DISCLAIMER: Angel and BtVS characters and concepts belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, etc.
Just borrowing, no profit, yadda, yadda, yadda.
A demon sailed neatly over Faith's shoulder to impact with a satisfying splat against the wall, limbs splayed out like in the cartoons. I would have applauded, except I had other things on my mind just then.
Like an opponent who took advantage of my momentary distraction to aim a blow at my neck that would have killed me if I hadn't desperately thrown up an arm to block.
The arm didn't break, but it felt like a close thing. The whole limb went numb and dropped back to my side, a useless weight dragging down on my shoulder.
I reciprocated with a hard jab to the creature's face using my remaining hand. Took out an eye.
The thing just growled and kept coming, as though the gaping hole in its face didn't bother it at all. I found myself on the defensive again, forced to back off, one arm out of action and starting to get seriously worried this was a fight I was gonna lose.
These guys were definitely tough.
There were four of the creatures; kind of a lizard look about them, big and ugly and mean, and like nothing I'd encountered before. I'd had a vision of them causing a massacre in a bar close by the office, so the three of us had headed over to intercept them in a back street before they could get there.
I was aware, in the background, of Wesley getting the crap beat out of him by another of the things. Faith had dealt with one of her two pretty comprehensively - it lay motionless on the ground underneath the demon-shaped indent it had made in the brick wall of the tall building at our backs - and now she was chipping away at the other's defences.
She seemed to be on top of things. Which was definitely a good, because unless she could finish off quick and get to Wesley's aid and mine, we might very well have a serious problem.
I kicked out at the demon and it dodged lazily, with a mocking ease. This was not good. I tried to keep my eyes on the creature while scanning the ground for the knife I'd lost early on in the fight. It had to be around somewhere.
Wesley, several metres beyond, was getting his arm wrenched behind him almost to the point of dislocation, and his face bashed into the concrete. He'd lost his glasses somewhere. He needed help bad, and if it wasn't forthcoming from Faith-
Shit. Where was that knife? I couldn't see it anywhere.
My numbed arm was recovering some feeling, for all that it quivered as though still reverberating from the force of the blow, and I used it to search my pockets, keeping the other arm free to defend against the creature.
My fingers touched a stake, not quite so useful for demons of the non-vampire persuasion, but better than nothing. I drew it out and almost fumbled switching hands - couldn't deliver a slap with the right one at the moment, let alone drive a length of sharpened wood through several inches of dense flesh.
The demon laughed. "Do I look like a vampire?" it hissed.
Funny, was it? I thought savagely. I feinted at its heart and then stabbed the stake through its neck, where the scales looked more vulnerably soft. Had to reach quite high to get on target; these things were a good bit taller than me.
Mistake. Left me wide open, and the injury wouldn't kill it quick. With my other arm still as good as useless, I couldn't do anything about the demon's instant retaliatory bash.
It sent me sprawling several yards, seeing stars and turning demon-face, and for a long moment I lay where I landed staring up at the night sky and convinced it had powdered something important inside me.
I wrenched myself up onto hands and knees, then immediately fell back, dizzy. I tried again, making it to my knees this time. The world spun in crazy circles.
I stayed demon 'cause if I didn't I thought I was probably gonna end up dead, and for that matter so was Wesley if someone didn't get to him quick.
The creature I'd stabbed was whipping its head around and coughing as though it hoped to dislodge the stake stubbornly stuck in its throat, ends of wood growing out from beneath its jaw and the base of its skull. It hissed in rage as it caught sight of me trying to get up again and started to stagger my way, clearly in its death throes and pretty set upon taking its killer along with it, constantly falling and clawing its way upright again.
I saw Wesley's opponent twine its claws through the Watcher's hair and take a grip on his shoulder - preparatory, I knew, to a twist and snap that would break his neck. Wesley's face was a mask of blood and he looked as though he was only just hanging on to consciousness, barely struggling now.
What was Faith up to? I risked a glance, awkwardly attempting to get my feet under me despite the fact it felt like all the bone in my legs had been switched with rubber, aware of the dying demon trying to reach me.
Faith was still slapping her half-dead opponent around.
"Faith!" I yelled urgently. "Leave off and help Wesley!"
She carried on, oblivious, totally engrossed in what she was doing.
I looked back to Wesley - and spied my knife, then. It was on the ground inches away from where his right hand sprawled limp and unmoving. "Wesley - knife!" I yelled, futilely, knowing he didn't have enough left in him for the advice to do any good. Desperation lent me strength and I finally managed to regain my feet. I lurched unsteadily to his aid.
Didn't get very far.
Should have been concentrating more on lookin' after my own skin. The injured demon had gotten too close. I ducked a swipe of its claws at the last possible moment. In its weak state it overbalanced and fell on me.
I didn't have much in the way of balance just then myself, so I fell too, and the demon landed heavily on top. Crushing me between its weight and the floor, it did more damage by accident than it had yet on purpose. I scrabbled to fight it off, aware with a sick horror that Wesley was probably dead by now.
"Faith!" I yelled, a shout that was strangled off by clawed hands on my throat. From my skewed angle of view I could see all too well what was happening with her.
Unfortunately. While Wesley and I were fighting for our lives, she was all wrapped up in beating her own already well and truly defeated demon into a small, soggy stain on the concrete.
My head was spinning, consciousness threatening to depart. The demon was a lot heavier than I was and I didn't at close quarters stand much of a chance against it. I managed the leverage to get in a decent headbutt, but my opponent was beyond caring about a couple of superficial puncture wounds in the face. It was already dead anyway. I couldn't breathe around its claws on my neck and without a weapon there wasn't a thing I could do to make it die any quicker.
I realised sickly I was about to get dead and Faith was too busy carving her initials on that demon to care.
Everything disappeared into fuzzy dark.
I couldn't have been out for more than an instant before I was distantly aware of the demon's grip loosening, of being able to breathe again. The creature had become just a lifeless, heavy weight - one which someone quickly pulled off me.
I gasped in air. I could hear my rescuer's own frantic breathing; ragged, pained. It didn't sound like Faith.
I blinked, stared up at the shadow unsteadily standing over me. Features came slowly into focus.
"Are you all right?" he asked, breathless but as clipped and incongruously polite and proper as usual. He had my knife in his hand and the blade dripped the demons' thick yellow blood. His own face was coated with red.
I recovered enough from my surprise to shake off my demon form, and felt even more tired and battered in the absence of the demon's extra strength. He held out a hand to help me up, but I wasn't in any condition to even try just yet, so I waved him off and stayed where I was.
Wesley said, shakily, "I thought I was dead there for sure. Lucky you saw this." He held up the knife in illustration. Wrinkling up his nose in disgust, he wiped the blade off on the dead demon's back, then extended the knife back to me. His hand, holding the knife, shook ludicrously - even more than mine, accepting it.
He sat down heavily on the pavement. His pale suit was a mess of blood and street-grime. His gaze drifted and fixed on something. I followed its direction.
Faith was still at work on the remaining demon. It was face-down to the concrete, and not about to harm anything in its current condition, but she continued to batter on at it. I turned away, sickened not so much by what she was doing to the demon as by the expression of focused enthusiasm on her face as she did it.
Wesley got up again and staggered over to restrain her, his hands flapping and his voice stuttering his incredulity. "Faith! What do you think you're doing? You almost got us both killed!"
I could tell that approach was never gonna work with Faith. I sometimes wonder if Wesley will ever learn that. She spun around on him, fists raised, her lips drawn back in a fightin' snarl. Still ready to do more damage.
Pity she can't always direct that damage in the right place. Wesley fell back. She relented, and didn't hit him - just as well, since I think he'd had enough for one day.
She laughed and wiped her bloody hands on her pants, then ran her fingers through her hair. She was hardly breathing heavy. The unreasoning excitement of battle dissipated from her eyes as she wound down from the fight.
She frowned at the blood and exhaustion on Wesley, then shrugged. "You look like shit, Watcher," she said, without the slightest hint of concern. Her gaze slid past him to me, and her confident, devil-may-care expression looked a fraction more strained. "Doyle! You all right?" Whether her faint surprise was at my physical state or the fact she cared at all, it was impossible to tell.
Right then, I couldn't bring myself to answer. Unfortunately, Wesley had no such problem. "You almost got both of us killed," he repeated. "Doyle would have died if it hadn't been for my intervention."
"You were so wrapped up in the unnecessary pummelling of that wretched creature, you failed to help us when we needed you. It came that close, Faith-" He held out his hand with his fingers a fraction of an inch apart in illustration. "That close to both of us being killed, and where would that leave you? We will need to have a serious talk about this, later. Indeed we will."
Faith cast a desperate look at me, but I didn't feel like standing up for her right then. Whatever there might sometimes be shared between us when she was feelin' playful, and whether Wesley was being an ass or not - though he was dead right about the content, if not perhaps the method and timing of its delivery.
I met her gaze with expressionless silence and turned away to engage in the difficult process of peeling myself off the ground.
Maybe that was a mistake. But I wasn't feeling too clever right then.
She gave Wesley a glare carrying so much venom it could've knocked him dead on the spot. "Talk. Later. Right." She looked around at the demons, two dead, two groaning, her face a mask of aggressive sarcasm. "Well, I got two, and seems you only got two between the both of you, so I guess that leaves you boys with the clean-up work. Later, guys. You have fun, now." With that she spun on her heel and stalked off. The roll of her hips emphasized that arrogant slayer swagger even more than usual.
On her way she finished off the two downed demons with short, violent jabs of her boot to each scaled neck, punctuated by loud snaps.
Wesley sighed, and walked painfully back to me, just in time to stop me falling over again when I finally achieved a vertical state.
"That girl does try one's patience," he said, in his most pompous tones. Smiling smugly, he retrieved his glasses from the ground and snagged a handkerchief from a pocket to wipe the blood from his face. I noticed now it had mostly come from a long, shallow cut across his forehead and a bloody nose, for all it had looked horrendous.
"Still," Wesley added, "At least this little debacle has proved something." He paused as though it was self-evident, then continued, a fraction irritably but mostly with an inflated arrogance, "A Watcher always comes through in the worst of situations. Perhaps now I'll receive some of the respect around here that a trained member of the Council ought." He smiled like the Cheshire Cat.
Incredulous, I stared at him for long enough to affirm he really wasn't joking.
Then, I followed Faith's example. And walked. Well, staggered, at any rate. Not after her, mind, but towards the nearest bar.
Leaving Wesley to stand airing peeved sighs and muttering to himself in the midst of the carnage.
And, yeah, I know I should be used to them by now, but it's hard when every time I think we're starting to get somewhere, to make something of this deal we've got going here, they do something like this and remind me how isolated we all still are for all we work close most hours of the day and night fighting evil. After seeing off demons, vampires, elemental spirits and the Watchers Council, you'd think we'd be more of a well-oiled machine by now, but we're still all gears, no mesh - except for the sex, but that's a different question. They say there's no 'I' in 'team,' but for Faith it's the only letter in the alphabet. Sometimes I wonder if she'd even blink if she woke up one morning and Wes and I were gone.
Not that it's just her, mind. There're plenty of other things putting that distance in the way - Wesley's stiff standoffishness hardly having been improved any by recently seeing his would-be-girlfriend consigned to an existence as a host for the aforementioned spirit, and I daresay I got my faults too.
But sometimes, I think Faith's only getting worse.
I don't know if anything I say ever really reaches her. It's like her views are formed in concrete despite her youth; everything's about violence, indulgence, living fast. I don't know where she's going. I can't see her lasting through life like this. When I try to visualize what she might be like in the future, I can't see her at fifty.
Hell, I can't see her at twenty.
And I'm not talkin' about whether she'll survive that long living the hefty-risk lifestyle of a slayer. Though I can't say I don't think about that. A lot. But when you're that unbendable, something's gotta crack sooner or later. When you spend every day only trying to stay alive, when the world is your enemy and your life is run by a stuffy institution who for the most part stay thousands of miles out of your danger... well. And what kind of a life is that anyway?
There's a thing or two I'd like to say to this Council of Watchers, that's for sure.
If I've got anything to do with it, if there's a difference I can make, I'll see her survive in spite of them. I've grown kinda fond of having her around. Too fond, probably. I knew from the start what she was about.
I know our relationship - if you could even call it that - is nothing more to her than a means to assuage her slayer-size appetites.
I stayed in the smoky little bar a while, brooding over a couple of drinks. I didn't really have much enthusiasm for the drinking, though, for once.
My shabby, dishevelled state was drawing stares, and after an hour or so the evening was beginning to catch up with me and I felt so tired and battered all I wanted to do was go home and drop. No matter whether I might find Faith waiting in my apartment when I got there.
So I went back. I found my apartment empty, but could hear somebody upstairs in the office. I went up there and stuck my head around the door to see Wesley sat at my desk, working away.
His nose was embedded in a book, and there were volumes and manuscripts strewn all across my desk, half a dozen sets of opened pages gaping up at the ceiling. From where I stood I could spy a rather idealised depiction of one of the demons we'd been fighting earlier.
Ah, research. Diligent guy, Wesley.
He glanced up as I walked in, arching his brows and peering at me through his glasses as though I was some sort of academic curiosity he'd just uncovered. I noticed he'd cleaned up and the only sign now remaining of his earlier sorry state was a band-aid on his forehead and a slightly thick lip. He looked just fine. I wondered what I looked like.
Something the cat dragged in, probably.
He seemed surprised but not displeased to see me back. Which was probably more than I deserved after walking off and leaving him on his own with the clean-up work.
I'll say that about Wes, he doesn't hold a grudge.
He held a finger to his lips and pointed across the room. To Faith. My first thought was disbelief that they'd been alone together for any length of time after earlier events without one or the other of them walking out at the very least. But then I saw that Faith rested, snoring softly, in an inelegant sprawl across a chair, and figured she'd probably been sleeping since before Wesley arrived.
She had a couple of empty beer bottles in the crook of her elbow, and an empty tub of ice cream lay discarded on her lap. She looked precisely as young as she was.
Times like this, she messes with my head most of all.
I looked back to Wesley and jerked a thumb over my shoulder, indicating the elevator down to the basement which served as my home. Figured we could have a quiet talk there without waking her, discuss a few of the things that needed to be said.
After a moment's blank incomprehension, Wesley got the message, nodded, carefully put all his books and papers aside very quietly, stood, took one step - and fell over his own feet, landing with a crash.
Faith snorted her way to wakefulness and raised her head, looking around intently, as though she expected to find a demon - some other demon - in the office.
Wesley picked himself up from the floor and said, meekly, "Sorry."
"Nice one, Wes." Faith gave him a sarcastic round of applause then unfolded her slim body from the chair and looked me up and down critically. If there was any concern in there, it was well hidden. "You look better. Not a lot, mind, but better. Doesn't take much effort to guess where you've been."
"Yeah, well. I view almost gettin' dead as a good excuse to down a pint or two."
She took that as an accusation, although I hadn't actually meant it that way. I winced as the look on her face told me I'd started the argument I'd been hoping to avoid.
"Yeah?" she said, aggressively defensive. Her mouth stretched into that crooked, mocking sneer I've come to recognise as a warning I'm about to be verbally worked over by an expert. "Ever think maybe you're in the wrong business, Mr. Backbone? Maybe you should've stuck to teaching little kids. Hell, I reckon most of my teachers were probably demons in disguise anyway, so it's not as though you wouldn't have been in like company."
"Faith," Wesley began. His face and tone were all disapproving father-figure, and I winced, wondering how he could be so oblivious to how much that pissed her off.
"You keep outta this," I snapped. It came out more harshly than I'd actually intended; I was just anxious to shut him up, since Wesley's input into any argument with Faith only makes her worse, however good his intentions.
"Yeah, Wussley," Faith drawled. "It's not like anyone asked you to be here in the first place, Watcher. Hey, that's a good one. You, a Watcher? You couldn't watch a pan of water without letting it burn."
"Faith..." Oh, man, now I was doing it. I snapped my mouth shut, too late.
"Why can't you guys just loosen up?" she spat back. "You both look alive to me. Five by five, no harm done! You think you can't handle yourselves? - fine, don't come with me. If I look out for you in the middle of a fight, I end up getting dead! You know how that is, Doyle? I thought you used to be good at this. Lately, you suck. And d'you know why?"
She paused, as though expecting an answer. When she didn't get one she continued, more aggressively than before. "Well, I'll give you a clue - You might fight better if you weren't so goddamned busy watching what we're doing! It's not like I can't take care of myself. Hell, better than you or anyone can; I don't need anybody watching out for me! And as for Wesley..." she hesitated, then shoved her hands in her pockets and shrugged her shoulders with an elaborate show of indifference. "Plenty more pansy-assed watcher types where he came from," she drawled sarcastically.
Wesley looked shocked, at that last part. I tried to convince myself she didn't really mean it.
Maybe she didn't. There wasn't that much malice in the girl. I hoped.
About the rest of it, though... she's right. I do look out for them. Slayer or not, and whatever she says, however she acts, Faith's still pretty much a kid. Not an innocent, perhaps, but still only seventeen. And Wesley... he's much more of an innocent than she is, for all he's a decade her senior.
I thought back to the fight. Yeah, she was right.
But when you're working with others, you watch out for them. At least in theory. I learned that in the LAPD. It's only a disadvantage if others aren't doing the same for you. I learned that there, too.
I couldn't see a lecture on that particular theory working with Faith. Girl ain't much of a team player.
Her gaze shifted between Wesley and myself, defiant with challenge and a hint of nervous trepidation. She had taken her hands out of her pockets and fallen automatically into a combat-ready stance, rocking back on her heels jauntily as she waited for a response.
Getting mad now, I thought, would only make her take off again. And it worries the hell outta me when she does that, no matter she's always come back so far. Struck me as an option to avoid.
I had barely started to frame a placating reply when the pain hit.
Being interrupted mid-thought by blinding agony was so familiar to me by now that it took a moment for me to realise it wasn't a vision.