See chapter 1 for disclaimers.
When I resurfaced from the vision it was to find her dark eyes inches from my own. The look in them was more puzzled curiosity than concern.
"Hey, Doyle," she said. "What was that all about? And don't tell me I'm giving guys seizures now. You been holding out on me?"
I groaned and squinted up at her. "Holdin' out...? No, just hadn't got around to mentioning that part."
"The part where you're gonna be spazzing in the middle of a fight and leaving me to get my ass kicked?" she demanded. "What's wrong with you? Come on, spill."
I shook my head, which didn't do it any good at all. The room started doing interesting acrobatics in front of my eyes. "I get - visions. That is to say, splitting migraines with pictures. Of people in danger. People I'm meant to save. Not all of the business here comes from walk-in clients, y'know. Heck, not even most of it."
"Way cool," she said, sounding surprised. "You really do have a mission here. You could almost be a slayer." Then, after a moment's thought. "So that was a vision, huh? Whoa. Major bummer."
"Ouch," I agreed, trying to stand.
She had her hands on my shoulders, presumably some sort of effort to steady me when I'd keeled over, but truth to tell the pressure of those slim fingers wasn't doing me any favours.
I already knew from our, ah, close contact earlier that she had one hell of a grip. Didn't want to ever be on the wrong side of it. With that slayer strength, she could break me in half, demon or no. And with her temper, she just might.
She shifted her grip and backed off as I straightened up. "So," she said, her enthusiasm evident. "Our first case, partner. What'd you see?"
My head thudded viciously. She wasn't helping. I wondered what I'd gotten myself into with this girl.
"The usual," I said, as I unsteadily crossed the room and retrieved my jacket from where I'd thrown it. Two visions in one day was a real bitch; still, it happened now and then. I could have used a drink or ten, but knew I didn't have the time for that; urgency had permeated the vision. "Guy about to become vampire food. A few blocks away, ten minutes if we hurry. And we gotta hurry. You comin'?"
"Sure thing." Faith snatched up a stake and threw another across to me, twirling it through her fingers in a fancy move. Hell, she was fast. Some impressive reflexes, too.
All that strength and power locked within her deceptively delicate form. I had to admit, I was more than a little curious to see how she handled herself in a fight.
Well... I wouldn't have to wait long to find out.
As expected, it took about ten minutes to reach the spot where I'd seen the attack take place. One good thing to come out of all that time in the LAPD, I know this city like the back of my hand, including - especially - the bits that ain't so pretty.
Handy for the Powers, that they can send their damned vague headaches to someone with the local know-how to interpret them.
This place, it was a bad spot, close to a couple of major demon hangouts, a real dive. It wasn't the first time a vision had dragged me there to help someone. Had to admit to a certain uneasiness with being in that area myself, and I was glad to have some back-up on hand for once.
We turned left down a narrow street where a pink neon sign on the corner building read 'bar' in stubborn contradiction of the brothel I knew lay within. The noises of shouts and scuffle told me the action had already begun.
As we got closer I could see the scene from my vision being played out. There were four vamps gathered around the one guy, a skinny posh-looking type... wearing a suit, of all things. God knows what he was doing slumming around this neighbourhood.
Nobody had ever taught these vamps not to play with their food. They were gathered around him like the mean kids in the school ground, tormenting, darting forward occasionally to land a blow or just to feint one. They'd done something to one of his legs, and he stumbled in little awkward steps with the limb bent off at a crazy sideways angle at the knee, making futile efforts to get away from them each time they sprang forward for another piece of him.
Faith shot a glance at me even as we hurried to intervene. She was grinning broadly, lit up in pink neon from the corner sign.
"Time to kick some undead b..." Her voice dried up abruptly.
She stopped running, and dragged on my arm to pull me back.
"What in the hell are you...?"
"Shut up!" she snapped. Her voice was rough and she sounded, oddly enough, scared.
We'd halted about ten yards from the little scene, and the vampires couldn't help but have noticed our presence. They were directing curious, hungry looks our way, with the exception of the one female who was too engrossed in the business of tormenting their victim, her hands all over his shivering neck in sickening caresses.
"'S'okay, folks," Faith drawled, her voice full of harsh amusement, bordering on shock. "You keep right on with what you're doing there. No way I'm going to stop you. Hell, some things you just couldn't pay enough to see."
"Have you gone mad?" I demanded, almost at the same instant as their victim, the guy from my vision, looked up.
Lined in pink neon, his wide, pain-filled eyes rested on Faith and managed to widen even more. "Faith..." he began, breathless and astonished and pleading.
He didn't get to finish because the she-vamp closest to him dealt him a painfully audible fist in the face that dropped him to the pavement. She raised a stiletto-clad foot to bring it down on his head.
I wasn't certain precisely what lay between Faith and this guy, but I wasn't about to let this happen.
Not in my city.
Faith seemed frozen in place. I shook my arm free and surged forward, aligning the stake with the she-vamp's heart as I did. I covered the short distance between us just in time to knock the vamp away the instant before the pointed spike of her heel drove through the guy's skull. She overbalanced backwards, and I overbalanced on top of her. The stake slid easily into her chest with the force of our landing.
She exploded into dust, and I fell the last several inches to the ground as her form disintegrated, bruising my elbows on the pavement.
Unpleasantly aware of the remaining three vamps, I moved to push off from the ground, reaching for the fallen stake, planning to twist around to deliver a hefty kick to the one standing closest and...
I didn't get any further than a few inches before a foot tramped down on the back of my neck, pressing me down into the concrete with a force that skinned the side of my face against the rough surface.
Damn, but one of them was fast.
I switched to demon, figuring the additional strength would be enough to shift the vamp's weight, but before I could use it hands grabbed my arms, one pair each side, with undead strength. They twisted, hauling me painfully to my feet as the weight was lifted from my neck. I thrashed around, trying to break their hold... unsuccessfully.
I'd been waiting for Faith's intervention, expecting it at any moment, but now I realised with a sinking feeling that she was nowhere in sight.
"Looks like we've caught ourselves a half-breed," the vampire on my left sneered.
"That's no fun. They taste bad." The one holding my right arm pulled a disgusted face which looked oddly comical on his already vamped-out features. But I didn't feel inclined to laugh.
The remaining vamp, the quick one who'd taken me down, walked around into my line of sight. He had a youth's face, firmly set to human. I'd learned those were the ones to be wary of; the ones with the control to look human even when riled. It took time to learn that control, meant they'd been around a good few decades. They weren't as dim as the fledglings.
"I've heard of you," he said to me. "I've heard of a few pals of mine who didn't walk away from an encounter with you. And of course, now Chrissy." He glanced at the slightly dusty patch on the ground; when he turned back his features were contorted into full vamp mode. "That makes me unhappy."
He picked up the stake I'd dropped and toyed with it, with an amused glee that made me shiver despite myself.
Beyond him, I could see a slim figure slowly walking back through the shadows towards us, hesitating every few steps as though something even stronger than she was kept trying to pull her back. I fixed my eyes on the vampire in front of me, so as not to give away her presence by the direction of my gaze.
The vamp set the stake to the side of my neck. He dug it in, just a little way. Enough to hurt like hell. Even a sharpened stake has a pretty blunt, splintery point on it. He dragged it forward through my skin, about an inch or so, pressing down hard, until it met the base of a spine and stuck there.
I jolted in their grasp with the pain, but their grip didn't give. I felt the warm dampness of blood dribble down to soak into my shirt collar.
Faith stood now, immobile, several yards behind him, cloaked in shadows, unnoticed. She had a stake ready in her hand, but she kept staring down at it as though she'd never seen one before. Indecision and despair marked her face. She looked like she was wrestling with something bad, behind those dark-smudged eyes.
She glanced between me and the unconscious man. Her grip on the stake shifted, but she didn't otherwise move.
"You know, I fancy a souvenir," the vamp said. "Wonder if these things'll break off." He pressed the stake down harder at the base of the spine. It hurt like hell. "Yeah, looks like it..." He pushed his grinning face right up to mine, presumably wanting to witness my agony up close.
His mistake. I wrenched my head forward, though the move drove the stake deeper, and let him have a whole face full of spikes.
He howled and fell back, the stake clattering to the floor, hands pressed over his newly-ventilated face.
I heaved my arms, desperately trying to break the grip of the other two. Felt the joints, already held at odd angles, threaten dislocation. What the hell, this form could take it...
Thankfully, though, it didn't need to. "Aw, shit!" Faith snapped, in aggrieved tones, as she finally made her decision and sprang into action. She had already taken several steps further forward, sometime while he'd been cutting me, and she was so close now they'd have seen her in a moment in any case.
She rammed the stake into the vamp whose face I'd colandered and barrelled straight through the resultant dust cloud on her way to me.
At the sight of a slayer in full fight mode, the vamp on my left loosed his grip and ran.
I didn't give the remaining vampire a chance to copy him. The instant my arm was free my fist was making close acquaintance with his face.
Faith sprang after the one who'd lit off, and seconds later it was all over.
I turned on Faith, too angry even to switch back to human.
"You gonna tell me what the hell that was all about?" I snapped, clamping a hand to the side of my neck to stop the spill of blood. They'd avoided the main artery, thankfully, in their efforts to make it slow. "Care to explain why fifteen minutes ago it was 'partners' and now you're suddenly prepared to run off and let me get worked over by the bad guys?"
I had plenty more to say. I'd meant to say it. but the expression on her face stopped me.
From what I'd seen of her so far, I hadn't thought she could be capable of looking so dejected and hopeless.
"I'm sorry, all right!" she yelled hoarsely. I had the impression those weren't words she said too often. "This was supposed to be a new start! Then I see him here..." She floundered. "I saw they were gonna kill him, and I thought, okay, maybe we're a fraction of a second too slow, and who could blame us for being too late, just this once? It was like, for one instant, there was the answer to everything right in front of me. And then I realised you wouldn't let him die. So I left... but I came back!"
"We don't get to pick and choose who deserves to be saved and who doesn't, whoever he is," I said, hearing the angry edge in my voice and a little surprised by the ferocity of it. I took a few deep, calming breaths and forced my form to revert to human. I walked over to the guy we'd saved and knelt down to feel his neck for a pulse. "The vision sent us to save him. That has to count for something."
His pulse beat strongly. Decidedly alive. His left leg was surely broken, hanging at that peculiar angle, and most of the rest of him was in a bit of a mess.
I asked the question I suspected I already knew the answer to, quietly but insistently. I was in no mood for evasions. "Who is he, Faith?"
She laughed, a raw sound, weighted with irony. "Doesn't look like much, does he?" she growled in angry resignation. "But he's more than this useless waste of flesh wrapped up in a fancy suit. He's the Watcher's Council and everything I'm running from. I should have known I'd never be free of them."
She took the few steps necessary to loom over me where I knelt and delivered an illustrative kick to the unconscious guy. "Hey, Doyle," she introduced bitterly. "Meet Wesley Wyndham-Pryce. My Watcher."