"So let's find a bar
So dark we forget who we are..."
"Out Tonight", Rent
Another day, another hospital -- this one so far from home that Bruce couldn't rearrange his client schedule to come with him. So he paces his hotel room for an hour, leaning on his cane and trying to ignore the pain from his over-worked legs, wishing the test schedule was only one day, wishing he didn't have to stay overnight in a strange city, alone. Not that he's not used to being alone, but he prefers it in familiar surroundings, where he's less likely to be ambushed by someone else's life. Someone else's death.
He looks at his cell phone, considers using it, but he's already called Bruce twice today. He could call Sarah, but Walt might answer, and he doesn't feel up to dealing with that particular brand of awkward almost-friendship. He could call Dana, but that's an entirely different brand of awkward, and he's too tired tonight to wade through her issues as well as his own.
Standing in the window, looking out over the lights of Los Angeles, he wishes for a different life, the one he caught a glimpse of once -- a wife, a son, a daughter, a world without the shadow that matches his every step, even in this sterile room, where once a woman died, clutching at the phone as an invisible hand clutched at her chest....
So many lights in this city. So much darkness. And he stands alone in a hotel room above them, because at this moment, he's lost the ability to understand either one.
She collapses in the hotel bar, cursing the new shoes that looked wonderful, felt wonderful, smelled wonderful, until she spent four hours fitting in shopping around detective work. Her cell phone has rung three times in the last fifteen minutes -- no, Gunn, I didn't find anything suspicious where the vision was. No, Angel, nothing scaly or slimy has attacked me, and no, I haven't happened to have stumbled across our psycho prodigal child. No, Delilah, I can't go out and party tonight, I might have to be free to save the world at a moment's notice. Except she can't say the last part. She'd finally set the phone on vibrate and shoved it deep into her purse. She can go off the clock for just a few minutes, and the Powers can deal.
The bartender is young and cute, as they usually are in Los Angeles, but she's too tired to notice, and too burned out on young and cute to care. She orders whiskey, two shots -- one to drink, to warm her stomach and ease the pain of bruised and aching feet. One to hold and smell, to ease the pain of a bruised and aching heart.
She didn't remember until she looked at the calendar on her desk that morning, but Doyle died three years ago today. It was the worst thing that had ever happened to her, before she learned that things could always get worse. She wonders what he would say if he could see her now; she looks in the mirror as she sips, and doesn't even recognize herself -- drinking alone in a bar and wishing she could go back to the beginning and try it all again. Get it right this time, maybe, although she's not sure where she'd have to start.
A man sits awkwardly a few stools away, leaning a cane against the bar, and her eyes flick up in an automatic glance at the mirror -- human reflection, check. The odds are good that she can ignore him, so she does, leaning back in her stool and closing her eyes.
He orders a beer, not because he wants it, but because it's a normal thing for a person to do in a bar. At home in Cleaves Mills, he doesn't usually bother trying to be normal, because everyone already knows he's not. It's almost relaxing, in a way that he can only appreciate from 3,000 miles away.
He wonders, sometimes, what people see when they look at him. Does the young bartender, and the woman two barstools away, see a high school biology teacher, a normal guy? Or have the visions left a mark on him, invisible to his eyes, but obvious to everyone else? Psychic Weirdo here. The line to stare and be freaked forms on the right.
He's pretty sure Bruce would tell him if there was some kind of sign, and very sure Dana would tell him, probably in the form of an interview question. Sarah might tell him, but he wonders sometimes if Sarah sees him as he is now, or if he'll always be 26 in her eyes. Always be the man who went into a coma, not the one who came back out.
He takes another drink of his beer, and replaces the bottle on the bar very carefully, back in the ring of water.
It wouldn't be so bad if she wasn't drinking alone, but she doesn't have energy to deal with anyone. There'll be more than enough of that when she returns to the hotel, to Angel brooding, to Fred smiling that big, forced smile, to Gunn making too much noise being too macho.
He's done that a lot lately, as if he can fill up the too-big, too-empty space that used to be home. As if sheer force of personality and determination can cover the Connor- and Wesley-shaped holes in Angel Investigations. Like anything can.
She downs the second shot, gestures for another. Three is her limit; four means calling Angel or Gunn for a ride home, since she won't walk the streets after dark when her reflexes are impaired, even to find a cab. She likes living.
The blonde two seats away is young and beautiful, in the way that all Californians are supposed to be. She empties the remains of a shot with one quick toss of her head, and shoves the glass towards the back edge of the bar, before leaning forward and staring moodily into the depths of a second shot. He realizes that he was wrong in his assessment -- she is beautiful, but her eyes are old. Tired.
"Damn it," she swears softly into her glass. As if realizing she said it aloud, she looks up, and offers him a small, wry smile. 'Not that I need to explain,' that smile said, 'but that you wouldn't understand even if I did.'
He offers her a smile of his own, since he understands about explanations that don't explain anything, and wonders if he should have stayed in his room after all. Wonders what pulled him down to this bar he doesn't want to be in for this beer he doesn't want to drink.
He wonders what she sees, when she looks at him, and wonders if there's a way to ask without sounding like an idiot. Or a lunatic.
He's a good-looking guy, in a worn-around-the-edges, boy-next-door kind of way, and he looks at her without looking her over, which is a nice change. His clothes are too heavy for an L.A. fall, and scream 'tourist' almost as loudly as his posture, perched forward on the edge of his stool.
"Here's to anniversaries," she says on impulse, lifting her shot glass and extending it over the empty seat between them.
Her hair is thick and streaked with strands of darker gold, falling around her young-old face. Her eyes have irony and humor in them, inviting him to share whatever it is she's feeling.
He hesitates for a moment, then lifts his bottle. The clink is barely audible over the soft jazz playing over the speakers, but it echoes through his arm up into his head
and she's in a hospital, a nurse bending over her, telling her she'll be all right, but knowing nothing ever will, because it's already all wrong and a little girl is burning
and he's someplace big and dusty, watching a dark-haired man kissing the girl from the bar. He backs away, smiling at her, and then the light swallows him up, except for the sounds of his screams
and she's standing over a grave that says "Vera Smith" and only her cane holds her up, because the one thing she always relied on is gone, and she slept through her only chance to say goodbye
and he's in an old hotel, with lovingly polished railings along the stairs, and blood on the floor, and he can hear his own voice echo in the emptiness as he calls for someone who isn't there, a warm, tiny body he held in his arms and never will again
and she's outside a large house, watching a woman a little older than she is walk away, hand-in-hand with a little boy. She wants to call after them, wants to hold on, to hold them near. But she can't move, can't speak, can't scream, can only watch them walk away
and light surrounds him like a promise of redemption and he reaches for it because this is supposed to be the reward, the payoff for the grief and the loneliness and the pain, and up in the light everything will be easy and he'll never be alone or hurt or confused again
and she's alone inside that house, wandering the rooms like a ghost, hearing her own footsteps and the tapping of a cane and wondering why she's still here, why she couldn't have just slipped away in that coma, instead of coming back to this ruin of nothingness that's her life
and he's watching a man laying in a sleep that looks more like a coma, his body as torn and tattered as the remains of his clothes. He sits beside the bed and waits for him to wake up, because he's been away for so long, and everyone else is gone, and there's just nothing left to do but wait, and hope it gets better somehow
and he blinks and reorients as he's back in the bar, staring into the woman's eyes. They're puzzled, and not a little shaken.
"Cheers," he forces himself to say, because people don't generally want to know you've just seen inside their heads, and he nearly chokes taking too big a swallow of Goose Island Ale.
She stares at him for another moment, then her smile returns -- wider, brighter and fake. "Right. Cheers." She knocks back her shot and orders another, her hand shaking slightly, and he remembers that the dark-haired man she kissed smelled of Irish whiskey.
Sarah drank Dr. Pepper when they were kids, and he can't drink it anymore without remembering how she tasted when he kissed her. Even the harsh bite of the beer doesn't wash it away.
She tries not to react to the weirdness, and she's a good enough actress that she does a good enough job (screw you, Angelus). She's not used to visions that clear -- vivid and detailed, coming and going with the clink of a glass -- or that pointless, since she didn't see anything this guy needs saving from, except maybe himself.
But she's made a connection to him, even though she *so* doesn't want it, and the Powers think he needs something from her. There's nothing she wants from them, nothing she'll get ever back, and she knows that now.
But she also knows she can't turn her back on someone else's need, no matter how much she wants to. It's not in her anymore.
So she meets his eyes, deliberately, and asks, "So, are you in town for business or pleasure?"
"Neither one," he answers with automatic politeness, still trying to sort through the images and impressions. "I had to have some tests at UCLA."
Her eyebrows lift eloquently. "You look a little old for college."
He smiles in spite of himself. "Medical tests. CAT scans, MRIs." Her head is tilted slightly to the side, inviting him to continue, and he says it for the hell of it, because he's wanted to ever since he saw the movie on HBO, and he can do it here without repercussions, even if it's not strictly accurate.
"I see dead people."
In another time, another place, she might have mocked him, or just blown him off as yet another crazy man with a questionable sense of humor. In this time, this place, she simply looks down into her whiskey and asks, "Are they any easier than the live ones?"
"No," he answers as simply, and she looks up to meet his eyes. They're blue and compassionate, with lines around the edges, and she recognizes them now. She sees them all the time, looking back at her from windows, from water, from the bathroom mirror.
She nods slowly, pressing her lips together, and rubs her hands over her face, feeling suddenly tired in a way that has nothing to do with the Shoes From Hell. Tired and alone, and wanting desperately for someone to tell her it will all be okay.
But it's her job to tell other people that, over and over until they believe it even when she doesn't, so she's surprised when a warm hand rests lightly on her shoulder. But grateful.
He's not as good as offering comfort as he once was -- the instincts are still there, but dulled by time and disuse, by the knowledge that even a simple touch of his hand can change lives. Usually his.
But he recognizes something in her, something that has nothing to do with the visions he's seen, so he takes the chance and touches her, bracing himself for another flood--
And nothing happens. He blinks for a moment in surprise, then carefully pats her shoulder. It's a strange kind of luxury, offering his hand to a stranger, and not paying a price.
He thinks about it, then removes his hand just long enough to pick up his beer and his cane and slide one seat closer, bridging the gap between them. She doesn't move as he replaces his hand, rubbing his palm in careful strokes over the shoulder blade that protrudes just a little too far.
She's never been one to enjoy casual touches, not even the hugs and air kisses that are de rigueur in most of Southern California. After three years with Angel, touching has been relegated to the most sentimental, the most intimate of moments. It was different, for a while, when there was a baby to hold, to cuddle, to cherish... But not now.
Which doesn't explain while this stranger's hand feels so damn good -- not in the way that leads to sex and the associated badness, but in the warm, protected kind of way that used to be Doyle's grin, Angel's hug, Wesley's smile.
Tears try to burn their way through her eyes, trickling over her palms, and she fights them back ferociously.
She won't cry in front of her friends; what right does she have to cry all over a stranger, when she can't even explain why she's crying.
"People talk about seeing too much." Her voice is muffled by her hands, by tears she's trying desperately to hide. He pretends not to hear them, to let her keep her pride. "They don't know what that means, really. They can close their eyes and go away, go blind if they want to -- people do it all the time."
He nods slowly, then remembers she can't see him, and says, quietly, "I know." Even in Cleaves Mills, people ignore what they don't want to see, just turn and walk away, leaving him to wander his house alone.
"I wish I could do that. I used to be able to, to just stop seeing. Now...." She gives a watery laugh that even sounds painful. "Now, I try and I try, and I can't stop seeing. I can't even want to."
She shakes her head with a loud sniffle, before swiping her hands across her face and straightening. "Apparently, the only thing I can do is cry all over strange guys in bars, and I think that's probably worse, huh? God, I'm sorry."
"Don't worry about it," he says, looking bemused, and she doesn't blame him. Poor guy goes looking for a drink, and winds up having to comfort a complete lunatic having a nervous breakdown in front of him. "I'm actually kind of getting used to this."
"Random people dumping their pathetic, screwed-up lives in your lap?" she asks with an arched eyebrow, trying to locate some vestige of dignity in the remains of her mascara. And has to sniffle again, which blows that idea.
He digs around in his back pocket and produces a white cotton handkerchief, becoming only the third man she's ever known who actually carries one. "Most of them don't do it on purpose -- most of them don't even know they're doing it -- but, yes."
"Wow." She considers him, deciding after a moment that, yeah, he does have that kind of face, the kind that would encourage old ladies and little kids and, okay, youngish women in bars to trust him with their secrets. "Sucks to be us. But at least I get paid. You don't get paid, do you?"
Getting paid for visions. He wonders idly what the expression on Walt's face would be like if he handed him a bill for services rendered. $100 per vision leading to an arrest? $500? Or maybe get Dana's paper to put him on retainer, since he's been responsible for so many of their headlines lately....
He's not aware of his faint laughter until the woman leans back against the bar, crossing her arms. "I'm going to take that as a no," she says, deadpan, and his chuckles get a little stronger. But they trail away when he realizes, with a little shock, that it's the first time he's ever really laughed about the visions.
He smiles into his beer, shaking his head as he says, "No, getting paid has never really crossed my mind. It's not something I have a choice about doing; it just... happens."
She nods wisely. "I know exactly what you mean."
He wants to ask her about what she sees, how she copes, what she does, if her visions happen by touch or some other way. How long she's had them, and how long she thinks they'll last. But first that means admitting he has them, and the words are harder than he'd thought they would be. Because he might be wrong about what she sees, and even if he isn't, he won't be able to pretend to be a normal guy talking to a pretty girl in a bar any more.
But his hand is still on her shoulder, and he knows what's going to happen before it does. "Better answer your phone," he says, without wanting to, but knowing he should. "It's important."
She blinks at him, then digs around in her purse to retrieve a cell phone. He gets another, narrow-eyed look when she feels it vibrate, then answers. "It's me. What's wrong?"
He leans over to the hotel courtesy phone and calls the front desk, getting a cab for her before she hangs up.
She closes the phone and turns to look at him; he looks back innocently. "Nice trick," she tells him, gathering up her purse and reaching for her wallet. "Do you type as well as you take messages?"
"Afraid not," he deadpans, and stops her before she can lay down her money. "I've got it. Go help your friends."
She studies him, then flashes a smile and is gone.
He orders another beer and settles in, waiting.
She meets the guys in a storm drain under Sepulveda, seven blocks from the bar. The nest is right where Angel's contact told him they would be, right under the restaurant she'd seen in her vision. She takes a moment to give Gunn a righteous "I told you so!", then they get down to work.
After all the build-up, it's almost a disappointment when killing the little green demons is a matter of minutes (and three swords, two crossbows, some scrambling, some sweating, and lots of very sharp, very shiny teeth). Nine human victims rescued before the evening meal could commence, a demonic head chopped off inches from Gunn's neck by the friendly neighborhood Seer, and everyone gets to go home before midnight. Like any of them sleep anymore.
She turns down the offer of a ride from both Angel and Gunn, because she'd have to explain why she's not going home just yet, but changes into the sneakers she keeps in the trunk of the Angelmobile before he leaves.
Adrenaline has cleared the whiskey from her head enough that the walk back to the bar is almost safe.
He's not surprised to look up from his beer and find her standing next to him, and she doesn't look surprised to see him. "So, when I said I see too much," she says without any lead-in, as if their conversation had ended only a few moments instead of more than an hour ago, "I meant it literally. Like in my head. And so did you."
"Yes," he agrees after just a second, because why bother to deny it?
She considers him, then flashes him a smile that lights the entire room. "Come on, Big Spender, you can buy me dinner. I'm starving."
He picks up his beer and his cane, and offers her his arm. "It would be my pleasure."
After a few false starts, they settle into the rhythm of talking to someone who knows exactly what it's like. She reminisces about debilitating migraines, he shares collapses in shopping malls. He laughs as she remembers her friends jostling each other to help her after a vision; her hazel eyes shine with amusement as he describes Bruce and Dana's reaction to an innocent suggestion of strip poker. She tells him how kissing leads to visions; he tells her how interesting visions can make sex.
She traces patterns on the tablecloth as she tells him how her visions came to her with her friend's death. He lays his hand over hers as he tells about waking up from a six-year sleep that cost him his fiancee and his son. Her fingers close around his tightly.
They're both leaving things out, things they think the other doesn't need to know, but neither of them minds. It's enough that they both know what it's like to see, and not be able to close their eyes. Enough to know how much they've each paid for their 'gifts'.
Enough to know that they're not alone.
She yawns widely enough to crack her jaw, and looks at her watch. "Oh my god."
He stifles his own yawn, checks his watch, and winces. Almost 5:30 a.m., and the palest hint of dawn is peeking through the high windows. "I have to be at the hospital in two hours."
"Bet you're going to be sleeping through a lot of tests today," she observes, and he laughs.
"'I'm sorry, your CAT scan shows you're still in a coma...' Yeah. I'm expecting some unhappy doctors today," he agrees, surprised to notice that his voice is almost hoarse from talking. "Want to come in with me, give them another brain to experiment on?"
For a second, she thinks he's serious, then sees the badly-hidden twinkle in his eye. She makes a face at him. "No, thanks; I don't think I'd be much help. Plus, I've got a detective agency to run."
Inspiration strikes. "Hey, you said you were getting bored out there in Maine -- you could come work for us!"
"I'll pass," he grimaces. "I'd rather stay sane."
"Oh. Right. L.A. People. Touching. Bad things." She nods as she gets up, because she does understand. But she doesn't have to be happy about it. "You're going back tonight?"
For a second, he's tempted to say no, to change his flight and spend a little more time here, in this unexpected refuge. But Sarah and little Johnny, and Bruce and Dana, are at home, and that's where he needs to be. "This afternoon, after they finish hooking me up to machines."
She nods unhappily as they reach the front of the restaurant, a few feet from the elevator bank. "Then travel safe," she tells him, pressing her lips to his cheek. He feels a flash from the contact, but only of warmth and affection. So he catches her hand before she can move away, and hugs her. She leans against him, her arms around his waist, for a long time, then steps back and smiles again. "Bye."
He watches her cross the lobby until she goes out the front, and out of sight, before he goes up to his room. It's only as he closes his door behind him that he realizes she never told him her name, and she never asked for his.
He showers, long and hot, then cold enough to wake the dead, before he dresses and heads for UCLA, suitcase rolling along behind him. But he stops in at the bar before he leaves, running his hand over the back of the stool she sat on. Then he taps it with his palm and leaves.
She leaves a message on the agency's machine, calling in exhausted, and collapses into bed, ignoring Dennis' fluttering. It's almost dark when she wakes, and time to fight the good fight.
She braces herself before she goes into the Hyperion, but when Gunn and Fred smile at her, she's surprised when it's a little easier to smile back.
He answers his phone before it rings that night, and startles Bruce for the hundredth time. He apologizes as he drops his suitcase and takes off his jacket, settling into an easy chair to update his friend on the tests and the usual lack of results.
But when Bruce offers sympathy for the wasted trip, he just smiles. "I don't think it was wasted. I think it was... very valuable."
She checks the Yahoo! yellow pages in Cleaves Mills on a whim, and isn't surprised that he's not listed. She is surprised to look down a few minutes later and find a phone number scribbled on one of the pink "While You Were Out" pads -- in her handwriting.
He has dinner with Dana one night, at Sarah and Walt's another, and spends the rest wandering his house, hearing his footsteps and his cane echo off the walls.
She deals with the visions, deals with Angel, and turns Fred over to Gunn to deal with after an unexpected crying jag. Then she locks herself in the bathroom to have a crying jag of her own.
He cooks dinner for one, experimenting with pasta sauce, and keeps starting towards the phone, even though it never actually rings.
She starts to dial the number three times in three hours, and is almost surprised when she completes it. He picks up the other end before it has a chance to ring. "Cordelia?"
She thinks about asking how he knew who it was, but realizes that's a great big duh. Besides, she knows who he is, too. "Um, yeah. Hi, Johnny. Do you... have time to talk?"
He leans back against the counter, she leans back in her chair, and their voices fill the emptiness of the rooms around them.
Thanks to Elizabeth Lewis and Valerie Kessler for the music, even though they didn't know they were contributing, to Chris Kamnikar for the beta, for letting me swipe a good line, and for hooking me on "The Dead Zone" to begin with, and to Dad, for the enthusiasm when I told him what I was doing even though he can't get into "Dead Zone", and for being the only man I know who carries a handkerchief.