"Sometimes I think it's easier to fight demons than people," Kate said quietly. She was sitting on the floor, arms hugged around her knees, her gun clutched in one hand even though it was unnecessary now. The paramedics were on their way. The rasps of Hannoy's pained but steady breathing filled the attic room. "Easier to draw a line and declare 'this side good' and 'this side evil' when you're fighting monsters, vampires, whatever."
She looked at Hannoy, lying on the floor in front of her. "But I'm not sure which side of that line he falls on, either."
I stopped my restless pacing of the room. "And what about me?" I asked.
She glanced up, her eyes hollow. "I know whose side you're on. Don't beat yourself up over this, Doyle. Hannoy's going to live. You didn't kill him. Any number of completely human cops might've done the same, given the right circumstances, after seeing that girl's corpse, and they don't have the force of habit from four years fighting real vampires to contend with."
"But they didn't do it. I did. We kill demons because demons kill people. I've killed people. Where's your line?"
I swung around and struck out a punch at the wall of the attic. The plaster crumbled through, my hand sinking up to the wrist.
"Stop it," Kate said. "It's not the same. Yours were duty, trying to stop the real killers. I've killed more people than you have. Hannoy's killed a lot more people than either of us, and his weren't duty, and he meant to do it, and he enjoyed it. And he's human - which for some reason I'm not quite one-hundred-percent on right now grants him special dispensation: a trial and a ticket to a secure cell and a lifetime's mental care instead of a swift kill... what are you doing?"
I'd started to pull my hand out of the wall before it registered that my fingers were moving freely through air and space on the other side. I leaned further in, feeling around. The space went back and back, right to the end of my reach. "There's something..."
I wrenched my arm aside, yanking on the edge of the hole I'd made. Half the wall came away as I jumped backwards, crumbly plaster spilling out over my feet. Kate leaped up with an exclamation of surprise.
I leaned forward to look into the hole. About the last two metres of the end of the room had been partitioned off. A little of the dim light from the rest of the attic trickled inside to illuminate the contents of the small den. The gothic paraphernalia. The newspaper clippings. The... mementos from the victims. For the first time I pinned down a faint unpleasant smell which had been present from the start - and its source. This hadn't just been going on for the past few months and it hadn't just been the vampire-style killings. Hannoy had done some diversifying in his grim obsession before working his way back around to his original pet psychosis.
Kate, behind me, made a small sound. I turned: she was staring at the tapestry of clippings that covered almost the entire blocked-off end wall of the attic. I ran my eyes over unsolved brutalities stretching back over the past five or six years.
"Where's that line?" Kate murmured under her breath.
Kate was oddly quiet as she drove me back to the office. She drew the car up a little way down the street and killed the engine, and we sat there in silence for several seconds.
Eventually, she said, "There never were any good times, were they? You just get used to things the way they are, and then find you miss them after they're over."
"Oh, I don't know. I reckon we had our moments," I began, but stopped when I saw her expression. Reluctantly, I nodded. Trying to avoid looking at each other, our eyes met anyway in the rear-view mirror.
"I have missed it, though," she said. "Missed not working alone, or with someone I have to make excuses to because I can't tell them what's really going on. I've missed you."
"I'm sorry," I said, inadequately.
"It wasn't your fault."
I said nothing: I rather thought that it was.
"Anyway, you can't go back," she sighed, flexing her hands where they rested on the steering wheel.
I thought about it for a moment, then concluded it really didn't make any difference whether she meant that as a generic 'you' or not. "No. We - I - burned our bridges," I said.
"I think we nuked them," she murmured, with the faintest trace of humour. I knew she wasn't just talking about our history regarding Newton. She turned to me and smiled, a rare genuine smile without a trace of sarcasm or irony. It highlighted all the fine lines in her face that hadn't been there even six months ago. "Things change. Life moves on. I'll be all right. You should worry about yourself, and your people. Your jailbait girlfriend." She gestured to the door, and waited. After a long pause, she asked, "Are you... planning on getting out of this car anytime soon?"
"I suppose I am," I said slowly. I leaned over and touched her shoulder, a parting gesture conveying more than words ever could. Halfway out of the car, I stopped and turned back to her, crouching down to address her through the half-open door. "I can't go back, that's true enough. But you could always come and work with me."
But she shook her head - as I'd known, really, that she would. "It's not just who I am," she said, briefly. Meaning - a cop, always and absolutely. In her blood; a family burden and duty. "It's who you are now. It's not the same. It couldn't be the same. You've... moved on. Found something new. Besides," she added with a snort of laughter, "Your girlfriend looks at me like she's just waiting for her chance to gut me."
"Wes likes you, though," I protested, only half seriously trying to defend my offer, because it was true that the thought of Kate and Faith having to work together for any extended length of time made the brain boggle.
She rolled her eyes. "Don't tell him I said this, but I guess he has a certain... goofy, bookish charm." Her expression grew sober again, though, very quickly. "I mean it, Doyle. I know it was rough, those first few months, but you have a new life now. And it has to be better than all that shit we put up with at the precinct. I don't want to intrude. Just remember you can call me when you need me. To watch your back. And I'll... well, I'll remember I can do the same."
"Yeah," I said. "Yeah." I stood holding the door, and didn't move. "They're good people, Kate. More than employees. Actually, the 'employees' label is kinda debatable, at that. It's been a good deal, though. More than I'd dared hope for." I looked along the street to where the dark outline of the office building rose up into the night. The familiar shape of the convertible squatted outside, and the lights were on up on my - our - floor. I winced remembering the circumstances under which I'd last walked out of that place. "Anyway, I guess I better be goin'. I think I've got some major sucking up to do."
"I'll see you around," she said, almost laughing. "Stay alive, huh?"
I shut the door as she started up the engine, and stood back and watched her as she drove away.
The initial drops of a rare rain shower started to fall as I turned away and headed along the sidewalk.
I could hear their voices as I ascended the stairs to the office, shaking out the droplets of moisture that clung to my jacket. Kate was right - it felt like coming home, coming back here now, knowing there was someone waiting for me. Even the awareness that I was heading into a severe ear-chewing from two sides simultaneously had the feel about it of... family.
It wasn't too long ago that this office had been simply dead space, with nothing to fill it but my own hastily moved in possessions and disillusionment. The loss of my second life had felt like another genuine bereavement for a time, and those months had been dark - the lack of human contact; racking up the kills by night and sleeping at my desk, mostly, by day; snatching only the briefest exchanges with Kate in hurried moments when our now separate schedules allowed, in the guilty awareness that being seen together wouldn't do much for her career.
It was good not to be alone. I took the last few steps two at a time. "Faith?" I called out. "Wesley?" Within the office, the murmured voices had ceased. I walked in, frowning over their silence.
They were sitting in the inner office, Wesley in my chair with a cup of gently steaming tea in front of him, and Faith perched on the desk, a bottle of beer in one hand, with her body angled towards him in concentration. They looked up at me with slightly dazed expressions, as though surprised to be interrupted. The whole tableau looked as though I'd walked in on a fairly intense conversation. I wondered what they'd been talking about.
"What, did I interrupt you two brushin' up on Watcher-Slayer relations with a quick match of tonsil tennis or somethin'?" I asked, with a laugh that struck the atmosphere of the room and sank like a stone.
That was when I noticed Wesley had a large band-aid stuck across his forehead, while Faith had bloody strips of bandaging on her left arm and ankle. Shit, I thought. Evidently they'd had a hard time of it with the demon I'd left them to deal with and now they were - understandably enough, I supposed - pissed at me.
"We were talking. Contrary to popular perception, we do that occasionally," Wesley said, although his sarcasm was half-hearted through tiredness... and something else? "Oh, and: 'hello, Doyle - yes, we survived the fight with the demon, thank you for your concern.'"
"Vampire hunt go okay? Or are even the fake ones running rings 'round you now?" Faith put in nastily.
Obviously, it was time to start grovelling - at least if I didn't want to be kicked out of my own bed tonight by Faith and to have Wesley frostily declining to speak to me for, oh, at least the next ten minutes.
"Look, guys, about earlier. I'm really sorry," I began. Their faces made me falter, but I pushed onwards anyway. "I shouldn't've just gone off like that, there had to have been a better way to handle things..."
"Better than haring off like a complete and utter lousy bastard?" Faith cut in. "Yeah, I'd go with that."
I studied her. Now, I'd seen Faith mad before, and was aware that it wasn't a sight any sane man would want to see more than once in a lifetime. When a Slayer gets pissed at you, might as well give up on the idea of living or leave the country fast. When Faith slams doors, seismologists all over the city are probably peering at their instruments in consternation.
This wasn't like that. I'd never seen her angry like this, with such a coolness in her eyes, an anger that was calm and cold rather than violent and explosive.
"If I'd died tonight," she said scathingly, "I'm sure you'd have felt real guilty about not being there. I could have, you know. We both could have."
"We could have used an extra body to help out, too," Wesley added.
I took a breath, preparing to try again, but she cut me off before I could even begin. "You can save the apologies," she said. "I'm not much of a one for words, you see. Never have been. The way I figure it, you best judge a person by what they do. And, Doyle, lately what you've been doing is mostly running away from me - from us. I don't think it's too hard to figure out the message behind that."
Wesley took over, his own tones more polite and detached. "What Faith is saying is that perhaps it's time we parted ways. Clearly our presence is becoming wearying to you, and I do realise that this is after all your business and we did fall on you uninvited, so to speak, so of course I'm not blaming you for that-"
"I am," Faith muttered.
He shot her a reprimanding glare and continued. "The original terms of our staying here were that it was a temporary arrangement, until my injury had healed enough for me to resume handling Faith's training myself. Well, my leg is quite recovered, now - or near enough not to make any difference, anyway - and, all things considered, it is time to move on."
"What?" I choked, half laughing, half convinced they were just pulling a fast one, trying to give me a scare. I sort of remembered the arrangement Wesley was referring to. We hadn't liked each other all that much at the time, and as things had become more relaxed between the three of us it had all been forgotten because, damn it, we had something here that worked and... "You've gotta be kiddin' me! Everything's fine. Things've been goin' great! You can't leave-"
"When your demon boyfriend would rather fight bad guys beside Policewoman Barbie than you, that does not come under the heading 'going great'," Faith snapped. "Think about it, Doyle. First Darla, now this. Lately, you've been shutting us out of the action every chance you get. What is it about you and freakin' blondes anyway?" Her anger intensified. "You don't get it, do you? I could've died tonight, because you abandoned us. You don't get a second chance on this. You had your choice, and you showed us right where your 'priorities' lie."
"Faith, I am not screwin' Kate, if that's what that's meant to imply," I returned, fighting off unease. As I'd said to Kate earlier, the arguments were no rarity, but this had a bitterness to it that had never before coloured any of our fights. "For one thing, she thinks the demon thing is really, really gross -"
"So you just want to screw her, then?" Faith shot back immediately, in a tone that made it quite clear she saw no difference between the desire and the act itself, which was pretty rich, coming from her.
A pattering sound caused all our eyes to turn to the window. The rainstorm outside was gaining momentum. Shining droplets clung to the exterior of the pane until, a fraction of a second later, they were dashed aside as more drops fell, with increasing violence, swiftly growing to thick rivulets running down the windows. Our three figures stared back at us, distorted, reflected pale and transparent on a backdrop of darkness and rain-soaked glass.
"You did make a choice before," Wesley said, uncomfortably dragging our attention back. "And it forced me to reconsider a few of my own choices lately, and consider my own allegiances. This... arrangement we've had here, these last few months - none of us could say it hadn't been an experience. At times it's worked well, at others," he frowned and cleared his throat uncomfortably, "We've shown a remarkable skill for almost getting each other horribly killed. But, when all's said and done, it isn't the way things are supposed to be, it isn't an arrangement that can possibly last. Imagine what the Watcher's Council would do if they ever discovered what you really are. We're putting you in danger every moment we continue to dally here. Faith has the right idea, if not exactly the same motives as myself. I do agree with her that it is time to leave."
Stricken, I looked to Faith. "Faith...?" My voice was a hoarse whisper. She blinked back at me, dark eyes cool and glassy in the dim artificial lighting. She sifted her stance, one hip jutting defiantly as she leaned and drummed her fingers impassively on the desk.
"A demon and a Slayer, right?" she said roughly. "Hell, whose stupid idea was that, huh? Wouldn't you just know that could never work?"
Behind her, I barely registered that Wesley gulped in a deep breath with an expression like he had bees up his nose and glared at Faith's back as though he'd like to kick her. But he didn't.
"It is better this way," he insisted. "LA's your territory. You have your own mission - your visions - your own contacts. You're perfectly right: you don't need us. And we shouldn't need you. It's time we struck out ourselves, the way a Slayer and Watcher ought. And the Council have been saying for some time that they'd like the Slayer to check out recent vampire activity in New Jersey."
I wondered, when had Wesley gotten so sharp? For that matter, when had Faith ever listened to him, let alone obeyed any instructions from him? When had they ever talked to each other for long enough without fighting to successfully plan anything together? How the hell had this come about?
Looking at them together now, united, I knew how.
The world seemed to have receded to a great distance, and I could feel a dull, tearing pain which logic told me wasn't physical but my brain still insisted was concentrated somewhere high up inside my rib cage. I couldn't feel my feet on the ground, and wasn't quite sure just what was keeping me standing upright.
I'd made this happen. I'd done it to myself. I'd bridged the gulf between them, acting as go-between and mediator. It had been the job they'd always needed me for, the one thing they didn't have between them, for all Faith's strength and Wesley's academic skills. They'd still needed a point of contact.
Somehow, I'd missed noticing that the bridge I'd been building had become an independent, at least semi-permanent, structure, maybe still a little rickety and makeshift and beaten by the occasional rough winds, but strong enough, all the same, to do the job.
They didn't need me any more.
And, today, I'd proved it to them.
My brain was in a state of shock, but my lips moved and shaped words anyway, running on defensive mechanisms that somehow worked independently of thought.
The rain outside was coming thick and fast now, assaulting the windows, and from the noise you'd have sworn the office was being battered by sizeable pebbles hurled from the sky, and not mere water.
"Fine," I heard myself say, without much emotion. I looked between Faith and Wesley, saw the surprise on their faces and wondered if they'd been expecting argument. But they'd made their decision - hadn't I always known, really, that it was a short-term arrangement? Deep down, in that bitter little core which never forgot that I'd never had anything I hadn't lost, or sometime wished to lose. "Fine," I repeated. "If you want to get your gear together, I'll give you a lift to LAX tomorrow. No hard feelings, huh?"
I stalked out of the room, slamming the door after me. There was an unopened bottle of Scotch down in my apartment, and it seemed as good a plan as any for the remainder of the evening.
My eyes stung and I blinked angrily, and wished I could scour the stubborn after-image of their faces from my eyes.
And I told myself it was the rain, and not that, which kept me awake through the night.
To Be Continued in Episode 8...