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ain't no place for a hero

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YOU HAVE ONE NEW MESSAGE.

Hey, big-city-lady, greetings from Sunnydale! We just finished the first day of class, and let me tell you, it is amazing! I’m taking eighteen credits (even though my advisor told me not to, hah!) and I even got Buffy to take that psych class with me, though I had to use the puppy eyes. Giles is still a ‘gentleman of leisure,’ which Buffy says is code for ‘big fat slacker’ but Oz already has two gigs lined up for next week, can you believe that? And… what else… Oh! Anya’s back, you remember Anya? Uh, of course you do. Well, apparently she got her little ex-demon claws on a fake ID and finagled her way into a job tending bar at this really skeezy place right off campus, and I’ve already heard two freshman complaining about her. It’s great! She even tried to get Cordelia a job there too, but Cordy said that she’d rather go for a hydrochloric facial rather than deal with sweaty frat boys trying to paw her all night, so she’s still burning lattes and mangling people’s names at-

Whoops. We’re still ix-nay on the ordy-kay, aren’t we? Sorry.

Anyway, I can catch you up later, I just figured I'd call and check in, you know? See how you're doing, if everything's going good out there in the big city. If… maybe you might be thinking about coming back for a visit soon? I mean, I know, we've had this talk, I know you wanted to try something a little less demon-y for a while, but I just- It just doesn't feel right without you here, is all.

I miss you, Xan. I wish you'd come home.

YOU HAVE NO NEW MESSAGES.

Everything was going pretty well for Angel, relatively speaking, until he ended up at Tina's party.

It wasn't just that it was awkward - although, God, was it. But Angel was used to awkward; he could cope with awkward. Even the manager who was trying to scope him like a particularly gay shark and the really impressive amount of booze that some of the socialite types were putting back didn't put him off. (Well, much.)

No, where it went wrong for Angel is when someone bumped into him and he spun around to another side of the crowd to avoid getting cheap beer on his good coat and almost tripped over a laughing brunette snapping photos of the party and realized it was Xander Harris.

She looked… the same, more or less. Not the same as she’d been at the end, hollow-eyed with exhaustion and streaked with ash and blood, but from before that, back in the days when she used to glare at him behind Buffy’s back and mutter insults she probably didn’t know he could actually hear. She’d filled out a little since then, lost some of the puppy fat and put on some muscle after a couple of years as the Slayer’s sidekick, but she was still the same old Xander. Same ragged mop of dark hair and ragged cuticles, same baggy cargo pants and ancient Army jacket. And, of course, the same goddamn clunky camera, a veteran of multiple apocalypses and more graveyard beatdowns than he could count. Like freaking Jimmy Olsen, tagging along behind her own personal Superman.

He would have bet good money that she’d be the last one out of the Scooby gang to break away from Buffy’s orbit, but here she was anyway. In Los Angeles, in the middle of a party of Hollywood wannabe’s, schmoozing with the kind of people she’d once lived to mock. Assuming she wasn’t here hunting evil - not entirely out of the realm of possibility, considering - that meant she was just… getting on with her life. Away from the Hellmouth.

And damn if it didn’t burn him up that she seemed to be doing better at it than he was.

"Holy shit, Angel?"

Damn it, too late to run. He squared up his shoulders and turned back to face her, trying to remind himself that he was bigger than her, older than her, and, oh yeah, a centuries-old vampire with nothing to prove. “Harris.”

She didn’t even seem to notice his reply: too busy babbling onward, full steam ahead, just like always. “Man, what the hell are you doing here? ‘Cause, I mean, I knew you were exactly in Kansas anymore, but I was kinda figuring you’d make it a little farther than, well, here. I mean, not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with here, just… not what I expected, and…” She trailed off, caught the look on his face, and shoved her hands in her pockets. “So, this is weird.”

She thought it was weird? How the hell did she think he felt?

“What are you doing here, Xander?"

Hurt flickered across her face, and despite himself, Angel felt a twinge of guilt. Xander had never particularly been his favorite part of Sunnydale, but she had been part of his life. An annoying one, yes, but… a fixture, for all of that. Maybe he could have-

But then she rolled her eyes and they were right back to normal, where Xander hated the air he didn’t breathe and made damn sure he knew it. “Oh, wow, what a blast from the not-distant-enough past, you telling me I'm somewhere I'm not supposed to be. What's it going to be next, go home, Xander, it's not safe for puny mortals like you?" She drew herself up and skewered him with a painfully familiar scowl. "How 'bout I send that question right back atcha, blood-breath? Everyone knew I was moving here after graduation. It was a whole… thing."

No, everybody had not known, because he hadn't known. If he'd known that she was moving to L.A., he would have gone somewhere else. Anywhere else. He’d only picked L.A. in the first place because it had enough of a supernatural population to keep busy but was still close enough to Sunnydale that he could get back quickly if he had to. You know, in case someone… called, or needed his help, or… whatever.

Then again, Xander probably picked here for more or less the same reasons. "Sorry, never got the memo. Must have been too busy with other stuff."

Her eyebrows crept up. "Of course, you were so busy. With that other stuff."

Arrgh. “What do you want, Xander?”

“A steady paycheck, an unburnt copy of my diploma, and a sneak peak at the next season of Voyager,” Xander replied promptly. “But I’ll settle for what you’re doing here. Not just in the city, but, like, at this party." She gestured widely. "With these people."

She was at this party too, he couldn't help but note, but he knew her well enough to know that pointing it out wouldn’t lead the conversation anywhere productive. He glanced around for Tina, couldn't spot her, and ended up doing something weird with his hands before he shoved them safely in his pockets. "Uh. Helping the helpless?"

She stared at him for a moment, and then huffed a laugh. "Damn, you haven't changed a wink. Guess you wouldn't, though. I mean-” She mimed a vague but unmistakable set of vampire fangs. “Considering."

He gritted his teeth. “You know, I’d say it was nice to see you again, but…”

“Yeah, yeah, back at ya. So what kind of evil is it this time? Vampires? Demons? Really angry knitting circle?”

"It's… complicated." He looked around for Tina again. "There's this girl…"

"Let me guess. She's blonde, about yea tall, desperately in need of your help?"

"Well, I don’t know that ‘desperate’ is the right-” He stopped. Folded his arms over his chest. Glared. “Jesus, Xander, not like that.

“I’m just saying, you’ve got a type!”

Why was he bothering with this? He didn't actually give a damn what she thought about him, and since Buffy wasn't between them anymore, he didn't have reason to pretend that her opinion mattered. He could just… walk away.

"You know what? I think I'm done explaining myself to you.”

"So good to see you again, Angel," she said to his back. "Let's never keep in touch." He felt her move away into the crowd and sighed. What a great way to start connecting with people! To meet the one person from his old life who hated him more than anyone. When he saw Doyle again, he was doing to punch the little bastard right in the nose.

And then he saw Tina being threatened by some two-bit thug with slicked-back hair, and he went to save the girl.

Alexandra Harris was going places.

Admittedly, they were not the places she’d intended to go - Magnum PI, she wasn’t - but still, places. Right now she had a shitty apartment, a car that ran only on alternating Tuesdays, and enough part-time jobs that she was getting less sleep than she did hunting evil in high school, but she knew it was going to work. She’d rather crawl naked over broken glass than go home and admit she couldn’t hack it in the big city after all, so she’d make it work. No matter what it took.

So far, the ‘independent photographer’ business wasn’t going much better than private investigator had, but ol’ Tony Harris didn’t raise a quitter (despite his best efforts to the contrary) so she was making the best of it. Admittedly, taking photos of former debutantes and Midwest dreamers at Margot’s little parties wasn’t exactly her dream job, but it was keeping the lights on, at least. Sunnydale had left her with exactly two skillsets: taking photos and hunting evil, and she was done with the demon hunter gig.

And it was working, kind of. She was getting her name out there, making connections, the whole nine yards. Okay, so she was mostly doing it by doing free headshots for brainless bimbettes trying to hack it off Daddy’s trust fund for the first time, but that’s how networking worked, right? And it wasn’t like she hated them, or anything. They could be kinda shallow, sure, and some of them were a little pretentious, and almost nobody got her jokes…

Okay, so she didn’t much like them, either. But hey, it wasn’t like she was looking to replace Buffy and Willow anytime soon - as if anyone could. Her new pals were fine. It was fine! Xander Harris was going places, and she wasn’t going to let a little social isolation get in her way.

Even if sometimes she got so lonely it actually, physically hurt.

God, she was so desperate for a familiar face that she’d even been glad to see Angel. Angel! Well, right up until he’d opened his mouth and been just as much of a big, smirky jerk as always, anyway. That urge had passed quickly, thank God. She couldn’t even imagine what his reaction would have been if she'd gotten around to that smile that had been working its way up. Ugh.

Seriously, though, what the hell was he even doing here in L.A.? Supposedly he'd been taking off for the big, bad world after graduation, but being a centuries-old, globe-trotting immortal vampire, you'd think his big trip would take him more than three hours from Sunnydale. Not that Xander herself had made it much farther, obviously, but she was a broke teenager. She had a good excuse.

She'd seen him scare some thug type off a crying blonde and leave with her a little after he'd stalked off in a huff, so no big change there, that's for damn sure. At least she could be pretty confident that this one wasn't a Slayer. Buffy was still alive and kicking and Faith was in a coma, so the Chosen Two were both still present and accounted-for. Angel's kink for woman literally designed by Fate to kill him would have to go unfulfilled.

But if he wasn't picking up the blonde - and since he'd clearly been white-hatting it up, even Xander had to admit that was unlikely - then it still left her wondering what the hell he was doing in L.A. And more importantly, why the hell was he at that party? Of all the gin joints in all the world, a gathering of Hollywood wannabes didn't really seem like Angel's jam or jelly.

Her cell phone chirped, interrupting her musings, and she sprang for it. "Hello, Alexandra Harris speaking, how may I help you?"

"Lexy!” Margot. Sounding, incidentally, like she was still drunk from two nights ago - which wasn't exactly outside the realm of possibility. Xander was pretty sure she'd never encountered the Queen Bee sober, and legend held that such a thing had never occurred. "You were such a hit at my party the other night."

Actually, she was willing to bet that the caterers were the only ones who could recognize her face behind the camera, but she wasn’t exactly looking to quibble with her only steady client. “Glad to hear it. That mean you have some other work for me?”

“As a matter of fact.” Margot sounded almost sly, which set Xander’s finely-tuned danger senses a’tingling. Nothing good ever came of that tone of voice, not in her experience. “You know those little party tapes I used to make, right?”

“Back before you engaged my sterling services to immortalize your festivities? Of course.”

“Right, so, I was watching one of the old ones with this great friend of mine, Russell Winters, I’m sure you’ve heard of him-”

Not once, but since when were facts relevant when talking to Margot?

“-and you were in it, because it was the one from Peyton’s birthday, of course you know Peyton-”

She wasn’t sure she’d ever met anyone named Peyton, but she had been to a couple of birthday parties at Margot’s before she’d started bringing her camera. It wasn’t outside of the realm of possibility.

“-and he was asking about who you were, since, you know, you look a little different… Not that I don’t love your style, darling, it’s so unique-”

Not the most subtle of digs at her clothing choices, but Xander had to give her points for effort.

“-and I told him about your wonderful pictures, of course, and showed him that album you made me, you know I keep it right on my coffee table-”

Xander cleared her throat gently. One thing she’d learned over the last couple months; you had to sort of gently steer Margot back towards her point eventually, or she’d never find it again. “And he wants to hire me for something?”

“Yes, that’s just what I was about to say! He’s kind of a guardian angel for my girls here, you know, he’s got just scads of money and he loves to make things happen for people. And now he wants to make things happen for you!”

Well, that sounded… fishy. “What’s the job, exactly?”

“He wants you to come over to his place tonight. He’s been thinking about selling for something a little closer to the nightlife, and he wants to get proper professional photos for the listing.”

Right. Xander might be new to the big-city lifestyle, but she wasn’t born yesterday, either. “Yeah, because that doesn’t sound suspicious at all. I mean, how could a strange rich person inviting me to his out-of-the-way mansion to discuss a mysterious project that sounds like he made it up on the spot possibly go wrong?"

"Lex, you're looking at this all wrong! It's not about Russell Winters taking advantage of you - which he won't, by the way, he's a nice guy. It's about you, taking advantage of this opportunity."

Xander knew better, really she did, but she couldn't help but think of her nest egg, which wasn't exactly getting bigger by the minute. Investment banker money was good money - good enough, if she played her cards right, to get her some real breathing room for the first time since she got to LA. She could do this one thing, hopefully not get serial-killed, and have enough funds to keep the roof over her head for a couple of months while she focused on building up a portfolio and getting her name out there. This could be just the break she’d been waiting for.

"What's the address?"

Angel was in the process of sneaking past the guard patrolling the downstairs atrium, congratulating himself on a job well done, when he heard a gunshot ringing out from one of the rooms upstairs.

“Whoops,” he said, and dropped the guard with a hard punch straight to the temple before bolting for the stairs.

He was just rounding the corner of the big marble bannister when he literally collided with Xander, who was sprinting hell-for-leather down the hall with a comically oversized pistol in one hand and the other clutching the strap of a patched canvas bag. Angel grunted from the impact - she was skinny, but she had velocity on her side - and brought his hands up to her shoulders to steady her, grateful that he didn’t have any breath to lose. “Xander? What the hell are you doing here?”

“Once again I say: ‘back atcha.” She heaved a gulping breath and spun around. “Where is he? Goddamn it, he was right behind me, if vamps can teleport now I’m gonna-”

“I’m gonna tear your heart out and feed it to you, you fucking whore!”

“Never mind, found him.” Xander backed up against the balustrade, clutching her pistol in sweaty hands, putting Angel in between her and the the vamp limping down the hallway. “He looks pissed. Don’t you think he looks pissed?”

“Gee, could it be the hole where his left knee used to be?”

Xander waggled her pistol apologetically. “They don’t exactly do concealed carry for a crossbow.”

Angel was still working on a reply to that when Winters, seeing someone standing in between him and the target of his ire, let out a growl of pure rage and charged, taking them both down to the floor. They rolled twice, grappling for advantage, before Angel found and opening and kicked Winters off of him. He sprang back to his feet and rotated his wrists, checking to make sure the stakes hadn’t gotten damaged in the fall.

They hadn’t.

“Russell Winters, right?” He let Winters scramble back to his feet, then caught his gaze and let the demon out. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

“Well. Hmm. This is embarrassing.” Winters finger-combed his mussed hair back into order, ridged forehead wrinkled with consternation. “I thought you were some kind of... crusader, or something, considering how dinner turned out.” Winters leveled a look of concentrated ire over Angel’s shoulder, and behind him, Angel heard Xander squeak and shrink back against the railing. “Never mind, never mind. What is it you want?”

“I’m here with a message.” Winters waved him on distractedly, and Angel smiled. It was like he’d told Doyle: there was a time and a place for sharing his feelings. That time was now. “From Tina.”

Slowly, Winters looked away from Xander and back to Angel’s face. Whatever he found there sent something that might have been annoyance scudding across his warped, greenish face. “You have made a very big mistake, coming here tonight.”

From behind the dubious safety of her pistol, Xander gave a little snort of amusement. “Oh wow, you don’t even know who he is, do you?” She grinned at Winters, effortlessly grabbing his attention with her sunny Cali-girl smile while Angel shifted his weight in preparation. “You are going to get so dusted.”

Angel didn’t waste the opportunity: with Winters’ attention fixed on his would-be supper, Angel lunged forward and tackled him. Winters went head-first into the marble floor with a really satisfying crack, and then the fight was on.

It went on for… a few minutes, probably; he wasn’t exactly keeping track. He’d trained to keep control during battle but he’d been tamping down on his rage for a while now, and it felt so good to just- let it out. The red haze, the primal, satisfying fury of it: it all blurred together into one long exchange of kicks and blows, first one with the advantage, then the other. At some point Angel got in a punch to his jaw that Winters was going to be feeling for a while; at another, Winters got him with a flying kick to the back of the knee Angel was definitely going to be feeling for a while. They were about evenly matched; the bastard was good, fast and strong, but Angel had trained against the Slayer herself, and he was feeling particularly motivated.

They hit the balustrade in a blur of limbs and snapping fangs - to the side, Angel could just barely hear Xander ducking away with a squeak - but all of his attention was fixed on the struggle to free his wrist from Winters’ grip. If he could just twist free long enough to loose his stake-

“Angel.” Distantly, he became aware of Xander tugging at his sleeve, worry in her dark eyes. “Angel, buddy, we've got backup incoming.”

As soon as the words percolated through the haze of adrenaline and battle-lust, Angel could hear the pounding of booted footsteps heading for the stairs. He cursed, ducked, and shouldered Winters back into the wall, diving for the end of the runner carpeting the marble staircase. One, two, three and he yanked with all of his strength, sending three of the four bodies crashing precipitously to the ground. He sprang back up to his feet and took the first bullet straight into the chest, then two more to the back as he grabbed a yelping Xander, heaved himself up over the balcony, and jumped.

He felt the knee that Winters kicked give as soon as he hit the floor, and he likely would have fallen if Xander hadn’t shoved herself into his side to shore him up. They probably looked like something out of a bad slapstick routine - he had to be nearly twice her size - but she was a lot sturdier than she looked, and she didn’t hesitate to gather up a fistful of his coat and haul his ass out of there. You had to appreciate that about Xander: she might not like him, in fact she very probably still hated his guts, but she would absolutely not leave him behind to be tortured by some freakish green vampire.

They made it to the gate before the guards could muster themselves for pursuit, though he could hear the drum of footsteps in the distance as the ones he’d knocked down recovered their balance enough to come after him. Doyle was waiting on the other side, staring at the bent and smoking bumper of his Plymouth, but he looked up quickly as they approached, nostrils flaring at the scent of blood.

“I know, I had a bit of an accident-” Doyle’s pre-packaged excuse cut off at Angel’s glare, and he hastened to open the back door for them. "-but we'll talk later, right."

Xander didn’t pause to ask questions, just dumped him unceremoniously in the back seat and vaulted over the passenger door, bag flapping awkwardly at her hip. Because he was in a lot of pain, Angel forebore to make any Dukes of Hazzard jokes and just pulled the door shut with his foot as Doyle pulled out with a squeal of tires.

It was almost a mile down the road before Angel really believed that no one was coming after them. He grabbed onto the back of the seat and slowly levered himself upright, grimacing at the tacky pull of his blood on the seats. Damn it, he’d just had the interior detailed!

"You okay?" he asked Xander, because that was the most important thing.

"Yeah, just a little freaked. I-"

But Angel had already moved onto the second-most important thing. “Then you won’t mind telling me what the hell you were doing there.”

Xander had never had any problems picking up the thread of an argument. All that practice with Cordelia, probably. “You mind telling me how that’s any of your business, blood-breath?"

"You made it my business when I had to save you from being Winters' latest three-course meal!"

“Uh-” said Doyle.

“I was handling things just fine before you came along!”

“Oh yeah? How’s that, exactly?”

“Guys-” Doyle tried again.

“I took out his knee already, didn’t I?”

“And what were you planning on doing about the rest of him? Or the guards? Don’t suppose you had a genius plan for them, did you?”

“I would have thought of something!”

“Yeah, where have I heard that before?”

“HEY!” Both of them turned to look at Doyle, who hunched down slightly under the weight of two angry glares and turned his attention back to the road. “Someone wanna fill in the very confused getaway driver? Angel, man, what th’hell happened back there?”

Angel glared at Xander. "I'd like to know that, too."

She sneered right back. "You first, fang."

Experience told that she could keep an argument going appropriately until the heat-death of the universe - all that practice dating Cordelia had to be good for something - so he gave way with a sigh. “When I got there, Xander had just gotten away from Winters by dint of a large-caliber bullet to the kneecap-" Credit where credit was due, and all that. "-so I lost the element of surprise. The guards caught up before I was done."

“Forgot to factor those into your precious plan, huh, fangface?”

“At least I knew he was a goddamn vampire before I waltzed into his lair.”

“Hey now, don’t make me turn this car around. Uh, ‘specially since that way lies a pissed-off vamp, I guess.”

Angel said nothing. He just stared at the back of Xander’s head.

“An-y-way.” Doyle gave a nervous little laugh. “I, uh, I’m guessin’ you two know each other?”

Xander snorted and slouched down in her seat, putting her feet up on his dash like a sulky kid. “You could say that.”

Doyle shot him a mutely pleading look in the rearview mirror, and Angel sighed. One of them had to be the bigger man in this scenario. So to speak. “Doyle, this is Xander. She was a friend of Buffy’s.”

“Hey now, watch it with the past tense, deadboy. Just because you cut all ties when you did your dramatic walking-into-the-smoke fade-out, doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t know how to pick up the freaking phone.”

Angel was still trying to come up with a response to that particular barb when Doyle gave a little grunt of surprise, like he’d just figured something out. “Hang a mo’, I thought you looked familiar. Slayer’s pal, huh? Kick his ass - that was you, right?”

Xander jumped like she’d been shot - something Angel had very recent acquaintance with - and went pale. Well, paler. “What did you say?”

“Hah! Knew it. Nice to meetcha,” and Doyle took one hand off the wheel to hold it out to shake. “I’m Doyle.”

Xander slowly reached out and shook, her face still tight with that odd tension. “Nice to meet you, I guess,” she said. “Has Angel-”

“Don’t worry, you haven’t exactly been a topic of conversation.”

“Ah.” She looked oddly relieved, though damned if he could figure why. “So how-”

“Doyle gets visions.”

“Of course he does.” She twisted around in her seat and gave him an incredulous look. “Jeez, Angel, what’s with you and psychic sidekicks?”

Maybe this was part of his penance, Angel thought. Maybe the Powers that Be thought, you know what, I don’t think he learned his lesson after a century of torture, and decided he needed a lecture in humility. It’s the only reason he could think of for why he was currently saddled with the one person in all the world who could be counted on to never, ever, cut him any kind of slack.

Personally, he'd rather take the torture.

Highway speeds in an open-top convertible kept further conversation to a minimum, and that suited Xander just fine. She had a lot of mental processing to do, but not a lot of horsepower to do it with. Yes, Willow, I know what ‘mixing my metaphors’ is. It’s called comedy.

God, how could she even explain this particular debacle to the folks back home? Dear Buffy, went her imaginary email. You’d love Los Angeles! The weather is wonderful, the night life is great, and you meet the most interesting people. For example, last night I ran into your immortal blood-drinking ex, how’s that for a small world? Oh yeah, and tonight I got this too-good-to-be-true job that, surprise, turned out to be too good to be true! Oh yeah, and then Angel showed up. Again. Because it wasn’t enough that I had to face certain death, I also had to be rescued by the one person I wanted to see even less than my ex-girlfriend…

Grr, argh, grumble.

“You okay over there, sport?”

Xander surfaced from her inner pity party long enough to blink over at Angel’s new psychic buddy. “Why, is there something for me to be not-okay about?”

Doyle winced. “Ask a stupid question, I guess.”

“I’m fine. Peachy keen. Five by five, as a certain homicidal pal o’ mine used to say. I’m from Sunnydale. Almost getting turned into vampire chow is your standard Thursday night out.”

“You’re not in Sunnydale anymore.”

“Freaking tell me about it.” She peered into the backseat and found her erstwhile white knight curled up, eyes closed and not breathing, doing a really fantastic imitation of a dead body. Technically correct is the best kind of correct… “Angel, buddy, you still with us back there?”

Angel didn’t respond.

“Great, and now we’ve got an unconscious vampire in the back seat. This night just keeps getting better and better.”

Doyle shrugged. “Not like he’s going to bleed to death.”

“Wow, trust the Irish to look on the bright side of life.” Xander sighed and slumped down until she ran out of leg room and was forced to straighten back up. “Tell me the truth, was he bullshitting me about the psychic thing?” God, she hoped it wasn’t bullshit. If Angel knew- “‘Cause I’m not saying I don’t believe you, I’ve definitely heard weirder - hell, I’ve done weirder - actually, come to think of it, visions are really pretty low on my personal scale of weird-”

“Not bullshit,” Doyle said, mercifully rescuing her from her runaway train of thought. “And very weird, when you’re the one livin’ with them.”

“Fair enough.” Okay. Psychic. She could work with that. “Seriously, though, how’d you hook up with Angel? Were you like, ‘tell me, O spirit guide, where can I find a brooding idiot with a hair gel addiction,’ and Harold-”

“Harold?”

“Your spirit guide’s name is Harold, keep up - and Harold was like, ‘here, in the city of angels, look for the black hole where fun should be, and there you will find the one man with no sense of humor. Find him! and make sure to crash his car into a gate because he really loves that thing.’”

It was hard to tell in the light, but she thought Doyle might have blushed. “In my defense, that always works in the movies.”

“Oh, buddy, tell me about it. The sheer amount of Hollywood bullshit I have had to unlearn is actually pretty impressive, considering that my usual learning curve is more like a straight line.”

“Well, nothing as excitin’ as all that. No spirit guide, no message. Just visions. Brain-splittin’, mind-numbin’ visions, sent by the Powers that Be.”

“The Powers that Be what, exactly?”

“Wouldn’t mind findin’ that out myself.” Doyle shrugged. “The visions are for Angel. People he’s supposed to help.”

Huh. “So that vision you saw…”

“Part of an introduction, like. Lettin’ me know who he was, who he’d been, what he was about, that kinda thing. Didn’t get the play-by-play, mind, more like a highlights reel.” He flashed her a grin. “Don’t worry, sport, you didn’t feature heavily. Not really sure what that one was about, actually, but it must’ve been important. This stuff always makes sense later.”

“Yeah. Funny how that works.” Swallowing against a dry throat, Xander looked studiously out the window. “Where are we heading, anyway?”

“Angel’s place. Figure he’ll need blood to patch up, so…”

“Yeah, not like the blood bank’s gonna be open at this hour. Well, not if they want to survive, anyway. Or is that one of the Sunnydale problems? Like how nobody works the nightshift, or no-garlic orders get you banned from the local pizza place, or the curious epidemic of barbeque fork accidents…” She noticed Doyle staring at her. “Because they’re spaced like vampire fangs.”

“You got a really skewed idea of what’s normal, you know that?”

“It may have been pointed out once or twice.” She sighed and let her head loll back against the headrest. “You try surviving the Hellmouth and see how normal you turn out. The week Buffy arrived? I slept with my best friend and then he tried to turn me into a vampire, and it was pretty much all downhill from there. Got a crush on teacher? She turned out to be a crazy bug lady who liked to eat after mating. Ask out the cute exchange student? She was actually a soul-sucking mummy princess. And then I ended up dating my high-school nemesis, which I think is actually the weirdest one? I mean, she was the head of the freaking pep squad, for God’s sake.”

“Uh,” said Doyle.

She gestured at him in mute frustration. “Exactly! I know! And let’s not forget the love spell gone awry, or my prom date the former vengeance demon. You know what constitutes small talk for a vengeance demon? Plagues. Boils. Exploding heads. And that’s not even counting my encounter with the little Slayer who could commit felony assault, because-”

“Uh, sport, you wanna maybe slow your roll a little there?”

“Why? Too weird?”

“No. Well, yes, but-” He pointed to the door of the office building they’d pulled up to when she was busy ranting. “We’re here.”

She looked at the building for a minute, then back to Doyle. “These are offices.”

“He’s got an apartment in the basement.”

“God, of course he does.” She reached over the seat, shaking Angel’s shoulder as gingerly as only someone who once almost lost a hand to a half-asleep and very grumpy Slayer could do. “Wakey wakey, my undead pal. You gotta get up.”

Angel blinked muzzily, seemed to recognize her, and then closed his eyes in defeat. “I’ll be up in a minute.”

“Sure you will, buddy.” She sighed deeply, briefly considered both her life and her choices, and then looked across the seat at Doyle. “I think this is gonna require an extra pair of hands.”

Angel woke up when they dragged him out of the car, the yank of pain in his chest enough to drag him out of the semi-doze he’d fallen into. He almost lashed out on pure animal instinct - hurting me, always hurting me, make it stop - and only didn’t because he caught a whiff of darkroom chemicals and cheap shampoo. He knew that scent. Dark eyes, sneering mouth, I don’t like you. At the end of the day, I pretty much think you’re a vampire...

“Angel, man, you with us?”

He managed to pry open his eyes and found worried green ones looking back at him. Doyle. Visions. Helping the helpless-

Ah. Winters’s mansion.

“I’m with you.” With an effort, he managed to still the tremors that were running through him. It’s just memory. Nothing that can hurt you now. “What do you need?”

If anything, Doyle looked even more worried at that. “It’s more what you need, boyo. Sport, you think you could unlock the door?”

Xander caught the keys Doyle tossed her. “On it.”

“We’re back at your place,” Doyle explained. “Figured you’d have the blood supply. And the stuff to get the bullets out.”

Right, he’d been shot. That’s why he felt like he’d been impaled. Not that he’d ever had that happen to him. Well, not in this dimension, anyway.

“Good thinking,” he said, and wincingly took a step forward. “I’ll-”

“-just lean on me, right,” Doyle said hastily, and suited action to word. “C’mon. Not far now."

Far enough, with a couple bullets lodged in his internal organs. Not that he was using them, but still. Probably a good thing they were the only ones in the building.

In his kitchen, Doyle dropped Angel face-first into a chair and started poking through the cabinets. "Where the hell d'you keep your first aid kit?"

"In the bathroom, like everyone else." Angel watched Xander drop her bag on the table go over to his fridge. "If you're looking for a snack, I have to warn you-"

She rolled her eyes as she yanked the door open. "Gee, what a surprise. Nothing but blood. However could I guess." She grabbed a couple packs and brought them back to the table. "It's for you, deadboy. I'm not the one who got shot."

He considered pointing out that he usually drank it heated, but a) underneath the sarcasm Xander sounded genuinely worried, and b) he was feeling too desperate to wait. He picked up the first bag and bit straight into it.

Xander winced a little and looked away, but she stayed with him, and handed him the second bag when he was finished with the first. He tried to give her a grateful smile, but from the slightly sickened expression on her face, it didn't work so great with blood-stained fangs on display. Funny, that.

Doyle came back just as he was finishing the second bag, with a scalpel, forceps, bandages, and a determined expression. "Gotta get the bullets out first, then we can wrap you up. You'll be good as new in no time."

Angel craned a look over his shoulder. "You have a lot of practice at this?"

"More than our damsel over there."

"Who are you calling a damsel?” Xander demanded, but when Angel shook his head at her, she let it lie.

The less said about the next five minutes, the better. Angel went through two more packs of blood - supplied without asking by a very silent Xander - and almost splintered the edge of the table with his grip, but eventually Doyle got it done, swearing like a sailor the whole way through.

“Got you, you boar-buggering bitch of a-”

“Wow.” It wouldn’t look bad if he let himself collapse just a little against the back of the chair, right? He was probably allowed. “Some of those are new even to me.”

“I know, right? I think my ears are burning.” Xander knelt down next to him with bandages and an expectant look. Angel groaned, but hoisted himself upright again. “Maybe I should have been watching more BBC back when Willow was on her culture kick.”

“Bite your tongue, sport, that’s the British.”

“So?”

Doyle groaned as he dropped the forceps into the sink. “I can’t take this. Angel, back me up here, tell her how wrong that is. You’re from the mother country!”

Angel hadn’t thought of himself as Irish in- decades, probably. Well before he’d gotten around to actually losing the accent. “A long time ago, maybe.”

“Yeah? And you tellin’ me you were great friends with the English back then, huh?”

“No, but-”

“Well, this outpouring of patriotism is touching.” Xander had learned that particular withering tone from Cordelia, Angel just knew it. “I feel more educated already, I promise, but I’m more interested in, like, the recent past. Say, what you guys were doing at Winters’ mansion? I mean, I’m guessing you weren’t exactly stormin' da castle to save an old pal - and doesn't the joke just write itself on that one - so… What’s the deal?”

"Well, it’s kind of a long story, that-”

"Doyle gets visions of people I'm supposed to save. I wasn’t fast enough to stop Winters. I came to share my feelings on the issue."

Doyle sighed and rubbed his hand over the back of his head. "Guess it's not that long."

"I just heard you say the word 'feelings' voluntarily, which makes me wonder if California isn't getting to you after all," Xander said after a moment, but her hands remained gentle on the bandages. "Been doing this long?"

Angel looked at the ceiling so he wouldn't have to look at her face. "First case."

"Oh, boy." She finished wrapping and held her hand out for the tape, which Doyle scrambled to pass to her. Angel was finally allowed to relax back into the chair again, wincing when the holes in his back came in contact with the wooden slats. "Well, I’m not exactly going to complain about the timing, considering I’d be dead if you weren’t there.”

There was a thank-you somewhere in there, but Angel was in no mood to hear it. “And if you hadn’t been there,” he said through gritted teeth, “then he’d be dead right now.”

"How do you figure?" The last bit of tape went down a little harder than necessary, but then she smoothed it over and sat back on her heels. "Would you have somehow magically killed him faster without the giant bloody hole in one knee? Would the security team not have been there? I'm not following your logic."

She wasn't following his logic because there wasn't any to follow. He'd underestimated Winters and it had screwed him over. He likely wouldn't have gotten himself killed either way - Winters was good, but he was out of practice, and Angel had motivation on his side - but he probably wouldn't have won, either. And she had helped him with the getaway.

He was congenitally incapable of admitting wrongdoing to Xander Harris, however, so he just scowled at her and crossed his arms (painfully, wincingly) over his chest. "It was still stupid."

"Yes, thank you, I think I've figured that out by now!" She sighed and got to her feet, wiping a few stray smears of blood from her hands with a dish towel. "Look, not that I'm not grateful not to be, y'know, dinner, but what's the plan, here? I'm guessing you're not inclined to let him go gentle into that good night-"

"That," Angel growled, "would be a good guess."

She gave him a chiding look for interrupting her. "-so how are you planning to pull that off? I mean, there's no way you're going to get back into that mansion anytime soon. Assuming he’s even still there. He’s got more money than God, he could go anywhere he wants and we’d never find him.”

"Th'girl's got a point," Doyle said apologetically. "Puttin' the squeeze on some lowlife types got us in the door, but it’s not going to get us much o’ jack if he hops a plane. Man like that has enough money and connections to stay off the grid for years, if he wants."

“Not without giving up more than he’s prepared to lose.” Angel didn’t know that much about Winters, particularly, but he’d met dozens just like him. “He won’t run.”

“How can you be so sure?”

Angel tried to figure out how to put his certainty into words that would make sense to someone who hadn’t had two hundred years to learn that people were never really as different as they thought. “Vampires aren’t usually about integrating into human society. Mostly, they don’t need to. It isn’t about money for Winters; it’s the lifestyle. He wants recognition, influence, power...” He shot a glance at Xander. “The power to pick up a phone and have dinner deliver itself to his house, for example.”

She winced. “Okay, I deserved that.”

“He wouldn’t give that up just because someone breached his defenses. He’s an old one; he probably thinks it’s an amusing game, at best. Right now he’s probably tracking down everything he can get his hands on about Xander with the intention of going on the offensive- Sorry,” he said, to her rapidly paling face. “But guys like him don’t deal well with being told ‘no.’”

“So, just like most of my exes, then. Nothing new there.” The way Xander wrapped her arms around her middle made a lie out of her bravado, but Angel wasn’t going to call her on it. “Don’t worry, I’m used to being a demon magnet by now.”

Doyle cleared his throat, looking at nobody in particular. “Well, I’m sure it’ll be over with soon. Right, Angel?”

Angel wasn’t sure if Doyle was getting protective over Xander or his own secret, but honestly, he didn’t much care. “Right. I’ll find him, and put an end to this.”

Xander looked less than reassured. “That’s great, and I do mean that sincerely, my voice just does this, but- How, exactly, are you going to find him?”

Angel looked at the ceiling, and prayed for patience. Not surprisingly, God didn’t seem inclined to answer. “I’m going to ask some nice people some very nice questions.”

“Great, very Magnum PI. And when that doesn’t work?”

“I’m going to ask some not-so-nice questions.”

“Ooookay. That’s a little... short, as plans go, but-”

“Why, you think you can do better?”

She opened her mouth, eyes flashing with temper… and then shut it again with a snap. “You know what? You are right. You are so entirely right. I have no clue and hey! I don’t want to get one, either! Because that would mean that I am back in the demon-hunting gig, and nope, no way, Jose, I’m not going down that road again. You hear me? I am done.” She scooped her bag off the table and slung it over her shoulder as she headed for the door. “I am going to go back to my normal, shitty apartment and take a shower for as long as the hot water holds out, and I am going to forget this night ever happened. So, sayonara, have a great unlife, and-”

“Xander.”

She didn’t turn around. “You’re ruining my dramatic exit, Angel.”

He didn’t smile. He maybe thought about it, though. “You probably shouldn’t go back to your apartment tonight.”

“What? Why? Oh.” She rubbed a fitful hand over her throat. “He probably knows where I live, doesn’t he? I should have thought of that.”

She looked so small, standing there in his kitchen; small and defeated and... young. Which, of course, she was. He sometimes forgot that it wasn’t just the weight of the centuries that made him feel old around Buffy and her friends; that they were actually still teenagers. Teenagers who’d had to face things no adult should ever have to handle, but still: teenagers. Liam-that-was had been older than the Scoobies were now when Darla had taken him, and he still hadn’t learned to act the man in any way that mattered. As much as she sometimes drove him to distraction, he couldn’t say the same for Xander.

Next to him, Doyle cleared his throat. “You got a place to stay, sport?”

She laughed, a small, bitter sound he’d only heard from her once before, when she’d shoved a cross in his face and told him what she really thought of him. “Oh, yeah. I’ve got people just lining up to have me crash on their couch.”

“Well, I’d have you back to mine, but it’s maid’s year off and givin’ what you said about bugs, you’d prob’ly rather your chances with the vamp.” He gave Angel a look more pointed than any stake. “Unless maybe something else presents itself…?”

Despite what some people might say, Angel did actually know how to take a hint. “You could stay… here? Upstairs!” he corrected, when she gaped at him. “There’s a couch. Upstairs. That you could use.”

“I’ll…” She was going to tell him where he could shove his couch, he could tell, but then she slumped, exhaustion and defeat written in the lines of her shoulders. “Yeah, okay. If you… don’t mind?”

“Not at all,” he lied. “It’s just for tonight, anyway. Tomorrow I’ll find Winters and finish this.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it, Mighty Mousse,” she said, but she was too tired for the insult to have much punch. “But- thanks.”

“Sure.” He stuck his hands in his pockets. “Anytime.”

Doyle gave him an approving look - well, at least he was living up to someone’s expectations today - and went over to pat Xander on the shoulder. “C’mon, I’ll walk you up.”

Alone at last, Angel hauled himself out of the chair with a groan and made his way back to the bedroom. He got the laces undone on his boots with only a minimal amount of fumbling and kicked them off, then slid wincingly in between the sheets and flicked off the light. Only when darkness surrounded him was he finally able to relax.

It was strange, really. He could remember what a sunrise looked like, but not the warmth of sun on his skin, and he knew that as a lad he’d been afeared of the night, but he couldn’t recall how it felt to be afraid. There was only so much you could fight biology, and night was a vampire’s time. It was human thing, to fear the dark.

Maybe that was the reason he and Xander would never be friends. More than anybody else, she never let herself forget that Angel hadn’t been human in a long, long time.

Xander made it all the way upstairs and into the outer office before she just… stopped. She’d been running on fumes for so long that she just didn’t have anything left: no words, no energy, not even any fear. She just felt… empty.

“Hey sport, you alright in there?” Doyle touched her elbow, then nodded at the couch. “You’ve been starin’ at that thing for a good thirty seconds now.”

Somehow, she mustered herself up to give him a smile. “Contemplating whether or not I can afford a chiropractor. That thing does not look ergonomically sound.”

“Hey, at least you won’t have to worry about legroom. Er, I mean-”

“You're just saying that 'cause you hang out with Angel the oversized vampire." She dropped her bag onto the couch and flopped down next to it, sending up a cloud of dust. “Eurgh. Where did he even get this thing?”

“If I had to guess, it came with the office.” Doyle gingerly eased himself down onto the arm of the couch. “He’s not much o’ one for interior decoratin’.”

“Well, weapons. He can mount the hell out of a weapon- Oh, man, that sentence just went to a bad, awkward place. Ugh. Nobody needs that mental image.”

Doyle snorted and reached into his jacket. “Think I still got somethin’ in my flask, you want to scrub it from your brain.”

“Let me guess: whiskey? Way to live down to the stereotype.”

“If you’re sayin’ you don’t want it…”

“Let’s not be hasty here.” Her eyes watered at the burn of it going down, and she had to press her hand to her chest to keep from coughing. “Jesus Christ, what is that stuff, paint thinner?”

“Only the best for the a discernin’ palate.” He took a philosophical swig and offered it back, but she waved it away with a shake of her head.

“Nah, I’ve got a one-and-done kinda rule when it comes to booze. Alcoholism doesn’t just run in my family, it gallops.”

Doyle winced. “Fair enough. I know all about unwanted family inheritances.” Still, he took one more swig before capping it and shoving it back into his jacket. “Look, you know Angel’s going to solve this thing, right? He won’t give up til it’s done. He’s not the kind of man that takes ‘no’ for an answer.”

“Speaking as someone who was actually there for the no-soul extravaganza of evil, believe me when I say I know.” Then she thought of Angel, downstairs with holes in his torso because he was trying to save her life, and sighed. “No, that’s unfair. He takes the white-hat gig seriously, I get that. I’m sure he’ll do his best.”

It was just that she didn’t know that his best was going to cut it this time. Angel had his good points - though she’d never admit it out loud - but Winters wasn’t the usual slimy demon hiding out in a crypt they got in Sunnydale. And, also unlike Sunnydale, Winters’ position meant that he had the law on his side. Angel wasn’t really great at blending in.

“His best is pretty good, far as I can see.” Doyle tapped his temple. “And I saw pretty far.”

“Yeah.” She dredged up a smile. “I’m sure you’re right.”

“That’s the spirit. You’ll be back to your place in no time flat, you’ll see.”

She gave the couch a dubious look. “Hopefully.”

“Yeah, fair enough. Still.” He slapped her knee and stood. “Get some rest. You’ve had a hard day.”

“Yeah, I’ll try.” When he didn’t show any signs of moving towards the door, she tilted her head back and grinned at him. “C’mon, what are you waiting for? Don’t you have bets to check?”

“Now who’s stereotypin’?”

“Yeah, but I’m right, aren’t I? How much you got on tonight’s game?”

“Maybe a bill or two, but it’s nothing that won’t keep.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “If you need me, I mean.”

“Nope, I’m good. I’m just going to stretch out on this monster, pray for my aching spine, maybe play some tetris.” She pulled out her cell phone and waved it at him. “I’m booked. Good luck on your game, though.”

“Pretty sure the results are in already, but luck’s always appreciated.” He hesitated another moment, and then gave a resolute nod and headed for the door. “Take care o’ yourself, then.”

“Night.”

After he was gone, Xander sat in the dark for a while, staring down at the phone in her hands. She’d listened to Willow’s last voicemail at least a dozen times in the last few days, but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to call her back. What would she even say? That she’d failed, again? That she should have listened when the guidance counselor had gently suggested that maybe Xander should consider a trade? That Dad was right, and she was never going to make anything of herself? Willow sounded so damn happy with her life, with college, with magic, with Sunnydale, even. And all Xander had wanted to do was get free.

God, she couldn’t even do that right.

She flipped open the phone and scrolled until she got to Willow’s number and then hesitated, thumb over the ‘call’ button. It was late, and Willow was a stickler for an early bedtime, especially on a school night. Xander doubted that college would have changed that. She’d just be waking her up with her problems, and for what? So that Willow could wince, and sympathize, and tell her that she could fix it? That all she had to do was come home, and they’d deal with it together. Just like old times.

No, she wouldn’t bother Willow. But there was someone else she could call. Someone who would definitely still be awake. Someone who might just be able to give her what she needed to finally get on with her life.

“Hey Margot? It’s Xan- er, Lex. Lexy. Yeah, with the camera. I was calling about- Oh, the photo shoot? Yeah, it went, uh, it went great. Really exciting session, really got the blood moving. Winters was one hell of a host. That’s actually kind of why I’m calling, I was hoping you might know where his office is. Yeah, I wanted to send him a present tomorrow. To say thanks, you know? For the hospitality.”

There was someone in his kitchen.

Angel slowed as he approached the sewer door, listening to the faint scuffing sounds of someone moving around inside. Human, he thought, or approximately human-shaped, at least, based on the footsteps. Which mean it was probably either Xander, or some hired muscle that didn’t realize their paycheck just went out the window. After the last couple of days, Angel wasn’t really in the market for blind optimism.

He backtracked a few feet and grabbed the saber he’d stashed behind a drain pipe for this exact scenario - well, not this exact scenario, but close enough. He eased through the sewer door, praying that the oil he’d put on the hinges held up, and then slid silently through the apartment. As he approached the kitchen doorway he heard absent humming, melodic enough to rule out Xander, who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. It did sound familiar, though - as did the intruder scent, which he caught a moment later. Cheap whiskey, male sweat, and something inhuman, briny and green like kelp left to dry in the sun.

Angel made himself comfortable in the doorway. “You ever hear of waiting for an invitation?”

“Fuck!” Doyle jumped about a half a foot in the air and almost tripped over a chair on the way down, he turned so fast. “Jaysus, man, would it kill ya to make some noise? You about scared the life outta me.”

Angel stared at him. “It’s my apartment.

“Yeah, well.” Doyle rolled his shoulders uneasily. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Christ, he was saddled with two of them now. “Yeah, because breaking into a vampire’s place, that never goes wrong.”

Doyle cleared his throat and tugged on the end of his shirt to straighten it. “You know what, how about we focus less on my choices and more on your mission. You find Winters yet?”

“Didn’t get a chance to look, actually.” He nodded to a note stuck to his fridge. “Someone else did the legwork for me.”

Doyle glanced between them, then visibly followed the process of elimination upstairs to… “Xander? What happened to ‘not going down that road again?’”

“Guess she got nostalgic. That, or she didn’t like the idea of being stuck in my building.” Angel shrugged. He gave up on trying to figure out why humans did things a long time ago, and wasn’t really interested in trying to start with Xander Harris. “Whatever she did worked, though. Led me right to him.”

Doyle blinked. “Wait, you’re sayin’ it’s done? Just like that?”

“Yep.” Angel set the saber on top of the fridge to put away later. “He decided to go into the light.”

Doyle followed him into the living room, making himself comfortable in the doorway as Angel sat down on the couch and started undoing the laces of his boots. "And yet you don't seem t'be in a celebratin' mood."

Angel shrugged again. "I killed a vampire. It's not like I helped anybody."

"You sure about that?" Doyle challenged. "Because Xander, I’m thinkin’ she might disagree. You didn't save Tina, yeah, but you did save her. Surely that counts for something?"

Angel pulled off his boots and kicked them under the side table. The phone on it tempted him, the same as it had for three months now. He still had Buffy's number memorized. He could call her, just for a moment, just to hear her voice-

-and it was probably a good thing Doyle was here to distract him. "It counts," he said lowly. He didn't like Xander. He liked much, much less the thought of her dead. "But I'm not sure how much difference it really makes in the long term. L.A.'s a big city, Doyle. And I don't think I'm really cut out for this hero gig."

"Well, the Powers that Be would disagree. They've chosen you, boyo, and they've always got a reason."

"Any idea what that reason might be, exactly?"

Doyle shrugged. "I'm just the lowly messenger, remember? But what I do is that it means something. Don't know what it means, but hey, that's above my pay grade. All I can tell you is that there's a girl upstairs right now, alive and breathin' because of you, happy as a clam-"

From upstairs, there came a tremendous crash, like someone had just broken through the door. Doyle and Angel exchanged a glance, and then in unison, turned and bolted for the stairs.

Xander had thought she was alone in the building, which is why the sight of two grown men bursting out of the stairwell like the hounds of hell were at their heels was, oh, a little startling.

Still, the girlish shriek was, upon reflection, probably an overreaction.

“What the hell, guys?”

Doyle gave her a bug-eyed look. “Could ask you the same question!”

Angel pivoted in a slow arc, big-ass sword held out in front of him like- well, like a sword, okay, she wasn’t metaphor-girl today. “Xander. Are you all right?”

She followed the sweep of his gaze, baffled, and only when she made it back to herself, kneeling on the floor, did she realize what happened. “Wow, you heard that all the way down there? The soundproofing in this place seriously blows.”

Angel blinked. “What?”

She gestured to the upended filing cabinet, and then to the pool of spilled coffee she was currently trying futilely to mop up with a stray gym towel. “Xander’s two left feet strike again.”

This time, the blink was accompanied by a twitch that might, on another man, have been a smile. “You tripped over the filing cabinet?”

Xander put her nose in the air, trying to recover a little lost dignity. “And spilled the coffee I was bringing you, so you’ll just have to live without.”

Another twitch. “Yeah, not really my kind of liquid diet.”

“...Right.” Xander gave up on dignity as a lost cause and scrambled to her feet, dusting off her knees. “Well, not that I’m not filled with joy at this humiliating interlude, but… Can I assume from the fact that you're here and not extra-crispy that my vampire problem is taken care of?"

"Yeah.” Angel lowered his sword, and then, for lack of anything else to do with it, propped it against the nearest wall. “He… may have taken a swan dive out of his twelfth-story boardroom. About an hour ago."

She glanced at the shuttered window and the cracks of sunlight that were making their way through. Thought, for a moment, about what a long fall it must have been for Russell Winters, burning all the way down. He was probably ash before he ever hit the ground, but it would have hurt. No quick stake through the heart for him.

"Sounds good," she said softly. Angel caught her eye, and they shared a look of perfect understanding.

It only lasted a second before they were both looking away, clearing their throats. "So, uh, the danger should be past," Angel said. "You're good to go."

"My hero." She meant it to come out sarcastically, but her voice betrayed her by going a little soft in the middle there, making it sound like she almost kinda meant it. Angel’s eyes went a little wide with surprise, and she hurried on before he could muster himself to make a smartass comment. "So, uh, this is what you do, now, right? Run around the city and keep fighting the good fight?"

“Um.” Angel looked over at Doyle. “Well…”

Doyle shrugged, doing a poor imitation of a man not desperately interested in the answer himself. "I mean, not like I can stop the visions."

"Then… yeah. I guess that's what I'm doing."

Behind him, Doyle sagged with relief for a moment, before seemed to catch himself and straightened back up. Xander gave him a grin over Angel’s shoulder and reached into her pocket. “Well, in that case, you could probably use one of these.”

Angel gave her an odd look, then reached out and tugged it from her fingers. “What’s this?”

“Well, it was supposed to be ‘thanks’ for saving my life, but, uh, now that it’s out there it seems a little inadequate, so…” She realized Angel was staring at her and gave up. “It’s a business card. Well, a mockup of a business card, the print shop doesn’t do rush orders like this, you’d have to order more if you wanted to actually… Oh, and you might want to change the logo first. It’s supposed to be an angel but if you ask me I think it might be a little abstract for your average customer base. Totally your choice, though. I mean, obviously.”

“‘Angel Investigations,’” Doyle read out over Angel’s shoulder. “‘We help the hopeless.’ Catchy.”

“Yeah, well, this is Los Angeles, everyone needs a slogan.” Xander shoved her hands in her pockets to keep them from jittering. “I just figured that if you’re going to be doing the Dark Avenger routine, you should probably have a cover story, right? This isn’t Sunnydale, the cops don’t answer to some shady politician. Well, at least not a demonic one, anyway.” She thought back to some of the politicians she’d met at Margot’s parties. “Probably.”

“So my cover story is… private investigator?”

She couldn’t tell what Angel was thinking, not from his voice or his, well, lack of expression, but she just tilted up her chin because she’d be damned if she’d give him the satisfaction of letting him know he rattled her. “Look, you’ve already got the office here, so… Why not make it a thing? This way, you at least have a legitimate excuse for skulking around. And there’s probably not a lot of PI’s who specialize in defeating the powers of darkness, so you could probably even make some money off of it. If you need to, I mean. No judgements if you have some kind of hundred-year-old blood-money trust fund thing going on. People keep telling me that evil doesn’t pay, but from what I’ve seen of this town-”

“No,” Angel said, mercifully rescuing her from her babble. “I don’t have a blood-money trust fund, whatever that’s supposed to be.” He looked from her to the card, curious. “How’d you come up with this, anyway?”

Oh great, now they’re talking about her. “I, um, kind of fancied myself the next Sam Spade when I first got the city. I mean, camera, lots of late-night stakeouts, seemed like a natural fit, right? Obviously it didn’t work out so great - it paid slightly more than the dishwashing job but less than pizza delivery - but I did get my license, all official and everything.” She fiddled with her camera strap, took a deep breath, and let it out. Courage, Xander. “So I mean, if you ever need a hand with… detectiving, or… whatever, I can, uh. Assist. I guess.”

Angel’s face still gave nothing away. “What happened to getting on with your normal life?”

“Oh, I’m still working on it, believe me. But...” She caught his gaze and held it. “But in the meantime, I thought, maybe I could work… here… too?”

Angel didn’t say anything for a long time, rubbing the corner of the cards with his thumb and not quite meeting her gaze. “You sure that’s such a good idea?” he said finally. “I mean, small office, lotta history… Plus, it’s not like we’ve ever gotten along before.”

“Well, that’s certainly true.” It was stupid to feel so disappointed - she didn’t even like Angel! She didn’t want to be part of his stupid mission anyway. She was just… tired of people who didn’t see her, was all. Angel might not like her, but at least he saw her for who she really was.

“Angel, man, c’mon-”

“No, it’s okay.” She cut Doyle off and picked up her bag. “Angel’s right, it was probably a stupid idea. I’ll, uh, I’ll go ahead and get out of your hair. I mean I’m still in desperate need of a shower and my apartment’s safe again - well, as safe as it ever gets, I suppose - so...”

“Xander.”

She tried not to perk up too obviously as she glanced back over at Angel. “Yeah?”

Angel was looking back at her, a rueful little half-smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “I didn’t actually say no.”

“You’ve made a good choice.”

“Mm?” Angel looked over to Doyle, half his attention still tuned to the faint scuff of Xander’s footsteps fading down the hall. “What’s that?”

“C’mon, man, you know what I mean.” Doyle nodded at the doorway. “It’s all about making connections, right? She’ll be good for you. Call it a humanizing influence.”

Angel snorted and turned away to pick up the upended filing cabinet. Thing was made of solid goddamn steel and probably weighed more than she did; how the hell did she knock it over? “Human disaster, maybe.”

“Handy with a pistol, though.”

Angel pictured, with not a little fondness, the gory mess she’d left of Winters’ leg. He’d still been able to smell the blood on him this morning, when he’d put his foot between Winters’ knees and shoved him out the window. He’d always been a purist, when it came to the tools of the trade, but maybe there was something to be said for modernization. “True.”

“And it was a good idea, that private investigator thing. Gives you something to do in between visions, right? Talk about making connections.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“And she does need a helpin’ hand. She’s not been eatin’ right, you noticed? I know these Yanks have a thing about diets but the lass could stand to gain at least a stone, to my eye.”

Angel looked at him, feeling a smile tug at the corners of his mouth. “So that’s what this is about.”

“What?”

“You’ve got a crush.”

“Oh, no.” Doyle shook his head vigorously, holding up his hand like he was warding off the idea. “No, man, no way. She’s a real sweet kid an’ all, but she’s not really my type, you know? I prefer the more... polished look, generally speakin’. There’s someone for everyone, sure, but pint-sized arty types with a chip on her shoulder, not really mine. You get me?”

Angel bit down on his smile. “Mm-hmm.”

“I mean, just because I appreciate a lass with a smart mouth doesn’t mean it’s gotta be all romantic-like, does it? And what red-blooded man doesn’t like a lass who can handle a firearm? That doesn’t- I mean, I’m a bit too old t’be lookin’ at a kid can't even buy her own drinks, y’know? And besides, based on how she tells it I’m lackin’ certain, y’know, vital equipment for her tastes, so it’s not like we- I mean even if I did it wouldn’t be-”

He looked back at Angel. Angel looked back at him.

“Ah, shut up.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Yeah, well, shut up anyway.”

Maybe, Angel told himself. Maybe this connection thing isn’t so bad after all.

“You know she used to have a crush on Buffy, right?”

“Angel, man, what part of ‘shut up’ do you not understand?”

YOU HAVE ONE NEW MESSAGE.

Hey Willow, sorry I didn't catch you at yours. You're probably at class, or out livin' up the college experience. And if you’re in the library... just lie to me, okay? I like to pretend libraries are a thing that no longer exist.

I'm glad everyone's doing good. As for me, well, turns out evil doesn't exactly restrict itself to a Hellmouth. Funny how that works out, huh? But all's well that ends well, and the bad guy's dust on the wind, so… it’s good. I mean, I'm still broke as a joke, sure, but I've got a job - okay, a couple - and I even found some… well, ‘friends’ is probably a pretty strong word, but people I have something in common with, at least. We'll see how it goes.

I know you wish I'd come home, Wills, and it's not like there haven't been times that I've been tempted. But I'm actually doing pretty okay. For the first time in a long time, I feel like I'm exactly where I'm meant to be.

YOU HAVE NO NEW MESSAGES.