by Amanda Wilde (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The sun beat down on the faded red and yellow awning over the hot dog cart, and the neatly hand-lettered sign duct-taped to its side proudly proclaimed *Jesus Saves! Hot Dog and Juice $1.25! He is The Way, The Truth, and The Life! Kraut 25 Cents! You Know Not The Hour or The Day! Veggie Dog and Juice $1.75! The Truth Will Set You free!* It was fast, al fresco, near the beach, and had, over the course of the year or so she'd been in LA, become one of Cordelia's favourite tough-day lunch spots. The cart was always set up in the same spot, a prime chunk of pavement about twenty minutes from the office, and a million metaphorical miles from the perpetual mess on her desk and the relentless mess in her head. Today, both messes seemed messier than usual, and a hot dog - a real meat- by-product hot dog - was the only answer.
Father Steve, former Jesuit, current street missionary and curb-side entrepreneur, was all 40- something Hollywood good looks, L.A. tan, and years of gleaming orthodontia. She'd discovered him on her first day in LA, when she'd been hungry and wired and in a small, quiet way, lost. He wore cut-offs and a tie-dyed T-shirt under his apron, same as he had almost every time she'd seen him, and served his customers with the ease born of long practice and actual enjoyment. His voice, filled with cheer she would have labeled false coming from anyone else, boomed across the busy square as she approached.
"Tomas! God loves ya, guy! Onions?" Business was brisk: she joined the already lengthy line.
He had a beautiful voice, she thought, absent- mindedly counting the flowers tattooed on the back of the woman on roller blades towering in front of her. He was a tenor, she thought, like Pavarotti and Domingo and the other, shorter guy her mom had dragged her to see at the Hollywood Bowl, some charity thing at 500 bucks a pop that she had scowled about, but secretly enjoyed. She'd heard Father Steve sing one slow winter afternoon, when the sky had threatened sleet and she'd been his only customer in over four hours. He'd given her a second veggie dog for free, sung a song about Oklahoma, of all places, and then broken into a couple of tunes she recognized from her junior year production of Godspell. "Pre-e-e-pare ye, a waaay of the Lord," he'd sung, his voice clear and ringing, even as gusts of wind swirled bits of it away. She'd listened when there had been no one else to.
Two beautiful boys on skateboards eased fluidly past, and that reminded her that Michael wanted her to call. He'd left a message, told her he thought maybe, possibly, potentially, he could get Cordelia into to see Tony Blanchard. Blanchard was, Michael assured her, looking for the next Julia Roberts. With a little work, the right make-up, a nip here, a tuck there, and a lot of time with a trainer, Michael thought she could be that girl. She was perfect; he'd gooed all over her answering machine. Perfect, and all she had to do was change.
It might not be bad to be the next Julia Roberts, she mused, rethinking the not-exactly offer and taking another step forward in line. The fame, the money, the 'what WAS she thinking?' ex's, and $12 million bucks a movie, no matter how awful -- all pros, and no cons. She had planned to be the first Cordelia Chase rather than the second Julia Roberts, but plans could altered. Anything could be altered. Fourteen. Fourteen flowers on the woman's back. She wondered how many might be on the front, or hidden under the Day-Glo halter top and ratty-by-design shorts. How much had that hurt? Did it ever stop hurting, all the way? Back in Sunnydale, she'd have just asked. In L.A., you didn't *just ask* anything.
The line moved ahead again.
She hadn't noticed the details of Father Steve that first day - the scar on his left cheek that screamed knife fight, the flat patch on his nose where a break had once healed, or the lower-case *t* under the ketchup, mustard, and chili sauce on his bib-apron that wasn't a *t* at all. She had noticed his kind eyes, though, his easy smile, and the wedding band on his left hand. She had no illusions: she was a small town fish and LA was a very big, very shark- infested pool and she was only brave enough to admit to herself that it scared her. But, for some unnamable reason, she'd felt that she could trust him almost immediately. For a long time, he'd been the only person in L.A. she felt that way about.
A gull shrieked and descended on some abandoned scrap of food and she found herself wondering, could Angel wear an apron like Father Steve's? If she told him it was a *T* for *terrific boss* or a *T* for *Tuesday*, say, instead of a cross for. . .for whatever it was crosses were for? She tried to picture him in that apron or its cleaner cousin, tongs in hand, smiling, serving hot dogs to demons in the dead of night. It almost worked - she could almost see it - until he looked down at the *T*, realized what it really was, and burst into flames.
She thought maybe she liked him too much for that. That, and of course, Angel, wouldn't be caught dead in an apron.
"Joshua! The prodigal son! One fatted calf or two?"
She was an irregular regular now, visiting the cart every couple of weeks. Father Steve always had ice cold drinks, insight, and he knew her by name. It wasn't exactly *her* name, true, but that didn't seem to matter, to him or to her, and it was nice, sometimes, to not-quite know someone who didn't-quite know you. The line moved forward. "Anna!" Father Steve boomed. "Praise the Lord! Chili?"
Angel had dropped a stack of papers on her desk this morning. "We need to set up a tax account," he'd half-mumbled. "Yesterday."
"Yesterday?" she had asked, wondering if she'd forgotten to take care of this.
"I mean soon," he'd amended. "Very soon." His mouth quirked a little. "Please."
Please? "Sure," she'd nodded. "What's the rush? We've only been doing it this way for, well, however long we've been doing it this way. No one seems to care."
Angle had opened his mouth to answer, but Doyle'd supplied, "Even the Undead can't outrun the IRS," without looking up from the Vanity Fair he'd been reading in the corner.
Angel had frowned, then scowled, then finally shrugged. "Something like that."
"So. . .you want me to set up, ah. . . ?" she'd asked, leafing through the stack of papers he'd handed her.
He'd nodded grimly. "The info's all there. Just. . . just do whatever needs doing."
"Okay," she'd answered, covering her utter cluelessness with a toothy smile. "I'll do that right now."
Angel had turned away, then turned back. He'd lifted one eyebrow. "You can do this, can't you?"
"Oh, of course," she'd replied with a dismissive wave. "Piece of cake." "Good."
"Easy," she'd added. "Simple." Her "No prob" was lost in the sound of his office door closing with more force than necessary.
She'd turned to Doyle, puzzled. "What's his damage du jour?"
"Who knows?" Doyle'd turned another page. "Got a lot on his mind, I suppose."
"More than usual?"
"You never know with Angel. Least, I never know with Angel."
Permits, licenses, certificates, credentials she'd never seen. "How the hell am I gonna. . .?"
"I could help you," Doyle'd lilted into the pages of the magazine, but made no move to get up. "All you'd have to do is ask."
"I don't need your help." The papers on top were mostly forms that had to be filled out in duplicate, triplicate, quadruplicate, or worse. Half way down she found irrefutable proof that William Angel Jones (240-odd years old and that's the best he could come up with?) was single, 36, had a business license, a private investigators' license, a social security number to call his own, and was, apparently, still alive. There was a permit to operate a business, a permit for a hand gun, a permit to carry a concealed weapon. . .the list went on. His handsome face stared back at her from a copy of his drivers' license, and she wondered how they'd done that: even she knew vampires couldn't be photographed. One day, she'd ask.
"Why's he in such a big hurry, d'you think?" she'd murmured after a while, genuinely curious and genuinely bored.
"Doesn't want trouble, likely."
"He hunts down otherworldly whackos for The Powers That Be, Doyle. I think, duh, a certain amount of trouble comes with the job."
"Suppose it does." Another page had flipped. "'Course, he didn't ask for the job, either. He just looked up one day, and there it was. Or, more to the point, there I was."
Like me, she'd thought. She hadn't asked for this job; she'd just looked up from the canapé she'd had no intention of eating, and there it was. That morning she'd been an aspiring actress; the next, she'd become aspiring actress turned file clerk/supernatural pest exterminator.
She'd glanced at the pile of papers again. She'd planned on spending the morning updating her resume, calling a couple more agents, and finding some excuse to step out for a cappuccino at the earliest opportunity. "Doyle, do you think this really needs to be done?"
Doyle'd looked up, then, chewed the inside of his cheek for an instant. "I'm not the one to ask."
Of course he wasn't. She'd flipped another page, and then another, annoyed that her plans were going to have to be put on hold. She'd had a smart comeback ready, something designed to remind Doyle just how not in charge he was, when she'd been stunned by the paper before her. Below Angel's faux paper trail were similar documents detailing the life and times of Allan Francis Doyle, age 33, childless, divorced, and born and bred in Boston, Mass.
She'd glanced over at Doyle, who'd gone back to an article on who knew what. Unexpectedly, something drew tight in her chest.
"How many *L*'s in Alan?" She'd tried to keep suspicion from her voice.
He'd closed the magazine, finally. "Depends how many're required at any given time," he'd replied with a teasing grin. "How many d'ya want?"
"What year were you born?"
He lifted one eyebrow thoughtfully. " 19. . .What? Doesn't it say in there, somewhere?"
"When did you come to the States?"
"When I was, like, um,. . .Princess, what's with the third degree?"
"Is this you?" She held up a black and white photocopy of the investigators' license she knew he didn't have.
"Handsome devil." He'd grinned at her, then shrugged. "Yeah, I guess so."
She could understand the dead guy's need for fiction, but Doyle? Doyle had seemed so. . .so. .. "You guess so?"
"I, yeah, I guess, I. . .what's the problem?"
Whatever was squeezing her chest gripped tighter. She shook her head. "Nothing."
He'd frowned and got to his feet. With two deliberate strides, he was beside her. "It's not like you're imagining, Cordelia. It's not like. . ."
"I'm not imagining anything," she'd told him simply, and she hadn't been. After all the real things she'd seen, imaginary things were too much to consider. Better to let her mind go as blank as her expression.
"Cordy, I don't want you to think. . ."
"Can you really do this?" She'd gestured to the stack of papers without meeting his eyes.
"Er . . ." he reached out and flipped through the pile. "Yeah. Yeah, I think I can. "
"Then do it." She'd slipped her purse from the bottom drawer and stood with one smooth motion. "I'm going to lunch." And she'd left.
"David!" Father Steve's voice interrupted her reverie. "Apple or orange?"
Apple or orange? What did she want? Apple, she decided. Apple. Or maybe orange. Or maybe. . .
"Can I cut in?"
She turned slowly and squinted at Doyle from behind her Oakleys. "What are you doing here? Did you follow me?
"No," Doyle shook his head. "I was doing - that is I was running an errand, see, and. . ." He hesitated.
"And?" "And I sort of, sniffed you out, like," he finished with what struck her as an oddly inappropriate grin. She folded her arms across her chest, dropped her chin, and gave him her best hard look over the rims of her glasses. "Sniffed. . me. . .out. . like?"
"Er, yeah," he said and waved a dismissively. "You know, it's an expression, not a comment on your bathing habits. About which, I know nothing, naturally." He grinned again. "Come on, Princess, let me into the line and I'll buy." Without waiting for her answer, he turned a few degrees, and suddenly they were standing side by side, just inches apart. Anyone looking on would have assumed they were together, she thought darkly, that they'd planned it this way; she'd get a spot in line and he'd join her later. As clearly mismatched as they were, even she'd have made that mistake.
"You come here often?" Doyle asked as they moved another step ahead, his expression neutral.
She couldn't tell if he was serious or teasing. She often couldn't, really, but this time, instead of flustering or even charming her, it simply annoyed. She pulled her crossed arms tighter. "Why did you follow me?"
"What?" He looked puzzled. "Oh, I told you. I was running an errand and. . ."
"I heard that the first time," she sniffed.
"And it's still the truth." Doyle shrugged. "Look, you don't have to believe me, Princess, but. . "
"My name is Cordelia," she replied as levelly as she could, leaning away from him, "and, as for believe you, well no, I don't."
Doyle squinted at her, hard, and took another step forward. "You're angry with me?"
A dozen replies -- all cutting, and some particularly cruel -- flitted across her mind in an instant, but all she trusted herself to spit out was, "Duh!"
He rubbed his forehead and sighed. "Cordelia, what'd I do?"
"If you don't know, I . . ." The words rushed out louder and harsher than she'd expected. Now, she thought, half-horrified, they not only looked, but sounded, like a couple. She stopped, took one deep breath and then another.
The corner of Doyle's mouth twisted. "If I don't know you can't tell me? Is that it?" He didn't wait for a reply. "Well, frankly, I don't know. Last thing I remember, you were shuffling a stack of papers and I was reading up on the latest trends from Milan - brown's out for fall, by the way. Next minute, we're playing twenty questions but I can't seem to come up with any answers you'd like. So, fine, if it'll help, I'm sorry. I apologize. Whatever the hell it was, it was clearly my fault. All right? But unless something's changed in the last hour and a half, we're still both in the employ of Angel Investigations. That means we've got to work together, and that means I have to trust you to look out for me, and you have to trust me to do the same. So. . ."
"Trust you?" she spat out, interrupting him. "How am I supposed to trust you, Doyle? You don't seem to know when you were born, or where for that matter, and you seem a little vague on the actual spelling of your name. Other than that, well, geez, you are like a poster child for 1-800-TRUST-ME."
Doyle dropped his chin and looked up at her through his dark lashes. "Alan -- one L -- Francis -- with an 'I' Doyle -- d-o-y-l-e. Born at St Matthew's Hospital, Falconwell Road, Dublin, Ireland, in the wee small hours of . . ."
"That's not the point!" she hissed through gritted teeth.
"Well, what is it, then? I'm all ears!"
The words escaped before she could stop them. "I thought you were. . ." She stopped.
"Thought I was what? A doctor, slumming it? A millionaire with nothing better to do with my time? Some kind of freak who likes getting the crap kicked out of him on a fairly regular basis? What? Tell me. I'm dying to know."
"I thought. . ." She squeezed her eyes shut and took another deep breath. What had she thought, exactly? She inhaled and exhaled again, searching for the center the yoga instructor at the Y assured her she had. "I thought," she began again in an even, carefully modulated tone, "that you . . . were real."
Doyle flinched, backing away as if she'd just slapped him. His voice dropped to a stunned whisper. "You thought I was what?!"
"I thought that. . ."
"Delilah! It's been eons!" Father Steve boomed, saving her the embarrassment of repeating herself. She was started to realize they'd finally made it to the head of the line.
"Father Steve!" she replied, spinning to face him, smiling broadly, hoping it didn't look too fake. Father Steve knew the fake smiles from the real ones. "How have you been?"
"Terrific!" He answered, reaching for a bun with one hand and his tongs with the other. "Business is booming, people are being good to one another, and the surf's been running fine. God's in his heaven, and I am in mine. Veggie dog?"
Cordelia shook her head. "Not today. Hit me with the hard stuff. And OJ."
"Beaks and lips with the works on a bun, coming up."
"Same again, ta." Doyle fished in his pocket for some change. "Two fifty, yeah? " Father Steve handed Cordelia their lunch and reached into the cooler for drinks. He looked the younger man up and down, once, then twice, peering at him as if her were a new and slightly disgusting species of bug, or perhaps a talking chimp who knew nothing but off- colour limericks. He frowned slightly and pointed with his tongs, addressing her. "Who's this?"
"Oh, don't mind me," Doyle answered, handing over a five and a wad of lint. "According to your 'Delilah' here, I'm not real."
Father Steve looked him over again, apparently considering the idea, then shrugged as he made change. "I don't know. You look real enough to me, Samson. Solid, even. And even if you aren't, God loves you."
"Yeah, well, ta for that, too, I think."
"And you, Delilah," Father Steve eyed her as if she were naughty child. "Don't be a stranger."
"I won't. " She smiled again, harder this time, and watched Doyle shove his change into the red-and-white donation can prominently displayed on the cart with his left hand and scoop upthe bottles of juice with his right.
The nearest empty bench she could see was a good way down the boulevard and probably wouldn't remain empty for long. She headed toward it at a quick clip, then sat, a hot dog in either hand, watching as Doyle picked his way through the crowd. He sidestepped a toddler, smiling as he did so, exchanging a few words with the beaming parents standing by. She couldn't help but wonder if his show of generosity, however small, had been strictly for her benefit. She couldn't help but wonder how many of the simple things Doyle had done for her - the kind, thoughtful little acts that he'd performed over the months she'd known him that she'd come to think of as 'sweet' - had really been calculated gestures, meant only to impress.
Doyle was standing over her, then, his shadow creating a patch of sudden cool shade where the sun had been beating down on her carefully browned skin. He held out a bottle. "This seat taken?"
She made a small gesture with her head that might have been a half-shrug, might have been a nod - even she wasn't sure. Wordlessly, she handed him his food. Tourists gazed and gawked in the square, skate punks slipped by effortlessly, and they ate in perfect, heavy silence.
She wasn't looking at him, not really, but past him, toward the tennis courts and the beach beyond, trying to think empty, easy thoughts. In time, Doyle capped his empty bottle and set it on the bench squarely between them. Elbows planted on his thighs, he leaned forward, fingers steepled and pressed against his lips, and tilted his face toward her. "Why's he call you Delilah?"
She took another sip of her own juice, hoping she could take this change in topic as a sign that their earlier conversation was, if not over, then at least put on hold. "I don't know. When I first came to LA, this was a good place to get cheap eats and it wasn't all grungy, you know? So the third or fourth time I came by, he said 'Delilah! You're back!' and I just thought, well, Delilah, Cordelia; guess he heard me wrong the first time, whatever. Close enough, you know? I don't mind. Father Steve's a good guy."
"Oh. I see." Doyle nodded thoughtfully. "So, what? He's real, then?"
Cordelia sighed, pinched the bridge of her nose under her glasses. She almost wished for a demon to suddenly appear and ooze some disgusting pavement- dissolving fluid all over the square, or breathe a little fire or sneeze a couple of gallons of lava or something - anything -- to get her out of this. "No," she said finally. "He's not completely real, either."
Doyle nodded again. "So I'm in good company, is that it?"
She leaned back and took another sip of her juice, then tugged at her bottom lip. "When I came to LA, the first thing I noticed was how impossible everything is. Everyone is impossibly tall, impossibly thin, impossibly nice, impossibly interesting, rich, tan. Unless, you know, they're like Angel; all that impossible stuff, minus the tan, plus the dead. Everywhere you look, the impossible is looking right back at you, you know?" Doyle nodded thoughtfully. "I know."
"So, I didn't get, like, homesick, exactly, cuz I never thought, 'wow, it sure would be nice to go back to that nothing little Sunnydale and hang out with the housekeeper and the gardener while mom and dad are too busy not paying their taxes to notice me, again', and I know I come off as kind of shallow sometimes. . ."
"You?" Doyle tossed out with a sardonic grin. "Never!"
'"Thank you, Mr. Sarcasm. But the point I was making was, at least back in Sunnydale I had some real people in my life. People who care more about how things are than how they look. I wasn't one of them at the time, of course."
"Of course, " he agreed with a mock-serious frown.
"Of course," she echoed him and herself, thinking 'three's the charm', but not really sure why. "But now I ah, I see how important they are. People like that, I mean. I see how much you need them. Sometimes."
Doyle's eyes narrowed; she could almost hear the tumblers clicking into place. "And you thought I was like that? Real, like you said?"
She had. She wasn't sure, now, why she'd been so easily fooled, but yes, she'd thought him real: not perfect, certainly, but reliable in the big things, imbued with a clear sense of right and wrong, there for you when push came to shove. There for HER when push came to shove, at least, no matter how badly she'd treated him. No pretense, just a guy with no fashion sense, a gift for the wrong word at the wrong time, a stubborn streak a mile wide, and a good heart.
But the false documents, his evasive answers to her questions -- Even if he was real, if he was the great guy she'd thought he had the potential to be, she'd never be able to let herself see past this. And if, by some chance or miracle, she trusted herself enough to trust him again, she'd never be strong enough to really believe. "I guess it was just wishful thinking."
Doyle nodded slowly, his expression a mixture of resignation and concern. "If I had feelings, Cordelia, they'd be hurt."
"I know," she answered finally, hearing another door slam, watching another opportunity crawl off into a dark corner to die. "I know. I guess it's lucky for both of us that you don't."
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