Wesley kicked Carnagan's knife over to me, and with some difficulty I managed to fold my fingers around it and saw through the ropes securing him to the broken remnant of the table. That accomplished, I slumped back to the floor with a groan. Wesley unravelled the sliced lengths of rope from himself and struggled with a few remaining knots. I stared at the roof of the sewer tunnels and listened to his sigh of relief and to the crash when the loosed table fell to the ground before making the effort to raise my head again.
"Thank goodness," he said, massaging his arms. "And thank you, Doyle." He made as if to lean down, opened his mouth as if to say something else, but then his gaze caught on Charlotte - on the storm spirit, its electricity diminished to nothing, now once again a mere human form - standing silent and motionless on the sidelines as she'd remained throughout his struggles. His head jerked around away from me, and his feet followed.
Grimacing, I forced my limbs to move, rolled over and crawled across to where Faith lay, still unconscious. I poked her under the ribs, trying to distract myself from the choked silence between Wesley and Charlotte. "Faith? C'mon now, Slayer."
Her head rolled to the side, the movement disturbing the fall of her dark hair, revealing blood. Wincing in sympathy, I touched my sleeve to the cut, cleaning around its edges. Eyes closed, she muttered something and her hand rose to swipe at mine. Despite her semi-conscious state, the blow near cracked my wrist. I concluded that Faith probably wasn't going to suffer any lasting damage from her injuries, but if I wasn't careful, I might. "Faith, it's me. You're all right," I said, and said again until her struggles subsided as it sank in that I wasn't an enemy.
I awkwardly sat up against the wall of the sewer and very carefully pulled her into my lap, holding her loosely as she snorted and snuggled in. Her injured state gave a reasonable excuse, and since it might be my last chance to hold her at all, even if she woke up and decked me, it'd be worth it.
Wesley and the storm spirit were looking at each other across three feet of darkness, just far enough to be out of reach, neither making any move closer, neither speaking.
It was the spirit who finally broke the impasse. Wesley seemed beyond all action.
She said, "I have no memories of you beyond the ones made these last days, but... this body remembers you. It trusts you. It will miss you." Taking a single step forward, she placed the palm of her hand against his chest, over his heart.
Wesley swallowed and his mouth worked silently. His hands fluttered around hers as though he'd like to push it off but didn't want to touch it. "Yes," he said eventually. "You - you didn't know-"
"What I was? No. I took on the role you remembered for me, which this form remembered, but it couldn't last. The being that owned this body before is gone. All that remains are traces."
I stroked Faith's hair and she snorted against my wrist. "Hssh."
Something had hardened in Wesley's eyes, his distress transforming into cold determination, but he kept it from his voice and expression. "You wouldn't help me against Carnagan."
"He would have made me whole. I remain damaged - not complete. I would have been sorry if you died, yet we - we would have been complete together." Her eyes glowed. "We would have been one."
"Charlotte would have helped me. As her duty. As a friend. Charlotte would have fought against Carnagan to the last."
I was sure Charlotte had. The storm spirit, on the other hand, had no answer for that.
Wesley relented with a sigh. "Perhaps we can reverse the original ritual, to unbind you from this form. I know there's nothing left of the host now - this is just a body - but perhaps it would help you."
"It is not necessary. My being repairs itself slowly. What Carnagan lacked was largely control. I will keep this form. It is... alien to me, but already I begin to grow into it. I am sure it will serve me well enough."
Wesley's face twisted with something like revulsion, but only for an instant. Then his bland-face was back as he gently removed the spirit's hand from his breast. His thumb caressed the skin of her hand fractionally before he let it go. It dropped to her side with finality.
"Goodbye," he said.
She stepped back from him as the lightning crept over her form, fading her out, and then she was gone.
Wesley watched stonily the empty place where she'd been, then turned his back on it without a word. The storm might have dissipated, but thunder remained in his expression. I unconsciously tightened my arms around Faith as he cast that gaze on me. At the sight of the two of us, it relented slightly.
"Are you both all right?" cracked a voice that didn't sound much like Wesley's - but it was his lips that were moving.
"Yeah," Faith said, unfolding herself from my grasp and standing up, shaking herself out. I stared at her. She touched her head and her face scrunched up in displeasure. "It's just a bump." After according her Watcher a cautious look, she leaned back down to pull me up and set me on my feet, keeping her face turned aside so I couldn't see her expression.
I leaned weakly against the wall and stammered a response to Wesley that must've been pretty incoherent at best, and Faith made some comment about Slayer recovery versus that of lame-ass half-demons.
As I remained none-too-steady on my feet, they each took a hold under one of my arms and we headed down the tunnel to find an exit from the sewer system, and I was too exhausted to much care about the indignity of it.
"So I guess Carnagan lied," Faith said. "I guess this means Charlotte was hunting him. He was the rogue all along." A long silence; for myself, speech too much of an effort at present, and as for Wesley...
Her feet scuffed the floor intentionally as she dragged along. With a huff, she tried again, "'Cause, y'know, I'd wondered how he managed to get here so quick, what with the lightning storms and the planes being grounded and all."
As one, Wesley and I stiffly turned our heads to glare at her.
Several minutes ticked by with no sound but our footsteps.
"So... now Charlotte's gone, that's it, isn't it?" Faith's voice was smaller, this time, almost timid. "We're all cleared up here. Everything-"
"Don't call her Charlotte," Wesley interrupted, his voice grating on the air sharply, like something breaking. His next words escaped then in a rush. "Charlotte's dead. That thing... that thing isn't her, it was never her. It was something else that set up home in her body."
The hollowness in his tone had nothing to do with the sewer's echo. Charlotte was dead, and he'd loved her, after some fashion, whatever their relationship had been - love, lust, a youthful unfulfilled crush. I remembered the storm spirit saying, this body remembers you, and wondered. Maybe Charlotte back then had noticed Wesley after all. Maybe he hadn't been the only adolescent Watcher too shy to confess his feelings. That possibility must be a harsh kick in the teeth for him now.
"Okay. Not-Charlotte, the storm spirit, whatever. Anyhow, what I was saying was, now that-"
"Why'd you let her go?" I mumbled, interrupting.
"Say what?" asked Faith, and I had to repeat myself a couple of times, forcing my still-numb mouth to produce coherent sounds.
I felt Wesley's shrug through the contact of his arm across my shoulders. "Whatever my feelings about the host it destroyed, the storm spirit itself was an innocent, an elemental neither bound by our rules nor a part of our world. Setting it free was the only reasonable option. It's no threat by itself, and the only person who had any means of controlling it is dead." He gave a small embarrassed cough and suddenly, I saw with relief, he was back to the Wesley I recognised. He admitted weakly, "Besides, I had no means at all by which to destroy or capture it. Had I attempted to do so it would most likely have ended with all three of us being toasted to a crisp."
Faith snickered. "Good call, Wes. My vote's with yours against becoming Slayer-saute. But what I was saying-" She stopped abruptly, as though waiting for interruption. As though, now that she had chance to get the words out, she really didn't want to.
After the silence had stretched on much too long for comfort, with neither her nor Wesley making any move to end it, I said them for her.
"You mean it's done, finished, over. Right? The weather will clear up, the planes will be flyin' again, and we can split like we'd planned. There's no more need for you to stay here in LA now, after all."
"Quite," said Wesley, eyes to the floor. "No reason. No reason at all." His eyes flickered up, to run briefly over Faith and myself, then returned to the floor. The knife still held loosely, forgotten in his free hand, tapped proof of his distraction against the wall of the sewer tunnel.
It didn't take long to find a shaft to the surface. Above ground, our feet kicking through drying puddles, we walked home with the night sky clearing overhead.
A home that, very shortly, wouldn't be home anymore for at least two of us.
Back at the office, by reason of being the least battered one of us as well as, I suspected, because he wanted any distraction he could get from the events of the evening, Wesley made tea and fussed over Faith's head wound. I collapsed in a chair feeling energy gradually return and watched them both, filing away these moments with the knowledge that they were among the last. Setting to memory the way they moved together now, as he cleaned away the blood and bandaged her head, where months ago there'd been the constant match of acid insults and derision versus cool orders and rigid adherence to the Good Little Watcher rulebook.
Watching Faith. The fall of that dark hair across her face. The emotion hard to read, sunk back in those dark-smudged eyes. The way her body moved, smooth and athletic under the leather, every small motion filled with heartbreaking grace and bonebreaking strength.
"I've been thinking," Wesley said eventually, breaking me out of my trance and flooding me with the realisation of just how long and how intently I had been staring. I tried to pull my eyes away, to look in any other direction but theirs, but it was hopeless. He stopped, and cleared his throat, and puffed out his chest, switching to Important Mode.
I blinked at him and frowned. Faith gave a pretend snore and dropped her head forward onto her arms where they crossed against the tabletop.
"You... often do," I said weakly. "What've you been thinkin' about this time?"
"Us. The three of us." He pursed his lips, looking between Faith and me - which, come to think of it, he'd been doing a lot in the last hour or so. "And leaving..."
Hope raised its head and I slammed it down, too aware that it was likely to be disappointed.
"I mean, really, one little argument is hardly any reason to break up an alliance which has, for the most part, proved extremely successful," he stuttered, losing his momentum but staggering bravely on, under Faith's hard gaze and my own puzzled one. "And if Faith was amenable - and, of course, Mr Doyle, if you were amenable..."
I opened my mouth to reply, and my breath squeaked in the back of my throat and no sound came out.
"But the Council's orders?" Faith said. "Remember, New Jersey? Vampires to slay?"
"There are vampires to slay over the place, Faith. The Council have other agents they can send elsewhere. That is to say, I'm not saying the Council's way isn't the best way to fight the forces of darkness... but here, with Doyle's visions, with the agency, I can see the faces of people we help, instead of just the numbers of demons slain. I believe I've learned to value that. And I think it's possible that, that, that perhaps the Council spend too long looking towards the darker side of our business, instead of the hopeful. Maybe that's what made it easy for Carnagan to decide to sacrifice individual human lives in the name of this fight. Because he's seen too many monsters, and not enough victims. I... don't want to be like him. And I don't want you to be like him, either, Faith."
It was her turn to struggle for words now. In the end she just looked silently at me, her eyes strange.
"So, how about it, Doyle?" Wesley said. "Are you amenable to our staying? I do realise that you'd expected to have your home and your business back to yourself again, and perhaps this interferes with your plans, and isn't really a reasonable thing to ask, but-"
"Doyle?" Faith said challengingly, overruling him with a glare. "Do you want us to stay?"
A strange emphasis on that 'us'.
I swallowed, the back of my throat dry and painful. They were both looking at me, waiting for a reply. I needed to say something. Now.
I cleared my throat casually, and fought to keep my voice steady, striving to not hear the waver that would reveal just how much this meant. "Well, I guess you could," I said airily, "if you really wanted to."
I mean, it's not like I'm doing anything else with the rest of my life.