Symphony
by Katta

1: IF YOU FIND THE GRAVE TOO DEEP

Since Wesley was holding a rather large book, he rang the doorbell when he came home, but no one came to answer the door. This led to some awkward juggling before he could get his keys out, and when he tried them in the keyhole, he found that the door was unlocked.

"Don't get up or anything!" he shouted as he stepped inside and kicked his shoes off, still busy with the book. There was no second pair of shoes standing by the door, and he frowned a little. The book started to slip, and he hurried to catch it, but by accident slammed it shut. A curse escaped his lips as he frantically searched for his place.

The words still translated the same. It must be a mistake, though. Had to be. He'd double-checked, triple-checked, kept checking, but even so, he could have missed something. He'd wrongly translated "live" into "die" once; he could have done so again. Translations were always difficult, there were idiomatic expressions one had to take into account; after all, when someone said "I'd kill for a cup of coffee" that person wouldn't be serious...

He sat down by the kitchen table and continued working, holding the book open with his elbow when he took a pause to write things down. After a while, he stood up and got a few books from the living room before sitting down again. He tried out different translations. This word he had translated as "son" could also mean "to deny", for example, and he tried out each combination, only to reject them when they turned into nonsense.

Hours later, he took off his glasses and threw them on the table. Nothing he did would change the meaning of the words, not unless he was willing to convince himself that the prophecy was in fact a long-lost rendition of Jabberwocky.

He rubbed the bridge of his nose. This was no good. He wasn't even thinking clearly anymore. He needed someone to help him work this out, or if nothing else, at the very least someone who'd lend an ear.

"Doyle?" he called towards the bedroom.

Nobody answered, and he recalled how there had been no other shoes next to his own. But the door had been unlocked. He could have gone out on an errand of some sort, but not for -- Wesley glanced at his watch -- good God, it was three in the morning. Wesley didn't know at what time he had been home, but it couldn't have been long after midnight, and there was nothing he could think of that Doyle might be doing out at this hour. Except wandering the streets in confusion, if he was having one of his attacks.

But there was no reason to panic. Maybe Doyle was home after all and just sleeping tight, and he had been too tired to kick off his shoes in the hall.

Wesley stood up hastily and half-ran to the bedroom, calling again: "Doyle?"

There was no one in the bedroom, or the living room for that matter. Wesley even checked the bathroom, in case Doyle had lost it and curled up there, but there was no sight of him anywhere. So he was out, then. But why? And where?

He sat down on a chair in the hall, his thoughts racing in tandem with his heart. The phone was on the table next to him, and he tried calling Doyle's cellphone. But all he got was the answering machine, telling him that the phone was turned off. Blast it!

Answering machine. That was a thought. He turned it on, hoping there would be a message from Doyle on it, or someone else giving a comforting explanation to why he had left without even locking the door.

A female, vaguely familiar voice that sounded like its owner had a bit of a cold said, "This is Major Callahan. Johnny died this morning. I thought you should know."

He stared at the answering machine blankly before the pieces snapped together in his mind. Major Callahan was one of the women at the Salvation Army. Which meant that "Johnny" was -- had to be -- Johnny Trash, the man who had helped Doyle during his time on the streets.

This wasn't very comforting at all. Most likely Doyle had stormed off somewhere, which explained the door, but where had he gone? Wesley grabbed the phone book in search of the number for the Salvation Army.

There were about fifteen such phone numbers. He browsed through the book, trying to find the right one. There -- the right address, and the word "shelter" next to it. He dialled the number and was relieved to hear the same slightly nasal voice again. Not a cold. She had been crying.

"Major Callahan?" he asked. "This is Wesley Wyndam-Pryce."

"Oh," she said. "Hello, Wesley. Have you talked to Porcupine?"

It had been a long time since he last heard that nickname of Doyle's. "No. I just heard your message. Is he there with you?"

"No," she said slowly. "He was, at around seven or eight. He hasn't been home?"

"I don't know. Not for the past few hours." He licked his dry lips. "How... how did he seem?"

"Upset. Angry. Not losing it, though, as far as I could tell. But if he hasn't been home... Johnny meant a lot to him." Her voice grew thicker. "To all of us."

Wesley had only met Johnny very briefly, but he'd seen and heard enough to know that the man would be sorely missed. Which led to the alternative possibility, that Doyle wasn't having a psychotic episode but was off on an impromptu Irish wake somewhere. He wasn't sure which scenario he liked the least.

"And you don't know where he went?" he persisted, although if she had known she certainly would have told him already.

"No. I could ask around."

"Please do."

She didn't ask if she should call back, and he didn't hang up the phone, even though he knew this would take a long time. The prophecy had already gotten him on edge, and now this -- he needed to feel the presence of other people at the other end of that phone line. They weren't much in the way of company, but better than his own racing thoughts.

"Hello?"

Wesley gripped the phone hard at the sound of her voice, her return catching him by surprise. "I'm still here."

"I talked to Les, he said three of the others headed off at nine or so to get liquor, but that Porcupine wasn't among them."

Wesley breathed out between his teeth. "Well, that's good at least."

"He seemed sane when he was here," she offered.

"He usually does," Wesley said, "and then..."

"I know." The voices in the background grew louder, and he heard her say something to another person, though he couldn't hear what it was. Then she returned. "Sorry about that -- it's kind of crazy around here."

"I understand." And he could hardly expect her to stay on the phone just to mentally hold his hand. "Will you call me back if he shows up?"

"Of course."

He said his goodbyes and hung up slowly, dreading the silence. So Doyle was off Lord knew where doing Lord knew what, and it seemed Angel would kill his son.

Maybe if he had a cup of tea, his hands would stop shaking.

He went into the kitchen and put on the electric kettle, making a point of not glancing at his books. He hadn't been able to perform the miracle he wanted on them before, and now it felt like he wouldn't even be able to read two words in a row.

He couldn't remain seated either. Not while the water boiled, nor while he was drinking that cup of tea. He drank it slowly, trying to make it last since he knew he'd have to occupy himself with something else once it was gone. And yet it didn't last long enough, and he found himself pacing the apartment with an empty cup in his hands. It was really too small for pacing, only two rooms and a kitchen, but every time he tried to sit down he flew back up within seconds. He tried Doyle's cellphone again, and yet again, but it was still turned off.

Nearly five AM now. Where was he?

Finally, he heard familiar footsteps from the stairs and almost jumped out of his skin. He ran up to the door and opened it just as Doyle was taking the last few steps up.

"Where were you?" he shouted.

Doyle stepped inside the apartment. His face was ashen, and he shrugged out of his jacket as if he barely noticed it was there. "Johnny's dead."

"I know he is, I heard the message. Doyle, it's five in the morning! I've tried to call you. Why is your phone turned off?"

"It is?" Doyle asked, his voice toneless. He touched his jacket pocket briefly, but didn't bring the phone up. "I must have forgotten it."

"You forgot?" Wesley knew he should try to be comforting and sympathetic, but after the past hours he didn't know how. "I thought you had lost it and were wandering off somewhere! Or that you were getting..."

"Drunk?" There was a glint of something dangerous in Doyle's tired eyes, and it gave Wesley the pause he needed to shut himself up. He shook his head silently, knowing that even this small gesture was a lie.

Doyle sighed and sat down, kicking off his shoes. His movements were slow like an old man's. "I was at the coroner's. It took me this long before they'd tell me anything."

"But why...?" Wesley couldn't stop himself from asking, though his anger was gone now and his voice back to normal level.

A grimace passed over Doyle's face. "Can I ask you something? Say that you're a copper out patrolling, and you see these people fighting. There's this guy who has a piece of iron pipe, so the first thing you do is get him to drop it and then you cuff him. After that, you start rounding up the others -- only one of them's not too steady on his feet, and he's talking all slurred. What would you... do? What would you think?"

"Well," Wesley said, speaking slowly since he suspected they were getting to the heart of the matter, "I suppose I'd call an ambulance. In case he had head injuries."

"You might do that," Doyle said bitterly. "Or you might figure that he's just drunk and throw him in a cell to sleep it off."

All that sympathy and compassion Wesley hadn't been able to muster before suddenly hit him like a blow in the solar plexus. "Oh, Doyle, I'm so sorry..."

Doyle gave a sound that was half laughter and half sob. "Hell of a way to die, Wes." His voice cracked. "He was... yeah, he'd been drinking. Of course he had. But he was also haemorrhaging to death. In a fucking jail cell."

Wesley put his hands on Doyle's shoulders and pulled his lover into an embrace. It was awkward, with him standing up and Doyle sitting down, but less so than talking.

"Les thought he was trying to break up the fight," Doyle mumbled into Wesley's shirt. "That's what I think too. It'd be just like him, you know?"

"I know," Wesley said, stroking Doyle's hair. Another bona fide hero. How come it seemed to end in misery for all of them?

"But all they could see..."

"It was a horrible mistake."

Doyle lifted his head. "Mistake?" There was an odd tone to his voice. "Yeah, right. I bet they're just beating themselves up over it. Oh no, killed a drunk, must do better next time!"

He pulled away from the embrace, and Wesley let his arms sink. There was a moment of silence as Doyle focused his gaze on something far away. Then he snapped out of it. "I'm tired."

He walked towards the bedroom without so much as a glance behind him, and Wesley remained in the hall for a moment, uncertain of what to do. At last he followed, figuring that if nothing else, perhaps he could provide comfort by simple touching. It had worked many times before.

Doyle had just laid down on the bed without bothering to take his clothes off. He wasn't sleeping yet, just lying there staring at the ceiling. Wesley took off his own shirt and trousers and then moved over to the bed. Not sure it would be appreciated, he was a bit hesitant as he started unbuttoning Doyle's shirt, but Doyle didn't protest, and so he proceeded to take off the shirt and after that the jeans.

Through all this, Doyle didn't even move, which made Wesley feel rather like when he had been an embarrassed adolescent and Bess had coerced him into playing with dolls with her. He tried placing a kiss on Doyle's stomach. No reaction, positive or negative.

Wesley sighed and lay down, draping an arm around Doyle's unresponsive chest. He felt more alone now than before.

 

Wesley's sleep was restless, and he woke up around eight frantically trying to wipe off the blood from his hands. Seeing no stains, he stared dumbfounded at his palms for a minute before the realisation -- just a dream -- slowly came to him.

He didn't dare go to sleep again, so instead he reached for his trousers, careful not to wake Doyle. Now that he'd been sleeping for a few hours, he figured he might have another look at the prophecy. Not the words he'd been struggling with last night -- those weren't going to change. But there had been mention of a way to contact spirits, and perhaps if he managed that, he'd be able to find out for sure if the prophecy was really referring to Angel. He'd have to know more in order to do that. The details on how the contact was made were still a bit hazy, as was the kind of spirits involved.

He got a mythical encyclopaedia from the living room and popped some bread into the toaster while he was at it. The fierceness of his hunger surprised him, until he remembered that he'd had a very early supper last evening and worked through all of the night. Worrying took energy.

He ate his toast while browsing the encyclopaedia and the dictionary, comparing both of them with the prophecy. 'Spirit' was such a vague word, but fortunately the original was more specific. It wasn't a question of just any disembodied entity, more like a god, but not one of the major deities -- and the word was in the plural, which limited the options a bit, since not many powers of any kind worked in groups if they could help it.

Now, considering the origin of the prophecy... He consulted the mythological encyclopaedia again. Ah, yes. The loa. He actually smiled a bit as he turned the page. Finally something about all this that went his way. The loa were well documented, and he was reasonably sure he could find a ritual for contacting them.

The sound of footsteps made him look up, and he saw Doyle entering the kitchen.

"Are you okay?" he asked. It might not be the best greeting, but it seemed more fitting than 'good morning'.

"Don't fuss, Wes," Doyle replied tiredly and headed for the electric kettle.

There wasn't much to say to that, so Wesley just watched as Doyle turned on the electric kettle, and eventually he turned his gaze back to his books, figuring that silence was better than putting his foot in it again.

"What are you even doing here?" Doyle asked with disdain.

Wesley looked up, startled, but Doyle wasn't looking at him. Instead he was looking at the tin surface of the electric kettle, and he didn't seem to like what he saw there.

"You've got nothing to be so smug about, you loser bastard," Doyle continued. "You can be playing dress up all you like, but it won't change what you are."

Wesley left his seat and touched Doyle's shoulder. "Doyle."

He got no response -- Doyle's eyes were still firmly focused on the kettle.

"How many chances do you need to do something right? Answer me!"

Doyle raised his hand, and Wesley realised what he was up to just a second too late to stop that hand from hitting the hot tin surface. The kettle swayed a bit, but didn't fall over.

"Fuck!" Doyle said, withdrawing his hand. The grimace of pain on his face showed that he was back to reality again.

Wesley grabbed his wrist and turned it around to inspect the burn. It didn't look too bad, though it would probably blister. "Could have been worse," he said. "You're lucky you didn't knock the thing over."

"Luck's my middle name," Doyle said with a bitter grimace.

Wesley bit his lip, thinking for a moment before reaching out: "I'm sorry I wasn't very supportive last night..."

His attempt was greeted with a dismissive wave. "You can't help who you are."

The oddness of this comment made Wesley scowl hard. "Who I am?"

Doyle sighed deeply and looked away for a moment, before replying with mild sarcasm, "You're a good citizen."

Despite Doyle's light tone, Wesley felt like he'd been punched in the guts. "Good citizen," he repeated. He couldn't pretend he didn't know what Doyle meant with that comment. "And you're not?"

This actually made Doyle laugh, though there was no humour in the sound. "Oh, come on, Wesley, I never was. Might have liked to pretend from time to time, but..." He shook his head.

"So what is it you're saying?" Wesley asked, feeling like a gulf was opening up between them, one he had thought was long since closed. "You want to go back?"

"Don't be a fucking moron," Doyle snapped. "Back to what? Drinking moonshine and sleeping in an alley?"

He had a point, of course, but it wasn't as simple as all that. There was loyalty in the picture too. Had to be, for Doyle to stay out all night trying to find out what had happened to Johnny. "Back to your friends."

Doyle closed his eyes like they hurt, and ran his fingers through his hair, rubbing his forehead with the palm of his hand. "Shut the fuck up, will you? Just... please."

Even if Wesley could have found a retort to that, he didn't particularly want to. He'd only dig himself in deeper. Instead he sat down and returned to his work, figuring that right now, he had a greater success chance at that.

Doyle remained standing where he was for a moment and then opened the fridge. The action wasn't followed by any food being taken out; he just remained there, hand resting on the shelf.

"If you want to cool off the burn, you could try an ice pack," Wesley suggested.

Doyle promptly shut the door again and sat down. No food, no ice pack. His hands hung empty in his lap, and he made no motion to take any particular care of the burned one. After a while, he pulled Wesley's notebook closer, glancing at the words written there. "What's this?"

Wesley paused his work, trying to figure out a way to answer. He had wanted to discuss the prophecy with Doyle, share the load and get some outside advice. Now, that course of action seemed ill-concieved. Doyle had enough to deal with already, without having to play confidant for a problem Wesley couldn't deal with.

Instead, he took the note book from Doyle's hand and scribbled "loa" into it, not because he needed a reminder to contact them but so it wouldn't look like he was trying to hide his notes. Which of course he was.

"It's a prophecy I'm translating," he said, with an attempt at casual ease. "As a favour for a friend. An ancient prophecy."

"Sounds like there's trouble ahead for your friend. Any idea what it's referring to?"

"No," Wesley lied, "though I rather suspect it's a by now obsolete reference to one of the Babylonian kings."

"Wow, big news, stop the presses," Doyle said. Though worded as a quip, the delivery left a lot to be desired, and the end result was more embarrassing than anything else.

There was a painful silence, and Wesley contemplated going back to his books, pretending that none of it had happened. He could get the Mythical Guide to Divine Contact from the living room; it was bound to have something on invoking the loa. But the silence went on for too long. The opportunity to pretend that everything was fine was lost.

"You should do something about that hand," he said, nodding at Doyle's right hand.

Doyle looked down on the hand, which lay upturned in his lap. The palm was starting to redden. "Yeah."

But he didn't move, and Wesley got up instead, going over to the freezer. "I think we should start with an ice pack."

Doyle got up on his feet, glaring at him. "I do know how to get an ice pack, Wes." He walked past Wesley, his movements jerky with irritation, and took down the dish towel from its hook. Opening the freezer, he got an ice pack out and wrapped the towel around it. "See? All better."

"Doyle..."

"Give it up, Wes." His voice was tired and empty, but the expression in his shifting eyes the brief moment before he turned his face away was almost unbearable.

"I can't. I have to..."

"What? Help? There's nothing you can do." The words seemed to strike him as he spoke them; his hand closed hard around the ice pack. "It happened."

Without looking at Wesley, he left the kitchen and headed to the bathroom, where he started rummaging about in the cupboard. The rustle of a pair of scissors cutting through cloth told Wesley that Doyle was preparing a bandage.

Very well. It wouldn't do any good to push him further, and contacting the loa was just as pressing a concern. If Wesley remembered correctly, there was a man in Pasadena who had spoken of such methods. He went out into the hall. The phonebook was still lying open across the table from last night's frantic searching. This morning, he knew better what he was looking for, and his hand moved slower across the pages.

Of course, that might be because he wasn't sure he wanted to make the call. Say that he called his informant up, and found a way to contact the loa -- was he ready to hear what they would tell him?

 

2: I'M TIRED OF TRYING TO FIGURE THINGS OUT

"An earthquake?" The disbelieving sarcasm in Wesley's voice owed some of its tone to months spent in Doyle's company. "In Los Angeles. You have got to be kidding me."

But the loa were obviously not kidding. It shouldn't have been possible for a plastic hamburger to look so annoyed. "Earthquake, fire, blood," it boomed, as if repeating the signs would make them sound less hackneyed.

It spouted some warning lines and returned to being just a plastic hamburger again. No amount of shouting or insults could convince it to be anything else. Wesley considered physical violence, but decided against it. If it worked, the loa would be furious at him, and if it didn't, he would have destroyed someone else's property for no good reason.

So that was it, then, was it? A few vague references that could happen at any time, without any need for supernatural influence? Granted, the sky turned into blood was something that'd be easily noticed, but that was the third sign. By the time it happened, it might already be too late to help Connor.

Physical violence was looking better and better. Excessive physical violence, preferably. He brought a knife from his sleeve and aimed for the hamburger, but changed his mind. It was altogether better if he spent his aggression on something that wouldn't bring him a fine if anyone saw him. Replacing the knife with a stake, he headed for an alley further down the neighbourhood that he knew from experience was a common hang-out for vampires: dark and desolate, yet located between several crowded areas, so that people going home from late night parties had no choice but to travel there. And there were always those foolish enough to travel by foot.

He tried to look like one of those foolish people, ignoring the hurried footsteps of pedestrians who were either the real thing or exceptionally good actors. The only people he needed concern himself with were the ones who approached him. He slipped a small cross in his hand as a means to insure himself.

"Hey baby," a giggling blonde whispered in his ear. When he drew the cross, she did recoil, but not for the expected reasons.

"Shit," she cursed upon seeing the offensive item. "Fucking missionary types... you guys are, like, everywhere..."

He had to smile, despite the situation. Missionary type? Perhaps. But with a somewhat unconventional type of mission.

Soon thereafter, a vampire in full game face jumped out of a doorway like some villain in a bad horror film. It was an incredibly clumsy attack, and since Wesley still had the cross out from the previous encounter, he hit the creature right between its eyes without even pausing to think. The vampire howled and clawed clumsily at its face -- it had to be newly made to be so surprised by a simple attack -- and Wesley gave it no time to recuperate. A few punches later, and it had the chest wide open, ready for the staking.

"Not... how it... goes!" it complained, still sizzling from the head.

It had to be a very young vampire indeed, to still believe in happy endings. Live and learn -- or learn too late and die. Wesley plunged in the stake and brushed the dust away from his jacket. Gunn or Angel might have complained that it was too easy, but Wesley had gotten rid of that aggressive energy, and that was really all he wanted. He returned to his apartment feeling somewhat better, even if he was aware that nothing really had changed. He still had to prevent that prophecy from coming true. Loa be buggered, he wasn't about to take "impossible" for an answer.

The apartment was locked and dark, but this time there was a note lying on the kitchen table. "Out with Les & co. Back late. Cell phone off." The last word was underlined twice. Wesley stared at the note, at those firm black lines finishing it.

"Is that the way you want it?" he asked the empty kitchen. "And if you get hurt? If you start drinking?"

He crumpled up the note and tossed it in the garbage bin, feeling more desolate than angry. Doyle and Connor was just too much to take, and he wished for some medium-sized problems of the kind he imagined normal people must have.

The phone rang. He contemplated ignoring it, but the noise became reproaching to his overwrought mind, and he picked up the receiver. The hoarse voice in the other end was instantly recognisable as the demon tailor Doyle worked for, and his errand was simple: he wanted to know why the hell his employee hadn't come to work that night.

"I'm afraid Doyle isn't feeling very well," Wesley told him. "One of his friends just died and he's been taking it hard. He might need a few more nights off."

"Is he sick?" the tailor asked, sounding very suspicious.

"Well, not as such..."

"Because I don't have sick leaves and stuff like that. He knows that."

Wesley's grip tightened. "I'm sure you understand that under the circumstances..."

"No money."

Wesley frowned, wondering if Lewis Carroll had taken over his life and no one had bothered to tell him. "What?"

"No money until he comes back. None."

"Oh." That made sense -- cheap sense, but at least Doyle wasn't about to lose his job. "Of course."

"And he'd better come back," the tailor warned him.

"Oh, he will, he will," Wesley hurried to say, determined to make this the truth whether Doyle wanted it to be or not. He hung up and rubbed his forehead, but remained in the hall, watching the telephone. The longer he looked, the more that orange and black piece of plastic started to look like his lifeline to humanity. Question was, who should he call?

Not anyone from the agency. They were all too emotionally invested. Cordelia had seen Angelus, of course, and might be able to see the gravity of the situation, but Cordelia was off on holiday, and one of a rather private nature at that. He really shouldn't disturb her. At any other time, he might have considered Gunn, who had after all been forced to kill his own sister. But now, with that happy couple thing he and Fred were having, he had become so damned hard to talk to.

Wesley had to chuckle when he realised that all his friends were too happy to be taken into confidence, except his lover, who was too depressed. The humour in the situation didn't make it any less desperate, though, and so he thought further to come up with somebody else. Someone distant enough to see things clearly, yet prepared for the dangers that could arise. Not to mention someone he could trust.

There was Giles, of course, but even after all this time, Wesley hesitated to call him up, afraid to hear that bored , sarcastic voice dismissing him once again. And even if Giles might be convinced to help, involving him meant involving Buffy, who remained a biased party. The last thing he wanted was to repeat the fiasco of Willow's kidnapping.

Bess, then? Bess would hear him out at least, but did she have the disposition to deal with things? Most of her life, everything she'd done had been attempts at rebellion. Her marriage to Raja had been about the only thing she'd ever been serious about, and even that she'd handled as an immature teenager, sneaking and lying to get her way. He loved his sister, but until she learned to act like an adult, he wasn't about to ask her to come and hold his hand.

Yet the thought of her lingered. She was halfway across the world, off in India with Raja, when the two of them didn't leave the earthly plane altogether, but at least she could come if needed. If she travelled through the ethereal plane like last time, it wouldn't even take very long. Raja himself was a factor too. From what Wesley had seen of him, he seemed level-headed enough, and he was certainly an adult many times over.

This number he didn't need to look up, despite the length of it. He barely even looked down at the buttons as he pressed them, hearing the familiar three-tone tune of his sister's phone number in India.

There were five rings before the click, and then it was followed only by a tinny voice speaking first in a language Wesley presumed to be Hindi before switching to English:

"You have reached Raja and Elizabeth. We're not available right now. Leave a message or sing to our other address."

"I don't know how to sing to your other address!" Wesley protested in vain. He was interrupted by the beep and quickly struggled to regain composure, "Hello, this is Wesley. I... I need your advice on a matter, and... well, I'd appreciate it if you'd call me."

He hung up, feeling rather subdued now that this hope of help had proven a dead end. Determined not to bother himself for the rest of the night with prophecies that wouldn't change or phone numbers that wouldn't be answered, he started unbuttoning his shirt, ready to go to bed. Halfway down the row of buttons he stopped, fingers hesitating and then moving back up, buttoning the shirt again.

There was no harm in going over to the agency for a while to check on the baby. Sure it was late, but Connor was nearly as much a nocturnal creature as his father was. Wesley wasn't sure if that was innate or due to habit, and it might have been interesting to compare him to, say, babies whose parents worked night shifts -- oh, what was the point? Soon enough, Connor would be dead unless he did something. The loa had made it perfectly clear that he didn't have much time. Perhaps if he could think of a way to get Angel away from Connor or vice versa, it'd postpone the problem long enough for him to find a solution.

Taking down his jacket from the hook where he'd hung it, he left the apartment, hoping he wasn't clutching straws.

 

It was near dawn by the time he got back, and this time he found Doyle home, sitting on the sofa watching a blank TV screen.

"Some people would turn that thing on," Wesley said, sitting down next to him.

Doyle shrugged, still looking straight ahead, as though moving his head was too much of an effort.

So he wasn't about to start talking about his night. This taciturn Doyle was difficult to deal with. There were a lot of questions Wesley wanted to ask, but none that would lead to anything good. Instead he offered, "I was at the agency."

"I figured."

Two words were hardly enough to start a conversation. Wesley reached for the remote control, unnerved by the presence of that blank screen in front of them. He zapped past the channels until he reached Discovery, and then turned the sound off. At least animals could be watched in silence and still be considered somewhat interesting.

What was he to do with the silence he was given, though? What was there to say? He knew more or less where Doyle had been, the note had said so. He didn't know what Doyle had been doing, though, if he'd been drinking or had any hallucinations, and there wasn't any good way to ask.

Well, perhaps not to ask, but it occurred to him that there was one way to get an answer to the first question. He leaned over and kissed Doyle softly but deeply, letting his tongue track the tastes inside Doyle's mouth. Cigarettes, and salt, probably from crisps, but no alcohol.

He let go and smiled at Doyle, relieved to have at least one of his fears had been unnecessary. "Are you all right?" he asked, unable to resist.

"Not drunk," Doyle answered. "Not high either. Just tired, is all."

He'd seen right through Wesley's reasoning, then. Hardly surprising, really, but Wesley couldn't bring himself to apologise for the kiss; it had been sincere enough even if initiated for the wrong reasons.

"The tailor called earlier," he said, hoping this at least was a safe subject. "I told him you weren't feeling very well. You still have your job, but... well, in the future you probably should check in with him if you don't intend to come to work."

Doyle gave a very small, impatient sigh.

"Yes, I know," Wesley continued, "it doesn't seem all that important right now. And obviously I would pay your half of your rent if need be..."

Doyle finally turned to look at him. "You'd pay my half?"

"If need be," Wesley said cautiously.

"And I'd do what? Eat and sleep and let you take care of me? Fuck's sake, Wes, what are you trying to do, turn yourself into a co-addict? Live your own life, why don't you?"

In other words, 'stay out of my business'. Wesley withdrew, staring at the sea turtles on the TV set for a minute before replying, "I was only worried. That you might... give in."

The pause that followed was longer still. Finally Doyle said in what was barely more than a mumble, "So was I."

The admission was more than Wesley had hoped for, and he looked up, astonished. Doyle noticed his glance and gave a bitter smile: "But I did it. Hooray."

"Hooray indeed," Wesley repeated mildly. He knew Doyle had been more than half sarcastic, but he couldn't agree with the sentiment. It was an accomplishment. He moved closer and slipped an arm cautiously around Doyle's shoulder. Doyle leaned into it, closing his eyes.

"You want to do something for me?" Doyle asked, and he didn't sound sarcastic anymore.

"I do."

"Then fuck me. Fuck me to sleep."

Wesley hesitated. "Are you sure?"

Doyle's mouth tightened, and his small sigh tickled the bare skin on Wesley's neck. "Fuck me," he repeated.

"All right, then."

The crass wording made Wesley start out fiercely, his kisses and touches hard as he started ripping their clothes off. But he soon found that Doyle didn't play along. He didn't seem displeased, he just -- Wesley halted, unsure of how to continue.

"Go on," Doyle mumbled, kissing his ear.

He obeyed, but it didn't feel natural to keep up the pace, and so he slowed down, went softer to match the scattered caresses and kisses he was given in return. He took of the rest of their clothes and decided against going for supplies. The mood was fragile enough already without any further delays. Instead, he started trailing his way down with kisses, slowly sinking to his knees.

"You're not going to...?" Doyle started, sounding surprised.

"Maybe later," Wesley said, taking Doyle's dick in his mouth, licking it gently.

"Harder," Doyle said. He didn't sound lustful, or beckoning, or frustrated. He said it as if he'd been talking about how to scrub a spot from the kitchen bench, and if Wesley had had his mouth free, he would have asked again if Doyle was sure. As it was, he just obliged, trusting that Doyle wouldn't have said it if he didn't mean it.

It was a strange feeling, his own frenzy against those light touches, but the sensation grew on him. His skin seemed to become more sensitive to every touch, every tired, fumbling gesture for him to keep going. Doyle's fingers trailed his shoulder blades and made him break out into goose bumps, pressing his own hands against Doyle's slim hips in an attempt to control his reactions. By the time he felt the change in taste that meant Doyle was about to climax, he was already drawing near that point himself.

He moved his hands aside to be safe, but Doyle's climax was barely more than a shudder, and only a few spikes surfaced as his skin tinged slightly greenish. Wesley had seen the partial transformations before, but they weren't common, and at first he wasn't sure if he should go on or not. He ran his tongue over the spike, to try and tease more into emerging as much as to feel that intoxicating taste of pheromones. But soon it became clear that Doyle was very much done, and his own arousal became a more pressing concern.

"Doyle?" he pleaded, small tremors running down his arms. "Please..."

"Yeah, hold your horses," Doyle said, actually smirking a little as he reached down to take hold of Wesley's cock. His technique wasn't up to its usual standards -- he still seemed very tired -- but right now Wesley didn't need any technique. He pushed against the hand holding him, his body too eager to stop, wanting to come right now, and yet when he did he felt disappointed that it was over too soon, because at least this way they were still communicating.

He held onto Doyle until slender hands nudged him to move up, both of them half-sitting, half-lying on the sofa.

"Don't go anywhere," Doyle mumbled, his shifting eyes already half closed.

"I didn't intend to."

Doyle wrapped his legs around Wesley's, and before long he had dozed off. Wesley tried to find a position that would be comfortable for both of them. The sofa wasn't really big enough for two to sleep on, and he counted on being kicked and pushed all night long. Perhaps he'd even fall off and wake up lying on the floor, but it didn't matter.

Tomorrow they might be back to snapping at each other, but at least they had proven that their non-verbal communication skills still worked. Whether it would make any difference in the long run was hard to tell, but he sincerely hoped so.

 

3: I WAS POWERLESS TO DO WHAT I SHOULD HAVE

Wesley knew Angel must think he was completely unhinged, but he couldn't stop laughing. Seeing Angel so tender and protective of his son made all his fears seems stupid and small. Nobody was killing anybody; it was a preposterous idea. Angel wasn't about to turn evil, he was sane and good and decidedly better off than last year. They could talk this through together and then Wesley would have all the time in the world to try to save his relationship. He saw Angel's confused amusement at his reaction, and it just made him laugh more.

The earth started to shake. His laughter died away instantly, and he looked up, alarmed. Earthquake -- well, that didn't have to mean anything. Earthquakes occurred all the time. And Angel was acting like a responsible parent, trying to shelter Connor from the tremors and falling items. This was love as pure as anything he'd ever seen, certainly purer than anything he'd felt himself. There couldn't be anything wrong with that.

And then the falling stove set fire to the room.

Wesley could see Angel pick Connor out of the crib in order to take him somewhere safe, but somehow the concern didn't seem reassuring anymore, and not nearly as important as the flames. They rose higher and higher, and he stared into them, mesmerised. Was this doom, then? Was he too late? Nothing he could do -- nothing anybody could do, and he had been warned. It would happen.

"Wesley!"

He didn't react to Angel shouting his name, but when the vampire tackled him and flung him out of the room, it brought him out of his trance somewhat.

"Shh, it's all right," Angel cooed at Connor before looking up at Wesley. "Are you okay? You looked just like Doyle there for a moment."

Wesley knew exactly what he meant -- that faraway look that saw something no one else could see. He tried to rid himself of it, but looking up he noticed the cut on Angel's forehead, with blood dripping down onto Connor's fluffy blanket. A light blue little blanket decorated with white clouds. His throat, already dry from the smoke, went drier still.

"Did you think we were gonna be trapped?" Angel asked Connor, rocking him slightly. "Well, if we had been at least you would have given daddy something to snack on, wouldn't you?"

Wesley lost his breath. Angel had not just said that. He couldn't have. Not even as a joke. Especially not as a joke.

Angel started heading down the stairs with Connor, and Wesley wanted to follow him, but he didn't know how to move. Nor did he know what to do with him if he did follow -- snatch Connor out of his arms? And then where would he go? He couldn't outrun a vampire. He had to get his thoughts untangled in order to plan, and how could he do that?

Perhaps he should talk to Gunn after all, or Fred. Gunn was more serious in matters of duty, but Fred's intellect would be of great use in planning. Neither of them might believe him, of course, but he'd have to try to persuade them.

He managed to find his feet under him and started stumbling down the corridor. On the first landing he saw Angel coming back up -- with a fire extinguisher.

It was so strangely normal that Wesley let slip an "Oh!"

"Will you hold him, please?" Angel said, handing Connor over to Wesley. "We should really have more of these things, I had to go down two stairs before I found one."

Wesley accepted the baby and clutched him close to his chest, as if he could keep him there forever by sheer force. He could hear Connor whimper a little, but it wasn't an outright cry and might just be because of all the smoke and noise.

Angel took the cap off the fire extinguisher and started blowing foam all over the fire. "Stay back," he said over his shoulder. "I don't want Connor getting burned."

Well, that was good. Perhaps it had just been an ill-chosen quip after all. Wesley let his tight grip on Connor loosen a little.

"Wouldn't want a burned baby," Angel repeated, sending the foam across the flames in large sweeping motions. "Burned baby tastes way too much like bacon."

His attention was still on the fire, so he didn't notice Wesley stepping past him. At first Wesley only took a few tentative steps, but when he discovered the vampire had his mind elsewhere, he hurried them up, and by the time he got to the foot of the stairs he was very nearly running.

He could take the baby out of there. Not home -- Angel was still invited. But he could stay at a hotel. That kept vampires out. At least he thought it did. The Watcher diaries were blurring in his head. God, he was so tired.

Should he bring nappies and bottles? It might be hard to find, but it was also hard to run too heavily packed. Maybe he could call Doyle to come after him. If he could persuade Doyle to do anything at all. He stopped for a second near the door, trying to think.

"Wes?"

He spun around, facing Angel. He had waited too long. Should have been faster. Should have remembered how silently a vampire walks.

"Where are you going?"

"I..." He looked down into the baby in his arms. Connor's eyes were falling shut; he was near sleep. Incredible. "I was taking Connor out... for some air. It's all smokey in here." It didn't sound a very likely excuse to his own ears, and he could see the wrinkle forming in Angel's forehead. Angel knew he was lying -- lying or losing it. Maybe both.

He tried a smile. "Maybe I could take him to the park."

"Sure," Angel said softly, "but not today. Okay? You seem a bit... off."

Wesley chuckled. He seemed a bit off?

"Maybe tomorrow," Angel continued, stepping up to Wesley and taking Connor away from his arms. Wesley tried to tighten his grip again, but gave it up. What was the point? "I think you should go home and rest." Angel's eyes looked concerned; his voice was gentle. No more obscene remarks about feeding. "Spend some time with Doyle. Uh... how is Doyle?"

"Oh, fine," Wesley said sunnily. The lie came easily -- the world was already like something out of Alice in Wonderland. "Just fine." Apathetic, depressed, not to mention mental, but just fine.

"Okay. Good." It was clear Angel didn't believe him. "Go home, Wes. Have some sleep."

He watched Angel shift Connor on his arm, and felt utterly helpless. Nothing he could do, as always.

Though it tore his heart to do so, he turned and left.

 

Doyle was in bed sleeping -- a deep, still, uncharacteristic kind of sleep, but when Wesley poked him he moved over and muttered, so at least it didn't seem to be the chemical kind. It was small comfort, but at least it was some comfort, and Wesley would take what he could. He lay down on his side next to Doyle, his arm around that narrow chest, and tried to relax. It didn't work very well.

He took a deep breath and tried to tell himself that he had a good thing here, that he should feel blessed for that, at least, and maybe it would have worked if he had believed in his heart that Doyle was for keeps. He had used to believe it, but now...

His cell phone rang, and he rolled over onto his back, digging the phone out of his jacket pocket and picking up the call. The movement made Doyle turn his head, still sleeping, a frown forming on his face. Wesley looked at him, the phone forgotten for a moment as he pondered how many more times he'd get to lie like this.

"Wesley, brother, are you there?"

The "brother" got through to him, and the deep, slightly accented voice was like music to his ears. "I'm here," he said. "Give me a minute."

He rolled out of the bed and left the bedroom as quietly as possible, moving into the living room to sit down on the couch.

"It's good to hear from you, Raja," he said.

"You sounded worried on the answering machine," Raja replied. "You sound worried now. Is something wrong?"

Wesley gave a humourless chuckle. "You could say that. Angel might be turning into a homicidal maniac, for one thing. And Doyle barely speaks to me -- not that I can blame him, of course, he's having a rough time and I do want to be there for him. It's just that if Connor is in danger, he really should be my first priority, only I don't have the first idea what to do or even why he exists at all..."

"Wesley?" Raja's kind voice sounded both alarmed and slightly amused. "You're rambling. "

He most certainly was. "Sorry."

"Care to take it from the top?"

He wasn't quite sure what the top was in this instance, but he tried, and he found that with a bit of coaxing and questioning, most of his problems fell neatly into two piles: the ones concerning the prophecy, and the ones concerning the death of Doyle's friend.

"You said the blood was to be in the sky," Raja said after they had gone through all the events leading up to this moment. "But it was on his face, correct?"

"It fell down on Connor's blanket," Wesley explained. "Which is blue and has little clouds on it."

"Ah. You think the blanket is the sky?"

"Well... yes." It didn't sound very likely when put that way. "Do you think it's too far fetched?"

"I would say it's incredibly far fetched, but when it comes to clairvoyance, 'far fetched' is usually a compliment, so I wouldn't rule it out."

"Right," Wesley said, feeling on safer ground now that he had someone to talk to. "And even if I've misinterpreted the signs, they were very clear on the devouring part. It's only a matter of time. There may be protective charms I can work with, but Angelus is a sly creature; if he truly is about to return, I don't know that I'll be able to stop him. Part of me just wants to take Connor and run as far as I can get before Angel -- or Angelus -- catches up with me, but I have Doyle to consider. Maybe... I don't know. Maybe there's nothing I can do to keep us together. It's starting to feel as doomed as everything else. I know it's selfish to think of that when Connor might die, but..." He looked towards the bedroom door, imagining the sleeping body lying beyond it. "I can't lose him. I just can't."

"I can't help you with that, Wesley." The dark tones rumbled through the cell phone. "You have to deal with your own love life."

"I know." Wesley felt his cheeks heat; he had no idea why he had chosen to share that part of his problem to begin with, except how tangled up it all had been in his mind.

"And I'm afraid I don't know any way to prevent a vampire from going evil. I have not dealt much with vampires at all, and the question has never arisen."

Considering Raja's very long life, that was a deeply troubling admission, but then again, Raja was a musician. He probably was a bit out of the loop when it came to such things as a vampire with a soul. "I understand."

"If you want me to take the baby off your hands for a while, though, I could do that."

Wesley blinked. "What?"

"You know, just to keep him safe while you sort things out. If I took him to the ethereal plane, it'd be hard for anyone to follow -- certainly very hard for a creature without soul."

"That... that'd be fabulous. Thank you." It was the first stroke of luck he'd had in a very long time, and he could hardly believe it, feeling sure that Raja would take back the offer.

"No problem. Just hum me a song when you're ready -- I'll keep a line open."

This insight to the traditional gandharva forms of communication intrigued Wesley, and now that some weight had been lifted off his shoulders, he took delight in asking Raja more about it. After that, the conversation predictably went on to Bess's pregnancy, which was going well, and when Wesley said his goodbyes, he was feeling a lot better.

"Wesley, brother," Raja said before leaving the phone, sounding very serious. "I don't have to warn you that prophecies tend to come true when we are trying to make them not come true, do I?"

Wesley's heart sank again. "No," he said. "You don't. Still, better than nothing."

And "better than nothing" he would have to settle with. It wasn't as if the alternatives were flocking around him. He turned off the cell phone and returned to the bedroom, lying down once again next to Doyle.

This time, Doyle actually stirred, moving his head to face Wesley and opening his eyes. For about a minute, the two of them just looked at each other, and Wesley noticed that Doyle's eyes were unusually dark for him. Storm brewing he had time to think before chastising himself for the silly thought.

And then he wondered if the thought was all that silly.

Eventually, Doyle just said, "Hey." There was no particular emotion evident in his voice except sleepiness.

"Hi there," Wesley said. He briefly wondered if he should tell Doyle about his conversation with Raja and all that it entailed, but the dilemma solved itself when Doyle shut his eyes again and fell back to sleep.

Perhaps this was what Cordelia felt like living with that ghost of hers.

 

4: LET NOTHING TROUBLE YOU, NOTHING FRIGHTEN YOU

Gunn sat down on the chair opposite Wesley's desk, crossed the two axes he was holding over his lap, and asked, "So, you ready to take on some singing demons?"

Wesley's head jerked up. "What?"

"You know, the guys who hurt Lorne's friend." Gunn frowned. "You remember Lorne's friend? Kim?"

"Oh. Yes." That made a lot more sense than what he had initially feared -- that Gunn had somehow picked up on his intentions, or that Raja had appeared uninvited, or... well, any of the other thoughts that had run through his head.

He did remember Lorne's friend, a pretty singer who had been infected by Wraither demons. Poor girl. It was their duty to help, and he rather thought it might be nice to handle a problem that could be solved quickly and without agonised pondering.

"Ready to go," he said, standing up.

"Great." Gunn tossed him one of the axes. "It'll do you good to get out of the office."

As they stepped into the demon punk band's hangout, Wesley realised how lucky he had been that his brother-in-law was a demonic musician who was not only peaceful, but played music that was pleasant to the ear. The Wraithers weren't all that different from some of his sister's less fortunate human boyfriends, and as for the music they played ...dear Lord.

"Hey!" one of them whined as the A.I. crew barged in. "You're paying for that window!"

As demons went, Wraithers were not particularly fearsome creatures. The risk of infection was considerable, but they were quite easy to kill. Even without Angel present, the three of them could have killed the musicians and gotten the girls out without much trouble. Instead, Angel rushed up to the stage to take on all three Wraithers before any of the others had time to move. It was like watching a one-man pack of wolves, or a far too realistic production of The Bacchae.

"Get them out," Gunn said, ushering the groupies who had been listening to the band towards Fred. He was looking at Angel as he spoke, and his voice faded. "...The hell? What's up with him?"

So Gunn had noticed it too. Wesley shrugged, wishing he could have offered an explanation, but he could think of none more eloquent than the old proverb about the fat hitting the fire.

He was so caught up in Angel's frenzy, he didn't notice the Wraither that had stumbled off the stage until it was practically falling upon him. He had lowered his axe, but managed to get it up in time to give the demon a back-handed blow to the chest. It fell back towards the stage, where Angel proceeded to rip it into pieces.

The fight was short -- soon all three Wraithers were lying in broken pieces on the floor, and Angel looked up with a delighted smile, still in game face and holding a ripped off demon arm. "Now, that was fun!"

It was a tone of voice very similar to the one he'd used a long time ago to inform Wesley that what he suffered from wasn't an inferiority complex but actual inferiority. Wesley felt the hair rise on his arms. It wasn't Angelus speaking, not yet, but he now believed for certain that the loa were right; it was only a matter of time.

Even though they were just heading to the car, for which Angel had the keys, Wesley hurried his steps. He had waited for the best possible moment to take Connor away, but now he knew there would be no such moment, he had to do it when he had a chance or he'd end up with no more chances.

At least Connor was safe with Lorne for the time being -- of that much he was convinced. And even if Angel was turning bad sooner rather than later, the process was sufficiently gradual that Wesley should have enough time to contact Raja. Things were under control. All under control.

Sitting down in the car, he wiped his sweaty palms off on his pants and wished for a glass of water.

Fred leaned forward as the motor started to run, asking Angel, "Are you all right?"

"Me? Never been better. God, I'm hungry!"

He couldn't have thought of anything more unnerving to say if he'd rehearsed. Wesley's fingers started beating a rhythm on his thigh. As soon as the Hyperion came in sight he took off his seat belt, and when the car slowed to a halt he opened the door and stepped out without even waiting for it to come to a full stop.

Lorne was sitting by the reception desk with Connor, playing around with a bunch of stuffed animals. He looked up when Wesley entered, and asked, "Any trouble, peaches?"

"They're dead," Wesley said. "Can I hold him?"

Lorne stared at him with an odd expression, but handed Connor over. Connor didn't seem to mind, he gurgled a bit and lay heavy in Wesley's arms like a very comfortable sack of potatoes.

"They're very dead," Fred added, stepping in alongside Gunn. She threw a nervous glance at Angel. "I think they were dead even before you ripped their limbs off."

Angel shrugged and headed over to the fridge, taking out a bag of blood that he quickly opened and drank without even heating it. Wesley tried to think of a song and could only come up with Beethoven's ninth. Despite its ill-fitting theme of joy, he started humming it quietly as he rocked Connor, hoping a quiet hum would be enough for Raja.

But it was Lorne who turned around with a startled look in his eyes. "On second thought, perhaps we should return Connor to Angel."

Damn.

"He's fine here," Wesley assured him, holding on tighter to Connor. He continued the humming in the desperate hope that Raja would get there before Lorne ruined his opportunity, or that Lorne would understand what he was trying to do.

Both hopes seemed to be in vain. "No, really," Lorne said, reaching for Connor. "I think Connor needs to be with his daddy right now. Angel, listen, you have to..."

"Connor needs," Angel mocked, taking the glass of blood away from his lips. "Connor needs to grow up!"

This time, the echoes in Wesley's mind weren't from Angelus, but he still squeezed so hard that Connor started to cry. Wesley tried to ease his grip, but his hands were shaking so much he was afraid he'd drop the baby if he didn't hold on. He hummed louder, hoping this time Raja would hear him -- but Raja had other duties, of course, he couldn't be expected to show up instantly on demand.

Lorne paled into a grassy colour. "Wesley, give me the baby."

"No!"

Gunn and Fred were looking open-mouthed from them to Angel.

"Is everybody crazy?" Fred asked, her voice shrill and frightened.

"It's that baby!" Angel accused, pointing with the glass of blood. "We would all be fine if the baby would stop howling!"

Whirling, he threw the glass into the wall, sending blood stains all the way up to the ceiling.

There was a loud *whoosh* from near the door, and everyone spun around. Wesley missed the actual entrance, but saw Raja fold out his wings and shake himself like a wet dog. Behind him were two beefy demons who looked around the lobby with a mix of interest and apprehension.

"Sorry it took me so long," Raja said. His eyes fell on the blood stain on the wall. "I'm very sorry."

"It's all right," Wesley said, stepping up to his brother-in-law and gently handing him Connor. "Here you go. Now leave." Raja's yellow eyes met his as he lay Connor to rest in his arms. "Please take me off... the line," Wesley said.

"Now, wait a minute," Gunn said. "Who the hell are you? Wes, what are you doing?"

Angel finally caught on, lunging towards Raja. "Connor!" he cried out. A flap of one of the big, black wings sent him rolling backwards, and with another *whoosh*, Raja and his muscle men were gone.

"Wesley!?" Fred sounded near hysteria. "Where did they go?"

Angel rose to his feet again, this time heading for Wesley. "You gave him my child!"

He grabbed hold of Wesley's throat, slamming his head into the floor, and Wesley wondered if this was how he was going to die, throttled in his workplace by his once-boss. It almost had the tone of some tabloid story.

Behind Angel's angry face, he could see others gathering -- Gunn, Lorne, Fred... It took him a while to realize that they were clinging to Angel's arms to try and get them off Wesley's throat. Finally they managed, holding back Angel as Wesley gasped for air.

"Just to... keep him safe," Wesley rasped, trying to get his breath back. "You're going... mad."

"And you're not?" Gunn asked, still struggling with Angel's arm. "You just gave his kid to a demon!"

"Raja's... all right... Wouldn't have... done it... otherwise... He's my..."

Angel made another lunge, and Gunn had to focus on him for a few seconds before turning back: "I'm thinking it's best you get the hell out of here before he kills you and we never get to hear an explanation. Wait for me by the truck."

Wesley blinked.

"Do it!"

Considering Angel's current rage, it seemed like being elsewhere was a wise suggestion; now that Connor was safe, it was himself he needed to worry about. Wesley scrambled to his unsteady feet and left the lobby.

He sat down on the ground with his back leaning on the truck. Soon thereafter, Gunn followed, quickly jumping into the truck and starting the engine.

Gunn rolled down the window and said, "Get up. Short of staking him, I don't know anything that'd keep Angel off your ass for long. You're lucky Fred's got a taser, or he'd be chasing the truck like a dog."

Wesley scrambled to his feet and got into the truck. He was feeling a bit nauseous.

"What the hell were you thinking, English?" Gunn asked, driving out of the street.

Wesley leaned back, trying to find an angle that didn't hurt. "He was going to kill Connor."

"What!?" Gunn turned around, and the truck brushed by a lamp post so close Wesley could hear the post scratching the wing mirror. Gunn seemed too shocked to notice. "That demon? Are you crazy?"

"No! God, no. Angel. Angel was going to kill Connor. That's what the prophecy said, 'The father will kill the son.' I went to the loa, and they confirmed it..." Now that he started talking, he realised what a hard grip the secret had had on him, and he talked faster and faster, the dams he'd built up bursting.

"Hold on, hold on, the loa?"

"Voodoo spirits."

"Voodoo spirits told you Angel's going to kill Connor."

"The prophecy told me. They just confirmed it. They gave me signs... And you've seen what he's like."

"You gave his kid to some random demon."

"Not random." Wesley ran his fingers through his hair. "A friend. I had to do it."

Gunn shook his head slowly. "You really believe this shit."

"I do." He continued talking even though his neck and head ached, telling Gunn about the signs and how they had come to pass, and of Angel's erratic behaviour.

Gunn sat quiet for a while. "Say that it is true," he said at long last. "You couldn't have told us this?"

"You seemed so happy," Wesley said quietly. "I didn't know how."

"Happy?" Gunn sounded very disbelieving, and Wesley couldn't blame him. "Jesus, that's your reason? You gave Connor to some demon who took him... where did he take him?"

"The ethereal plane, probably," Wesley said. "Possibly India. They have a house there."

"They who?"

"My sister and he. He's my brother in law."

Gunn watched the road, thumping the heel of his hand lightly into the steering wheel, over and over again. "Well, at least you kept it in the family."

"I'm sorry."

"You should have told us."

"Maybe." He was so tired -- he hadn't realised how tired he was. Doyle's new habit of sleeping night and day was starting to look very attractive. "I was afraid that you wouldn't believe me; that you'd make it harder for me."

"I'd help, Wes. Maybe not the way you'd want me to, but I'd help. Did you tell Lorne? Was that why he was acting so weird?"

Wesley shook his head. It felt like a bump was forming in the back. "It was the humming. I had to sing to call on Raja, but Lorne read -- something. I don't know."

Another silence, stretched out so long that Wesley could see the building he lived in at the end of the street by the time Gunn spoke again.

"And Doyle?"

"No." The thought of Doyle made Wesley feel even more nauseous. This was supposed to solve things, give him time to help Doyle, but he had a feeling it wouldn't turn out that way. "We don't... talk much, these days."

Gunn's eyebrows flew up, and he sneaked a look at Wesley. "Oh."

"Oh, what?" Wesley asked with a frown.

"Nothing. Just realising why you didn't feel like talking to happy people."

That stung. He had been a bit of a basket case, he was the first to admit that, but he didn't want to believe that he was quite as immature as Gunn seemed to perceive him. Yet he had to admit that Gunn might have a point.

"He's barely home these days, and when he is, he's sleeping. Or hallucinating," he added as an afterthought.

"Taken a turn for the worse, huh?" Gunn's dark eyes softened a bit, and his hand stilled on the wheel.

Wesley nodded. "Ever since his friend died. Johnny Trash. You remember him, right?"

"I remember," Gunn said slowly, halting the car. As he turned off the engine, he asked, "You couldn't have told us that either?"

"I suppose I could," Wesley said. He felt miserable.

An annoyed sigh escaped Gunn's lips. "It'd be a lot easier for all involved if you took the weight of the world off your shoulders, man."

There was no good response to that, and so Wesley remained silent all the way up the stairs.

The door was unlocked and Doyle's shoes in the hall, and for once, Doyle himself was home and sitting in one of the living room armchairs in his underwear, staring out the window with a blank look.

Gunn did a double-take, and then stepped closer. "Hi... uh... are you in there?"

Doyle looked up. "Where else would I be?" He closed his eyes for a second. "Don't answer that." When he opened them again, they were keen and worried. "Is there something wrong?"

"You could say that," Gunn said, sitting down. He spent the next fifteen minutes explaining the situation for Doyle, who for the most part sat still and listened. After Gunn had quieted, Doyle watched Wesley, who looked down, unable to meet his eyes.

"Babylonian kings?" Doyle asked.

"I'm sorry."

"You couldn't just have told me?"

"That's what I said," Gunn said with a shrug.

Doyle breathed out between his teeth, sounding very annoyed. It should have been disheartening, but after all those days he'd walked around looking like a ghost, it was actually an improvement.

"You had enough to deal with," Wesley said.

Doyle scratched his forehead. "You have bruises around your neck, you know that?"

Wesley touched his neck. It did feel bruised.

"What if you had gotten yourself killed? You think that would have been fun to deal with, you stupid shit?"

Wesley smiled. He never would have thought it could feel so good to be insulted. "I'm sorry."

"Yeah, well, you should be." Doyle pursed his lips in thought before he continued, "If Bess and Raja have Connor, I'm thinking he's well off." For Gunn's benefit, he added, "They won't sacrifice him to any Hellgods or anything."

"Raja won't," Wesley muttered.

He was surprised to see Doyle's lips curl.

"Trust me on this," Doyle continued. "They won't. So the trouble is Angel, yeah? If the prophecy is true..."

"It is true," Wesley said, feeling exasperated. "I checked and double-checked."

Doyle looked to Gunn, who shook his head and said, "I don't know. But Angel was acting weird. He ripped those demons into pieces." A spasm of disgust went across his face at the thought. "I don't know what's going on, but it's got to be serious. Fred said she'd call..." His voice died away, and Wesley wondered if they were both thinking the same thing: that Fred might not get a chance to call. She was tough and resourceful, but even she and Lorne together wouldn't stand a chance against Angel if bad came to worse.

"Perhaps you should go back."

Gunn reached for his jacket, then let his hand fall. "Is Angel invited in here?"

"No."

The hand returned to its previous target, and Gunn stood up, pulling his arms into the jacket sleeves. "Okay. Don't let him in. One of us will call you."

 

5: LOVE IS WAVE, LOVE IS NOT SHORE

The hours went by and there was no call. Nor did Angel show up at the apartment, which Wesley chose to see as a good sign. He tried calling Gunn once, and the signal got through but went unanswered. Doyle stayed up with him, and they turned on the TV, watching "Notorious" together. Neither one of them paid much attention to the plot, but then they had seen it before.

Wesley never saw Ingrid Bergman be saved from her murderous husband. When the phone rang, he jerked into a sitting position, to find the TV airing an old comedy show. It took him a moment to understand that he had dropped off to sleep.

Doyle had already gone into the hall to take the phone, so it seemed he at least had been able to stay awake.

"...blood, huh? So what did you... Jesus Christ. You're shitting me."

Wesley stood up, ignoring the headrush it gave him, and joined Doyle in the hall: "What?"

Doyle motioned for him to come closer, and he did, putting his cheek next to Doyle's so they could both hear the phone.

"...did it," he heard Fred say in the other end, "but it has to be Wolfram and Hart. Who else would do such a thing?"

"Do what?" Wesley asked.

"Spiked Angel's blood with some of Connor's," Doyle said at the same time that Fred said something similar. "I mean, the stuff he's drinking."

The pig's blood. Wolfram and Hart had spiked Angel's pig's blood -- and yes, that would make a difference, wouldn't it? Apart from Angel there weren't many instances of vampires who drank animal blood, but the Council had done a few experiments to that effect and had found that it significantly lessened their ferocity, if not their evilness. He rather suspected that the first two vampires he had ever faced had been fed on animal blood.

"He seems to be okay now," Fred continued. "He's still mad at Wes for taking Connor, but as long as he gets him back soon..."

"I'm not giving him back," Wesley said.

There was a silence in the other end of the line, and Doyle withdrew his face enough to stare at Wesley's, his eyes round and blue.

"What?" he asked.

"The prophecy still stands." Wesley took the receiver from Doyle and spoke directly to Fred. "Listen to me, Fred, the danger isn't over. Until we know what the prophecy means and how we work around it, Angel cannot get near Connor."

"He's not going to like that."

"Connor's safe for now."

He heard Fred start a protest and moved to hang up the phone. Before he could, Doyle caught it and gave him a reproachful look. He shrugged. If they wanted to continue the conversation, fine, but he wouldn't wait around for them to try to sway him.

He sat down on the sofa again, but turned off the TV so he could hear at least Doyle's end of the conversation. When Holtz's name was mentioned, he almost went back to listen, but since Doyle's voice was calm and his questions casual, Wesley figured whatever had happened was already taken care of. Holtz was a human foe, which made him more difficult to deal with, but also less prone to random mayhem among innocent bystanders. He was a problem they needed to solve, but not an immediate concern.

Doyle put the phone down and gave Wesley a long, hard look. He opened his mouth, shut it again, and turned half away before spinning back and saying, "You're crazy. I'm fucked in the head, but you're the real deal."

Despite the sting of that comment, Wesley had to fight an urge to laugh. "I did what I had to do."

"Taking the baby away, yeah, I can see that. But keeping him away? He's not your kid, Wes. You can't do that."

"I can't let Angel kill him either."

"Okay," Doyle said, raising his hands. "Say you keep him safe, bit of help from the family and all that. Thirty years later, Angel meets Connor at the crossing of three roads, and whacks him one in the head. Prophecy coming true."

"Oedipus killed his father," Wesley said tiredly, taking off his glasses to grind the heel of his hands against his eyes. "Not his son."

"Not the point. The point is, I'm thinking Angel'd want those thirty years. I had my da for thirteen years, think I would rather have missed that?"

Wesley looked down, setting his jaw hard. "I had mine until I moved out, and I would rather have missed that." He looked up again, trying to meet Doyle's eyes despite the dim light. "This is neither of those situations."

"No, I guess it's not." Doyle proceeded into the bedroom, and Wesley could hear him pull some drawers out. At first, Wesley thought he was getting ready for bed, but there was too much rummaging for that, and then there was the sound of a large zip being undone.

He rose from the sofa and went into the bedroom. Doyle was stuffing clothes into a bag.

"What are you doing?"

"I'll be staying in the Hyperion for a while. Feel I should help out."

"But what..." But what help could you be, Wesley wanted to ask, but bit his tongue. "You never wanted to live there," he said instead.

Doyle closed the zip and threw the bag onto his back. "I didn't want to live there because Angel kept wanting to fix me. I don't think he'll be doing that right now."

"And I will, is that it?" If he raised his voice, that was hardly his fault.

Doyle sighed, stepping past him out into the living room. "Maybe."

Wesley didn't know if that was 'maybe it is' or 'maybe you will', but he did know how Angel had felt the year before. He'd never known Doyle before his death, so he hadn't felt the urge to change him back, but now... how could he not want it now? Even in the middle of this row, he was feeling relieved that they were having a row, that Doyle gave a damn and didn't just lie smoking in the bed, a startling habit he'd indulged in far too often lately.

"Well, I suppose if you want to leave..." he said. The question hung in the air. Half of him wanted Doyle to reassure him, say that this was just a temporary arrangement for the benefit of all. The other half wanted to force Doyle to admit to breaking up the relationship.

Neither one of those things happened. Doyle just continued out, closing the front door with a barely audible thud.

It should have been a slam.

 

Troubles of the heart made a body stupid. Wesley was convinced of it. He knew that Doyle had his own key, had seen and heard him use it hundreds of times, and yet when the doorbell started ringing he felt a sudden rush of hope after days of bleak loneliness.

The doorbell was still ringing when he went out into the hall, and that gave him pause. He had difficulty imagining Doyle being quite that eager, and he grabbed a cross from the hat rack just to make sure.

As soon as he opened the door, a well-manicured hand opened it further and Cordelia breezed in.

"Wow, moping much?" she said, stepping past him. "Seems I can't even go on vacation anymore. But what else is new?"

"Cordelia, why are you even here?"

"Well, somebody's got to." She crossed her arms and stood watching him for a while, and her expression reminded him of the girl she'd once been. "You gave away Connor. Someone should have a talk with you. But no. They're too busy being gloomy. And you took half of the books with you and they're not even coming over to take them back."

"You want the books back?" It was a trivial request, and he might as well oblige her -- the risk that any of the books on vile creatures and black magic that he owned would include anything on his brother-in-law was rather slim.

"I want Connor back," she said, walking into the kitchen, where she poured water into the kettle. "Books I can do without."

Wesley followed her in. "What are you doing?"

"Making us some tea. You look like you could use it -- and so could I. Doyle showed up all gloomy too, you know. He doesn't even do gloomy. He's done a lot of bitter lately, but not gloomy. Well, except that one time when his wife showed up. Maybe he just doesn't like getting dumped."®

"I didn't dump him," he said sharply.

"Well, he says he didn't dump you, so why aren't you together?"

He smiled at the unexpected news. Not dumped. Well, that was something. "He said he'd stay at the Hyperion for a couple of days to help."

"Well, he's not." She took the milk carton out of the fridge, smelled the milk, and tossed the carton into the trash without even emptying it into the drain first. "Staying there, I mean."

Cordelia's welcome new position as bringer of good news was instantly dissipated with that remark. He grabbed her arm, hard, forcing her to look at him.

"What!?"

"Hey!" She removed his hand from her arm, and then patted it a bit. "Take it easy, will you? He stayed there for a night, then he tired of our company."

"Why? How? Where did he go?"

"I don't know where." Judging from her expression and the way her voice slowed down, the implications of that hit her right then and there. "You don't think he's sleeping in alleys again? He may be a bit crazy, but he's not stupid."

"I don't know. If - if he's drinking again, or if these recent events have increased his hallucinations... I suppose he might be."

"He wasn't drunk yesterday."

"Yesterday? But you said..."

"I said he wasn't staying at the hotel. He's been there. Mostly to eat. He got into some row with Lorne, of all people. It was really dumb. Lorne's all reeling about the correct behaviour of musicians and how he should press charges on your friend, and Doyle wanted us to handle it ourselves. Hasn't anyone talked to you?"

He chuckled at that. "Gunn, a bit. Not very much. I suppose you all have other things on your mind. I'm sorry it had to be this way."

"That sucks," she said, and to his surprise she stroked his cheek. "I think you're pretty much all wrong about this, but I don't see how ostracising yourself is going to help any. Everything's worse when you're alone."

"I'm not..." Maybe he was ostracising himself. Staying away from the hotel had seemed like good sense, but he was still nominally in charge, and he might at least have called them up to see how things were going.

The kettle started hissing, and Cordelia pushed him off. "Tea coming up! Go lie down on the sofa and have a rest."

Whether it was her power of persuasion or just the relief of having someone there to try goad him into doing anything at all, Wesley obliged. He even closed his eyes as he leaned back on the sofa, trying to relax his stressed body.

Listening to Cordelia rummaging about in the kitchen, he called out, "Tea's in the far left cupboard. Don't use the bags, they're vile. And I'm not just saying that to be stereotypically British; Doyle agrees with me."

"Well, Doyle's British too, in a way."

"In no way, and don't let him hear you say that."

There was no reply, just more shuffling of drawers and cupboards, and Wesley let his thoughts wander. When Cordelia started speaking again, it was in such a low voice that he couldn't hear what she was saying. He opened his eyes and sat straight up, as if that would help, and groaned, "What?"

But she didn't raise her voice. If anything it sounded softer still than before. Was she talking to herself? He tried to sharpen his hearing, feeling a bit guilty as he did so, as if he was listening in.

Upon hearing the word 'Raja', he started, a suspicion rising in his gut. Had he misheard? But no, there she said it again, and the word at the end of the sentence was definitely 'wife'.

He stood up and hurried out into the hall, where Cordelia was indeed hunched over the phone. As he entered, he heard her ask in an angry hiss, "What do you mean, they don't have a phone in their other home? I thought they were rich!"

"Their other home is out of this world," Wesley replied, causing her to quickly hang up the phone and give him a wide smile.

"Tea's finished."

"Yes." He was still watching the phone, which made her glance down towards it as well. "I should have known this caring act of yours was too good to be true."

"Hey!" she protested. "I care! I'm caring girl, here. But you're not the only one hurt in this mess, and I got to try what I can to fix it."

"Admirable, I'm sure."

"We have to get him back."

"We can't. Not until the time is right."

"Uh-huh, and when will that be?"

"I've run the prophecy through a probability spell, that indicates that the critical period is above all the next month or so. Although I'm aware that the danger will in no way be over after that, if Angel's behaviour is sane at that point and we have successfully managed to prevent Wolfram and Hart from repeating their current attempt to unhinge him, I'm willing to take a chance. I've researched their current scheme, and it seems it was quite simple; as Fred figured, merely spiking the blood. I've also researched the origins of the prophecy closer, and there's an unknown factor that doesn't quite gel. Gunn said he'd look into it, but that was, as I'm sure you know, some days ago. I've tried contacting the local warlocks to find it they have any clues. So far, I've drawn a blank."

"Wow." Her hazel eyes were wide, and she seemed to have lost the desire to tell him off. "You've kept busy." She hesitated. "You can't blame Gunn. He's been tracking down Holtz's pet demon. Incorporeal, you know, so it's quite a job. Running around with a jar and stuff."

He immediately felt a pang of guilt for assuming that Gunn was ignoring him without even making an attempt to find out what was going on at the A.I. office. "Still having trouble with Holtz?"

"Big time." She jerked her head towards the kitchen. "Are we going to have that tea or not?"

"Are you going to keep trying to find clues on how to get Connor back whenever I'm not looking?"

"Probably."

"Mm. Let's have that tea."

 

6: THE RAINBOW CONNECTION

Raised in a conservative household and with a younger sister, Wesley had never gotten out of the habit of wearing bath robes when he left the shower, no matter how much any partner might mock him (and Doyle had done it plenty). He was most grateful of it when he stepped out of the bathroom and found Gunn in the living room.

"How did you get in?"

"Doyle opened for me. Nice robe."

Wesley paid no attention to the sarcastic compliment, his mind focused on the pale figure in the chair by the window. "You're back."

"Yeah."

"Where have you been?"

"At Mary's, mostly."

He remembered Mary -- a chubby brunette with a horrid taste in clothes who had been in the demonic anti-drug rehab program along with Doyle. What with the girl's own substance problems, it was hardly the safest of resorts, but at least it wasn't an alley. "Why Mary's?"

Doyle shrugged. "Why not?"

Wesley could think of a dozen reasons why not, and had no time to decide on one before Gunn chimed in:

"The prophecy's a fake."

That swiftly brought Wesley's attention away from Doyle. "What!?"

"Ah, yeah," Doyle confirmed. "There's that."

"How can it be a fake?" This was the answer he had wanted when he first started researching, the answer he had come to accept wouldn't be there. And now Gunn had found it for him? "The origins of this prophecy are well-documented..."

"The origins, yeah. Not the content. I had a little talk with Sahjahn tonight, tried to catch his essence and all that. Well, the good news is, the guy likes to brag. Turns out he got hold of the prophecy centuries ago and changed the words. Originally, it was something like 'the vampire and his son will kill Sahjahn with their souls.' "

"Something like?"

"I didn't have time to note it down."

Wesley sank down on the sofa, trying to process what he'd been told. A fake. He'd been through all that agony, slept so little, antagonised Angel and caused the rest of his friends a world of trouble -- all for nothing. Connor had never been in any danger, or at least no more danger than would always befall a child whose father had a tendency to make enemies the way Angel did. Sahjahn had altered the prophecy to keep Angel and Connor from killing him... and Wesley had helped him.

"My God," he said, relieved and troubled at once. "We have to get him back."

"Thank you." Gunn stood up, looking ready to head off on an interdimensional journey for Angel's baby. "How do we do that?"

Wesley shook his head. "I have no idea."

"But you did this! You got to be able to undo it!"

Gunn had a point. Why hadn't he worked out a safe way to get Connor back once the danger was over? He'd been so quick to ask Raja not to listen to his singing anymore -- which had to be a blessing for Raja, he was sure -- and not once had he stopped to ask himself how else he was supposed to keep in touch.

"He created a sort of... singing bond, with me. It's broken now. I have his number for the house in India, but Cordelia called there yesterday, and they're not there."

"She said." Gunn looked dazed, and Doyle too had risen now, hands shoved into his pockets. "Shit, Wes, when you do something, you do it properly."

Considering the situation, it wasn't a compliment, so Wesley didn't say 'thank you'.

"That music place," Doyle suggested. "What is it they call it, the ethereal plane?"

"Mm."

"But there's got to be ways of getting there, yeah? Ways those musicians get there -- the Gandharva?"

"Probably. I don't know of any." It was odd, seeing Doyle and Gunn standing next to each other like this, each involved in the case. They hadn't worked together on anything since those drug runners the year before.

Come to think of it, why were they working together? He asked as much, and Gunn gave him a look that was amused and annoyed at once.

"I bumped into him outside. He was standing across the street, smoking. Don't you ever look out the window?"

He hadn't, lately. His gaze was drawn to Doyle, whose calm eyes in this light seemed slate grey. "You've been watching me?"

"Can't afford to lose any more people," Doyle said softly. "Even if you are an ass."

"That's touching," said Gunn. "Come on, Wes, what about Connor?"

Wesley had been well on his way to smiling, but went back to a worried scowl at Gunn's question. "I don't know. I'm sorry. I'll help you search for a way, of course. I'm afraid I can't offer more..." That reminded him of something. "What was the bad news?"

"Huh?"

"You said the good news was that Sahjahn admitted to manipulating the prophecy. What was the bad news?"

"Oh. The jar broke. We're not capturing that bastard's essence any time soon. And now Angel's on the warpath, talking about materialising Sahjahn so he can kick the crap out of him."

Wesley shot out of his seat, shocked by the potential consequences of what Gunn was saying. "But he mustn't! There's a good reason Sahjahn and his kind were made incorporeal -- the mayhem they could cause..."

"Preaching to the choir, Wes."

Wesley continued out into the hall, heading for his shoes and jacket. Gunn and Doyle followed him, and he looked up at them as he was tying his shoe laces. "I'm going over now. Maybe yelling at me will keep his mind off things. Oh, and do stop him if he tries to kill me or anything, eh?"

A muscle in Gunn's cheek twitched in a suspicious manner. "Will do, boss."

 

Angel wasn't a joy to deal with, but he didn't resort to physical violence like last time. In part, Wesley thought it had to do with the vampire frightening himself with his outbursts during his time of blood inebriation. More importantly, though, Connor was safe -- presumed safe, in any case -- and he thought that made the most important difference.

In an ideal world, they would all have cast their anger aside to solve the problem at hand -- or more accurately the problems at hand, since there was still Holtz. But he'd learned long ago that the world wasn't ideal.

Angel would -- somewhat understandably, he supposed -- burst into anger from time to time and point out that this was all Wesley's fault for trying to hide Connor from him in the first place.

Doyle would drift off into lethargy, staring into his books as if nothing they said could matter in the least. And that was when he wasn't having a hallucination. They had become more common lately, and Wesley suspected that stress had something to do with it. It had been the same thing in England.

And then there was Lorne, who would complain that he couldn't believe that Wesley had dragged Raja into this mess, and did he even realize what might happen if the authorities heard that a Gandharvan Raja had meddled in the lives of non-musical civilians?

After about the fifth time, something finally clicked in Wesley's brain and he put the book down. "What authorities?"

"Oh, the government, of course."

"The government." That was Angel, voice flat.

"The interdimensional government of the Gandharva, yes."

"If you have contacts with this guy's government, why don't you call them up and ask them how we get to him?"

Everyone looked at Lorne, who opened and closed his mouth a couple of times like a fish. "Contact the government to ask them to help us translocate? That's... really not their job."

"Well, unless they have an interdimensional embassy as well," Angel said, standing up to tower over Lorne, "I suggest you make it their job."

Lorne nodded, somewhat shakily, and rose to his feet. Wesley was a bit surprised that this solution hadn't occurred to Lorne before. On the other hand, judging from his expression the Gandharva government, musicians or no, wasn't exactly the House of Commons.

For the next few hours, Lorne ran around like a nervous hen, making phone calls and sending them all out for supplies. Wesley was ashamed to find they were out of both eye of newt and powdered amethyst, not to mention simple cough drops. Those were things any self-respecting supernatural agency should keep around. At long last, Lorne took the potion they had created, drew a large circle around himself in the lobby, and sat down.

"Hear me, powers of music," he sang in soft, long-drawn tones.

They all waited with great tension, but nothing happened. Lorne squirmed a little.

"Hear me, powers of music," he tried again.

A voice came from the air, the melody it used similar to Gregorian chants. "The powers of music are currently in session. This is the secretarial office. How can I help you?"

Lorne spread his hands out to the sides and sang, "I am looking for the Raja of Earth."

"Are you referring to the Raja who is Earth's official representative in the Gandharva government?"

"Uh," Lorne said, turning to Wesley and whispering, "Is he an official representative?"

"I... don't know," Wesley said, stunned. He would never have expected celestial musicians to be so organised.

"This is the Raja recently wed to a human woman," Lorne sang to the unseen secretary.

"I cannot keep track of everyone's personal life," the secretary sang, sounding annoyed. "Are you talking about a skinny black guy with big wings?"

"Uh, yes, that would be the one."

"He is also in session. No disturbance allowed. I suggest you come here and meet him during office hours, or go to his private residence."

"That's what we're trying to do," Angel muttered.

Lorne waved at him to be quiet. "What would be the best way to go ahead with that? I need to bring with me some non-Gandharva."

"What am I, a travel agency?"

"I'm very sorry to disturb you with this, but I do need your help."

"Oh, very well. What is your name?"

"Krevlornswath of the Deathwok Clan."

There was a long silence, and then the voice returned, "Krevlornswath of the Deathwok Clan, you have no authorisation to bring guests to this realm. They will have to travel with the aspiring Gandharvas."

"You mean with the..." Lorne said, slipping back into speech. He caught himself and started over in song: "You mean with the rainbows and the paint and all that?"

"That is what I mean. Good day."

"Wait!" Lorne cried out. "Honey, I can tell you now how much I'd love to end this conversation, but it's been a mite few years since I went through this ritual, could you remind me how to perform it?"

"May I remind you that the Gandharva interdimensional government is a serious institution and that I as their secretary have better things to do than to discuss simple rituals with aspirants? You're showing startling disrespect, Krevlornswath of the Deathwok Clan."

"Oh, come on. Please, I really do need your help."

"Of all the annoying neophytes... Very well, I'll redirect your song."

What followed was a jumbled mess as new voices entered the room, sang a few annoyed comments at Lorne and went away. It was very like the hell of phoning any authority, except in tune. After a while, it became clear why Lorne hadn't considered this the most appropriate way to try to get in touch with Raja. But when the last voice had gone and Lorne started cleaning up the circle, they did have a full ritual noted down.

Angel took the notebook and glared at it. "Rainbows. Right. Lots of those in Los Angeles."

"Well, I hardly think that's a problem," Wesley said. "We just watch the weather report and go somewhere where it's going to rain."

"There is the daylight problem, of course," Fred said. "Rainbows don't turn up at night, and if Angel's supposed to wear gold paint only..."

Gunn snickered, and Wesley couldn't help smiling too at the mental image, even though he was aware that not just Angel but all of them would have to wear gold paint... only.

They'd look a right bunch of idiots. And that was even assuming Angel didn't burst into flame once the rain stopped and the rainbow appeared. He was rather certain that was an outcome that could be prevented, if the gold paint was put on thick enough. He pointed out as much to the rest. "If he's painted all over, it should work as well as clothes."

"Isn't it dangerous?" Cordelia asked. "I mean, in that Bond movie..."

"The key word being 'movie'. And I very much doubt a vampire's skin needs to breathe."

"I'm more worried about the singing," Gunn said, still chuckling a little.

"Oh, man," Cordelia moaned.

It was an alarming thought. Of all involved, Lorne was the only good singer. Wesley knew his own voice was nothing to write home about, and Doyle could carry a tune, but nothing more. As for Angel's singing -- dear God.

Lorne, however, seemed completely unperturbed by the idea. "Oh, not to worry. They have to give everyone one chance, no matter how bad you are. If things don't work out, you won't be able to return to that dimension again, though, so we have to do this on the first try."

One try was better than no try, even with singing, but Wesley still found himself wishing that Raja could have stayed in India -- or that he'd chosen to call Maureen instead.

 

7: AIR

"Rain, rain, rain," Gunn said, drumming his fingers against the side window in rhythm with the falling raindrops. The drying paint was starting to scale off his nose, leaving a marble-like effect.

Having yourself all covered in paint was itchy and unpleasant, but Wesley still thought it was a lot better than trying to put it on outside, in the pouring rain, before somebody called the police. Two cars standing on a parking lot in Nevada full of people painted gold might be weird, but it wasn't offensive behaviour. Nudity time would be kept to a minimum.

...As it had been so often lately in other areas of his life. He glanced over at Doyle, who was scratching his cheek, causing strips of paint to curl up under his nails.

Wesley caught his hand. "You'd better stop before you peel it all off."

"No risk," Doyle said. "I'll be washing it off for months."

The statement was crying out for a suggestive remark, and since Doyle didn't seem to want to make one, Wesley made it instead. "Or I could wash it off for you."

Doyle offered a weak smile and ran his fingers through Wesley's hair without a reply. Encouraged, though not satisfied, Wesley leaned in closer and kissed him.

The kiss had a slight tinge of paint, but Fred had made sure that none of the ingredients was toxic, and it had been a while since the two of them had been this close, so Wesley didn't let that bother him. He deepened the kiss, ignoring Gunn's muttered, "Wash off that paint any way you can, huh?"

"I think it's lightening up," Fred said.

Wesley took a glance out the back window. Yes, the rain drops were definitely smaller and sparser now, and there were flecks of blue between the clouds. If the weather report had been correct, they might be in luck about the rainbow.

He drew back a bit, wiping a flake of paint off Doyle's lower lip.

"Should we practice the words?" he asked.

Doyle shrugged. "We'll manage. I don't think the words will matter anyway."

"You don't know the words?" Gunn asked, sounding incredulous.

"English," Wesley reminded him. "I know 'Oh, say can you see.' That's five words."

"By the dawn's early light," Doyle filled in. "Ten."

That was usually as far as any singalong would go before it turned into mumblings. "We'll be fine, then."

"I think Lorne will do most of the singing anyway," Fred said. "Look! I can see a rainbow now!"

They stepped out of the cars and gathered together on the empty spaces of the parking lot, where Lorne painted an intricate pattern around them.

On the far side of the parking lot there was a dark grey van. It was so far away Wesley couldn't see if there were any people in it. Had it been standing there all the time? He vaguely remembered seeing a van earlier, but was it this one or one that looked similar? In either case, the parking lot was big enough that even if there were people in the van, they wouldn't be able to cross it before the ritual was already well underway.

"All right," Lorne said when he had finished. "Drop your coats and join hands."

"We'll look like the local perv convention," Cordelia said, unbuttoning her coat and tossing it outside the circle. "Unless we can pass it off as performance art or anything."

Wesley put his coat down on the ground as well, hoping it would still be there when they got back. It'd be wet and soggy, in that case, but it was a whole lot better than trying to stuff their clothes back in the cars and get back to the circle before anyone could put a stop to this. He threw a glance over his shoulder and was alarmed to see the front door of the van open and a woman step out.

"Better hurry up," he said, grasping Fred's hand in his right and Doyle's in his left. "People are coming."

They all quickly joined hands, waiting for Lorne to take the lead.

"O-o-oh, say can you see," he started. From the way he was singing, you could have thought he was performing at a baseball game.

Wesley mumbled along, grateful that at least he knew the tune. Doyle wasn't faring much better, not bothering about the words at all and just humming. At least his humming on one side and Fred's hearty singing on the other were enough to keep Wesley somewhat in tune, despite Cordelia's and Angel's much too loud croonings.

Halfway through the song, he had a sensation rather like putting one's skin too close to a hoover. Gradually, it increased until it became so uncomfortable he shut his eyes in reflex. He heard Angel give a startled "Ow!" so it seemed the song had the same effect on everyone.

When the sensation ceased and he opened his eyes again, he thought the transfer had somehow affected his vision. All he could see was cloudy white with dark shapes moving around in it. But the whiteness was cold and wet, like a heavy form of mist, and he suspected that was exactly what it was.

"Great," said Cordelia's voice, somewhat subdued from the mist. "We're in Care Bear Land."

"It's not supposed to be like this," Lorne said. He too sounded like he was speaking through a wad of cotton. "I hope we haven't entered the wrong dimension somehow."

"What dimension!?" That was Fred, understandably upset. "You didn't say there were other dimensions we could reach this way!"

"I didn't think there was."

"There's something stuck in my back." That was Angel, a tall grey figure close to Wesley. It seemed the order of the circle had been disturbed when they left.

A suffocating wisp of mist came by his face and he tried to wave it away. To his surprise, the attempt was successful. The mist stuck to his hand like cobweb, and the air around his face became clearer in an instant. He began to wave his arms about, and soon stood with two clumps of mist rather like candy floss hanging from his arms, and a clear view for arm's length all around him.

"The mist is thick enough to be moved," he hollered, and found that his voice carried a lot better than the others' had. "Wave it away!"

He now had a clear view of Angel and frowned as he saw the 'something' stuck in Angel's back. It looked like a thin gold chain. "What is that?" he asked.

Angel turned around. "Hey! You're clear! Seeing Wesley's gaze, he looked down and pulled at the chain. "Nasty thing... I felt it catch on to me during the ritual."

The chain popped out, turning out to be attached to a small harpoon. Wesley took a step closer and just stared. He had never seen anything like it.

"What am I, a whale?"Angel asked, affronted.

Fred walked out of the mist and joined them. Like Wesley's, her arms were covered in clumps of mist, but they were much thinner than his, and she was rubbing her arms together like a fly to remove them completely. It was a very sensible thing to do, and Wesley hurried to follow her example. Soon they were all standing in a clear patch among the great white mist, looking at the harpoon and chain.

"So someone shot you?" Gunn asked. "Those people at the parking lot?"

"I suppose," Angel said. "I didn't see it happening. We were already being sucked up, and I thought it was part of the process." He paused, then asked Lorne, "Is it part of the process?"

"No!" Lorne said, sounding agonised. "It's not supposed to be anything like this. Perhaps we did end up in the wrong place."

"No, we didn't," Doyle said. "Listen."

They all went quiet, and now that the mist had cleared around them, a soft tune could be heard coming through the air. It was very familiar to Wesley, and he racked his brain for the knowledge of classical music that had been part of his education.

"Bach?" he asked.

Lorne brightened up. "Earth music! Fabulous! Then we're close to where we should be. Now, if only we could get out of the mist..."

"We could follow the music," Fred suggested. "It sounds like it comes from that direction." She pointed. "That means whoever is playing is also in that direction, and that person is likely to be from Earth, seeing how Bach is and all, so maybe we could ask him how to find the Raja."

"Presuming it is a person," Lorne agreed, "and not a tree or something. But you're right, peaches, it's our best shot."

Gunn frowned. "Trees play music in this place?"

Lorne gave him a dreamy smile. "Everything plays music in this place."

They started fighting through the mist, leaving large clumps of it behind as they followed the music. It was a slow moving and thankless task, but paying close mind to his surroundings, Wesley could deduce that they were, in fact, getting somewhere: paths uncovered on the ground and now and then they would pass by a bush or a tree.

These were playing music, just like Lorne had said, but their tunes were weak and barely audible compared to the Bach tune, which was getting stronger every minute. After a while, Wesley realised that the same piece was playing over and over again. If this was what music was usually like in this realm, he wondered why Lorne was so delighted about it. Surely even someone musical must tire of a tune sooner or later?

For the time being, though, he was grateful for the endless music, since it was very easy to follow. He tried to ignore the quieter tunes, coming as they seemed to be from plants and rocks, until he heard something he was fairly sure contained words.

"Hello?" he called. "Is anyone out there?"

The song silenced, and then a muffled voice with a heavy accent called back from the mist: "You are the candidates from Earth, yes?"

"People at last," Fred said, sounding just as relieved as Wesley felt. "We're over here!" she cried out. "We're not candidates as such, we just need to see the Raja. We need to get our baby back. Not our baby, as in collectively ours, which would be scientifically impossible. He's Angel's baby really..."

She continued babbling, and a few minutes later, a bandy-legged dwarf with a deep tan came up to them, setting down on the ground the latest of a row of mist bundles.

"You're a chatty one," he told Fred. "That's good. Wouldn't have found you otherwise."

He gave them all a long, curious look. That in itself didn't bother Wesley -- perhaps humans weren't very common visitors. But it was rather unsettling the way the man's -- demon's -- well, whatever he was -- gaze touched, not upon their faces, but right in front of them, as if he saw something they didn't.

It became clear that this wasn't just Wesley's imagination when the stranger's eyes focused on Angel and he said, "You're dead." He didn't sound accusatory, just interested.

"I'm a vampire," Angel replied.

He cocked his head. "And yet you have soul."

"Yeah, I..." Angel stopped short, and his mouth opened in surprise. "You... can see my soul?"

"Without soul, there's no real music." He grimaced. "Not that I would call what you were doing before 'real music'. Good thing you're not Gandharva applicants after all. One good voice among the lot of you."

He sounded very matter-of-fact about it, making no attempt to veil what must be considered an insult. Wesley was very grateful that he'd had no illusions about his singing voice before entering the realm. He imagined an aspiring musician would have been heartbroken to be dismissed in such a callous way.

"Come on," the stranger added and jerked his head for them to follow him as he walked away, kicking the bundles of mist aside.

Cordelia seemed to have taken the stranger's attitude to heart, because she hurried her step to walk beside him. "I'm Cordelia Chase," she said, and there was a touch of her old self in her voice. When he didn't bother to reply, she continued, "And these people are Angel and Wesley and..."

Their impromptu guide looked at Angel. "Angel of what?"

"It's my name," Angel explained with calm amusement evident on his face.

"Ah." He didn't take this cue, just went on walking. Faced with this clear disinterest, no one made another attempt at introduction. They just walked in silence behind him as he kicked the rolls of mist aside and muttered stray phrases in various languages. What Wesley could recognise of them was all curses at the mist.

At last, they stepped out of the mist altogether into a park of some sort. There were very few people, but high buildings towered up beyond the trees, and while there were songs coming from all over -- not to mention that annoying Bach -- Wesley could also hear the more mundane chatters and noises of a town. No cars, though; this place didn't seem to have them.

They were led past a few streets to a large building. Unlike the building in Los Angeles, its largeness was in area, not in height, only going up a handful of floors. It was located at the top of a hill, and their guide led them up a long set of stairs and knocked on the double doors. A fat, dark-haired woman opened it.

"They're here to see the Raja," their guide said, nodding back at the A.I. crew.

The woman looked down the stairs, and her tanned face lit up in a wide grin. "Wes!"

Wesley blinked. This was Bess. Hearing her voice made him wonder how he could have missed it. Her hair was shorter, of course, and her tan much deeper -- and then there was her weight. He had expected her belly to be big by now, of course, but she had gained weight all over, so that her once sharp facial lines were now much more rounded.

"It's so good to see you," she said, taking Wesley's hand and pulling him closer. "Hullo, Doyle, it's nice to see you too. And you must be Gunn, right? Now, are you Fred or Cordelia... Fred? How lovely! Then you're Cordelia... and Angel and Lorne, of course." Having identified everyone, she ushered them inside and closed the door. They were now standing in a long room with rows of doors to each side and a table with dozens of chairs filling up most of the middle. A conference room -- or an unusually large dining hall.

"Sorry to be so abrupt," she said, smiling at them. "But someone has been playing Bach for the past twelve hours, and I haven't been able to set the gardens to keep it out. And then the white noise started to show up..."

Wesley stared at her, dumbfounded. She sounded like a hostess. His fundamentally selfish baby sister was being polite.

She grimaced, which made her seem a lot more like herself. "And to tell the truth, that god you were with scares me. He keeps looking at me like I'm pond scum. I think it offends him that we have the same name."

"He's an Elizabeth?" Wesley asked.

"Don't be ridiculous. He's a Bes. One S. And he seems to think he should be the only one. It's kind of annoying. Not as annoying as twelve hours of Bach, though -- I swear it's not always like this, Wes, you mustn't think it is."

She sank down on a chair, rather ungracefully, and motioned for them to do the same.

Angel crossed his arms over his chest. "We're here for Connor."

Her face went blank. "Connor?"

"My son." The last word was almost a growl.

"Oh, the baby! Right!" Animation flowed back into her face, but then she hesitated, biting her lip. "I can't remember... Raja's out, you see, and he was the one who took the baby away."

"Away!" Wesley exclaimed, shocked. He had assumed that Raja would keep Connor himself; that was why he had agreed to the deal.

"Away where?" Angel asked, still growling.

"I don't remember where." She sighed. "Listen, if I had known you'd be coming so soon, yeah, of course I'd let the baby stay here. But I thought this was a long-term thing, and I'm about to have one of my own. I didn't want to cope with two. And in any case," she added, with defensive hostility, "I figured it should be a single mum. And Raja agreed."

"A single...?" Wesley asked.

"Because of the prophecy. It didn't seem to say that the father needed to be biological. Did it?"

"No." It was clever of her to think of such an interpretation, even though he suspected that the cleverness had been motivated by the desire not to care for a stranger's baby. Bess could be very logical when it was in her own best interest.

"Well, then. I take it the danger is over now?"

"That danger is. Yes."

"Right." She gave them a long look, and her mouth started to twist. Only then did Wesley realise that they were still wearing nothing but gold paint. "Well," she said, "I certainly don't have to ask how you got here." Her gaze stopped at Doyle for a moment. "Suddenly I'm a bit jealous of my brother. Still, you'd all better get into something else. Wes, if you'd be a darling and hand me that gong."

He looked around and found a small bronze gong hanging on the wall. It seemed like the kind certain of his childhood friends' households had used to call everyone in for dinner. He handed it over to Bess, who hit it three times in quick succession.

One of the doors opened and a blue-skinned, four-armed woman came in. She was wearing a purple gown that could be considered a dress but might also have been a bathrobe. "Did you need something?" she asked. Her voice had a vague accent similar to Raja's.

"Gita, this is my brother and his friends," Bess said, standing up. "Everyone, this is Gita. She's one of Raja's assistants. Gita, I was wondering if you could help me get some clothes for our guests. And showers. They definitely need showers."

"And my son," Angel reminded her.

Bess rolled her eyes, which was hardly the best way to deal with an enraged vampire, soul or no soul. But before Angel could react, she also turned to Gita and asked, "Do you remember that baby Raja brought home? Where did he take it?"

Gita crossed two of her arms over her chest and scratched her chin with another, mulling over the question. "Oh... To one of his daughters, I think."

"Brilliant!" Bess said. "Only three of them are single."

"...Or possibly one of his sisters."

"Oh." She grimaced. "Quite a few more of those. Sorry, I think it'll have to wait until he comes home, then. But it shouldn't take long," she hurried to add. "He's just out trying to put a stop to that Bach music."

It occurred to Wesley that not only did he no longer hear the Bach music; he no longer heard any music. The only musical sound he had heard since Bess closed the door was the gong. He wondered if it was because Bess was so unmusical herself, or if rooms here were somehow designed to keep unwanted music out.

Before he could ask, Gita stepped up to one of the doors, opening it to a corridor. "So, about those showers," she said.

She gave Gunn a stare that was so long and appreciative Fred darkened into a shade that with the paint looked like deep orange, and stepped up in front of her boyfriend. Gita smirked and stepped through the door. Despite everything, Wesley had to suppress a smirk of his own. He had thought Gunn and Fred quite beyond relationship insecurities, and since it was obvious Gita had no intention to follow up that gaze with anything else, he didn't have to feel guilty about being happy that such insecurities existed.

Gita led them through the corridor and Bess walked close behind. Wesley observed that his sister now had a semi-waddling stride. Well, she definitely wasn't a little girl anymore. And yet when she stopped and opened the door to a nice if impersonal bedroom, it was with the same sly grin she'd had for most of her childhood. "Okay, Wes. You and Doyle can have the shower in here."

He started, realising that what he'd told Raja about his love life had stayed there: Bess had no clue. And it felt good, having someone who still thought everything was fine between the two of them.

That ignorance was about to be shattered by his hesitation, though. Bess was frowning. "Is anything the matter?"

"No, not at all," he assured her, stepping inside. "Doyle, are you coming?"

To his surprise, Doyle actually did follow, closing the door behind them. Unlike the sitting room, this room did have a faint tinkle of music about, but at least it wasn't Bach.

"So what now?" asked Doyle, sitting down on the edge of the bed. His hand reached for the left side of his chest and then fell down. No pocket to carry cigarettes in. "We're back to joined showers again?"

Wesley gave a harsh sigh. "Can't we at least be civil to each other?"

"Is that what you want? Civility?"

"I don't know what I want!" He stepped up to the bed and yanked Doyle back up on his feet, wanting to shake some emotion back into that once-so-expressive face. "Not... this!"

"How about this?" Doyle asked, pushing him back against the wall and kissing him. The kiss was hard and aggressive, tongue forcing against tongue, and it caught Wesley quite by surprise. Once he'd wrapped his head around the simple facts of "Doyle" and "kiss" and "wall" he went along with it, placing his hands on Doyle's thighs and pulling him closer still.

"Want to fuck in the shower?" Doyle asked once he'd taken his lips off Wesley's.

"Let's," Wesley agreed. The bathroom door was so close he didn't have to reach far to fumble it open.

The bedroom had been pleasant enough, in a nice-but-not-pricey hotel kind of way. The bathroom was luxurious. Wesley took a moment just to blink at the size of it, cream and peach colours stretching out so far people could live in the room. Beyond toilet, wash basins (two), and dressing table, he spotted something that looked like a jacuzzi, but as he went closer he saw that it was a bath tub sunk into the floor with a number of faucets lined up by its edge along with a shower head.

"Well," he said, going down the steps into the large tub. "I suppose this is where we have our shower. Though which of these faucets it is..."

Doyle stepped down after him and turned on a faucet. It caused little fountains of water to come out of the floor, and he quickly shut it off, trying another. That one made the water stream from the tub walls. A third shut the little openings in the corners of the tub.

"We could have a bath," Wesley suggested.

"Not with all this paint on us." Doyle turned yet another faucet as he spoke, and this time water started streaming out of the showerhead. Having found what he wanted, he pushed Wesley to the side of the tub, in much the same way he'd done it in the bedroom.

His aggressive eagerness was quite the turn-on, but Wesley suspected that in this frame of mind, Doyle wouldn't worry about anyone's pleasure but his own. And so he pushed right back, pinning Doyle against the tub's opposite side.

The paint was already melting away in the water, making Doyle's skin slippery and hard to grip. Wesley started rubbing it away, moving his hands roughly over Doyle's skin. Doyle did the same to him, until both of them were paint-free enough to continue what they were doing. Among the various bottles lined up on the tub's edge, there was bath oil that, when Wesley poured it into his hand, started playing Handel's Messiah in thin, music-box tones. Having applied the oil, Wesley grabbed Doyle's shoulders and held him up a little, making it easier to get inside.

The sex was rough and hectic, and reminded Wesley of his school years, except now he needn't worry about discovery. Perhaps this association was why he turned so quiet. Neither of them spoke or made much of a noise, save heavy breathing, right up until the point where Doyle reached his orgasm and turned into demon shape. Caught up in a moment, Wesley hadn't noticed where he put his hands, and so the burning sensation of spines going through his skin was completely unexpected to him.

The burning only lasted for a moment. Then there was bliss, deep, glorious bliss that made Wesley come within seconds. It was stronger than anything he'd felt just licking those spines, and for a while he was aware of nothing. Only very slowly did he become aware of Doyle's hands holding him up, and slower still was the sound of Doyle's voice coming back to him.

The first word he heard clearly was "...white."

"What's white?" he asked, the words hard to form.

"The room is."

He shook his head, knowing that this was wrong. "Pink. Yellow."

"Not anymore. Look."

He hadn't been aware that his eyes were closed, perhaps because they were so heavy that it felt natural to keep them that way. Opening them was hard, and he blinked at the light a couple of times. It was brighter than it should be. The whole room was brighter than it should be -- owing to the fact that it was now marble white with faint streaks of blue. Even the furnishing was different. He blinked some more. "Huh."

"Guess we're lucky the tub didn't close up while we were still in it."

"Oh, I'm sure Bess would have told us if this room was dangerous," he said without much conviction. The music was different too. Rockier. And the tune... He realised it was the Rolling Stones's "Satisfaction". That was just a bit too unnerving to be a coincidence. Well, he had gotten his satisfaction -- did that mean Doyle hadn't? In any case, the music made him uncomfortable, and he started scrubbing the paint off his back to occupy his mind. Red mixed with the gold, and he stared at it dumbfounded until the coin dropped: His hands. Punched through with spines. Bloody. Right.

The Rolling Stones were drowned out by music coming from downstairs. The words were unintelligible, but the brass harmonies came through loud and clear. Wesley stopped scrubbing. "That's a rather loud way to say 'honey, I'm home.' "

Doyle actually smiled a little. "The king has entered the building, huh?"

 

8. R-E-S-P-E-C-T

They walked downstairs, wearing clothes that had somehow appeared on the bed while they were taking the shower. Wesley hoped they had gotten there by magic. The thought of that blue girl - or worse, Bess - tiptoeing about in the bedroom and leaving clothes around while they were having sex in the shower was much too distressing.

It was nice to have clothes again, though, and they were very much like what he would have chosen - a bit more decorated, perhaps, but still your basic shirt and pants, not a bathrobe like Gita's. Doyle had gotten a bright green shirt and a pair of jeans, and both their sizes had been matched exactly right. It lent some credibility to the theory that they had arrived by magic - Wesley could see Bess picking out clothes to fit their styles, but he doubted she had noticed their sizes.

The voice of Aretha Franklin was coming from the hall below, vibrating through the walls and floor. If this was everyday life on the ethereal plane, it had a lot in common with Caritas. Even the demons gathered together around the table were very similar: a shaggy, animal bunch with a few more or less human faces sticking out.

Angel was leaning against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest. "They're having a meeting," he said, sounding ready to break up said meeting by any means necessary if it went on for much longer.

"About Connor?" Wesley asked, watching the group enngage in a long and heated discussion in sing-song voices. Whenever they got too loud, Raja raised his hand, and Aretha increased in volume until the quarrellers calmed down again. Wesley wished he could understand what they were saying - apart from Aretha, everything was sung in a language unknown to him.

"No, as far as I can tell, it's about that mist," Angel said. "At least, that was what it was about while they were still speaking English. Care to tell your brother-in-law to get a move on with things?"

Despite their shagginess, the group of demons looked so serene Wesley didn't dare step in; it'd be even worse than interrupting a meeting with the Council of Watchers. Instead, he approached Lorne and asked in a hushed voice, "What's going on?"

"They're talking about the white noise," Lorne responded. "You know, the mist we stepped into. Some of them think it's our fault. Apparently, it only showed up about the time we did. So that guy with the curved horns claimed it's because we're Westerners, and some of us are women, and Raja tried pointing out that there were Westerners and women among the Gandharva way before this, and now they're discussing whether or not that was where they went wrong in the first place." He made a grimace. "They're not exactly the ideal welcoming committee, are they?"

Doyle had stepped up to Wesley and the others, and now touched the back of Wesley's head lightly to get his attention. "What are they doing to him?"

Wesley wasn't sure what he meant, but he turned his attention back to Raja - and saw that every time one of the other demons sang something in that angry tone of voice, thin needles of black air shot out from them. The gestures Raja made, the ones that caused Aretha's voice to ring out louder, also deflected those needles. He was defending himself not only vocally but physically.

Wesley shook his head. "What is that?" he asked, echoing Doyle.

"Dis-chords," Lorne said grimly. "Nasty things if they hit you. These are pretty weak ones, but I never saw anyone use them against a person in his own home before."

Wesley watched the scene before him with renewed concern. The last thing they needed was political complications. Fortunately, the meeting called to a halt; the various demons rose from their seats and headed for the front door, some of them departing with an amiable handshake or bow, others with frowns and glares. One stopped in the doorway and spat out something that sounded like a brief and severe insult before leaving.

Bess took a deep breath once they had all left, and smiled. "Well, that was fun, wasn't it? I hope you feel right at home!"

"Too much," Wesley muttered.

Raja chuckled a little and got up from his chair. He was looking so worn and tired that he mosly resembled a baby vulture. It was a far cry from the awe-inspiring creature in a smoky demon night club so many months ago, and the official-looking grandeur of the room only accentuated the feeling. But his smile was genuine as he said, with just a hint of melody in his voice "Sorry to have kept you waiting. So, you've come for the baby?"

"Where is he?" Angel asked.

The threatening tone made Raja throw a startled glance at Wesley, who nodded slightly to show it was safe to tell Angel the truth.

"He's with my daughter, Mira," Raja said. "She's taking good care of him, I assure you."

Angel scowled and asked, "Yeah? Has she helped you steal babies before?"

"She stole no one," Raja said, all hints of music instantly disappearing from his voice. "As for me, I was under the impression that it was an emergency, in which case I saw it not only as proper, but as my obligation to help. Was I mistaken?"

The last question was directed to Wesley, who shook his head. "No. I was."

"Oh." Raja's attention returned to Angel, and his eyes went very serious. "I'm sorry. I can't imagine what I'd do if someone took one of my children. All I can say is, I thought I did what was necessary to protect your son."

Angel nodded, letting his arms sink to his sides. "Can we go get him now?" he pleaded.

"Absolutely," Raja said, the melody coming through strong in his voice, though he was still not quite singing. He did a head-count and then led them all to the door and out into the street.

Angel stopped just inside the door and gave an apologetic shrug. "I'll need something to cover me now that I've washed off the paint." He pointed towards the sky, which was overcast but still fairly bright. "Daylight. Wouldn't want to burst into flames."

"Oh, don't worry about it," Raja said, waving the concern away. "It's a safe dimension. Well, mostly safe. It's not set up to incarcerate visitors, in any case."

Angel stepped over the threshold, clearly ready to bout back inside in case Raja had been mistaken, but when nothing happened, he relaxed and grinned widely. "It's just like being back in Pylea!"

"Don't break my heart, Angelcakes," Lorne muttered.

Raja was doing a headcount, a deep frown on his face. "I can't translocate this many. Will an elephant be acceptable?"

"Are you talking about an actual elephant?" Fred said, sounding as excited as if she was four years old and on her first zoo trip. "And we're going to ride it?"

Bess smiled and put two fingers between her lips, giving a loud whistle.

They waited. Wesley dared say that Fred even held her breath. After a few minutes Angel squirmed a little and asked, "Are you sure..."

"Yeah," Bess said, pointing down the street, where a large elephant came trotting along.

They were all rather dumbfounded, except for Cordelia, who asked, "Do you have people and animals just waiting around the corner to serve you? Because in that case, I want your life!"

Bess smiled. "It's a public elephant. Kind of like a taxi. And the staff translocate if we need them - it's one of the very few Gandharva skills I hope I may be able to learn."

A curly head rose from the seat on the elephant's back, looking curiously at them. Soon thereafter a stepladder was lowered down to the ground and the head, it turned out, was followed by wiry, fuzzy arms and goat-shaped legs. Wesley blinked. A faun. Or if not an actual faun, something so very like such a creature as to merit the name, though the human face giving them all a polite smile was Indian, not Greek.

"Namaskar," the faun sang, drawing out the notes of this one word until he had taken the last cautious steps down onto the ground. He was shorter than all of them and slight in build, though the goat part of him was larger than the average goat.

"Namaskar," Raja greeted back, and the two of them spoke in Hindi for a while, before the faun turned to the others and made an inviting gesture towards the stepladder.

"Three will be enough," he said in English, struggling to keep his words in speech instead of tone. He offered his hand to Bess. "Do you need help up, rani?"

"Just give me a push and I'll roll," she replied. But she did take the offered hand and quite a bit of arm too, struggling to get into the seat.

Another elephant was already approaching, this one driven by a small frog-like demon who waved at the faun. The faun waved back, and offered his hand to Fred.

"Ladies on this one?" he suggested. "And three more on the next. A third should come soon."

Fred climbed up with great gusto, and though Cordelia tried to look a bit more blasť doing the same, she couldn't hide her enthusiasm. The three women all squashed together a bit in the seat to fit in, and Wesley threw a last, worried glance at Bess. To his relief, Raja was doing the same thing, and it made it a little bit easier to turn away and head over to the second elephant. Doyle was coming with him, which made him wonder if perhaps their activities in the bathroom earlier had been a sign of affection from Doyle's side, rather than just the horniness Wesley had taken it for.

It wasn't a question he felt like asking, particularly not after Lorne joined them on the elephant and engaged in a duet with the driver before they had even started moving. Wesley placed his hand on Doyle's thigh and squeezed a little, giving him a questioning glance.

He got a tiny smile in reply. It lasted only a moment, then Doyle looked up at the sky, frowned, and started turning his head this way and that to look at different parts of the sky.

"What's wrong?"

"There's no sun."

"Of course there is, it's just..." Wesley started, looking up. His voice died away. The clouds had started to drift away, and so he noticed that while there was indeed daylight coming from the sky, it was impossible to tell where that light came from. "Well, I'll be damned."

"What's the problem?" Lorne asked, interrupting his song. "Why are you dancing around in the back seat?"

"There's..." Wesley started, and then changed into a question, "Is there no sun, here?"

"Usually not, in the Earth parts," Lorne said with a grimace. "Most of these guys are Indian or Mediterranean and they prefer it like this." He gestured towards the sky. "I'm sure we could get a bit of sun if we all tried, though. Do you need some rays to cheer you up, honeyloops?"

The last question was directed at Doyle. If anyone else had called his boyfriend "honeyloops", Wesley might have been a bit upset.

Doyle shook his head. "Better not, in case Raja's wrong and it's not safe after all. I don't think Angel'd be too cheered if he was barbecued because of us."

With that remark, the implications of what Lorne had said sank in, and Wesley's eyes widened. "Hang on - people here make the sun?"

"People here make the everything," Lorne said. "People make the music, the music makes the world. Creates a pretty unstable environment, I can tell you. I'm not even sure what these elephants are - Gandharva, or illusions, or what. Hang on, I'll ask."

He serenaded the frog demon again, and Wesley looked some more at the sky. Now that he knew it was an illusion, he tried to find some signs of it, but apart from the lack of a sun, it looked much too physical. Not to mention the road and the houses. Apart from the strands of music coming from everywhere, twining itself into new harmonies as they travelled along, it all seemed so normal, so real. He wondered if this was what Doyle's hallucinations were like, only of course then there was the horror aspect to take into consideration. He stroked the inside of Doyle's thigh, a weak substitute for actual comfort.

Lorne turned back again after a bit of croaky singing from the driver. "He says they're ordinary elephants. Imported."

The elephant took a sharp turn, causing the seat to rock. Wesley grimaced. "Why not just import taxis?"

"Noise," Doyle mumbled, his eyes half-closed. "Haven't you noticed? Not big fans of it."

That was true enough. There were brief sounds that were less than pleasant to the ears, and the nearly-constant music could become tiresome in itself, but ever since they got there, Wesley hadn't once heard the noise of everyday machinery. He never thought he'd miss the sounds of cars and coffee machines, but all of a sudden he did. When had Los Angeles changed from being a place to stay into being home? He'd remained there because it was the one place where someone wanted him - and maybe that was his answer.

The elephants stopped outside an unkempt garden, in the middle of which might be a house, or might just be a giant nesting box. Wesley stared at it. He kept staring at it as he climbed down the stepladder and walked into the garden.

The only reason he stopped was because of the naked man in the fountain.

 

Wesley blinked. Naked man. Fountain. With a fiddle. For some reason, most people so far seemed to have been singers rather than instrumentalists, but obviously, some people had to have instruments... fiddles. But in a fountain, in the middle of someone's garden? And yet, the way he did it, it looked so natural Wesley got a mad urge to join him, if for no other reason than to hear that divine violin music from up close.

"Hello there," Raja sang from behind him. "Is my daughter home?"

The naked man stopped playing and looked up, his pale blue eyes widening.

"Mira?" Raja expanded.

The man stood up abruptly and tucked the fiddle away under his elbow, where it instantly vanished. For a moment, he was still a blond young man exposing himself in a most unsettling way, but then he rippled and turned into a tall white stallion, which galloped away across the garden and disappeared down the far road.

"She does choose the most peculiar boyfriends," Raja muttered. He looked up into the sky and called in long, sweet tones, "Mira, koritsi, where are you?"

At the sound of a bird call, they all looked up and saw a large, dark shadow gliding down towards them.

"Jesus H. Christ," Gunn said, "that's the biggest bird I ever saw."

Raja smiled. "It's not a bird."

Angel had turned even paler than usual, which was quite a feat. "You gave my child to a harpy?"

The creature landed on the lawn and gave Angel a very cold glare. "Siren," she said. Her voice was melodic, but she wasn't singing. "The term is siren. If you want to be technical, half siren, but not harpy, and not -" she whipped her head around to glare at Gunn too "- BIRD! Either one of you make another slur or quip to that effect, and I'll claw your eyes out, friends of my father or not."

Wesley had seen images of sirens before, both in demonic encyclopaedias and illustrated classics. This was the first time he'd seen the actual demon, and he couldn't believe that his brother-in-law had fathered her. Sure, there was no mistaking those large, black wings or the whiskey-coloured eyes, but despite all his differences, Raja could still pass for human with a little effort. This - whether she wanted to hear it or not - was a big bird with a woman's head and torso. And dear Lord, what was with the nudity in this place? He had seen no warning sign outside the garden saying "cave nudem".

"Enough threatening the guests, Mira," Raja scolded, and though her face looked older than his, from his tone of voice alone you could hear that he had a few hundred years on her and was well aware of that fact. "This is Connor's father. He has come for his son."

Mira turned her head nearly 180 degrees to look at her father. "I thought he wasn't allowed to do that."

"Change of plan."

The base of one dark wing raised itself in a shrug. "Fine by me." She flapped her wings and rose up into the sky again, calling down, "Come on in!" as she headed towards the house. At least now, it became apparent why it looked so much like a nesting box. To all intents and purposes, it was one.

There was, however, a door at the bottom of the building, handle and all, clearly intended for people with arms. That was the way they all entered, including Raja who, Wesley had no doubt, could have flown in through a hole in the wall like his daughter.

The inside of the house was decorated like a nice, pricey condo, but it was in no way built like one. The roof was thirty or forty feet up, and instead of floors and rooms there were ledges around the walls, and no stairs to reach them.

Mira flew up to one of those ledges and picked up a bundle of something with her talon. When she came back down, her wing flaps slowed some distance over the floor, and she very gently put the bundle down in Angel's arms. The vampire's face softened, and he stuck his finger into one of Connor's tiny little fists.

"Thank you," he said quietly, and with those two words, Wesley was no longer so convinced he had done the right thing. Anyone seeing the two of them could see they belonged with each other, and he suddenly wondered what would have happened to Angel's sanity had Connor been safely stashed away somewhere out of reach for the rest of his childhood.

Mira smiled. It was the first kind expression on her face, and it made a remarkable difference. Somehow it made the fluffy feathery parts of her more noticeable and the sharp talons less so.

"There now," she said, running the tip of her wing over Connor's face. "You're safe with daddy."

Connor sighed deeply, blinked a couple of times, and fell asleep.

 

9: I STILL MISS SOMEONE

"So how do you like it here?" Wesley asked Bess, as they both lounged on a divan in a corner of Mira's house. Their hostess was currently showing some of the others the upper floors. There were ways for wingless humans to get up there, but they demanded agility that Bess, in her current state, did not possess, and so Wesley had chosen to spend some time alone with his sister.

She waggled her hand: comme-ci, comme-ca. "It's a weird place. Almost everyone's a musician or a dancer or both, except me."

"Well, you did take ballet lessons," he offered.

"And you took piano lessons. Does that make you Gandharva? -- Ooh, now!"

With that last outburst, she grabbed his hand and placed it on the side of her stomach, where something very bony was poking at the skin from the inside. It was a rather intrusive action, but the oddity of the sensation prevented Wesley from pulling away his hand. He couldn't for the life of him figure out which part of the baby that was.

"He's flapping his wing at you," Bess said with pride.

"Wing?" That made him think of Mira, and it was very unsettling to think of a creature like that inside Bess. Not that her baby would look like that, he reminded himself. Mira's more bird-like features were doubtlessly inherited from her mother, not from Raja. But no matter how he looked upon it, the thought of a siren being the half-sister of his nephew (or niece) freaked him out. He could think of Raja as almost human, even though he knew he was no such thing, but his imagination didn't stretch that far for Mira.

He knew better than to voice those thoughts in front of Bess, though. She'd doubtlessly berate him once again for being speciesist even though he had a demon lover of his own.

Bess sighed happily, unaware of his discomfort. "He's going to be a beauty, I can feel it." She leaned back, looking at the others climbing around above her. "The best part is that it's so unpredictable."

That caught him by surprise. "Huh?"

"The ethereal plane. It keeps changing. So I haven't managed to tire of it yet. I'm still happy we're staying in India more often than not, though. At least there, I can have a job."

"Why can't you..."

"Musician's realm," she reminded him. "Not much to do that doesn't involve music. It's rather like being illiterate in the Council of Watchers." She gave a wry smile. "But it's wonderful for holidays. A few weeks at a time, and then I go back to guide tourists in India." She caught his glance and grimaced. "I know, I know, but it's better than you'd think. More fun than any of the office jobs I could have gotten back home, that's for sure."

"You could have become a Watcher," he reminded her.

She spread out her hands and giggled. "See? No downsides to this life whatsoever."

Her giggle made him smile, but it didn't make him believe her. "Bess..."

She became serious again. "Raja is 800 years old," she said. "He doesn't mind change. He's told me he's willing to go back to England part time, or around the world, or wherever I need to go to do my thing. I just don't know what my thing is yet." She sighed and shook her head. "It's funny, isn't it? For the first time in my life, I'm being treated like an adult. I don't have to wake up in the morning from the phone ringing and Father telling me that he knows what I did last night and I'm being a disgrace. I can do what I want. Except there's nothing I do want."

"What about Raja and the baby?"

"Oh, yes, Raja and the baby!" she said, rolling her eyes. "Also known as life, the universe, and everything. Wes, for fuck's sake! I love Raja. I know I'm going to love the baby. But could you devote your life to a man and a baby?"

Wesley thought about that. And then he started to laugh, because it occurred to him that this was more or less what he'd been doing lately. Ever since that awful night when he first translated the prophecy, his energy had been spent worrying about either a baby, or a man. Up until now, that was, because Connor was finally safe, up on the third floor ledge being bottle-fed by his father. Wesley tried to imagine his father ever bottle-feeding a baby, and failed miserably.

As for Doyle, he was in the garden and... Wesley turned to look out the window, and saw Doyle standing stock-still in a growing patch of black flowers. It was a disturbing sight, and he stood up abruptly. "Are they supposed to look like that?"

Bess took longer to turn, having to mind her belly. She shook her head. "Not unless he's very upset." Her face grew worried. "An attack?"

"I suppose so," Wesley said. He didn't take time to find a door. Instead, standing up on the divan he stepped out of the large window above it into the lawn, and hurried up to Doyle.

"Doyle? Are you all right?"

Doyle didn't look at him. He had a pained, listening expression on his face, and his eyes were focused on something far away.

"My fist got hard and my wits got keen," he said, soft-voiced despite the harsh words.

Wesley touched his arm. "Doyle?"

"Is this all you can do now?" Doyle asked. "All you can tell me?" He buried his face in his hands. "Big River, I still miss someone. Now this. I get the picture. Loud and clear. It's not even you, it's him. Tell me yourself or get the fuck out, you bastard. You can't just desert us and think he'll do because they named you after him."

"What is it you're seeing?"

Doyle let his hands sink and shook his head. "I don't see anything. That's the problem. It's just those fucking songs."

After the hours spent in this dimension, Wesley had begun to filter out the sounds from his surroundings. Now he listened, and he heard a rough voice sing, "I just hit town and my throat was dry, I thought I'd stop and have myself a brew..."

"Country?" he asked uncertainly, never very up-to-date with the American music genres.

"Yeah. The other Johnny," Doyle said, sitting down.

The pieces of the puzzle were starting to fall together for Wesley, who sat down too. "Cash?"

"He'd say this was my song, 'cause Francis is a girly name. He said it to tease me. I liked San Quentin better - have you heard San Quentin?" Doyle finally looked up at Wesley, who shook his head.

"You think Johnny - Johnny Trash - is communicating to you through the music?"

Doyle massaged his temples with shaking hands. Even though the garden was quite warm, his fingernails were bluish. "I think I'm hating this place. I can hear myself think."

"You mean you can't hear yourself think."

"I know what I mean. The whispers... they take the whispers from my head and turn them into songs. And he's not here. He's never going to be here, but he's here." He started beating his forehead with his fingertips. "And I can't get him out. Don't ever go crazy, Wes, it's too much of a hassle."

"It's not crazy to miss him."

"But I don't. I can't. I can't miss him, I can't mourn him, I can't even hold a fucking wake for him because I'm not allowed to drink. Death wasn't even like this."

Wesley's gaze fell on Doyle's scarred wrists and stayed there. "You're not going to..."

A thin hand cupped his chin in a firm grip. "Wes. Give it a rest. I'm not your duty. I manage fine on my own."

"I didn't mean to suggest that you didn't," Wesley said stiffly. He couldn't help but remember the ritual they'd done back in Manchester; how Doyle had declared, 'this human is my human...' Was he not allowed to say the same in return? When demons threatened, they were tied together, and when not, they managed fine on their own? Well, if that was so, he had higher hopes for Doyle than for himself. The mere thought of the past weeks' empty apartment, empty bed, and take-out-for-one lasting forever made him nauseous. It was too much like his life before the agency, and he'd rather sleep in the office or on Cordelia's couch than ever be that lonely again.

None of which he said. Instead, he got back on his feet and asked, "Would you rather I left?"

Doyle gave a deep sigh and tilted his head backwards, looking at Wesley upside-down. "How come you're always being so bloody civilised when you're mad at me?"

"I'm not mad at you."

"So why are you being civilised?"

Wesley breathed out between his teeth. It was just like Doyle to be this hopeless - and then he halted his irritation, because it was, because Doyle was giving him that charming, infuriating half-grin with comically raised eyebrows, and if the fatigue was still in his eyes, making it as much a grimace as an expression of mirth, all that said was that he was trying.

"Perhaps I just don't want to turn the flowers black," he said, sitting down.

Doyle stared at him. "Huh?"

"The flowers. Bess says they only turn black when people are upset. That's how I knew you were having an attack."

"The flowers are purple," Doyle said.

"No, they're..." Wesley looked down and frowned at the sight of dark, but clearly not black, zinnias spreading out around them.

"That's not purple?" Doyle asked.

"Actually, I'd call it magenta," Wesley said, still staring. He wondered what significance magenta had in this deranged mood-ring universe.

"Fine. Magenta. But they're not black."

"They were before," Wesley insisted. "Ask Bess if you don't believe me."

"Oh, I believe you." Doyle lay down stretched-out among the zinnias and closed his eyes. "So, if your mood changes the world, how can anything change your mood?"

"The people don't change."

"People always change. What universe are you living in?"

Wesley laughed. "At the moment?"

A smiled flickered at the corners of Doyle's mouth and then died away, leaving his face still and serene. Wesley leaned down and gave those thin, serious lips a light kiss just to show... well, whatever it was he wanted to show.

He leaned back on his elbows and very nearly closed his own eyes, before he registered what he was seeing, now that his gaze had left both Doyle and the ground.

There was no horizon. Not even any street. By the edge of the garden, there was a wall of impenetrable white, and twisting around, he found that it continued in every direction. It seemed to follow the garden boundary as closely as any picket fence.

He must have gasped or made some kind of sudden movement, because Doyle stirred beside him and started to sit up. "What?"

"I think it's the mist again."

But if it was the mist, it had grown a lot thicker. Wesley stood and walked up to the edge of the garden, reaching out his hand to see if it still felt like candy floss. He pulled his hand back almost instantly, trying to get rid of the clinging tendrils of white. Instead of candy floss, the texture was now like half-hardened chewing gum, only a lot more persistent when it came to rubbing it off.

"This isn't a natural mist," he said, realising as he said it how redundant that comment was; nothing here was natural. "Someone is aiming it at us."

"The hook," Doyle said.

Wesley had almost forgotten about the hook, but when Doyle mentioned it, he cursed himself for his neglect. They had been followed to this dimension, and no one had thought it fit to mention it to Raja, even after they'd been told the mist had shown up when they first came.

He bent down and wiped his sticky fingers clean on the grass, hoping it would not pollute the system. Could you pollute an imaginary system?

"All right," he said, straightening up again. "We'd better go tell the others. Perhaps there is a way to rid ourselves of this malignant weather."

 

"You didn't consider this important enough to tell me?" Raja asked, waving the hook in Angel's face. His features were stone hard, and his wings arched behind him in a highly menacing way. "You come in here, accuse me of harming your son, and fail to mention that you were followed into this dimension by an incredibly evil being?"

"We don't know that it's evil," Wesley pointed out, feeling a need to defend Angel for what was, after all, an oversight on the part of all of them.

"This is white noise," Raja said, pointing out the window while holding Wesley's gaze. "White noise. Which means it's not hate, it's not anger, it's evil without any purpose, and it should be wisping around aimlessly. But it's not. It has targeted this house. Evil has targeted this house - my daughter's house, with my pregnant wife in it..."

"Oh, get off your high horse," Bess interrupted, thumping her husband hard on his wing. "You thought it was just political dis-chords gone wrong, I know you did. Everyone made a mistake. It's done. Now, I want to get out of here." She turned her face up and hollered, "Mira!"

Mira, perched on the top of the house so that only her tail was visible through the roof window, swooped down through the air and landed next to Bess. She said, "Good news is, it doesn't go all around the house. Bad news is, the only gap is in the garden of the dead."

Raja chewed his lip. "Can you fly over it?"

"Over there, I think I can. It'll be slower than usual, but I should manage. Anywhere else, the noise goes all the way over the sky."

He nodded slowly, and there was a moment of silence before he said, "All right. Fly over the garden and get help. Be careful."

"Uh, I don't mean to question your plan," Fred interrupted, throwing a nervous glance out the window, "but the white noise is drawing closer at an increasing speed, and if it continues we'll all be stuck in it within twenty minutes. Possibly thirty, I haven't been able to do any exact measurements. Of course," she added, twining her fingers together, "it's also possible that this is an attempt to, uh, smoke us out, in which case they'll be attacking us in or close to this garden of the dead that you are talking about. I didn't quite catch what kind of a place it is."

They all looked out. The patch of zinnias Doyle and Wesley had been sitting on before was now half covered with noise. Wesley shuddered.

"I guess you could say it's a graveyard for lives," Raja said. "It does wonders to the legacy of music, but it's not entirely safe. When the body is laid to rest and the soul has moved on, there's still enough left to create an image of a person. They're not real, but they're tangible, and they can harm you if you get too close."

"Or harm your enemies," Mira pointed out. "The girl's got a point, you can't stay here. Father, if you stay with the wingless, you could call on Mother, and granny Bubu, and..." She frowned. "It makes no sense. They're arming you."

Raja turned slowly to look at Angel. "This isn't about me," he said, no longer sounding angry, more troubled. "Would I be wrong in assuming that you have quite a few dead people who might bear a grudge?"

Angel shook his head, frowning. "The whole thing smells like a trap. I'd rather just take on whoever's doing this."

"It's got to be Holtz," Gunn said. "Him or that creepy demon of his."

In all the discussion, Wesley thought he was the only one who heard Doyle mutter, "Dead people. Of course."

"Are you okay with it?" he asked, keeping his voice low.

After a brief pause, Doyle nodded. "He'd help out. It's what he did."

While they were were talking, Bess sized up Angel with her eyes, and then gave Mira an equally long and evaluating gaze.

"Couldn't you carry him over?" she asked Mira. "High enough that he won't raise any ghouls?"

Mira tilted her head to the side and scratched her forehead with the tip of her wing. "Should work. So you think we should try the garden, then?"

"I think we have to."

Raja grabbed Bess's shoulder as if he was afraid that she would run off right that instant. "You're not going out there."

"Well, I'm certainly not staying here and waiting to be suffocated," she countered. "And I'm not letting my brother into the garden of the dead without a proper guide either. Angel aside - and Mira if she's going to carry him - I think we should all go in there. Especially you. We're going to need the ghouls you can raise."

"I'm not so sure. I've made political enemies..."

"Political enemies, my foot. I bet you don't even remember their names."

"Well, we've all made enemies," Gunn said. "Killed demons and so on. Are they all going to show up?"

Bess sighed and rolled her eyes, something Wesley considered rather rude of her considering that none of them save Lorne had ever been in that dimension before, and had no reason to know what rules applied there to dealings with the dead.

Raja shook his head, looking ready to punch something. "They have to be important, memorable somehow. They're not ghosts; you're the ones who create them - and Elizabeth, I do remember some of my enemies. 800 years make for some unforgettable enemies."

"I'll bet," Angel muttered.

"Say I do remember," Gunn said. His voice was low, and he was looking out the window, even though there was hardly anything left there to see. "Say they were important. Will they show up?"

"They might," Raja admitted quietly.

Wesley saw the look on his friend's face and remembered what he'd heard about Gunn's sister. He feared this garden of the dead would prove a daunting task for many of them. Not so much for him, perhaps, and certainly not for Bess, who had nothing to worry about except a few old relatives. The thought of granny Clara showing up with filmy chocolate milk would have made him smile, if the situation hadn't been so serious. Even with Angel out of the mix, it was a serious risk to take, one that could mean the death of them - and yet Bess was right, staying around wasn't a possibility.

"I vote for the garden of the dead," he said.

"Me too." Doyle's response was barely more than a whisper.

"And me," Lorne said.

Fred nodded nervously. "I think it's our best shot."

"I'm going to try and call up Dennis," Cordelia said. "I'd feel much better if he's one of the ghosts."

Gunn didn't say anything, but he gave a brief nod, the muscles tightening in his jaw.

"Well, it looks like I won't be going in there," Angel said, "so maybe I don't get a vote. But if I do, I vote for Connor getting out of here safely, one way or another."

Raja and Mira looked at each other, and though her features were cinnamon brown rather than black, they closely mirrored his at that moment, proving their family bonds more even than the large black wing spans.

"Can you take two?" he asked.

"I'll take the vampire on my back and Connor in my talons. Should work."

Wesley could see Angel glance at Mira's talons. They were sharp, for sure, but she was very graceful with them, and he had no doubt Connor would be safe in them. It seemed Angel did not either, because he said nothing.

"Then fly safe, koritsi," Raja said softly, and he added, still looking at his daughter, "Elizabeth, you stay close to me. Try to take it easy - and for crying out loud, try to stay alive."

 

10: SABRE DANCE

Angel glared at the harness Raja was fastening to Mira's wings, and more specifically at the sword tips sticking out at the front.

"You're going to wear those around my son?" he asked.

"They won't be pointing in his direction, will they?" she replied, tugging at the leather straps with her teeth to make sure they were fastened properly. " We shouldn't run into any ghosts, being so high up, but just in case, I want to be prepared. I won't be able to claw at anyone, because I'll be holding Connor, and you won't be able to fight, because I'm not built to hold passengers, so you'll need both hands to hold on. I can sing anyone to death, even the dead, but a bit of good hard steel can never hurt."

Angel didn't look very reassured, while Wesley wished desperately that he, too, could have been given some good hard steel. Hand-combat with an unidentified number of ghouls was not something he was looking forward to, especially since he didn't completely understand how he was supposed to go about it. He looked down at the symbols painted in his hands, near the wounds made from Doyle's spines. Those prickings had really healed fast - a good thing too, considering he was apparently going to need full use of his hands in this battle.

He sang a few hesitant notes from "God Save the Queen". A pair of wobbly looking streaks of greyish light shot out from the symbols in his palms. Not the light chords of music, but not dis-chords either. He sighed. This would never work.

"You don't have to actually sing, dumpling," Lorne said from behind him. "Not in this place. In fact, in your case, I think it would be better if you didn't."

"So what am I supposed to do?" he asked, exasperated by this whole idea of fighting.

"Think music! Stuff you like for defence, and the crappy stuff for attack."

Wesley looked down on his open palms and started thinking of Gershwin. He couldn't decide on a particular song, but nevertheless a light field started spreading around his hands.

"You're doing great!" Lorne said, patting his back. "Now for the bad stuff."

The bad stuff? He stared at his palms and tried to think of some bad music, but was momentarily stumped. This was ridiculous. Every other day, some horrible tune got stuck in his head, but when he actually needed one, they were all gone. Then he remembered a Sunday morning in church, trying to stay awake, his mother whispering at him to stop squirming and his father grasping his shoulder so hard it ached, and the organ playing... playing... A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.

"Easy, cowboy!" Lorne said, pulling Wesley's hands away so he wouldn't hit himself with the dark blade that had suddenly appeared in his palm. "Don't go setting noise on yourself, that won't help score any for our side."

Raja fastened the last strap on his daughter's wing and opened the door. "Time to go, people. And hurry up - the noise is starting to sneak into the back yard."

The team gathered together and picked their way carefully through the parts of the regular garden that were still free from the white noise, until they reached a wall with a heavy gate. Mira balanced on one leg to take the key from a nail on the wall and unlock the gate.

"All right," she said, "Angel, climb on up." She gave Angel a moment to get seated, and then flapped her wings, rising above them. "And Elizabeth, hand me Connor. Thank you. Good luck, you guys! See you on the other side!"

Soon she was only a dark speck in the sky, and then she was gone.

Wesley looked into the garden of the dead. It was almost like an ordinary city park, not like the graveyard he had half expected. But then, graves were for bodies.

For the first few minutes, it felt ordinary too, a walk in the park, you might say. Then all of a sudden the air started to ripple. A short, black girl formed into shape in front of Gunn and started shifting into game-face. Before she had a chance to even reveal her fangs, Gunn had thrown up his hand, and very swiftly, he staked her with a dis-chord. He didn't even stop walking - it was like he had known all along that this was coming and what he'd have to do about it. Which, all things considered, probably was the case.

More people formed from thin air, most of which were complete strangers to Wesley, though he found that they were just as physical to him as to the people they were intended for. When he first saw the man standing in the other end of the garden, staring at them, he thought it was another ghost, but then a vampire formed next to the man, who turned and staked her - using an actual stake, not a dis-chord. The motion made Wesley recognise what looks alone could not: Holtz. And beside Holtz, new ghosts were sent out, a minor army marching against them. To Wesley's dismay, he saw his first headmaster from the Academy among them. Blast! The headmaster was a fantastic swordsman, and cruel as Hell; Wesley had been guilty to feel relieved when the man had suffered a fatal heart attack, and he dreaded facing him now, even in this half-real shape. And because he dreaded it, he drew closer, trying to have it over with as quickly as possible.

Their own side was growing larger as well - as Wesley pushed through the crowd he realised that for every few attacking or menacing ghosts, there were others moving to protect the living. He noticed at least half a dozen little old women alone, with various looks of determination and fighting will in their faces. It seemed other people's relatives were more loyal than his own.

He reached the headmaster, who stared down his nose in that familiar, terrifying way, and said, "Can't I rely on you to maintain decorum?"

"No," Wesley said, trying to feel some of that resolve Gunn had shown earlier. He raised both his hands, just to make sure, and thought of school concerts he'd gone to when he was ten.

The dark streaks coming from his hands were met with larger ones from the headmaster, and he found himself quickly having to change his mind, think of good music instead, like Anything Goes. He managed to tweak away the headmaster's dis-chords long enough to change back to those concerts he had hated: this time Stravinskij. Whatever his feelings were about that concert, it was enough to finish off the headmaster.

It was messier than a staking, that was for certain. The dischord caught in the headmaster's chest and caused it to wobble and expand like a bag filling with jelly. Finally, the old man exploded entirely, and Wesley turned away in disgust and faint regret. Though back in school he'd been quite grateful to be rid of the man, he wouldn't have wished such a fate on him.

He sternly told himself that it was just an image, not a person, but he couldn't suppress the shudder down his spine. This place was getting to him. He could take fighting ghosts, but never knowing what was coming next made him jumpy; it gave him no time to get prepared, to find a strategy, and half of the people popping up around them he didn't even know if they were friends or foes until they hit something.

His breath caught in his throat as he saw Doyle coming towards him, with his face horribly raw and skinless and yet, for some unfathomable reason, smiling.

"What..." He had to wet his lips and try again. "What happened?"

"Relax, Wes," the familiar Irish voice said from behind him.

He spun around and found Doyle standing there too, looking just like he had before they gone inside though a lot more cheerful. Gathering up beside him were - Wesley blinked - more Doyles. One had long hair and shabby clothes, like the first time the two of them had met. One was wearing a hospital gown. And a third was forever imprinted in Wesley's mind since that time he'd come home and found Doyle unconscious.

Doyle - the real Doyle - grinned at him. "Nothing to worry about, just the Doyle brigade."

"But..." He shook his head, refusing to believe what his eyes were telling him. Once of the many nameless ghosts around attacked him, and he had to destroy it before he could go on. "They're all you. There can't be more than one you. And you weren't even really dead some of those times!"

"Don't be using logic on me now," Doyle warned him. "They might go away, and we could use their help. I don't mind me being the Multiple Man for a little while, so why should you?"

That made a warped kind of sense, and Wesley shut his mouth. It disturbed him that Doyle seemed so at ease with the situation, even happy. His own skin was filling with goose bumps, and judging from what he could see of the rest of the team, they hated this as much as he did.

"Have you..." He was almost afraid to ask the question, rock the boat. "Have you seen Johnny yet?"

While he was still speaking, another ripple in the air formed into Johnny, and Wesley cursed himself, not sure if he had caused the ghost himself or if he'd accidentally prompted Doyle to do so.

Doyle seemed to feel the same way, because he snapped, "You just had to say that, didn't you?"

"I'm sorry," Wesley said.

A tall man in old-fashioned clothes materialised and stabbed a bayonet in his direction. Doyle hurried to grab Wesley's collar and drag him away from harm, sending out a poorly aimed dis-chord as he did so.

"Do you even know that guy?" Doyle asked, aiming again and this time finishing off the ghost.

Wesley shook his head. "I think he's a friend of Holtz's."

"Charming," Doyle muttered. "You know, I'd be sympathising a lot more with the man's plight if he wasn't such an asshole."

They charged ahead, and to his relief Wesley could now, behind Holtz and his ghouls, see the gates at the end of the garden. They were almost on the other side, thank God!

"Are you okay about Johnny being here?" he asked Doyle, who was leading his brigade of selves to fight another bunch of ghosts.

"For fuck's sake, Wesley! Can you not ask me questions like that right now? I don't have time to share my bloody feelings!"

Yes, what was this sudden need to stick his foot in it, Wesley wondered as he took on another ghost. Their lives might depend on his ability to let sleeping dogs lie, and Doyle was clearly in charge of the situation: all of his alter egos were fighting on his side, as was Johnny, and Wesley forced himself to direct his attention elsewhere.

Not all of the fights were physical, he discovered. Bess was just involved in a shouting-match with their grandmother, her hands closed into fists and her face turning an increasing shade of beet red. It might have been amusing, except she was leaving herself wide open for attack, and a 19th century villager aimed a pitchfork straight at her stomach.

Wesley dashed ahead, summoning every ugly song he could think of even though the logical part of his brain told him that he would never get there in time. He saw the pitchfork darken into a dis-chord and shouted, "Watch out!"

Bess spun around and got a hand up fast enough to block, causing the sound of a power drill to echo through the garden. Quickly, she dispatched the ghost. But the fighting had caused her to turn her back on granny, who charged up a pair of dis-chords of her own. Wesley threw out his hands, thinking desperately of every pretty song he could. Granny's attack slid over his hands and away from Bess, when an unexpected dis-chord came down from above, exploding the old woman.

Raja flew down onto the ground, his hands still shadowed by the dis-chord. "Too close," he panted.

"Thanks," Bess said, sounding out of breath herself. "Shouldn't have... talked to her... Thought she might be on our side..."

"It's granny," Wesley said, shaken and relieved both at once. "When was she ever on our side?"

Bess gave a weak laugh, and patted away Raja's hand when he tried to check on her. "I'm fine, darling. Go hover over your Caspers, they look like they could need it."

True enough, several of the friendlier ghosts were starting to behave in a very erratic and confused manner, and some of them were being killed by other ghosts without even defending themselves. Raja swore in some undetermined language and headed off.

The ghosts didn't seem very autonomic, and Wesley glanced in the direction he'd come from to see how Doyle was faring with his army of him. He was startled to find that they were all gone, and that the real Doyle was standing, arms hanging down, in front of the crushed and bloody ghost of a blond young man. The man's face was partly gone, but there was something familiar about what was left of it... and then the man gave a surprisingly Doyle-ish grin and Wesley remembered exactly where he'd seen him before - on photographs in Doyle's mother's livingroom.

"Doyle!" Wesley called, but Doyle just shook his head slowly; whether at him or the ghost was impossible to tell.

There was no time for another rescue, no saving angel from above. The blond man flickered and vanished, replaced by a tall Brachen demon. Wesley started running and screamed another warning, but it died away in his throat as he saw the dis-chord strike straight into Doyle's chest, sending his slight body flying into the ground.

Wesley didn't know how he reached Doyle's side, and even less how Bess managed to run up and kneel next to him, large with child as she was. All he was aware of were Doyle's laboured breaths, and how there was no wound, nothing he could bandage or put pressure on to prevent more damage.

He called Doyle's name again and again, and was rewarded with slender fingers weakly entwining with his: he was still conscious, if barely.

"We have to get him out of here," Bess said, sounding strained. "We have to get all of us out of here. That man Holtz... it's like nothing we throw his way fazes him."

"He's lived with ghosts for too long," Wesley said, his gaze still firmly fixed upon Doyle. Without any visible injury, it was impossible to tell how badly hurt he was. "Can you stand up?"

Doyle made a brave attempt, half sitting up before he slumped. Wesley grabbed him and lift him the rest of the way to his feet. Bess did the same on her side. And there was a third set of hands, half translucent, supporting Doyle. Wesley's head whipped up, and he looked straight into Johnny's eyes.

"Couldn't you have been here a minute ago?" he raged at the ghost.

"You didn't ask me." Johnny's voice was flat and faint, but even so, he sounded sad.

The shock made Wesley tremble, and he had difficulty getting Doyle to stand. "You're my ghost? Not his?"

"I think... I'm both."

Wesley pondered that as he lay Doyle's arm around his shoulder. If he had thought of conjuring up a ghost on purpose, perhaps that action would have been fast enough to prevent the dis-chord. In any case, it was hardly fair to blame a phantom for not having the reactions of a living person. He was the one who should have been there a minute earlier.

"Keep us safe," he told Johnny, well aware that he was most likely sending off the ghost to get exploded. If they could get out in one piece, he would have no regrets.

"Wes," Doyle rasped in his ear. "Can't... breathe..."

"It's okay," Wesley insisted, although he knew it was not. "We're getting you out of here."

Doyle frowned. "Your hand..."

Wesley glanced down on the hand lying on Doyle's chest. His fingers looked black in the faint light.

"Jesus Christ, you've been hit!" Bess said, her eyes widening. She grabbed his other hand, making him yelp with sudden pain. "This one too. Why didn't you say something?"

"I didn't notice." He looked numbly down at the discolouration. It reminded him of grave frostbite, and he wondered if that was what it looked like inside Doyle's chest. If so, it was a wonder he could breathe at all, even in those agonising gasps.

They had to get out. The alternative wasn't an option.

A bird started trilling, the first animal sound since they'd entered the garden. A moment later, there was the whinny of a horse. What the... Looking over at the now nearby gate, he saw it open, and a white horse galloped inside. The horse stopped in front of Holtz, who made an annoyed stab at it, almost as if swatting away a fly. But the horse would have none of it - it started dancing around Holtz, glowing with music that became audible as the tones of Khachaturian. Wesley had never been very fond of that particular composer, finding him far too stressful, but for the frantic dancing of the horse, the music was most effective. Light chords and dis-chords came swirling around each other in a hard-to-avoid pattern, making Holtz too busy trying to evade them to have any chance to actually attack.

And then Holtz made a sudden grab for it, taking hold of the horse's mane, exposing its neck. The horse stopped the dancing, gave a triumphant whinny, and galloped back through the gates, dragging Holtz behind, who tried furiously to loosen his grip.

The instance the two of them were out the gates, the flock of ghosts was noticeably thinned out. Holtz must have called up every damned person he ever knew.

"Way to go, horsie," Bess said beside him.

"Not bad for a nudist fiddler," Wesley agreed, and hurried his steps as much as he could without causing discomfort to Doyle. Even without the dead villagers, he didn't want to stay around this place any longer than necessary.

Another bird call came, this time from nearer the gates, and it was followed by a baby's cry. The next sound was one Wesley would never have expected to be happy to hear: Angel singing.

They stumbled up to the gates and found Angel outside them, crouched with Connor in his lap and strands of something golden - horsehair, Wesley realised - wrapped around his hands. He was holding the baby's hands out so they formed music together: "Then I saw your face, now I'm a believer..."

If one could call it music. But the shapes forming were light, spinning into a jar on the ground.

A jar.

"Son of a bitch," he breathed in deep admiration.

The jar finished forming, and Angel hoisted Connor up on his arm so he could take off the lid. Once he did, the tangles of mist that had been leaking around the edges of the garden were all drawn into the jar like dust into a hoover.

As the mist was no longer edging the garden, Wesley could see just how many people had gathered outside. Large and small, some with animal parts, some with too many limbs, all obviously demonic - and all staring into the garden.

The white horse had stopped at the front row. Holtz, still hanging onto its mane, was scraped bloody and dirty. A green, bug-eyed demon nodded at two others, who promptly grabbed Holtz.

He said something to the horse in a language Wesley didn't understand but had a feeling he should - it was definitely Indo-European, and probably Germanic. Holtz's hands fell down, his fingers still cramped up from the forced grip.

The horse reshaped into a man, facing the bug-eyed demon, who paid no attention to him.

"Daniel Holtz," Bug-Eye said instead, sounding dry and official. "You are hereby charged with the suspicion of bringing noise into this dimension. You will be held imprisoned until after the trials. Raja of Earth, you and the otherworlders are charged with facilitating this atrocity. You will be confined to your home until after the trials. Do you have any requests?"

Wesley felt Doyle slump forward and slip away from his numbing hands, falling unconscious to the ground. He sat down gracelessly next to him, trying to make sure that he was still breathing.

Raja threw them a glance and then looked back at the demon. It was impossible to read any expression on his face. "I have two. A quick passage home, and the best healer you can find."

 

11: THE WOUND THAT IS MY LOVE FOR YOU

The healer leaned down over the bed, which since he was so tall and skinny made him look rather like a folding ruler. He placed his hands on Doyle's chest and started pushing, making them sink down into Doyle's body.

Wesley gasped at the sight, and the healer turned to him, frowning. "I do not have time for your hands quite yet," he said in broken English. "They will not get worse while you wait, I promise you."

Wesley looked down at his hands, which had been stuffed in large, glowy mittens. "I know. I'm here for him."

The healer's frown deepened, and he asked Doyle, "Is your breathing better? Good. You want him to stay?"

Most of Doyle was covered in a sheet that resembled, though probably wasn't, plastic, but Wesley could still see him nod.

"Very well, then." The healer dug deeper into Doyle's chest and then stopped abruptly, feeling around. "What is this?" he asked, twitching his long nose. "His soul is all... fragmented! I have not seen one like it since that trouble with the Chants!"

Doyle whispered something, and Wesley moved closer so he could hear what it was.

"...died..."

"You died?" the healer exclaimed, as if this was a preposterous crime, and he continued by scoffing, "Humans!"

"Half-human," Wesley corrected, noticing that Doyle mouthed the same thing.

The healer exhaled between his teeth and continued working. "Very well, he said after a long pause. "You will simply have to stay awake when I do the procedure."

Doyle's eyes, white-edged with fear, turned to Wesley, and he mouthed, "procedure?"

"Excuse me," Wesley said, feeling more than a little irritated at the healer's poor bedside manners. "What does this 'procedure' of yours entail, more specifically?"

The healer stared at him. "I take out the noise the dis-chord made, of course."

"And the fact that Doyle has died makes this difficult?"

"It shouldn't. But look!" The healer lifted his hands from Doyle's body, showing strands glowing in many colours, half of them covered in a greyish film of some sort. Turning his attention back to Doyle, he continued, "You know what this is? It's apathy, is what. The noise clings to it, and it is attached to everything; the music, the memories, the soul. There is grief, there is passion, but apathy is all over it."

Well, none of that was much of a surprise. Wesley met Doyle's eyes and let one mitten-clad palm stroke his hair. He couldn't feel the touch, but Doyle could, and that was the important thing. "So what are you going to do?"

"Do? It is hopeless. It could take months. I may have to throw away almost everything."

"No!" Doyle exclaimed in a sharp hiss.

"Throw away?" Wesley's voice went shrill with shock. "His passion and memories? You can't do that!"

"What would you have me do?" the healer asked, and there was true desperation in his sallow face. "I would keep the soul, of course, but I cannot take only the noise. It sticks to the apathy."

"So take the apathy."

"And release all the feelings at once? The raw notes that is grief and fear and anger?" The healer shook his head. "It can be done, but that is not music. That is not making whole. It is making pain."

Doyle closed his eyes and managed to make his voice clear as he said, "Do it."

The healer looked down on him as if he'd forgotten he was still awake. "It would hurt you doing it. It would hurt worse after."

"But I'd still... have them."

"The memories and feelings, yes. But pain. You want pain?"

Doyle's face contorted into a grimace. "Been empty... long enough."

The healer hesitated, and then his face softened and he nodded. "Half nothing. You are human all right. I will do it. And him?" He gestured towards Wesley. "He still staying?"

Doyle cracked open his eyes and managed to smile. "He still staying."

 

The procedure resembled a complex form of hair-combing more than anything else, and yet no surgery could have been more invasive. Every coloured strand that the healer pulled out of Doyle's chest and started to work with caused his patient to flinch and moan, and every time it happened, Wesley wanted to rush up and tuck everything back inside. But that wasn't a viable option, as he was reminded by the globs of grey noise and apathy that the healer cleaned off Doyle's soul and threw in a bin at the side.

"Is this part of your soul?" the healer asked, holding up a shimmering green strand that was humming a rhythm that Wesley recognised as Elvis Ate America. After all that time he'd been forced to listen to monotone U2 songs, even he could have told the healer that it was Doyle's soul.

"Yeah."

The healer gently untangled the strand, and cut the film from its surface like a cook cleaning a fish before he let the strand sink back into Doyle's chest.

"And this?" An orange strand this time, and A Boy Named Sue. Doyle's eyes flew wide open.

"Let me keep it," he begged, "please let me..."

"I told you, I am letting you keep it all," the healer said. "At least until you tell me differently. Crazy human."

This time, when the healer started removing the film, Doyle flinched with every cut of the knife, and his breaths became shallow and further between. The healer stopped midway and told him, "If you need to scream, cry, do it. The room is sound proof."

Doyle drew a deep, shaky breath and started sobbing. "Oh, God. Oh, God..."

Wesley cradled his head as well as he could in clumsy hands. "Do you have to do this?"

"It was his choice, not mine," the healer said curtly and resumed his work. The knife made little scraping sounds going beneath the apathy, but they were becoming increasingly hard to hear between the music and Doyle's moans that were rising into full-out screams.

"We should stop -" Wesley started.

Doyle started shaking his head violently from side to side, causing hot flashes of pain to shoot up through Wesley's hands. "No... Wes, no..."

"You hear him," the healer told Wesley, tossing away the last of the greyness he'd stripped from the orange strand. "No stopping."

He put the strand back inside and Doyle's thrashings grew worse, his screams descending in volume to a guttural sound.

"Can you hear me still, human?" the healer asked, leaning over him.

Wesley was sure he would get no reply, but to his surprise Doyle pulled himself together enough to nod.

"Good. This one..." The healer pulled out a bluish strand, and Wesley felt a peculiar tugging at his guts. Although the soft music was now hard to hear, he recognised it as I Get a Kick Out of You.

"I believe that's mine," he said, swallowing hard.

The healer gave him a dubious look. "Heaven help us," he muttered as he started cutting.

Wesley braced himself, but to his surprise Doyle's sounds of pain quitened almost back into moans, and he seemed considerably calmer. He still flinched with every cut, though, and Wesley could feel them too, though as tiny, tickling pains rather like scraping a needle along one's skin.

"Well, well, well," the healer mumbled, and his glance over at Wesley was now both amazed and appreciative. "There was a good memory in with the apathy as well as a bad one, huh?"

Wesley felt tears burning his eyes, though he was careful not to shed them in front of the healer. With everything that had been going on lately, this outcome was unexpected, and he was both grateful and relieved that this way, at least, he could be of help.

The next few strands were entirely unfamiliar to him, though he could tell a bit by Doyle's reactions. One of them calmed Doyle down so considerably that Wesley almost got jealous. But any consolation was good right now, and he couldn't argue with emotions like that.

Before the soothing one was even finished, the healer pulled out another, tangled around it in a complicated knot.

"Here's a beauty," the healer muttered, and his hands were cautious moving across it, almost caressing away the greyness with the blade of the knife. Even so, Doyle gave a brief cry of shock.

The strand was playing Fly Me to the Moon, which caught Wesley's interest, and he asked, "Who is this?"

Doyle wet his dry lips and croaked, "Da."

Wesley remembered the blond man from the garden of the dead and asked, "He was the one you saw before, wasn't he? Who was replaced by the demon?"

Doyle closed his eyes to indicate yes and started struggling, dazed and unaware of his surroundings.

"No, listen to me," Wesley said, holding on to his shoulders. "It was just an illusion. The demon isn't here."

"Always... here..." Doyle protested.

"All right, fine. But then so is your da. What he gave you is just as real, just as much a part of you. Remember that." Stroking away a lock from Doyle's sweaty forehead, he added, "And that he had a great taste in music that you should try to emulate."

Doyle's mouth quivered in an attempted smile, and he raised his hand up above his head, stroking Wesley's arm above the mitten. Wesley smiled back and leaned down, kissing Doyle's forehead.

"Hang in there," he said softly.

The healer threw another piece of noise into the bin with a 'plop' and gently braided the two strands together, so they were still connected but not knotted. Putting them back inside, he said, "Okay, finished now."

Doyle leaned his head to the side and started crying - not the painful screaming of before, but a sobbing that sounded like it could go on forever, steady as a heartbeat.

"Come on," the healer said, standing up. "Time for hands."

Wesley looked down at his hands. They were almost entirely numb, but he still wanted to hold on to Doyle's shoulders, in the vain hope of easing his pain.

Reluctantly, he stood up as well, holding out his hands. "All right."

"Not here. He needs quiet, and you too need quiet. Come with me."

"But..."

"You want to use your hands again? I said, come with me."

He really had no choice, and so he followed the healer into another room, flinching when the door closed behind him and efficiently blocked out the sounds of Doyle's sobbing.

"Will he be all right?" he asked, looking intently at the door as if that would make him capable of seeing behind it.

"You should ask your kinsman," the healer said. "Muses do it all the time."

Wesley frowned. "Do what?"

"Have pain to get better. They call it kathy-something."

"Catharsis?"

"That's the one."

That didn't exactly make Wesley feel better. As he recalled it, catharsis as a psychiatric method had been known to sometimes make things worse.

"What about now?" he asked. "While we're here?"

"I do know my job," the healer said, starting to untie Wesley's mittens. "That room is safe like his mother's egg."

"Womb," Wesley corrected automatically.

The healer grimaced. "Right. Humans are mammals. I forget."

He took Wesley's hands between his and pressed together. It hurt a little, but the pain was dull and easy to stand.

"Ah, much better." There was actually a flicker of a smile on the healer's until then so serious face. "You never died, no?"

"Not that I know of."

"And no apathy. In fact..." A scowl formed between his eyebrows. "Too much feeling. It twists around your hands like cramps. You need to let go."

"Let go how?"

"Like this," the healer said, tugging at a glimmer of something near Wesley's palm. It felt like a razor-sharp thread digging itself into his skin, and he jumped.

"What did you..."

"You're still in the other room. Do not be. That room is not there. He is not there in it. Not until I tell you so."

"But..."

"No but!" The healer turned Wesley's hand so the palm and the blackened, bent fingers faced up. "This is what you want, look like this forever? The noise caught your fears. It will not let go. You must."

Wesley looked towards the door, wishing he could hear what was behind it. "I can't. I love him."

"Did I say not love him? I said let go. He is not a suitcase. You take your eyes off him, he is not stolen away."

"I wouldn't be so sure," Wesley mumbled.

"Be sure. Look away."

Wesley obeyed, turning his back on the door.

"And now the mind. Take that off him as well."

"Isn't that rather like not thinking of pink elephants?" Wesley asked with some irritation.

"Think of pink elephants all you like," the healer said, tugging at that sharp thread. The pain shot all the way up to Wesley's shoulders. "Think of food, or flowers, anything you like - or anything you don't like. You might want to think of something boring."

Exasperated, Wesley started conjugating Latin verbs in his head, trying to ignore the burning sensation in his hand.

"Ve-e-ery good," the healer said, pulling the glimmer out. It looked rather like a thin piece of curled up wire. "You're almost rid of the first one."

Wesley smiled, and then felt a sudden surge of panic at the thought of what this would mean to Doyle and him. He could banish his lover from his mind, but he refused to banish him from his heart.

The wire unrolled itself and rushed back into Wesley's hand like an electrical cord into a vacuum cleaner. The pain was excruciating, and Wesley gasped.

"You stupid, human idiot!" the healer roared. "Stop doing that! How can I do my job if you are fighting me? He is not there until I tell you so!"

"I can't just let go of every emotion..."

"What every emotion? There is just one. Control. That you let go of. You have no control. None."

"You make it sound like I'm helpless!" Wesley protested.

"You are helpless," the healer said, poking him repeatedly in the chest. "You are human. What universe are you running? Where do they obey your laws?"

"I am in charge of the agency..."

"Fine. Agency. This is not agency. This is healing. His music is in my hands, not yours. I know my job. Do you believe that?"

"Of course I do, but I..."

"Do you believe that?"

Wesley glared at the healer, and then sighed, letting his shoulders fall down. "Yes," he said quietly. "I do."

"Good. Lie back, close your eyes, and let me work."

Wesley did as he was told, trying to relax, though the pain continued to shoot out through his hands as the healer worked. Upon doing so, he found that the pain dulled considerably, though it didn't entirely go away.

"Much better," the healer said, sounding very pleased. "Almost done now..." A final tug. "There."

"That's it?" Wesley said, starting to sit up.

The healer put his bony hand on Wesley's forehead and pushed him down again. "Not at all. There are many left." He started pulling out another glimmering strand. "This one - it hasn't been here long. A child?"

Wesley nodded, clenching his teeth against the pain. "Connor."

"Where is he?"

"Downstairs with his father, I think," Wesley said. "Unless one of the others are babysitting him."

"Mhm. That's good. You're starting to let go already. This," he tugged at the strand, "is a habit, yes?"

"I suppose so." He hadn't even been aware that he was still worrying about Connor. That was ridiculous. The problem had been solved. Connor was fine and in safe hands, and would be going home soon - provided, of course, that everything worked out with the trial...

"No, no, no," the healer said, catching a strand with such a sharp jab that Wesley lost his breath. "You are trying to tangle another piece of noise into this one. Why do you do my job harder? At least the other human was working with me, not against me."

"I'm sorry," Wesley breathed, leaning his head back and closing his eyes hard to prevent his eyes from tearing. God, that had hurt!

"You know what your problem is?" the healer asked.

"Let me guess - difficulty letting go?"

"Hubris."

Wesley's eyes flew open, and he looked down at the healer in surprise. "What!?"

"You think you are the only one who can do anything."

"That's a laugh," Wesley protested. "I work with the best. Angel is a vampire, for crying out loud, he has powers I will never get."

"And do you trust him?"

Wesley opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, and let out an annoyed sigh, but no words. None would come.

"That's what I thought," the healer said. "Listen, all I ask for is an hour, maybe two. Then you can go and control anything you want."

"You mean... the effects aren't permanent?" Wesley asked.

"The effects on the noise they gave you are permanent. The noise you make is another matter. I am a healer, not a nanny. If you want to give yourself heartache or run with scissors, that is none of my business after today. Thank heavens."

That was rather disturbing news - not so much for himself as for Doyle. If the results were temporary, who was to say that all this pain and anguish would do any good at all? Perhaps it would all just start over again as the effects wore off, if the grief became too much for him to handle.

"Oh, no!" the healer exclaimed, stabbing the strand in the bin just as it was trying to worm itself back into Wesley's hand. He placed his narrow palm that smelled of herbs on Wesley's eyes and pressed them closed. "Lie still, don't think, and whatever you do, don't worry. Even if you don't run the universes, someone will."

"That's what I'm afraid of," Wesley muttered.

"Heathen human."

This healer must have the worst bedside manners ever. Still, having dealt with experts in many different fields, Wesley recognised the insufferable arrogance of someone who was a master at what he did and knew it. It could be quite intimidating if one had to compete with the man, but medicine wasn't his field and so he could reassure himself that nothing of it was personal. All it really meant was that the healer had confidence in his own skill, and that quite probably, Wesley in his turn could have confidence in the healer.

He let his eyes close and tried to relax his muscles, thinking of the meditation techniques that had bored him so back at the Academy.

"That's better," the healer said, sounding much calmer as he continued the unpleasant task of pulling razor-sharp noise out of Wesley's hand. "Continue like this, and you'll be able to play your instrument again in no time."

Wesley thought of mentioning that he didn't play an instrument, but the healer already thought he was a heathen, there was no reason to aggravate him further. Besides, he could think of someone else's instrument he'd very much like playing.

Though Doyle didn't exist yet, he reminded himself. Not until the healer told him so.

The numbness in his hands had eased some, which meant that they instead burned like all hell. But despite all that, he thought he might be falling asleep.

 

12: NO, WE WILL HAVE NO REGRETS

The immediate impression Wesley got from the courtroom was size. As he walked in, he was stunned by how big it seemed. Then he realised that his eyes were tricked by the walls being nearly all mirrors... no, windows... no...

Puzzled, he looked closer at the walls. That piece was clearly a window - he could see the yard they had just walked through. But that other piece next to it was just as clearly a mirror, with his own reflection staring back at him. Looking further, concentrating on every new piece of glass, he came to the conclusion that it was mirrors and windows interspersed, about 50/50. Even after finding that out, the room remained rather dizzying.

"Wow, the acoustics in here are fantastic!" Lorne said beside him in an awed whisper.

"I'll take your word for it," Wesley said, having no idea what constituted the qualifications of good acoustics.

People kept coming in, building up a crowd as large and diverse as the illustrations of a demon encyclopaedia. Wesley was willing to bet that some, or even most, of the demons weren't indigenous to Earth. It was unnerving to think that all these people had an interest in their case.

Raja and Bess sat down next to him, Raja looking very regal in a long black cloak and Bess sporting a sari-like dress that flattered her pregnant form.

Lorne leaned in closer and asked Raja, "Is it true we could be banished for this?"

"Don't worry," Raja replied. "They're renowned for their justice. We won't be convicted."

He did a good job keeping his poker face, too, but a faint quiver in his voice betrayed him. Wesley wondered what would happen if Raja was banished. Lorne would get by either way, but Raja's work in India was dependent on him being the Gandharva Raja - and it occurred to him that the work was so deeply cut into Raja's being that Wesley didn't even know his real name. What would his options be if he was no longer Raja? What he had been doing in London - playing the saxophone in seedy demon bars?

To get both of their minds off the topic, though not to a much more pleasant one, he asked, "Do you know anything about catharsis?"

Raja looked at him with a confused frown. "Of course. It's a classic Muse healing method."

"Does it work?"

"It works on muses. On other races, it's touch and go. Humans usually respond well to it."

"Oh." That was encouraging. "Because as I understand it, as a psychiatric method..."

Raja gave a derisive snort. "Last time I checked, psychiatry wasn't a Muse science, and they don't perform it in Muse temples either. Don't confuse a metaphor with the real thing, Wes." He glanced over at Wesley, looking curious. "Did the healer perform catharsis on you?"

Wesley shook his head. "No -- that is, I don't think so. But he did it on Doyle. Or something like it."

"There's no 'something like it' with that guy," Raja said. "His credentials are out of this world. I'm sure he's given Doyle the best treatment he possibly could. He seems to have gotten you patched up just fine, right?"

Wesley looked down on his hands. They were still a bit clumsy, but back to their ordinary colour and with full feeling, and he had every confidence they'd recover completely. "Yes. Still... you said catharsis had to be in a temple?"

"This entire dimension is a temple. A theatre is a temple. A library..."

"I see." Thinking of what had happened before as a holy ritual made him feel a bit better.

Raja's dark features hardened, and he nodded towards the dais at the end of the hall. "They're here."

'They' were a motley group of demons, taking their seats on the dais. There were ten of them, and the only thing they all had in common was their long, mauve robes, though the shapes of those robes were different to allow for variations in bulk and appendages.

"The court has assembled," one of them, a large, many-toothed creature, sang. "Prosecutor, state your case."

The bug-eyed demon that had made the arrest stepped forward and sang, "My lords, this night we arrested Daniel Holtz, native of Earth, for letting grave noise into this world, and also the Raja of Earth and his companions for facilitating this. As our first evidence, we present to you the noise itself: the demon Sahjahn."

Wesley drew his breath, but what was presented to the court was the jar containing Sahjahn. It was passed from judge to judge, and they all displayed various expressions of shock or disgust as it reached their hands.

"This is indeed a foul form of noise," the last of the judges sang. "Evil and soulless, and with no redeeming music. How did it ever get into this dimension?"

"It sneaked in unregistered along with Daniel Holtz, in a portal that had been created to allow passage for the Earthly beings consorting with the Raja of Earth. Said beings claim that this happened without their knowledge or permission."

"Very well. Call the witnesses."

The witness hearing was long and dreary, all of them being called up to testify on how they had come to the dimension. Wesley felt quite sorry for Lorne, who was grilled by each and every one of the judges on why he'd brought the rest of them in. As far as Wesley could tell, the only reason he was let off the hook was because they'd all gone through the audition process rather than being invited by Lorne directly.

When Wesley took the witness stand, he was expecting more questions on their journey, and was already preparing himself by going through the procedures in his head as far as he could remember them.

"You are a kinsman of the Raja of Earth, are you not?" one of the judges asked.

"Yes. That is, I am through marriage."

"And yet this was not a social call?"

"No. We came to get Connor - the baby." He pointed towards Connor, who was asleep in Angel's arms.

"Ah, yes. How was it this baby Connor came to be in this dimension?"

Wesley flinched. No one had spoken about the prophecy - and he realised just then, that no one had even spoken of the fact that Angel was a vampire. Oh dear. This would be hell to explain.

"Uh, that is to say..." he stammered, sounding like an idiot in his own ears as he tried to explain the whys and hows of the false prophecy.

"Why did you send the child to the Raja?" one judge asked, giving Wesley a long stare out of snake-like slit eyes.

"He offered. I called him up and told him the trouble... and he offered."

"It seems like a drastic solution, to send off a mere baby to another dimension."

He'd been told the same by every member of Angel Investigations, plus Doyle, plus Lorne. Now the judges.

His reply was clipped: "The situation seemed to call for drastic solutions." He met Angel's dark eyes, wishing he could answer differently. "His behaviour at the time... it was erratic, frightening." Those dark eyes looked down, but somehow, not having to meet them didn't make things any easier. "As it turned out, it was just someone spiking his blood."

"His blood?"

Oops. Angel's head jerked up again, and Wesley bit his lip hard, knowing he had put his foot in it now. "He's a vampire. But with a soul! He does good..."

"You!" the judge furthest to the left told Angel. "Come here!"

That was one of the many ways this court differed from a human one - they didn't necessarily bother to finish with one witness before calling another.

Angel stepped up to the dais, still cradling Connor in his arms.

"Sing to us."

Wesley grimaced and closed his eyes. If this case depended on Angel's singing, they were all going to Hell in a handbasket. Then again, it wasn't as if they had a lot of choice.

Angel seemed to realise the same thing, because he started singing in his usual tuneless style: "Baby when you got a secret love, every little touch is not enough..."

Three of the judges grimaced, another one put his long, slender hand over his ears, and a couple drew back in horror.

"That is hideous!" she exclaimed. Wesley thought it was a she. It was impossible to tell from her looks, but her voice was a pleasant soprano.

"Yes," the judge agreed who had called up Angel in the first place. "But he's got soul. You can't deny that."

"Soul, yes. Also a lot of noise." The soprano judge beckoned Angel closer. "Your music is split in two, did you know that?"

"I guess I did," Angel said warily.

"One is pure noise, one is mixed." She cocked her head. "Would you like to get rid of the one that is pure noise?"

Angel looked as stunned as Wesley felt. "You mean - not be a vampire anymore?"

She nodded.

"You could do that?"

Another nod.

"Your honour!" Raja protested, rising from his seat. "I find it highly improper of you to make such an offer without informing Angel what would be the result if he accepted it. Such as what would happen to his body."

The judge made an impatient gesture. "This body has been dead for two hundred years. The noise keeps it moving, that's all."

"Wait a minute," Angel said, catching on. "I'd die? Is that what you're saying?"

"You would move on to your next life."

"Well, that's very kind of you and all, but I'm not quite done with this one."

"Are you sure?"

Connor woke up and started whimpering, and Angel rocked him against his chest to calm him down, eyes still fixed on the judge. "I'm sure."

The soprano judge opened her mouth again, but was interrupted by one of her colleagues. "Can we get back to business, please? Witness!"

"Yes," Wesley said, having a hard time looking away from Angel, imagining the blow it must have been to be offered your wish and find you couldn't use it.

"Since the Raja is your confidant, how come you did not tell him that you and your companions had been followed to this dimension?"

"We didn't know we had been," Wesley said. "None of us knew what the hook meant."

"You could not have asked?"

"We... forgot, I suppose. At least I did. The mist was rather distracting."

"Mist?" he heard one of the judges ask in puzzled vibrato, and another leaned over to explain, "The white noise."

"And this did not clue you in that something was amiss?"

"No, I... None of us had been in this dimension before, apart from Lorne. I rather thought it was a naturally occurring phenomenon."

He heard a huff from the end of the bench: "Well, I for one would not live in a cloud of pestilence!"

It seemed he had insulted the judges rather badly, but regardless of their attitude towards him, they didn't question him further; instead, he and Angel were allowed to step down as they called up Raja.

Raja spread out his wings as he walked up, looking less like the gangly man they knew and more like the divine creature he had seemed the first time Wesley had seen him. It rather raised the question of whether he was doing it on purpose; if "divine" was a look he sported to amaze people. Stepping up into the witness stand, he looked as if nothing these people could say would have the least effect on his bearing. Quite a feat, considering how nervous he'd looked before. Wesley just hoped this cocky attitude would work with the judges.

"Raja of Earth," the judges sang in chorus, "You consider these people kin of yours?"

"I do."

"What is the nature of this kinship?"

"Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, the man who just witnessed, is my wife's brother. Doyle the half-demon, who is currently in recovery after a noise attack and unable to attend court, is his lover and has claimed him in a rite of possession."

Angel gave Wesley an astounded look, which he did his best to ignore.

"The vampire Angel is the founder of the order Angel Investigations, which lies under the caste of... of Ma'at."

Wesley smiled. The thought of their detective agency as a mystical order lying under a god's jurisdiction was amusing, though he had to admit, Ma'at seemed a fitting choice.

"My kinsman Wesley belongs to this order, as do Gunn, Fred, Cordelia Chase, and the Pylean Krevlornswath of the Deathwok clan."

"Excuse me," Lorne interrupted in jazzy tunes, "but I'm not technically a member of the agency. It's more of a side gig. I'm still primarily a musician."

"Yes," Raja agreed. "I apologise."

"Do you claim responsibility for these people?"

"I do."

Lorne sat up very straight in his seat and stared at Raja, which caused Wesley to whisper, "What?"

"Well, sweetpea," Lorne whispered back, "I really hope for his sake none of us are convicted."

That sounded very discouraging, but one of the judges was scowling in their direction, so Wesley didn't dare ask how far Raja's responsibility stretched or what would happen to him if they were convicted.

"And the human Daniel Holtz?" the judges continued. "Do you claim responsibility for him?"

"He sneaked into this dimension," Raja answered, and although he was still singing, his voice sounded as angry as Mira's when she had threatened to claw Angel's eyes out for calling her a harpy. "He targeted my kinsmen. He put my daughter, my wife, and my unborn child in danger. I am not responsible for anything that man does."

The judges nodded, and a couple of them jotted something down on note pads.

The questions continued, most of them seeming rather pointless to Wesley, and despite his concern, he was mesmerised by the harmonic singing to he point where he barely listened to the words.

"...Why didn't you investigate the noise further?" he heard two of the judges sing in duet.

"I... In all honesty, I thought it was conjured up by Gandharva."

"What kind of Gandharva would do something like that?"

"I don't know. Perhaps the kind who vandalised my temple?"

Wesley felt more than heard Bess gasp. Looking over at her seat, he noticed that her knuckles had turned white.

"What?" one of the judges asked, forgetting to sing in his puzzlement.

Another leafed through his note pad. "Ah yes. There was an incident the Concerto before last, when Earth's temple was found sacrileged and covered in offensive writing: 'Muses go home', 'Earth is fornicating with a tonedeaf whore'..."

"Thank you." The centre judge held up his hand in a dismissive gesture. "I don't think we need to hear the details. These minor squabbles are of no concern to us."

To Wesley, they sounded like anything but minor squabbles, and he couldn't help but notice that all divine arrogance was gone from Raja's stature now - he looked furious and powerless, a man stuck in circumstances out of his control.

Wesley turned to look at Bess, whose eyes were fixed on her husband. Her expression was mortified, but not surprised. She had known about this. Why hadn't she told him? They had talked, she could have found the time to say, 'by the way, my husband's people think I'm a tonedeaf whore.' He didn't like that she was keeping such things to herself. It reminded him far too much of him.

The judges sang in low voices amongst themselves and then one of them raised his head to tell Raja, "Very well, Earth. You can step down."

Raja left the witness stand, his wings drooping behind him as he returned to his seat by Bess's side. Her square fingers intertwined with his long, dark ones, and she put both of their hands on her lap.

"Daniel Holtz," the judges sang in a harmony of eight voices, "enter the witness stand!"

Wesley's head whipped up. He should have known Holtz would witness - after all, the man was charged with crimes just like the rest of them, not dismissed as "noise" beforehand like Sahjahn. But it was still a shock to see Angel's old enemy step up from the other side of the court room and approach the judges.

"Daniel Holtz, human," a butterfly-winged judge sang once Holtz was seated, "you have been accused of bringing noise into the world in the shape of the demon Sahjahn. Are these accusations true?"

Holtz didn't even look at the judges; his eyes were steady on Angel as he replied, "It's true I brought Sahjahn here. As for 'noise', I don't know."

"You were unaware that this demon is what humans call evil?"

"No," Holtz said calmly, "I was well aware of that."

A prolonged silence followed from the judges' bench. Wesley got the impression that they didn't know what to do with such a bold admission.

"Why!?" one of them finally asked, a single, quivering tone that echoed through the room.

"To get to the vampire." Holtz's voice was silken, but his eyes burned with hatred.

"Get to him how?" the soprano judge asked.

"Kill him... or put him through misery... have my revenge upon him."

"Ah." The judge gave a sententious nod. "And have you aligned yourself with Nemesis for this?"

Holtz stared at him. It made Wesley want to laugh, though he managed to restrain himself.

"No?" the judge continued. "Sakhmet, then? Or at the very least D'Hoffryn?"

Holtz shook his head mutely.

"Freelance revenge?" The judge made a tutting sound. "Well, then the court cannot take it into consideration."

"Listen," Holtz said, finding his voice again. "That vampire is evil. He murdered my family... turned my daughter into a monster. I have a right to vengeance."

"Yes you do," a dwarf-like, green-faced judge agreed. "But unless your caste has a deal with us, you are not allowed to take your vengeance onto our turf. This is not a suitable battleground for your personal vendettas! Do you understand that you put our citizens in danger?"

"I'm sorry about that," Holtz said, though he sounded unperturbed by the idea. "It was only the vampire I sought to harm."

"Endangering innocents in the pursuit of vengeance is reckless and could be considered noisy in itself."

"And what of him?" Holtz pointed at Angel. "He slaughters the innocents. My family were innocent."

"The vampire's presence here is under investigation. But noise cannot be countered with more noise."

A tall, spindly judge interrupted them. "My honoured colleague, this is a witness hearing, not a debate. Daniel Holtz, your words have been highly upsetting. To be able to judge fairly, we will need you to sing."

Holtz gave them an incredulous look, but when he realised that they were serious, he shrugged and started singing: "There were three ravens sat in a tree. Down a down, hey down, hey down. They were as black as black could be. With a down..."

The extended silence following Holtz's song indicated that the judges were surprised by something. Perhaps it was his morbid choice of song, but Wesley doubted that. They had found something in Holtz's singing that they hadn't expected.

He glanced over at Lorne, who was looking thoughtful and a bit sad. Lorne's anagogic nature was Pylean, not Gandharva, but he too had grasped whatever the judges had seen. His expression was thoughtful and a bit sad.

"Very well," the judges finally sang. "You can step down. We will take a break before giving the verdict."

As soon as the judges had left the room, Bess stood up. "Bathroom break at last! I thought I was going to explode."

The admission was so prosaic it broke the serious mood, and a couple of the others followed Bess outside.

Wesley asked Lorne in a low voice, "So what did you see?"

"I don't read and tell, sugar pie, you know that."

"Well, if you won't tell me his future, how about telling me ours? It's hardly fair that we should sit here and be worried when you know if we're going to be acquitted or not."

"I don't," Lorne said. "I don't know the first thing about what's going to happen to us. Apparently, our foreseeable futures won't coincide with his."

"Oh," Wesley said. "Well, that's good, I guess."

The question was, how good? Would they not meet again because Holtz would stop hunting Angel, or because all of them were going to be executed for crimes against music? Wesley hadn't thought the crimes they were accused of too serious at first, but the trial had changed his mind. He still didn't think they had done something to deserve capital punishment, whatever the Gandharva laws were regarding that, but he couldn't be sure.

Cordelia was the one to actually ask the question. "Are they going to chop our heads off or something?"

Raja worried look turned temporarily into a startled smile. "We really don't go for that kind of thing. Though admittedly, in rare instances people have been referred to other courts..."

"...Who do go for that kind of thing," Wesley concluded. "How quaint." He could hear the bitterness seeping through in his voice.

"It won't happen in this case," Raja said. "I've taken responsibility for your actions. The absolute worst thing that can happen to you now is banishment."

"Unless they get rid of you..." Lorne started muttering, but he caught Raja's glance and went quiet.

"Well, that's a load off my chest," Cordelia sighed.

Wesley felt a lot less comforted. Was a forced abdication a real possibility, or was Lorne just being paranoid?

"So what are the..." he started, but asking for the odds struck him as rather crass. "I mean, is it likely..."

Raja squeezed his shoulder. "They're good judges, Wesley. I promise."

Bess and the others returned from their bathroom break, but the judges were still missing. Without them, the room had gone utterly quiet; there was no background music, and very few people conversed. Occasionally, demons entered the room, or exited it. After about an hour, some of them dug out pipes or cigarettes and started to smoke.

"What's taking them so long?" Cordelia huffed, leaning her elbows on the back of a chair.

"They disagree on something," Raja said, looking shook up. "Probably trying to reach a compromise."

"That's a good sign, isn't it?" Wesley asked in a low voice.

"I certainly hope so."

At long last, the judges returned and took their seats. The room stilled, and the smokers put out their pipes and cigarettes.

"Members of the Order of Angel Investigations," all the judges sang in beautiful harmony, "the court has reached the conclusion that you did not intentionally or through any serious neglect facilitate for noise to reach this dimension. You did, however, abuse the holy application rites to come here. This you must not do again. Henceforth, you are all banished from using this method of entry. If you wish to return in the future, you must come in the company of a Gandharva who has the right to invite guests."

"Uh, excuse me," Lorne interrupted, risen half out of his seat, "does that go for me too?"

The judges silenced and glared at him.

"We will come to you, Krevlornswath of the Deathwok clan," the butterfly-winged one replied in harsh, clipped tones.

"Oh, goody," Lorne mumbled, sitting down again.

The judges returned to their ten-voiced musical number. "Furthermore, the vampire Angel is given three days to leave, and will then be banished from this dimension. The court wants it noted that this is not in punishment for any crime, but purely for security reasons."

Poor Angel. Then again, it wasn't as if he'd have much reason to get back here - Bess and Raja weren't his family, and he certainly was no musician.

"Krevlornswath of the Deathwok clan," the judges sang, and Lorne sat straight up, biting his lip. The judges gave the same line again about how he was innocent of the noise but guilty of abusing the application rites. "To avoid any future abuse of this kind, you are hereby declared Gandharva with permission to bring guests. Since Pylea has no representative in the government, Earth will be your Gandharva nation."

Lorne blinked, looking as if the official-sounding words had broken his brain. A smile started spreading over Raja's face. "Congratulations, friend."

Cordelia leaned forward and asked, "Did Lorne just get promoted?"

"Yup."

"I got promoted?" Lorne whispered. His eyes brightened up. "I got promoted."

"Raja of Earth," the judges continued, efficiently cutting off all further congratulations. "The court has reached the conclusion that you did not intentionally facilitate for noise to reach this realm, but that through your negligence said noise caused more problem to music than it might have done otherwise."

Bess gripped Raja's hand hard, and though his features were stonelike, his wings were fluttering.

"Granted, the danger was mostly to your own kinsmen, and you did help rectify your mistake. Thus your punishment will be light - this time. You are to assist the court house gardeners in creating our new Qawwali grove."

Raja relaxed - there was even a slight smile on his lips. "I can live with that," he said quietly. Wesley understood that this, by Gandharva standards, was a slap on the wrist, and it did sound a lot like community service.

"Daniel Holtz of Earth. The court finds you guilty of entering our world illegally, and of bringing noise into it, without any consideration to the people living here. Seeing how there is great strength in your soul that should not go to waste, the court has decided that you shall undergo a full cleansing ceremony at the hands of our healers. After that, you will be banished from this dimension. If you still want to pursue vengeance, we will take you to the temples of Nemesis, where you are to sign up. If your wish for vengeance has been slaked, however, you will be returned to your own dimension and time. Our soothsayers have determined that this will not significantly alter the future. That will be all."

The 'all' was short, making an abrupt ending before the judges stood up and marched out of the room. Wesley looked for Holtz and caught a glimpse of his back as the bug-eyed demon took him away.

"Soothsayers, huh?" Bess said. "That must have been what took so long."

"Nemesis?" Angel asked, sounding dangerously calm.

Raja shrugged. "Well, at least Nemesis is just. Mostly."

Thinking of it, Wesley too found it a most disturbing concept. "So what it all comes down to is that Holtz can get right back to trying to kill Angel, only with the help of a really powerful goddess?"

"Not right back," Raja reminded him. "A thorough cleansing like the one they talked about will take a few months."

"Oh, great," Angel said, calm now interspersed with sarcasm. "Nothing to worry about, then."

"Listen, I know it's not perfect," Raja said. "They're not really interested unless it concerns music or musicians - crass, but there you have it. At least you'll have some respite. And you never know, the cleansing might take. Maybe when they're all done with him, he won't be wanting your dust anymore."

"I murdered his family," Angel said, hugging Connor close. "Turned his daughter into a vampire. I wouldn't be able to forgive that. Would you?"

Raja pulled Bess closer and glanced down at the end of the room where Mira was standing, preening her wings. She noticed his look and gave a quick little wave with one of her talons.

"No, I guess not."

 

CODA: SINGING ONLY OF YOUR EYES

The horrible thing with sound isolation was that you never knew what to expect. Wesley stopped outside Doyle's room, trying to hear something from inside, but there was nothing, and it was impossible to tell if Doyle truly had silenced or if those sobs had continued while they were away.

There was only one way to found out, and so Wesley opened the door and stepped in.

Doyle was quiet - that was good news at least. He was sitting on the floor, with his arms around his knees and his face hidden. When Wesley entered, he looked up, showing reddened, swollen eyes.

"How are you feeling?" Wesley asked, walking up to him. There wasn't much room in the corner Doyle had chosen, but Wesley managed to sit down, somewhat awkwardly, next to him.

Doyle made a grimace. "Fucking awful." His voice was hoarse after the hours of screaming.

Wesley nodded. "But that's... that's better, right?"

"It's so much better you wouldn't believe." Doyle rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand, trying to pull himself together. "So how did it go?"

"We were acquitted."

"And Holtz?"

"He wasn't." Wesley hesitated. "Quite."

"What happened?"

Wesley wondered how to explain in a way that wouldn't be upsetting. "Things worked out all right, I suppose you could say."

"Wes." The warning in Doyle's voice was unmistakable. "You need to be more specific. Don't keep me guessing here, man."

He had a point. Leaving the verdict to Doyle's imagination would do no good at all. And so he recounted the court's decision, running his fingers through Doyle's tousled hair as he spoke.

When he was finished, Doyle leaned his head back into Wesley's hand, a thoughtful expression on his face.

"If they're going to keep cleansing Holtz for months," he said, "there's no telling what he'll be like when they're done."

Wesley rubbed his thumb along the back of Doyle's neck. "You don't regret it, do you?"

Doyle shook his head and leaned in closer, wrapping his arms around Wesley's body. His cheek was hot and slightly sticky against Wesley's face. "I'm all here now. It hurts like hell, and Johnny's gone and..." His voice faltered. "...and I couldn't save him, and I almost had my da killing me, but I'm not... what?"

The last was in response to Wesley drawing his breath sharply.

"The prophecy... I mean, the fake one. It almost came true."

"It wasn't him," Doyle said, choking up. Wesley could feel him starting to rock slightly. "He wouldn't have done that."

"I know. It was the ghosts - the memories. I'm sorry." He started to withdraw a little. "I'm making you more upset..."

"Don't you dare," Doyle said with ferocity, pulling him closer. "I've fucked up a lot in my life, but this I'm going to do right. You're staying. Someone's got to look after you so you don't get yourself tangled up in any more prophecies."

Wesley smiled. "Does this mean you want to go home?"

"I'm not going to be easy to live with for a while," Doyle warned him.

"You were never easy to live with," Wesley said. He was starting to feel a bit giddy.

"Harder still, then."

"And you really want to come home?"

"Said so, didn't I?" Doyle returned, giving Wesley little teary kisses down his jaw, and then continuing down the throat.

"Home home? To the apartment, not just to Los Angeles?"

Now he was unbuttoning Wesley's shirt. "To wherever you'll have me. If you think you can put up with the crying and nightmares as well as the hallucinations..."

"...and the kicking, and the cold feet," Wesley filled in.

Doyle looked up, smiling through the tears. "Hey, if you don't think it's worth it..."

"Mmm." Wesley kept stroking Doyle's hair, shivering slightly as light fingers teased his nipples. "If my present situation is anything to judge by, I'd say I would be in - oh! - very good hands."

 

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