why did you kill Angel's girlfriend? Are you out of your mind? Has your medication stopped working? Tell me!"
Faith looks up and her face is haggard.
"I didn't do it. I only told a hunter to kill a werewolf."
"Nina was not a danger to anyone. Haven't you met Oz? It's easy to control a werewolf if you know how."
"Well, then Angel did a bang-up job. Two people this full moon, that's your precious Nina."
"Couldn't you tell Angel? I'm sure there were better ways to sort this out!"
"Oh, are there? I seem to recall you trying to do the same to me, Wesley."
It's my turn to stare at the floor.
"You're trying to steer us away from Wolfram & Hart, aren't you?" I ask after a beat, breaking the silence. "In your clumsy and violent way, of course, but that's what you're trying to do."
"Majored in psych recently?" Faith snaps at me.
"Whose side are you on, Faith?"
She gets up and stands in front of me, her hands on her hips. I suddenly realise I'm absolutely right.
"I'm on my own side, Wes, 'cause there are way more than only two sides. There's yours, there's Cleveland's and Scotland's. Let's say I'm closer to Cleveland, but, leaving geography aside, even Scotland is closer than you with your skyscraper."
"Has this turned into some contest over who fights evil more efficiently?"
"It's more of a 'let's pretend Team Angel doesn't exist' game."
"This is madness."
"Madness is what you're tryin' to do!" She throws her hands up in a gesture of frustration. "Look at what this whole W&H business has brought you, Wes! Look at what it's done to you
"I can't leave this place," I say.
The sound of my own voice seems alien to my ears.
"This is so much bullshit," Faith says matter-of-factly.
I rub my forehead, tired. How long is this night going to be?
"You okay, Wes?"
That's the question, isn't it? Ever since the Illyria incident – I couldn't bring myself to call it anything else – everything except plain grief has been on the backburner. Does that mean I'm okay?
Am I okay in regards to this girl standing in front of me? I helped her shape into the woman she is now, after all. How could one not love the work of their own hands?
"I'm a little rattled, is all."
"Are you goin' to tell Angel?"
"No, I'm not. But I'm not going to stand up for you if he finds out on his own, either."
"I can live with that."
"I know you can."
Faith sways back and forth on her heels, looking at me hesitantly.
My alliance with Angel has been shaky at best since Connor came into the game. I am sure Faith knew that upon coming to Los Angeles, but it still makes it harder for me to blame her.
"I've got a plane leaving at noon," says Faith. "So I'll just help myself to some breakfast if you don't mind."
"I'll make you some," I reply, getting up and heading to the kitchen. She follows me there and sits on the counter, denim-clad legs swinging.
I take the eggs out of the fridge and start looking for the frying pan. Behind the blinders the sun is rising, painting the walls yellow and Faith's hair light brown.
I hate mornings.
"Wes?" Faith asks. I realise I'm standing in the middle of the kitchen with my sleeves rolled up to the elbows and no frying pan in sight. Somehow, it all doesn't matter.
Faith extends a strong, strangely elegant hand and I take it. She pulls me close in between her legs, fingers of one hand threading through my hair, the other already on my zipper. I let her kiss my neck while I stare at the city outside over her shoulder.
It's another day in this hollow valley. The light is blinding, and I close my eyes.