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Option "C"

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Tuesday Night

 

“What do you think they’ll do?” Fred asked.

Cordelia had just finished explaining the options that Skip, the demon gatekeeper, had given her in the other dimension while she’d been lying in a coma here in this world – never meet Angel at the party, and therefore never receive the visions in the first place; become part demon; or “Option C”.

“I don’t know,” she replied. They were all sitting downstairs in the lobby, Cordelia leaning up against Angel on the couch with Fred pressed against her on the other side and Gunn next to Fred, Wesley in front on a chair he’d pulled around to join them. They all looked as protective of Cordelia as he felt, having seen her so fragile only a few hours before. She seemed fine now, however. “All Skip said was that Option C would involve a new soldier in the fight who could take the visions on instead of me – and then he said that it’s actually an ‘old one’,” she continued, air-quoting the last phrase.

“An old one,” Wesley mused. “Another vampire?”

“Angel’s the only one with a soul, remember?” Gunn replied.

“Or perhaps he just means a ‘soldier’ we’ve already seen? Faith, perhaps,” Wesley continued.

“I’d be okay with Faith getting the brain-splitting movie marathon for a while,” Cordelia answered. “She could call it in from prison.”

“Whatever it is,” Angel cut in, “And whenever it comes, if it means you’re going to be okay, it’ll be worth it.” Cordelia glanced up at him and smiled, and Angel felt a feeling that made him wish he had a beating heart so it could skip a beat – a pleasurable tension that had been subtly growing between them ever since Connor had been born.

And then there was a horrible sound, like too much electricity passing through a circuit. Upstairs, dimly, Angel heard Connor start to fuss and Lorne’s tenor responding in sing-song.

“What’s that?” Fred cried.

“Option C?” Wesley suggested, grim, turning in his seat.

The ceiling above them opened up into a gaping black hole. Angel could feel his hair standing on end as a terrible wind swept through the room, heavy with electric charge.

The wind picked up and Wesley’s chair started flying backwards, his body not following only because Angel managed to jump up and grab him by the lapel before they lost him, thrusting him stumbling past the others where Gunn managed to get hold of and steady him. Fred was clinging to Gunn’s other arm, her wide eyes glued to the pulsating hole in the ceiling.

The electric whine became a thunderous rumble, something he could feel as much as hear. Beside him, Cordelia was on her feet, screaming something. Even Angel couldn’t make out the words.

Then something began shooting out of the hole in a thin, laser-precise stream. Angel furrowed his brow as a heaping pile of ashy dust built up the middle of the room.

The hole shut abruptly. The wind stopped; papers that had been whirling around fluttered to the floor. The thunder cut off as the hole vanished, leaving an aching ring in Angel’s ears overtop an almost painful silence. Angel shook his head to clear it. The baby was screaming now and he could sense rather than hear Lorne’s footsteps, hesitant on the floor above. Angel glanced at the stairs, hoping the other man stayed up there with the child.

“Look,” said Fred, in a shaking voice, drawing his attention back to the scene before them.

The dust started to swirl, hardening.  The hardened dust took shape – bone, then bleeding muscle, and a face appeared. It howled in pain, a gagging, agonizing sound.

“Oh my god,” Cordelia gasped, choking on the words.

The muscle became skin, torn and blackened, and then it was whole and pink, and there was hair, and the screaming broke off into a sobbing moan and there was a man, naked, curled in on himself, lying before them, panting.

“Doyle.” Cordelia was crying.

“Doyle? The Doyle?” Gunn asked.

“Who’s Doyle?” Fred whispered. Angel heard Wesley stage-whispering back. He didn’t look over. He felt rooted to the spot. Dimly he heard footsteps receding, but he didn’t check to see who was leaving or to where. He couldn’t take his eyes off the man before him. It could not be.

Then the man found his knees and looked up. Wide green eyes met his. “Angel,” he rasped, the Irish lilt unmistakable. The voice broke him. Angel fell to his knees and pulled the other man to him. “Angel,” the man said again, heavy in his arms.

“It’s okay,” Angel whispered, staring over Doyle’s head to meet Cordelia’s wide, shocked eyes. “It’s okay, man, I’ve got you.”

There was a movement at his side and Angel realized that Fred had come up beside him, holding out a blanket. He took it and wrapped Doyle, giving the man some modesty.

“Thanks, man,” Doyle said, as though he’d said it every day for the last two years, and that unfroze Cordelia, who gave a little cry and fell to her knees beside them, pulling Doyle away from Angel and into a fierce hug, sobbing against his chest. Angel heard the other man’s sharp intake of breath and saw him flinch, but he held Cordelia gently enough. “Ah, hey now, Princess, don’t cry,” he said, awkwardly patting her back. He shifted to sit on his backside as she finally pulled away, wiping her eyes. Angel found his feet and hovered.

“I can’t believe you’re here,” Cordelia said. “How are you here?”

“I, uh, I don’t really know the answer to that question.” He looked past Cordelia to meet Angel’s eyes, bewildered, and then suddenly became aware of Wesley and Fred, standing off to one side, staring down at him. “Um… hi,” he said, pulling the blanket more tightly around his waist.

“Hi,” Fred said back, raising her hand in an awkward wave.

Wesley opened his mouth to speak, but Cordelia interrupted. “You’re option C.” She stated. “Aren’t you?”

“Option C?”

Angel’s shock had begun to subside and his enhanced senses were kicking back in; he saw now that the young man was trembling, sweat dampening his chest and forehead.

“Cordelia,” he said, meaning to rein her in a little, but she wasn’t listening.

“From my trip to bizzaro-land,” she continued, as if Doyle could have any idea what she was talking about. “To deal with the whole vision/brain damage thing.”

Comprehension lighted on Doyle’s face. “To make right what I did wrong,” he replied, touching her face. “Cordelia, I’m so sorry. The visions – I never meant to pass them on t’ ya. I didn’t know I could. If I’d have known… they weren’t meant for you to bear.” He leaned in and kissed her, softly.

Angel felt his jaw involuntarily tighten at the sight, but the kiss was thankfully short and chaste. Cordelia pulled away with a gasp.

“So that’s it?” she said. “You just take them back?”

“Take what back?” Gunn asked, appearing out of nowhere. 

“The visions,” Fred explained.

“Oh. Cool,” Gunn replied. “Here. I brought you some clothes.” He leaned in and handed Doyle a pair of sweat pants and a t-shirt.

“Thanks,” Doyle said, reaching up, brushing Gunn’s hand as he accepted them.  They both pulled back like they’d been electrocuted.

“Whoa,” Gunn said.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” Doyle said at the same time, raising the hand not holding the blanket self-defensively, the clothes tumbling from his fingers.

“What happened to your arm?” Cordelia cut in. Angel followed her gaze to a gash on Doyle’s arm that hadn’t been there the moment before.

“Whoa,” Fred echoed.  She was looking at Gunn’s arm, where he’d injured himself in training a few days prior. His cut had faded to nothing but a thin scar.

“You didn’t hurt me,” Gunn assured.

“You healed him,” Wesley finished, stepping up and examining Gunn’s arm.

Doyle looked at Gunn, and then up at Angel, clearly flummoxed.

“What the hell?” said Cordelia. They all looked back at her and followed her gaze to Doyle’s bleeding arm, which suddenly stopped bleeding. There was a brown scab where a wound had just been.

“That’s incredible,” Wesley said.  Before their eyes, the scab disappeared; leaving a matching scar to Gunn’s, and then that disappeared too.

“Angel, man, I don’t –” Doyle started, and Angel could see the panic building.

“Okay,” he said, stepping forward and pulling on Cordelia’s arm to raise her to her feet. “Let’s back off and give Doyle some room.” Cordelia protested so Angel added, in a quieter voice, “C’mon, Cordy, the man hasn’t even had a chance to put his pants on.”  She glanced down, then flushed, and stepped aside. Angel stooped to pick up the clothes and then hooked one arm under Doyle’s to help him stand. The younger man stumbled against him and Angel held on until he was steady.

“You can dress back here,” he explained, grasping Doyle by the shoulder and leading him back to his office. Behind them, the voices of his team rose in excited chatter and Angel’s heightened hearing picked up Lorne’s voice joining the fray just as he and Doyle crossed the threshold into the back room.

+++

 

Doyle was impossibly tense under his hand, like he was investing all of his energy in keeping upright. Which, as it turned out, he was – the moment Angel shut the office door Doyle’s knees buckled and his trembling became full-on shaking, the blanket falling out of his grip as he stumbled. Angel caught him before he hit the floor and guided him to the ground, wrapping him back up. Doyle clung to him and Angel let him, securing the blanket with his own arms, holding him.

They sat there, silent except for the occasional whimper or gasp that escaped Doyle’s lips, until his shaking slowly subsided.

“I don’t have any good scotch left,” Angel apologized, pulling back when he felt Doyle begin to regain control, “But I think there’s a bottle of Canadian whiskey.” Doyle laughed, but there were tears in his eyes.

“Angel, man…”

“It’s okay, Doyle. I’ve come back too. I know what it’s like.”

Doyle nodded.  “I don’t know what happened out there,” he said.

Angel shrugged. “Wesley’ll figure it out; he’s good with the books and the spells.”

“Which one’s Wesley? Is that the one I –?”

“No, that’s Gunn. And the girl who brought you the blanket is Fred.”

“Nice people,” he remarked. “Oh god,” he said suddenly after that, bringing his hands to his head, rocking.

“It’s going to be okay, Doyle, I promise,” Angel replied. He shifted onto his knees, intending to stand and retrieve the clothes he’d cast aside, but Doyle’s hand on his arm stopped him.

“Christ, don’t go,” the other man pleaded.

Angel sat back down, covering Doyle’s hand with his own. “I won’t,” he promised.  Doyle shuddered. “Are you – how are you feeling?” he asked. “Can I – what do you need?”

Doyle just shook his head. “I don’t know, I just… just talk to me about something. Anything. Tell me about Wesley and Gunn and the girl.”

“Fred.” Angel shifted, settling down, keeping his hand on Doyle’s. “Okay. Well, Fred’s a physicist,” he started.

“A physicist?”

“Very smart. A little weird,” Angel replied. He continued on, launching into a detailed explanation about Fred’s love of tacos. It was surreal, to be chatting up his friend as though they were catching up over coffee, but Doyle’s breathing was evening out, his body relaxing. His grip on Angel’s arm began to loosen.

Angel looked down on him, remembering the blur of pain and confusion that had been his first few days back; reflecting on what Buffy had told him when they’d met about her first moments back, too. He looked terrified; Angel remembered the fear well enough. Talking seemed to be helping, so he babbled on for a while longer before he realized that Doyle hadn’t just relaxed – he’d fallen asleep.

Slowly, Angel stood and lifted the other man – just as too-skinny as he’d always been – laying him down on the sofa. He gazed down on him, reluctant to leave, but he knew he had to touch base with the others. Doyle was back for a reason, and judging by Gunn’s arm it wasn’t just to retrieve the visions. They needed to know what was going on.

+++

 

He emerged to find his team in full research mode – or at least most of them. Cordelia wasn’t having any of it; she’d been waiting, and she jumped up the moment she saw him and marched over. “Where is he? Is he okay?”

“He’s alright. He’s sleeping. It’s… exhausting, coming back to life,” Angel replied.

“I want to see him,” Cordelia said, trying to step past him.

“Cordy, let him sleep. Please.”

“But it’s Doyle,” she replied, and Angel felt a pang at the tenderness in her voice. She loved him, Angel realized. All this time, she’d still been loving him.

“Leave him be,” he replied, rougher than he’d meant to, and the tone registered, judging by the hurt look on her face. He took a breath. “Cordy, please,” he tried again, careful of his inflection. “You saw how he came back in to the world.”

“Exact opposite of how he went out,” she replied. “I was there, you know.”

“Well, then you can imagine how he must be feeling. And here he is surrounded by a bunch of people he doesn’t know,” Angel waved at the team, who were valiantly pretending not to listen, “naked as the day he was born. He needs some space.”

“The naked thing is a big deal,” Fred commented from across the room, speaking with the authority of experience. Cordelia glanced her way and smiled, but only for a moment.

“Trust me,” Angel continued. “Cordy, it’s not personal. Just… let him rest, okay?”

She looked like she was going to protest for a moment longer, and then she relented. “Okay,” she said, “for now.”

Angel nodded, turning his attention to his team. “What have we got?” he asked as they rejoined the group.

“Not much, I’m afraid,” Wesley replied, peering at a densely scripted tome. “I’ve found a few passages in the Abalirien Chronicles that speak to the healing powers of higher beings, but there’s no record of them ever becoming mortal again.”

“Maybe he’s not mortal,” Gunn wondered. “I mean, just ‘cause he’s flesh and blood doesn’t mean he’s…”

“He has a heartbeat,” Angel replied. “The only other higher beings I ever met didn’t have that.”

“The oracles,” Wesley surmised, and Angel nodded.

“We think he might have come from an alternate dimension,” Fred said. “The energy from the portal was awfully similar to what we experienced in moving to and from Pylea.”

“And you should feed your son,” Lorne added from the corner, where he’d been comparing notes with Fred with the baby on his lap.

“Oh, Connor,” Cordelia exclaimed, rushing over to the baby. Angel’s concern about Doyle was momentarily displaced by a rush of warmth as he watched her pick up his child.

Great, he thought. Doyle’s back from the dead with a mysterious new ability to heal, which probably means we’re going to need it, and he’s not okay, clearly not okay… and I’m having feelings. “I’ll be right back,” he said, suddenly overwhelmed, and bolted for the basement.

+++

 

He took a good fifteen minutes to get himself sorted and return. Cordelia had taken the baby upstairs and Fred and Gunn were gone too. Wesley was absent to the world, immersed in his reading.  Lorne was nursing a drink at the front desk and nodded to Angel to pull up a slab of counter.

“Feeling better?” he asked as Angel settled in next to him.

“I’m fine,” Angel replied. “It’s Doyle that we need to worry about.”

“No argument there,” Lorne replied, having been filled in on the whole situation so far. “But if you’re fine then I’m purple.”

Angel sighed. “It’s… complicated.”

“Ain’t it always,” Lorne replied, toasting him.

Angel didn’t smile. “Doyle’s back – that means something.”

“It’s not all about the mission,” Lorne volleyed back. “Doyle’s return means something personal, too.”

Angel opened his mouth to retort, and then closed it. He nodded, staring at the back of the wall without really seeing it. “He was my friend,” he said. “My first friend in a long time. He – he used to harass me to come out, have drinks, have a good time. I used to refuse. But he always asked. Every Friday night.” Angel turned around to stare out at the lobby instead. “’Course, all he wanted was an excuse to convince Cordelia to come out – and she knew it, too. And then…”

“I understand that his return was pretty horrific,” Lorne cut in quietly.

“As bad as it was when he died,” Angel confirmed.

“That kind of thing, it changes a person – as you well know.”

Angel nodded, feeling heavy. He thought about Buffy; how she’d stuttered through her explanation, unable to look him in the eye, unable to even cry about it, trying to describe the loss of the warm, safe place she’d been in and barely able to articulate the loud, unbearable world she found herself in now. He’d been able to relate; when he’d gotten his soul back the second time and then landed in hell moments later, that’s how it had felt. Loud; unbearable; an unspeakable loss. He wondered what kind of haven Doyle had lost.

“He’s going to need you,” Lorne was saying now.

“Yeah,” Angel replied, with a sinking feeling. “And I think we’re going to need him.”

+++

 

Lorne left him shortly thereafter, Wesley following with his nose still in a book. Cordelia wandered down maybe half an hour later, the baby having been settled in his crib for the night. “Where’s Doyle?” she asked as she walked into the lobby.

“He’s still asleep,” Angel replied.

Cordelia hesitated, looking past him toward the office, and then sighed, coming to join him on the lobby couch instead of heading in. “It’s Doyle,” she said to him, looking up at him with wide, disbelieving eyes.

“I know,” Angel said softly, feeling feelings again.

“I didn’t know,” she said, as if she needed to assure him. He wondered what was showing in his expression. “I had no idea that this was what Skip meant by Option C.”

“I know,” he said again, and this time he put his arm around her. She leaned in, accepting the comfort. Her hair smelled like coconut.

“Angel… I’ve never heard a scream like that, not even in my worst vision. We have to take care of him.”

“We will.”

“Good. Especially because the visions, they always hurt him too. And we didn’t do enough back then, to take care of him.” Cordelia was clearly feeling her own feelings, regret seemingly at the top of the list.

Angel’s heart clenched. She was right. Back then, they’d just pick him up, get him back on his feet, and load up the car and go. Half the time, he’d been driving. Doyle did things Angel would never ask of Cordelia. Hell, most of the time when Cordelia had a vision, they didn’t even take her with them. Of course, now there were more people… it was different. He couldn’t compare one set of circumstances to another. But still… he hadn’t done well enough by his friend.

“We’ll do better this time,” he promised, and she nodded, the anxiety on her face releasing. They sat together for a long time, Angel just taking in the scent of her, the weight of her head against his chest, both lost in their thoughts, before she gave up and stumbled back upstairs to bed.

Angel contemplated his room, thinking he should really check on Connor. But Cordelia would do that before she slept, he knew, and he had the baby monitor on the front desk. He thought, too, about going back into the office and watching over Doyle – but he couldn’t seem to bring his feet to move.

Doyle was back. He was alive. Doyle could heal. Something was going on. Angel leaned his head back against the couch and sighed, closing his eyes.