The Living Is Easy
~ written for Taay McCarthy for The Angel Book of Days (Summer 2003). Lady Shiva belongs to DC Comics. Thanks to Mad Poetess for betaing.
Wesley stood slowly, glancing about the room as unobtrusively as he could. He didn't know what sort of action would be viewed as offensive -- dangerous -- but he didn't dare take any risks.
The room was dark, and filled with shadows and towers of clutter to create an impossible field in which to see any approach. He tried listening -- had been remaining as silent as he could, to detect any noise. There was nothing but the sound of his own breath which he tried desperately to silence.
Nothing. As far as he could tell, he was alone in the room.
The problem was, he was not alone. Somewhere in the room was a woman who had every means of killing him, and very few reasons not to. And there was also Angel -- lying motionless at his feet.
**Earlier that evening**
"Have I mentioned that I expect a raise?"
Wesley didn't look up as he listened to Cordelia harangue Angel. She'd been bringing the matter of her raise to his attention for days, now. As expected, Angel sighed and answered her as he'd been doing the last dozen or so times.
"We can't give anyone a raise until we get paid again."
"But you aren't paying rent anymore, so our expenses are down. In fact, I should be charging us rent -- since you're running your business out of *my* apartment."
So far, the debate hadn't changed by a single word from this morning. Wesley wondered idly if Cordelia would appreciate some assistance with formulating her argument, but he suspected she was not actually trying to get money out of Angel.
Not that she would turn it down if offered, Wesley knew. But she hadn't resorted to any of the several tactics they both knew would have worked immediately on Angel, so he was fairly certain she was just amusing herself rather than sincerely trying to get the pay rise.
It didn't stop him from interjecting, "If we're in the way, Cordelia, we could always decamp and set up in my flat." Wesley knew it was a safe enough offer.
Sure enough, Cordelia wrinkled her nose. "Eew. Wes, no offense but don't British guys have some sort of neatness requirement? Isn't picking up after yourself, like, a class in high school?"
"I assure you, British men are just as capable of being disgusting pigs as are any other. The fact, however, is that my flat is *not* a mess due to my own slovenly habits, but because the flat itself is old and run-down--" He stopped as she'd turned back to Angel and asked him again about a wage increase.
"Maybe if this whoever we're looking for, turns out to have a grateful rich victim we can rescue," he finally said. "You can have a commission."
Cordelia brightened. "Really? Because I was mostly just kidding. I don't really mind having the visions, but you're right -- if we manage to get a lot of money from a wealthy client it seems only fair I get a 15% commission for being the one with the visions in the first place."
"Fifteen?" Angel asked.
"Twenty?" Cordelia countered.
"Wes, have you found it yet?"
Wesley looked up from the books scattered on the table in front of him. "Nothing in the phone book, nothing on the map of Los Angeles, nothing in the visitor's guide." He narrowed his eyes and nodded towards the book in Angel's lap. "Have you finished looking in the parks and recreation guide?" He knew Angel had not, of course.
Angel jumped, a bit guiltily. "Um, no. Not yet. Still looking." He went back to skimming the pages.
"There's nothing on any of the city websites either," Cordelia sighed. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor, the laptop computer on the coffee table. "This was a really useless vision, if you ask me. An address that doesn't exist, a name that could mean *anything*, and some woman." She rolled her eyes. "Why did they even bother?"
"We'll figure it out," Angel assured her. "We just have to keep looking."
"Can't we ask them for more clues?" Cordelia looked at Wesley, now. "Isn't there a spell you can do that will let us talk to the Powers? Ask them if we can buy a *vowel*?"
Wesley smiled at her joke, but knew that underneath it she was serious. He didn't blame her - he imagined Angel didn't either. The visions were meant to warn them of someone who needed their -- Angel's -- help. Cordelia had had the vision nearly four hours ago and they were still no closer to understanding what the vision had meant. No closer to discovering who needed their help, or where they were.
"It's possible this was some sort of...test," he suggested, hesitantly. "To see if you're...receiving them properly."
Cordelia gave him a flat look. "I've had them for months. If they wanted to adjust the reception they should have done it when I first got them." A shadow crossed her face; Wesley saw the same brief, dark look on Angel's. He understood it -- could hardly blame them. But no one said his name, and a moment later the conversation continued.
"Maybe it'll make sense later. We'll get a client and they'll have the rest of the information." Angel didn't look like he believed what he was saying.
But they were nearly out of options other than 'wait and hope it makes sense.' It wasn't as though they'd never gone into battle -- or just taken a job -- without knowing exactly what the vision had meant. But normally they had *something* to go on.
Wesley reached the end of the last LA phone book and closed it, sighing. He had no other ideas, except one.
"What if it isn't in Los Angeles?"
"Where would it be?" Cordelia looked confused. "I never get visions for annoying evil in other places."
Wesley shrugged. "It's the only other explanation I can think of. Perhaps we're meant to expand our field of operations?"
"You mean we have to start reading every phone book for the state of California?" Cordelia stared at the stack of phone books for the Los Angeles area.
"We could start with a web search," Wesley reminded her. He began to get more excited -- perhaps this was the answer. How simple! "Put the address into a search engine without 'Los Angeles' and see what--"
"I already did. The first time. Nothing."
They sat for a moment, no one saying anything. Then Angel cleared his throat. They both looked at him, eagerly -- but Angel just said nothing. He looked slightly embarrassed.
They waited a bit longer. Cordelia shifted a bit -- Angel and Wesley both looked at her, quickly. She half-smiled and said nothing. Another minute went by. Wesley lifted his arm to stretch a bit, and found Angel and Cordelia both staring at him hopefully. "Sorry."
Five minutes passed, with none of them saying a word. Finally, Angel spoke up. "How about we go find some vampires and slay 'em?"
"Great!" "Sounds like a plan!" Wesley and Cordelia said, together. They got to their feet quickly and proceeded to gather weapons, all of them pretending that this had something to do with Cordelia's vision.
Wesley told himself, as he suspected the other two were as well, that if the Powers intended them to be somewhere in particular at a particular time, they would send more coherent instructions.
Los Angeles in the summer was, Wesley thought to himself, a purely miserable time of year and place to be. Nighttime should have been cool; instead the dark was jagged by streetlights and neon and noise, and the heat oozed up out of the concrete and asphalt like a second day.
Fighting a dozen vampires didn't improve his mood. After walking for an hour and finding nothing, Cordelia had gone home, promising to call if she got any further visions. Angel and Wesley had elected to take one more block, before calling it quits. They'd rounded a corner at the mouth of a long alleyway which led to a huge, dark warehouse. Wesley had looked, and seen nothing, and had begun to say that the entire day was a loss and only a cup of tea, a decent book, and the death of modern music could rescue it.
Angel had seen more, and warned him to be on his guard, before walking down the middle of the alley. Vampires had melted out of the shadows and attacked. Angel moved swiftly into action; Wesley fumbled with his crossbow only for a moment before following.
The first quill found its target easily; the second hit shy. Then two vampires were on him and Wesley realised they were trained. Very well trained, as though someone had turned a group of martial artists and released them onto the streets of Los Angeles.
Luckily for him, Angel was doing a remarkable job. Wesley saw him, in between being flung from one place to another by vampires who seemed willing to play before killing him. He managed to grab a broken board and turn on into dust, before being grabbed by two more. Angel had dusted another -- Wesley saw the cloud of ash and dust, but had no idea how many were left. Too many, he thought, as his crossbow was knocked out of his grasp.
He grabbed the first thing he laid his hand on and swung at a head. The vampire moved back with the blow, then smiled at him. Wesley hit him again. The vampire grinned more widely at him.
Wesley hit him a third time, and he exploded into dust. He blinked, startled, then gave Angel a grateful smile. "I--"
Angel spun away, grabbing a vampire and flinging him into the wall. Wesley stood for a second, watching him, his gratitude swallowed. As he turned to stab a vampire, he told himself it was irrelevant. Childish, even, to expect that they should bond over such a thing....
Wesley threw himself into the fight. He managed to slay the vampire trying to kill him, then looked around to find there was no one left. Angel was wiping his hands, as though brushing off vampiric remains.
"That was fun," Angel said.
"If this were a proper mystery programme, we would now find a scrap of paper with the address from Cordelia's vision on it," Wesley said, smiling. He grinned as Angel looked at the ground. "I don't think--"
"That wasn't very nice," a voice said from above. They both looked up, and Wesley saw a black-clad figure standing on a window sill of a second floor window. The voice was soft, just loud enough to carry. Wesley thought it was a female, but couldn't be sure.
"Were they yours?" Angel asked. His tone was light, but Wesley could hear the note of challenge. He felt himself straighten a bit -- pride, he knew. Goeth before a fall, but he could not help the feeling. That *he* would stand beside a warrior like Angel. He almost wished he dared call out a warning to the strange figure. Tell her what she faced, and how quickly she would fall.
If it was a female, that was.
The figure made a noise like a laugh. "Not quite. I was only borrowing them. But now I shall have to return without them, and that will make their Master displeased." She -- for Wesley thought it was, now -- stepped back from the ledge, disappearing completely. But her voice floated down. "And who shall I say was responsible?"
"My name's Angel," Angel said easily. He was looking up and seemed to have no trouble speaking to apparently empty space. But, Wesley realised, perhaps he could see her. Or sense her somehow, and knew exactly where she was. "This is my town."
She laughed, and she sounded purely delighted. Wesley shivered. "Oh, you are all so much alike."
Her words made no sense, but Angel didn't ask and therefore Wesley felt too self-conscious to do so, himself. He did call out, "Why are you here? Er - who are you?"
"My name is Lady Shiva," came the reply. Her tone was still somewhat delighted -- but it was all business, no more laughter. "And I am here to kill you."
Wesley and Angel looked at each other. "Do you supposed they renamed this street?" Wesley asked.
Angel shrugged. "It would make sense. Shiva, 51 Bourne Street. Maybe when we get a look at her face, she'll be a tall brunette?" He looked around. "Do you see any bats?"
"There's only one way to find out." Wesley gestured towards the building.
Angel called out, "We'll be right up."
They hurried into the building after Wesley retrieved his crossbow. He followed Angel inside, trusting him to see through the darkness. He did so, heading up a flight of stairs and into a room. It was almost impossible for Wesley to see anything, but the sound of Lady Shiva's voice did not, surprisingly, startle him.
"I appreciate your taking the time to meet me."
"I had nothing better to do," Angel said dismissively. Wesley shifted to one side, wondering if he would have any sort of aim if he focused in on her voice.
"My wish is only to fight you, Angel. Would you tell your companion he may simply watch?"
"How am I supposed to watch if I can't see a thing?" Wesley said, then realised it was probably not the best thing to have admitted. He took a step to one side, away from Angel, thinking they might be able to flank her.
He felt a ghost of a touch on his fingers, and his crossbow was gone. Lady Shiva's voice was in his ear. "I don't think you'll be needing that."
Knowing he was too late, Wesley swung out to strike her. But there was nothing there. He turned, tried again, but he heard Angel moving away and a moment later, there was the unmistakable sound of combat.
He tried to follow the fight. He was blind, and the room was packed with things, such that if he took more than a few steps in any direction he stumbled into something. He tried to feel his way around while listening to the fight -- listening for any sign that Angel was winning.
There was the occasional sound of Angel's voice -- a grunt, a muffled grunt. There was absolutely no sound from Lady Shiva, and the only indication Wesley had that she was still able to fight was that Angel was still fighting her.
Something sailed past, a sharp breeze on his check and the sensation of *something* nearby. Wesley ducked, knowing it was futile but unable to help himself. He was growing afraid, and there was nothing he could do to cover it. He couldn't join the fight -- couldn't risk Angel being the one he interfered with. He couldn't even leave without Angel to guide him to the door. He had nothing to create light, no way to help Angel...he couldn't even trust himself to get behind cover.
He tried counting seconds. The sounds of flesh striking flesh, of flesh striking wood, the sounds of feet circling on the floor, all distracted him. He'd get to ten or fifteen, and lose count when something would happened and he'd hold his breath, wondering if it was Angel's death he'd heard. Then he'd hear what was undeniably Angel, still fighting, and he'd breathe again, and count again.
It was not wholly unlike sitting in the dark beneath the stairs. Wesley shivered, and told himself that he was not trapped. Should Angel lose, the Lady might let him go. She'd come here to fight Angel -- the Souled Vampire, the Champion of Los Angeles. It stood to reason, Wesley told himself, that others would come to test themselves against him. Like the old west he'd read about, gunfighters coming to face the famous, to gain a reputation if they won.
Perhaps they should prepare themselves for more of this.
Wesley stiffened, as something passed behind him. Lady Shiva? Angel? Nothing touched him, nothing struck at him so he forced himself to relax. Or come near to it -- he kept himself from screaming, at least. How embarrassing, that the Champion's chosen sidekick would shriek like a girl at shadows.
Wesley curled his fist, wishing he'd somehow kept hold of his crossbow. Wishing he'd been fast enough to do *something* other than stand here, helplessly. He heard a noise of pain -- Angel. Without thinking, he moved towards the sound. There was a swift, metallic sound, and a groan -- then a thud.
Angel had hit the floor. Wesley was on him in a heartbeat, uncaring if Shiva's next strike would take his head. He found Angel, feeling about in the darkness. Cold, motionless -- but he was a body, not ash. Alive, if not conscious.
He felt a rush of relief, and stood above him. He waited.
"He has lost," came Lady Shiva's voice. She was in front of him, a few feet away. Out of his distance, though he was sure he was not out of hers.
"You won't kill him."
"Oh?" She sounded amused, again. Wesley had the odd feeling that, in another place and time, he might have liked her.
"I won't let you." He raised his fists, though what he expected to do, he had no idea. Die, he presumed. Delay Angel's death by a few seconds.
Well, perhaps Cordelia would have figured out the vision and was coming to their rescue.
Lady Shiva laughed again, but it was, strangely, not a mocking one. "How do you intend to stop me, then?"
A fair question. Wesley said honestly, "I don't know. But I can't let you kill him."
He hadn't meant to sound so honest. Perhaps she would not be able to read his meaning; the words of a stranger could mean anything. Angel himself was unconscious, so Wesley's unintentional admission could go unnoticed.
There was silence, then her voice came, and she had moved closer. "I see."
"I have won the fight," she said calmly.
"You will have to take something else. Not Angel." He knew what he was saying -- knew it hardly mattered. When she killed him, she would be free to kill Angel. Maybe he would wake up in the next few seconds, and defeat her?
It wasn't like his bargain was anything she wouldn't be free to do, anyhow.
"Interesting." She'd moved again.
"What's interesting?" He could try to keep her talking. Give Angel a chance to recover.
"If I grant his life, I shall require something in exchange." She was facing him; Wesley had to turn slightly to face her. Face her direction, at least.
"You may have it." It was easy enough to say. It surprised him, but he'd been prepared to die for quite some time. Ever since Angel had allowed him to join them, ever since he'd faced a vampire in battle. Ever since he'd been a boy.
There was another silence, then she was standing in front of him. Wesley closed his eyes briefly, then opened them, determined to face her even if he could not see.
"I think...not you."
He relaxed, for all of a second. Then he tensed. "Who? Not--" It was stupid to name names. If she didn't know who else might be worth Angel's life, saying Cordelia's name would be signing her death.
Fingers touched his cheek, and somehow he didn't flinch from the caress. "Not you. Perhaps....yes. That one will do."
He could hear her smiling. "Who?" he demanded. If she said Cordelia's name, he would kill her. She was in reach, now, and all he had to do was reach up for her throat.
"It's all right," Shiva said, smoothly. "I have a proposition for you. A life for a life. Evil for evil, demon for demon."
"Angel isn't--" He cut himself off and tried to think -- what demon did he know of, that she could possibly want instead of Angel? That he could offer, without guilt?
"Then not exactly evil -- or not exactly a demon? But an enemy, certainly."
"Enemy...? Who?" Wesley shook his head. "I can't bargain anyone's life but my own."
"But I won't take yours. If you don't want me to take his, I suggest you agree. The life of someone evil -- someone who freely wishes you and him both dead, or as good as."
"I don't understand. Why... what are you up to?"
"Me? Nothing. Everything. Does it matter? I won his life in a fair fight. You've offered to replace it. I've accepted."
"I can't...." But could he? The life of someone he would, in fact, possibly be willing to kill himself? Or allow killed, if it came to a fight?
Something he'd have killed anyway, in exchange for Angel?
"Because it amuses me."
"Then he will die." There was a noise -- the first she'd made, and he thought it was deliberate. Warning him, letting him know she was about to kill....
"Wait!" He put out his hand. Did she even have the power to take this other life? Was it just a test, for, as she said, her amusement?
He couldn't let her kill Angel. And he couldn't offer himself.
"I--" The word stuck. But apparently she didn't need more.
"Then it will be done. But not today -- I have a plane to catch. Someday, then. She will die."
She. Oh, god. "Who--" Surely not Cordelia. She was good, the best of them all. Not evil, not in any way a demon.
There was laughter in Lady Shiva's voice again. "Don't worry. I don't mean your friend. She's been touched by Powers I have no interest in disturbing."
Wesley nearly fell, in his relief. He locked his knees, and asked, "Then who?"
"Oh, you'll hardly miss her." Lady Shiva was moving, again, away from them. There was a soft groan at Wesley's feet. Angel. Lady Shiva's voice was faint, now, as she said, "She's a lawyer."
And there was nothing.