DISCLAIMER: Disclaimer: All BtVS characters and concepts are owned by Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, the WB, etc. We're not making any profit from this. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
by Ellen and Mike
Harry giggled foolishly as we sat side-by-side on the picnic blanket, staring up at the blue sky. The elderly man handed our camera back to us. “There you go,” he said warmly. "A lovely family photo.”
"Thanks a lot,” she answered, smiling at him. The old man returned her smile, nodded to me, and then puttered his way down the beach. "Well, he was nice,” Harry said. "Wasn’t he?”
I could tell by her tone that it was one of those special wife questions that is always answered by “Yes, dear.” So to wind her up a bit, I frowned.
"I don’t know… seemed a bit strange to me…” I said slowly.
"Strange?” she asked incredulously. “We’ve both seen much weirder old guys than that. Remember that regular at the soup kitchen who kept trying to play the harmonica with his nose?”
I laughed. “Yeah, I remember. It never did work, but he never gave up. But handing our camera to the guy? He could have been a insane psycho-killer type, looking to collect souvenirs of his victims,” I chided her.
Harry snorted. "Uh-huh. An 80-year-old runs around killing people. What does he do, fall over on them?”
"Age doesn’t mean weakness,” I said as sternly as I could, already growing tired of teasing her. “My grandmother could do away with a professional wrestler, she could.”
Harry shoved me playfully, forcing me to lie down. It was a fine excuse for me to stop talking and do what I really wanted, which was grab her and hold on tight. I pulled her down next to me, and she pretended to resist, but not too hard.
We did the marital-cuddle thing, lying on our backs. It was nice and cosy, except for one thing.
"Ow,” I muttered.
"What’s wrong, Francis?” she asked, snickering as I blinked repeatedly.
"Harry, you’ve got me staring directly into the sun. It smarts a bit, you know?”
I could feel her smile as she pressed her head into my shoulder. "Poor baby.”
"I’m glad you find my agony so amusing,” I shot back. "If I go blind and fall off the edge of a cliff, it’ll be all your fault.”
"Francis, there are no cliffs around for miles,” she told me, snickering.
"Well… there are high rocks,” I offered, stroking her hair.
"Oh, the danger, Mr Doyle!” she said in a mock-scared voice.
"Never fear, Mrs Doyle, I eat danger for breakfast!” I replied, doing my best super-hero imitation.
"Is that some kind of crack about my cooking?” she asked tartly.
"Wouldn’t you like to know…” I said, glancing at her and waggling my eyebrows.
Harry giggled again. "You look like an utter idiot!” she gasped, between chuckles.
"I’m going to be a blind idiot soon…” I said melodramatically. "Because my cruel, cruel wife is making me burn my eyeballs out.”
"Oh stop being a baby,” she said, poking me. "Take the sunglasses.” I accepted the proffered black lenses and slid them onto my nose. "There, is that better?”
It wasn’t. Pain tore through me, and my back arched so sharply I thought it would break. I stared upwards at the blue sky and saw…
…Harry, sobbing with fear as something leapt on her, growling like a wild beast… blood spilling in a ruby pool across the floor of our living room… Her shrieks cut off abruptly. Everything seemed to darken.
"Harry…” I moaned, trying to bring back the images of her. What was happening to me?
But the picture darkened further. And then I became aware of something else, directly in front of my face, in the darkness. A strangely familiar set of features, greenish in hue with spikes sprouting from every inch of skin…
I screamed as it rushed towards me and the hideous face screamed too… and its voice was my own.
With a final jolt, the images left me, broken and tired, lying on the picnic blanket, Harry holding my trembling hand and staring at me with wide eyes.
"Oh, my God! Francis! Talk to me, are you going to be all right?"
As the jumble of flashing images slowly began to fade out of my mind, I could hear the note of panic in Harry's voice, and I tried to focus on a single goal: calming my wife. I wasn't nearly so certain that I could reassure myself.
"I will be... in a moment," I managed to gasp, with my hands still pressed tight over my eyes. "I'll be fine. Just... give me a minute."
The intensity of the pain had diminished now, but it was still throbbing angrily behind my eyes, and I was sure that if I opened them, the world would be spinning around me in dizzying circles, faster and faster, and I would surely pass out. Best to keep my eyes safely closed for as long as possible.
"What is it? What's happening?"
"Some kind of... migraine, I think. Never had this before," I muttered. "Maybe the sun... I don't know. I'll be fine in a moment."
"It will be all right," I repeated. "Just... need a little time."
A good stiff drink wouldn't hurt either, but we hadn't brought anything of that sort on a daytime picnic to the beach. For the first time, I wished that I were the type who always carries along a supply of my own liquid painkiller.
Her hands were stroking my forehead tenderly, and although the sensation itself wasn't pleasant, the feeling behind it made it tolerable. With my eyes still firmly shut, I reached up to take her hands away from my face, and pressed my lips lightly against the palm of each. She put her arms around me then, whispering, "Francis, please be all right."
"Gettin' there," I whispered back, hugging her to me, as the pain gradually eased. The memory of what I'd seen, or hallucinated, would take longer to go away.
Harry being attacked by something? A monster that turned out to be... me?
Was I having a premonition that I would do some harm to Harry?
I had heard stories that something vaguely called "the second sight" was supposed to run in the family, but I had never heard that "the sight" involved excruciating pain. If it did, I couldn't imagine anyone who had it ever surviving long enough to pass it on to another generation.
I wasn't sure that I'd survive another episode of whatever this had been.
Then again, if those flashes meant that I was going to hurt my Harry, that the blood I had seen spilled on the carpet in our living room was hers... better if it did kill me.
Of course, the picnic mood was spoiled by that mind-splitting headache, and as soon as I was able, Harry and I packed up our things. I was still a bit unsteady on my feet, but I put her off when she suggested a stop at the nearest Emergency Room.
"I'm better now," I insisted. "Whatever that was, it's wearing off. Do you really want to spend the next few hours sitting around with the overdoses and the stabbing victims?"
"I just want to make sure you're OK, Francis."
"I'll be fine. I just want to go home." I knew that there was still doubt in her face, so I looked away, hearing the tone of pleading in my own voice and hating it. "Let's just go home."
When we arrived at our apartment, though, the first thing that came to my mind was what a stupid idea it had been to hang that huge full-length mirror in the living room, directly opposite the front door. It gave me a perfect view of how terrible I looked.
No wonder Harry was still staring at me with that worried expression. I glanced at the pain-pinched face in the mirror, complete with red-rimmed eyes, and immediately got a flash of memory of the green, spiked face that I'd seen while I was having that fit.
I'd seen the monster's face in my mind only through a haze of darkness, but I was almost sure that I'd been seeing it reflected in this very same mirror.
Maybe I had a brain tumor. Maybe I was going crazy. Maybe I was dying.
Well, whatever it might be, I was spending the rest of this day with my wife in our own home. Tomorrow, along with whatever medical testing, poking and prodding it might bring, would just have to take care of itself.
"Hot water or cold?" Harry called out from the bathroom, after I sank down on the couch and closed my eyes again.
"I'm getting a washcloth for your head. Would hot or cold feel better?"
"Let's try hot first." In a few moments, she came out with a steaming-hot washcloth, her hands still red from wringing it dry, and placed it gently on my forehead. I winced at first, but after a moment, the heat did seem to help a little. I wasn't sure whether cold might not have done just as well, but I wasn't in any mood to experiment.
Harry curled up next to me on the couch, and I managed to put one arm around her. "I'm feeling better, really," I assured her. "It's almost gone now."
"Whatever it was."
"Whatever it was," I agreed softly, pulling her close.
For awhile, neither one of us said anything. The pain was finally gone, but the fear remained. Harry was holding on to me like she didn't want to let go, and I was feeling much the same way.
"Francis?" She whispered softly.
"I just want you to know..." Her voice broke off abruptly, and she traced the outline of my lips with a finger, instead. "Oh, God, you're only twenty-one," she blurted out. "I can't stand the idea of something happening to you."
"I'll be all right." I tried to sound reassuring, but my wife knew me better. She could tell that I was just as scared as she was.
"I just want you to know that whatever happens, even if you're sick... I'm not going anywhere. OK?"
"I hear you. I'm not plannin' on goin' anywhere either, sweetheart."
She pressed tighter against me. "You'd better not, because I'll never forgive you if you leave me, so don't you dare."
I laughed a little at her fierce expression. "Yeah, I know. Love you too."
She kissed me then, and I found that I was doing quite a bit better, after all.
The first time the doorbell rang, we ignored it. We had something much better to do. The second time, though, Harry sighed and pushed herself away from me, with an obvious show of reluctance.
"Hold that thought, lover, I'll be back," she promised.
"I certainly hope so."
When she first opened the door, I was looking toward her, not toward the mirror. A slight, blonde woman with a blood-streaked face sagged in the doorway, her arms dangling limply at her sides, held between a teenage boy and a large, muscular-looking man.
”Oh, thank you so much for answering! Can you help us?” the boy blurted out nervously “We were in a car accident and my mother’s been hurt. I think she hit her head. May we please use your phone?”
”You shouldn’t have moved her!” Harry exclaimed. “Yes, come in, you can call 911 from here. I hope she isn’t too badly hurt.”
I stood up, ready to help if I could, and my own movement caught my eye in the mirror. That was when I half-glanced toward the mirror, and then looked again. The mirror showed only Harry standing in the doorway, talking to... Nothing.
The woman and the two men standing there had no reflection in the mirror. At the same moment when I realized that, all three of them moved.
"Harry, no!" I shouted, too late. The man seized her by both arms, and the boy headed toward me.
At that point - if I was lucky - I would wake up, still screaming her name.
“Doyle! Wake up, dammit! You’re having a nightmare.”
It wasn’t Harry’s voice. Something in my sleep-befuddled mind said, ‘Threat,’ and I rolled away instinctively, putting my arms over my head. Half-waking, I found myself about to spin off the edge of my bed onto the floor.
A hand caught me and hauled me roughly back.
I opened my eyes, to see an angry-looking, nude brunette hovering over me. “Doyle! Are you awake now?”
Actually, I wasn’t sure. But I wasn’t too keen on going back where I’d just been, so I nodded.
“Good, ‘cause I don’t need to share your nightmares, thank you.”
Gradually I recognized the angry voice, and face, and body now sharing my bed. I don’t know what my own face looked like at that moment, but something in it must have reached her, as her expression softened. “You gonna be all right now?”
I still couldn’t speak, but I tried to nod again, realizing for the first time that I was shaking.
Yeah, some way to impress a slayer. It suddenly occurred to me that I actually cared about that, and I wondered dimly why I bothered.
“Hey,” Faith said, her voice dropping to a tone that was almost tender. “It’s okay, Doyle. I know that shit still gets to you sometimes. It’s all right.”
Awkwardly, she stretched out next to me and threw an arm over my chest, like she wasn’t sure of how to touch a man without signaling “sex.” “Hang in there, guy. Not too much longer till morning,” she murmured as she settled herself against me. “I’m goin’ back to sleep now.”
My body still felt cold, locked in the nightmare, but her warmth pressed against me helped to make the trembling subside. I shifted my position to put an arm around her shoulders, holding her against me, as she went back to sleep.
“Thanks,” I whispered against her dark hair, and I felt her lips move in a smile against my chest, just before her body relaxed back into slumber.
I stared up at the ceiling for a long time.
“Sunnydale Coach Tours.”
I frowned at the flyer that was tucked into the newspaper. It looked like it had been run off by somebody’s home computer, but that wasn’t what caught my eye.
What human in his right mind would choose to go to Sunnydale? Even at the dirt-cheap rates being advertised, there wasn’t any good reason for a human to travel to the nowhere town that just happened to be located on the Hellmouth.
Then again, one can never overestimate the human capacity for denial.
“Visit beautiful Sunnydale! Leave with a group of new friends tonight, and enjoy your full day bus tour tomorrow. Tour package price includes a light breakfast, lunch and dinner. Enjoy twenty-four hours out of the ordinary. It’s a day you’ll never forget,” the ad enticed, with a price lower than what two meals would cost in most restaurants. I would be willing to wager that I’d find the flyer at bus stations, homeless shelters, and maybe even at the soup kitchen.
The thought of soup kitchens, with its unwelcome reminder of Harry, brought back a recollection of my nightmare. I pushed it aside.
Walking back into the office, newspaper in hand, I shoved the flyer toward Wesley. “Hey. That mean anything to you?”
Wes looked up blearily from his book. Seemed like I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t been sleeping well lately. Slowly, he reached out for the flyer.
“Good God,” he muttered, after reading it. “Are you thinking what I am?”
“Most likely, yeah. I’d guess the vamps have run down their food supply, and they’re looking to haul in some fresh livestock.”
I lit a cigarette, ignoring Wesley’s pained look. This attempt to quit had lasted eight days and fifteen hours. No, of course I wasn’t counting.
“You didn’t get a vision about this, did you?”
“No, I didn’t. Wonder why not.”
“Perhaps your Powers that Be aren’t calling upon you to deal with this particular problem?”
“I’m not plannin’ to wait for a vision, Wes, not if the Master is making forays into L.A. to fill tour buses with take-out. It’s one thing to admit that we’re not ready yet to go and fight the Master on his turf. It’s another when he starts raidin’ ours.”
Wesley smiled slightly at the ‘ours,’ then tried to hide it. “Hmm, yes. I must agree there.”
“Agree with what?” Faith asked as she sauntered in, and yawned. She spotted the cigarette in my mouth, smirked, but said nothing. Good. I didn’t need any self-righteous superiority from a seventeen-year-old with twice as many vices as I had - not that I didn’t enjoy sharing a few of hers, but that was beside the point.
“He agrees that we’re gonna check out this little operation.” I handed her the Sunnydale Coach Tours flyer, and she glanced indifferently at it, then did a visible double-take.
“Yeah,” and I glanced at Wesley as I deliberately echoed his words, “I’d guess you’re thinkin’ the same thing I am.”
Faith snorted, tossing the flyer on the desk. “Fast food run, yeah. I get it. Think we can disrupt their supply line?”
“It’s a classic of military strategy,” Wesley put in. “Before launching a direct attack, first cut off the enemy’s access to critical supplies, such as food and weapons.” When both Faith and I glared at him, he lifted his hands a little, backing off. “I am merely pointing out that I do agree it’s a good move.”
“Fine. Got a plan, Master Strategist?”
“Not yet, but I will shortly.”
“Good. Speaking of a food run, anyone for donuts?”
Sunnydale Coach Tours had rented a tiny office in one of the poorest and dirtiest neighborhoods in L.A., confirming my suspicion that they were trying to recruit the type of travelers who would not be easily missed. This had to be a short-term operation, I concluded as we approached. Even the homeless have a grapevine of sorts, and the word would get out soon enough that the Sunnydale-bound tourists never returned.
In the meantime though, the vamps seemed to be doing a good job of filling their bus. There was already a long line of people waiting to buy tickets, and while I hunted for a parking space where the car might possibly be intact when we returned, the line grew longer.
“There’s a certain art about it, I must admit,” Wesley remarked as I finally maneuvered the car into a space. “Getting your victims to pay for their own death.”
“Yeah, sounds like a vamp with a flair,” I muttered.
“So, are we gonna jump the line?” Faith piped up expectantly.
“We’re the government tonight, o’course we are. The Department of Transportation Licensing never waits in line.”
“I thought it was the Division,” Wesley said.
“Whatever. Think you can handle doing the talkin’ while Faith and I try to figure out the vamp-to-human ratio?”
“I can most certainly handle doing the talking.”
“Yeah, Wesley does the officious, meddling bastard thing really well,” Faith commented sweetly. “Ain’t that right, Wes?” She clapped him on the shoulder, and although I could tell that she was being careful not to hurt him, he winced in anticipation anyway. By her grin, that was the idea.
We entered the building at a deliberate pace, Wesley strolling in front with his cane and a slow, dignified walk that made the cane seem like an affectation, Faith and I following with the bored expressions of civil servants. The people in line glared at us and muttered, but did not interfere.
All along the line, there were only humans in sight. Of course, I couldn’t shift into demon form to take a sniff for vampires, but the body language was telling enough. I glanced quickly at Faith, knowing that she should be able to sense the vamps too, and she shrugged very slightly, almost imperceptibly, letting me know she was coming up empty as well.
It wasn’t until we were nearly at the reception area, with its one small desk, that I heard her voice. It was soft, girlish, a little breathless. “Well, yes, of course it’s a bargain. We’re a small town, but there are plenty of jobs, and this tour is an opportunity for people to experience the beauty of Sunnydale and consider making a new home for themselves and their families. Consider it a welcoming gesture from the friendly residents of Sunnydale, who hope that some of you will become their new neighbors. There’s absolutely no obligation after the tour is done.”
I didn’t realize I had stopped walking until Faith’s hand closed around my arm, forcing me to go on.
Woodenly, I moved forward, trying not to show any reaction. I knew that voice.
As we came closer, and Wesley cleared his throat, preparing to launch into his speech, she looked up, blonde hair falling aside slightly, and I saw her face. Faith’s grip was the only thing that kept me standing there, playing my part, because my whole body had gone numb and I wasn’t sure where my feet were. But I was sure who she was.
I didn’t want to remember. I didn’t want to think about it.
But I remembered.
The blonde straightened up and moved confidently into my apartment, a serene smile on her blood-dappled face, as the big man held my struggling wife with one hand.
“No, I’m not too badly hurt,” she said to Harry in a soft voice, watching her closely. “Thanks for asking, though.”
Desperately I dashed toward the phone, knowing that there was no way I could possibly take the man holding Harry; he was twice my size. If I could only reach the phone -
The boy followed me, moving much faster than I could. He caught me by the shoulder, his fingers digging in like they were made of metal, and grinned triumphantly as I winced in pain. He grabbed my neck and lifted me completely off my feet, wrenching my head to the side. His face suddenly transformed into the ugliest thing I’d ever seen, as he dragged me headfirst toward what looked like - fangs?
As he grabbed me, the woman’s tone suddenly sharpened. “Jesse, wait!”
The boy immediately stopped moving, as the eager grin faded from his distorted features. “What?”
“First of all, you called me your mother. You were supposed to call me your sister.”
“Sorry,” he mumbled, still holding me in an amazingly strong grip. With my head twisted to the side and my feet dangling inches above the floor, any movement that I made hurt, but I tried to pull his hands off me anyway. I couldn’t budge him.
The man who was holding Harry watched the exchange with an amused look, obviously in no hurry. She was still fighting him, punching and kicking, but he hardly seemed to notice.
“Second, don’t waste your time with him.” It was bizarre, but I recognized the tone of a teacher instructing a somewhat slow student. “I know a fledge like you wouldn’t know the difference, but he’s not human. After awhile, you’ll be able to tell by the smell.”
“What?” As soon as Harry made a sound, the big man holding her put one hand over her mouth, holding her easily with the other.
“Oh.” The boy, still holding me by the neck with his fingers digging into my throat, sounded disappointed. “What should I do with him then?” He glared impatiently at me as I kicked him as hard as I could, fighting to get free. The kick hurt me a lot more than it did him. I could hardly breathe, but he seemed to be cut out of the same rock as the man who had Harry. All it got me was an annoyed grimace and a plaintive, “Hey, he kicked me. That actually hurt. Can I kill him?”
“Jesse, dear,” the female vampire chided, with appalling sweetness in her feathery little voice, “You still seem to be missing the point. How are we going to have fun with him if he’s dead? No, I have something better in mind. You’ll see. We’re going to have quite the entertaining show here, and we’re going to make him watch.”
“Sounds good to me, Darla,” the man holding Harry put in.
“I don’t need your approval, Luke,” she replied tartly. “Just hold the woman. Jesse, you keep hold of whatever that thing is,” gesturing contemptuously at me. “Make sure that he doesn’t miss anything. Do you think you can manage that?”
“Okay,” Jesse said sullenly. I kicked him again, and he winced, but didn’t budge except for digging his fingers deeper into my neck. His grip made breathing a struggle, but I couldn’t even think about that. All I could see was Harry, who was staring back at me over Luke’s hand.
Darla looked back at Harry, with a sugary smile. “Aren’t you the good Samaritan then? I do so much appreciate your willingness to help. I’ll bet you adopt stray kittens, and you probably volunteer at a food pantry somewhere, too, don’t you? Of course you do.”
She reached out and flicked a lock of Harry’s hair with her finger. “Come to think of it, you remind me of a missionary I ate once in China. You shouldn’t mind feeding a few thirsty strangers.”
Luke laughed. “Are you going to bother feeding at all, Darla, or are you just going to stand there and talk the girl to death?”
“Patience, Luke, patience. Let’s show Jesse how to enjoy the game.” Her eyes were still on Harry, who seemed to be trying to bite Luke’s hand. Luke only grinned and tightened his grip on Harry’s face, now covering her nose as well.
“So, what’s a nice girl like you doing here with that thing?” Darla gestured dismissively in my direction. “Oh, that’s right, you can’t tell me anything at the moment, can you? Let me guess.”
She pretended to consider. “Is he one of your charity cases? Was he a soul in need of saving? Hmmm, now there’s a good question, does he even have one?” Harry’s face was starting to turn color as Luke’s hand cut off her air.
Darla glared at Luke. “Excuse me! Did I say that you could suffocate her? I’m not finished yet.” Then Darla shrugged, apparently losing interest.
“Well, never mind. It doesn’t matter any more, but if you wanted something strong enough to protect you from the things that go bump in the night, then I’ll let you in on a little secret.” She leaned closer to Harry. “It isn’t working.”
Harry’s eyes met mine, and in them, I saw goodbye.
“No!” I cried out, as I saw the woman’s face change, and felt my own body turn to fire.
“Yeesh!” The boy cried out in surprise as my skin seemed to shift under his hands.
He threw me aside. I found myself flying through the air, and then I felt my head hit the wall, hard, the sickening thud jarring my already twisted neck.
I could only lie there, stunned, uncomprehending.
I couldn’t move, as I watched what I had already seen happen once before.
They were still laughing as they left Harry’s broken body by the door. I crawled toward her, hoping desperately that she was somehow still alive.
Although I could hardly move, and my head felt barely attached, I managed to drag myself to her side, and touch her pale cheek.
For a moment it seemed that my frantic prayer had been answered, when her eyes opened. She looked straight up at me.
“What... What are you?” she whispered, staring at my face, with a look of utter horror.
And then she died.
I stood up, covered in Harry’s blood. My mind had shut down, like someone turned off a light; there was no room for thinking.
My movement was reflected in the mirror, and I stared.
In the full-length mirror, in my blood-soaked clothes, a monster with red eyes and a spine-covered blue-green face stared back at me.
“No! No! No!”
Under the monster’s fists, the mirror smashed in a thousand pieces to the floor.
Faith’s grip on my arm tightened painfully, dragging me back to the present.
Wesley was giving his speech, but no one was listening to him, least of all Darla. She was looking straight past him, at me, with an expression of amusement.
“I don’t think so, Mister... I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?” Her voice was still soft and sweet, as she moved out from behind her desk and came closer to Wesley.
The people in line grumbled impatiently as Darla walked over to Wesley. She stopped right next to him, leaning so close that they might be talking about a bribe.
Speaking so that only we could hear her, she murmured, “The next time you try to impersonate city workers, stick to humans. More convincing. I won’t harm you now, because I don’t want to scare away our customers. Leave quietly, and consider yourselves lucky that you can.”
Over Wesley’s shoulder, she smiled at me. “Whatever you are, did you really think that you could fool me?” Her voice stayed low, a silky whisper. “There isn’t much I haven’t seen in four hundred years, you know.” Then she tilted her head quizzically. “Come to think of it, have I seen you somewhere before?”
Faith answered for me, “I don’t think so,” and steered me firmly in the opposite direction. I made no attempt to resist.
Wesley murmured under his breath as we retreated, “I didn’t think vampires could sense you that quickly.”
Faith muttered back, “I guess four-hundred-year-old vampires can.”
I didn’t say a word. Walking was difficult enough.
Faith reached into my front shirt pocket, where a business card or two was usually buried between my lighter and a pack of cigarettes. It seemed like a funny time for a smoke, but I wasn’t arguing.
Ignoring the cigarettes, Faith removed one business card and the lighter. As we approached the door, with one hand still firmly on me, she casually flicked the lighter with the other, and tossed a suddenly flaming business card into an overflowing wastebasket by the door.
“Fire!” she yelled, and then grabbed Wesley’s arm with the hand not already occupied in shepherding me out. She dragged us both out of the door and clear before the stampede of people dashing out of there could trample us.
That place emptied out before Wesley even had a chance to protest. As for the wastebasket by the door, its performance had a short, but dramatic finale.
I watched the flames, listened to Wesley’s tirade begin, and still remained silent.
Darla didn’t even remember who I was. But that didn’t matter.
It was time for a new plan...
Just as soon as I could stop shaking, that is.
This wasn’t the time or the place, but I was going to make sure that Darla never fed again.
"...And, furthermore, I'm quite certain there must have been a significantly less hazardous manner in which to clear those people out of the place - one that did not risk inducing mass panic and sending the whole building up in flames..."
I was half aware of Wesley lecturing Faith as we filed back through the office foyer and into the elevator, but I felt curiously disconnected from the scene. As though I was suddenly surrounded by strangers, and Wesley was nobody I knew and his words had nothing to do with me.
Faith and Wesley, the pattern of my life now in this office... suddenly nothing of this seemed to matter any more. The last three years disappeared, wiped out in an instant, and Darla seemed much closer in my memories than three years away.
Her soft laughter echoed around my hollow thoughts.
I felt... numb. I watched my hand, lifting to push the control of the elevator, and it didn't seem to belong to me.
Faith said, "Yeah? Well, at least they're not vamp food. So anyway, what would you have done, 'Master Strategist'? You don't like my plan, so why not come up with your own? You're supposed to be the brains of the outfit, Watcher."
There was a rather long pause.
"Hey, still waiting here." She tapped her heavily-booted foot.
Wesley stuttered with Watcherly indignation, and after a moment finally relented with a sigh. "Granted, it was very much spur-of-the-moment," he allowed evasively. "And there was not a lot of time to hone plans."
I heard Faith's snort and her muttered, "Thought so," as the elevator drew to a halt.
I supposed I could at least be thankful that their arguing had stopped them from noticing - or at least commenting on - my own silence. Because there was absolutely nothing I wanted to talk about with them.
When they got like this, it could go on for hours. And I hoped it did, because that would give me the time I needed for what I had to do.
The door opened and I exited the elevator without looking their way, and walked straight through to my private office, hearing the door slam with unintentional force behind me.
I slumped over my desk as the silence and isolation which I'd sought immediately brought back the crushing barrage of memories I'd spent much of the last few years trying not to remember.
The images battered through my mind with more agony than the damned visions.
Almost four years... it seemed like half a lifetime - no, a whole new lifetime - to me.
Darla? She'd looked just as I remembered her.
She hadn't remembered me, though, I thought again, anger rising finally, creeping in to replace the numbness. I wondered, how many people did you have to kill before your victims became so anonymous...
I saw Harry's dying face in my memory, and that last expression on it - the horror in her eyes which hadn't been caused by the sight of the vamps. I flinched from the reminder.
Whatever else happened, I'd make sure Darla remembered me before the end.
Mirrors. They still bother me. Too many memories, seeing myself in demon form... I don't want to see that face looking back at me and recognise it in any way as my own.
It was easier to practice this move in front of a mirror, but I hated it, just the same.
For years I had been working to control the change to demon form, and I had finally reached a point where I could change one part of my body before the rest. The Brachen defensive spines don't usually pop up on the rest of the body, only on the face, to protect the eyes and other vulnerable areas. I had found by trial and error that if I concentrated hard enough, I could force spines to come out on my hands as well.
Unfortunately, once they did, my hands immediately became useless for anything other than hitting someone. Hand spines make it impossible to hold a weapon, or anything else, for that matter. Evolution gave humans an opposable thumb and no hand spines for good reason. You can't use both at the same time. But for a moment or two, in the thick of a fight, they could be useful.
Hand spines just might buy me enough time to dust Darla and her minions before she killed me.
"Getting ready for the dance, lover?"
I had been concentrating so hard on changing only my hands that I hadn't sensed Faith coming into the room. I could see her in the mirror now, standing in the doorway with hands on hips, watching me.
"You might say that," I muttered, not bothering to turn around.
"Are you going to tell me what all this is about?"
"Believe it or not, Faith, I had a life before you showed up here. Not everything is about you."
"Newsflash, Brainiac, we're partners now. If it's about you, then it's about me."
"I don't think so."
"You don't?" She strode over to me, grabbing me by the shoulder and spinning me around. "So what's it gonna take to convince you?"
I put up my hands defensively, still spined, and she noticed them with a little whoop of delight. "New trick! Way cool!" She reached out a finger and brushed it very lightly against one spine, grinning when it drew a drop of blood. "Sharp, too." She put her fingertip to her lips, licking the blood from it with an exaggerated show of enjoyment.
"So, tell me. Who are you practicing to beat up on?"
"It's not really any of your business."
"Ah, but I'm afraid it is our business, Doyle."
Wesley. Wonderful. It wasn't enough to have Faith trying to worm information out of me, now I had to deal with Wesley as well. As I turned toward the door to deal with Wesley, I started to slide my hands into my pockets, while changing them back to human form. It didn't quite work fast enough; the spines snagged on my jeans along the way. Wesley raised an eyebrow, but made no further comment on my hands.
"You've barely spoken to either of us since that vampire recognized you," Wesley went on. "Don't you think we should know what's going on here?"
"No," I snapped back with barely repressed fury, "No, I don't think you should know what's going on. No, I don't think you need to get involved in my private business. No, I don't need your help. Is that clear enough?"
"Crystal. But what if we need yours?"
That one threw me. "Excuse me?"
"If you're planning to do something reckless that might get you killed, you might want to stop to consider that your actions do affect other people, as well as yourself."
Before I could say anything, Faith jumped in. "Oh yeah, like we haven't heard that riff before."
"As you might recall, Faith, I have actually been proven right on occasion, however reluctant you may be to admit that. Now, Doyle, that vampire said she had seen you somewhere before. You obviously know her. I do have access to information about known vampires, so I would suggest that we pool our resources here and discuss this situation."
"Thanks, but no thanks. I already know all that I need to know."
"Oh, really? You know exactly where to find this vampire, and how many others will be there? You know everything that you need to know to dispose of her and survive the experience? No, you don't, do you. And if I'm guessing right, you don't particularly care about the surviving part."
Damn. When had Wesley become so perceptive? I must have missed that.
Faith gave me a long, slow look. "You getting ready to go kamikaze on us, Doyle?"
"My life is my own business," I snarled back at her, and then realized, too late, that I had answered her question. Faith's face darkened. She advanced toward me, backing me up against the mirror.
"Think again, boss. Now, who is this vamp and why are you so hot on getting her that you don't care if you come back? Give."
I glanced from one face to the other, and realized that the only way I was going to get out of here without some explanation was to knock them both unconscious. Wesley wouldn't have been that much of a challenge, but Faith was another story.
"All right," I said grudgingly. "Her name is Darla."
Wesley seemed to recognize the name. "Darla? Hmmmm. That's not all that common a name among vampires."
Faith snorted. "Yeah, don't they usually prefer scarier names like 'Spike,' also known as 'William the Bloody'?"
Wesley continued as though she had not interrupted, his voice thoughtful. "There was a Darla who made quite an impression in Europe during the last century. She and her companion, Angelus, were near-legendary in their time, wreaking carnage and destruction wherever they went. But they both dropped out of sight around the turn of the century and haven't been heard from again. I wonder if this is the same Darla?"
Faith, as usual, moved straight to the point. "I don't give a rat's ass what she did a hundred years ago. What is she to you, Doyle?"
I didn't answer, and she pressed closer to me. "I said, what is she to you?"
Reluctantly, I gave in. "She killed Harry."
"Oh, dear God," said Wesley. "I'm so sorry, Doyle."
Faith said nothing for a long moment, just stared at my face.
"Oh," she said finally. "I get it now."
She looked away from me as she stepped back, moving toward the door, head down like a child who had been slapped in the face. I don't think I'd ever seen her turn so completely quiet.
Wesley started in again, filling the sudden silence. "You have my deepest sympathies, Doyle. But surely we can still be of some assistance to you?"
Faith's head snapped up again and she whirled toward Wesley. "Wes, shut up. Just shut the fuck up, okay?"
"You have no idea what you're talking about, so just shut your face."
"And you do?"
"Yeah, I do. Remember?"
They glared at each other for a moment. I had no idea what was going on between them, and frankly, I didn't care. If it took them out of my way, it was fine with me.
Wesley began to bluster. "If not for the intervention of the Council, you would have been killed, and you know it, Faith. Why would you want Doyle to make the same fatal mistake that you would have made?"
"Because it's his right, just as it was my right, that you took away from me. You think I forgot? I don't forget, and I don't forgive. So, why should he?"
"You don't mean to tell me that you would stand by and watch him go to his death?"
Faith bit her lip, then shrugged, with an odd, bitter smile. "It's his life. I don't own it. I don't own him. Let him do what he wants, he's entitled. Now let's get out of here."
Perversely enough, now that Faith was willing to let me go, I found myself becoming suspicious. What if her sudden compliance was a ruse, and she and Wesley planned to follow me in secret?
"Wait a minute," I said, in as conciliatory a tone as I could manage. "Maybe you two can help a little, do some research on Darla. That might be of some use."
Faith gave me a dirty look. "Yeah, right. We'll sit here and do some research while you sneak out to kill her. Do it, if you want to do it, Doyle, but don't try to play me for a fool."
Wesley put in, "If you're going straight on out of here to take her on, will you at least allow us to come with you?"
"I'd rather not. But I suppose I can't really stop you from following me, can I?"
"And what makes you think we'd follow you?" Faith flared. "You really think we care so much about your sorry butt? If you're so wicked determined to go get killed, don't think I'm going to throw myself in front of you."
"Faith...." Wesley said plaintively, and Faith glared at him. She took a quick swipe at one eye, but before I could tell if she was chasing a tear or just an itch, she turned away.
"Do what you want," she repeated sullenly, her face averted. "Gee, big bad vampires. Why would you want to involve little old me? I mean, it's not like I'm actually a vampire slayer, or anything like that."
The heavy sarcasm in her voice got through to me, and I relented a little. "All right, already. You can come with me if you insist, but you're going to stay in the car. I'm going in alone."
"Then what in the world is the point of us coming with you at all?" Wesley reasoned, but Faith cut him off.
"We'll be there to claim the body after he's done. That's all you expect from us, isn't it, Doyle?" Her voice was brittle. "Clean-up duty. Well, hop to it then, before I change my mind and try to stop you. What do you want on your gravestone? Oh, don't tell me, I know. 'Beloved Husband.'"
She spun on her heel and walked out of the room. I stared after her blankly for a moment.
Was she actually jealous of a dead woman?
Then I shook my head, dismissing the question. It didn't matter any more. Nothing else mattered, but getting Darla.
I turned my back on Wesley, who was still standing there tongue-tied, and returned to the mirror to practice retracting the spines a little faster from my hands.
I drew the car up across the street from the Sunnydale Tours building, tucking it tightly into the shadows at the mouth of an alley.
"Stay here," I ordered, getting out, slamming the door after me.
Predictably, Wesley drew down the window to debate the issue even as I was starting to walk away. "This is insane," he hissed, in a theatrical whisper that seemed to carry far louder in the night air than normal speaking tones. I winced and turned back to him.
"Yeah, okay - fine. So it's insane." I replied, snappishly. "But its my insanity to do."
"We get that. Go already," Faith said. Wesley jerked as her foot connected forcefully with the back of his seat. He shot a disdainful glance over his shoulder at her.
I eyed Faith for a moment, hesitating.
Maybe... but no, I couldn't imagine what Harry would think to see me now with this girl...
This girl. A super-strong force of nature possessed of dubious morality, and large appetites, and rather too few years in comparison to my own...
I couldn't see her approving.
No. I would do this by myself. This was old business, and Faith and Wesley were no part of it.
Besides, one person made less noise than two for a spot of breaking-and-entering, right?
I kept to the shadows as I made my way to the entrance. The place seemed all quiet, no lights lit up anywhere. I shoved to the back of my mind the very real possibility that they might not even be there.
The lock crunched under my hand as I switched to demon. I changed back and slipped inside.
Most of the building proved empty, nothing but vacant rooms staring back at me every time I pushed open a door. Eventually, working my way up flights of stairs and methodically checking every level, I reached a handful of rooms that looked to have recently seen some use. At least, they contained a scatter of furniture and an occasional pile of papers.
'They're not living here,' I realised, finally admitting what I'd suspected since I walked inside the darkened building. 'This place is just their business front. Their real base of operations must be somewhere else.'
Angrily, I kicked over a chair, my frustration getting close to overwhelming me. Slammed a fist into the wall. So near -
I didn't know where they were.
'But I know where they'll be tomorrow,' I thought desperately, struggling to recapture some control. 'Yeah, they gotta come back here to book in Sunnydale's latest order of Happy Meals.'
And since I was here now, I might as well learn what little I could from the things they'd left.
I spent the next half hour sifting through the papers I found lying around. Most of them were in a small office, a square, boxy little room, with peeling pale green paint on the walls, and a window with a heavy blind that was currently drawn up. I left it up, not particularly caring if the light could be seen from the street. Daring them, in fact, to come back and find me there.
Caution wasn't big on my mind. Nothing much was, beyond Darla, Luke and Jesse.
For all my searching, there was little of use in there - accounts, the costs for the coach. An invoice listing the dates they had the coach hired for, which I folded and stuck in my jacket pocket.
I looked around. Nothing else I could do here. Time to go.
A glance out of the window double-checked that all was still quiet outside at the front of the building.
I was just reaching for the door handle when I saw it turn. Before I could even think of moving, the edge of the door rushed at my face... as whoever had been listening on the other side belted it back with an inhuman strength.
It knocked me halfway across the room, crashing into the desk and sending papers and an angle-poise lamp flying. There was a line of pain down my forehead and the side of my face where the edge of the door had hit.
Damn it. They must have snuck in via some back entrance. How long had they been waiting?
I shook myself and struggled up onto my elbows, blinking.
Luke was standing over me. Behind him, Jesse was bouncing on his feet in excitement at the prospect of doing violence to someone. I cursed and reached up to grab the edge of the desk, to haul myself to my feet. Before I could, Luke shot forward and snaked an arm around my neck, choking me. He pulled me semi-upright, making sure I stayed off balance, my weight dragging my throat down against his already very tightly gripping arm. My feet floundered for purchase on the floor. Achieved it, for a second. But then papers slid around underfoot, the head of the lamp skidded and rolled, its bulb crunching - and my weight yanked down against Luke's arm once more as my feet flew out from under me.
I couldn't breathe. The edges of my vision were crumbling into fog.
In desperation, I reached for the extra strength of the demon.
Luke growled as spines pierced his meaty arm. His grip loosened, and I yanked an elbow back into his stomach as hard as I could. It was his turn to choke. I broke his weakened grip and I spun, reeling out of his grasp - straight into Jesse's.
The younger vamp grabbed hold of my arms, carefully avoiding spikes. With no small amount of malice I responded by head-butting him in the face.
I was enjoying his howls of pain when a double-fisted punch to the back of my neck sent me sprawling face-first over the desktop, the part of my brain which controlled my limbs deciding to take a back seat for a moment.
Luke hauled me up again by my hair and I knew from their suddenly attentive reactions that the third member of their party had entered the room.
"I remember this guy," Jesse said, his hands raised to his punctured face, which was distorted by pain as well as his demonic visage. "He was living with some tasty blond chick, that time we were playing the injured-travellers racket here in LA."
"Yes," the soft voice said. "I remember."
I knew from her tone that she hadn't needed Jesse's reminder. The spikes alone had been enough.
Hell... I'd wanted them to recognise me. But not like this.
This was all far too familiar.
Luke pulled my head back so I was forced to meet her eyes. His other arm was wrapped around my upper arms and chest, and my resumed struggles made no impression at all.
Darla drew closer, stepping daintily through the mess of office accoutrements that littered the floor. She reached a hand out and touched my face...
I stilled. An overwhelming feeling of sick helplessness flooded through me at the contact.
Her finger drew a line of ice starting at my forehead and meandering down through the spikes to my lips. I swallowed and with an effort shook off the spikes. Whatever small victory over her that marked, I wasn't sure.
But if I was going to die here, it would damn well be as a human.
"I never forget a... face," she cooed, withdrawing her caressing hand from my human skin. When she let go I felt like the air had returned to the room and I could breathe again, like my heart could start up once more.
Her eyes travelled up and down my form. There was something languorous there, in that pale blond-framed face and soft voice, that was both seductive and childishly innocent... and very, very chilling. "Look how you've grown. I approve... it's always nice to know you were the one to give a bright career its push-start."
I felt numb. I just swallowed, and didn't reply. I couldn't believe I'd put myself here, at her mercy. Again.
"Come, now, child. Where would you be now without me?" she asked, a gentle whisper.
Happily married to Harry, still, possibly with a family...
"You think your little wife would still be with you, if she'd lived?" she continued, as though reading my thoughts. "You really think she'd want a demon for a husband? You surely don't think it wouldn't have shown itself if not for me, do you, darling? It was inevitable. I've been around four centuries. I know a little about demons, and halfbreed demons. I probably know more about what you are than you do yourself." Again that sugary laugh.
I wanted very badly to smash my fist through that gently smiling face, but even if Luke hadn't been holding me I don't think I could have forced myself into action at that moment.
But she had no right to talk about Harry. How she might have felt...
"You really think a human woman wants a brood of demon halfbreed brats?" she asked. Her tone changed to a harsher, spiteful one which curiously enough I found much less fearsome than her sugary persona, as her vamp face sprang out. "No... Without me, you'd still have lost her. Drunk yourself to death in some gutter, drowning in your own misery. Not belonging anywhere. A freak!" She flung her arms out theatrically, seeming to enjoy the irony. "But look at you now! The big bad vampire hunter. You're someone! And you owe it all to me."
"What about us? Don't we get any credit?" Jesse asked, sullen and offended. She ignored him.
I finally found my voice.
"You didn't make me," I growled. There was more than that. Kate... three years in the LAPD... nearly four years of battling Darla's kind... Faith and Wesley... All those things and more. "You just laid the first brick, 'darlin''."
Powered by anger, I reached for the demon, and to my surprise the form I'd thrown away minutes before came easily back to me. I threw my head back, catching Luke a heavy blow on the jaw that was so hard it almost gave me concussion. He dropped like a stone.
Darla and Jesse were both moving towards me, and I knew I couldn't take both of them on. Unfortunately, they were also between me and the door.
I glanced quickly around the office, and saw my only other escape route.
I swallowed, but there wasn't much time for debate.
I leaped straight for the window, my body lifting and rolling in the air, the demon's reflexes allowing me to meet the glass side-on rather than face first. The arm I flung over my face offered some protection from the shattering cascade of sharp, silver points of light. I heard Luke swear and Darla laugh appreciatively. Then there was just darkness and glittering glass splinters around and underneath me, and I had time to remember, in sickening clarity, that the ground was an awfully long way below.
I could hear the voices of others hurrying over as I lay on the pavement, my body numb with shocked aftermath, staring up at the dark sky and the window I'd jumped from, four floors up. I couldn't make myself move, even though I knew they could be coming for me.
I wasn't sure how many minutes I'd been lying there before they arrived.
"Doyle!" It wasn't Darla's voice.
"Oh my God," said the more cultured, English-accented tones.
I groaned. Nothing actually hurt, I was still numb, just anticipating the onslaught of pain when the numb wore off. I wondered how much was broken.
Faith said, "You all right?" Her face hovered above me, a white blur surrounded by charcoal-dark tresses, with smudges for eyes.
"Y-eah..." I managed. "Get - don' let 'em get away..."
"Okay," she said softly. Her face retreated. I heard her feet slapping against the pavement after she'd exited my narrow, skywards line of sight, as she sprinted towards the entrance to the Sunnydale Tours building.
Wesley knelt down at my side and gripped my shoulder. "Don't move. I'll get help."
"Wait - " I reached out and caught his arm before he could get up. The impact had shaken off the demon form, although I'd not realised that until seeing my human hand lift to grasp his.
My vision was starting to clear and the numbness to wear off, and to my relief - not to mention surprise - nothing felt particularly horrendous. I seemed to have gotten away with no more than bruises. The demon must've absorbed the impact.
"Don't think... 'm hurt," I said, struggling up onto one elbow.
He eyed me suspiciously. "I think you should be careful," he said. "A fall like that -"
"Yeah, right. I'm okay, Wes."
"Why did they push you out of the window, anyway? I mean, as reliable methods of disposal go, well... it obviously wasn't very success - "
He stared at me incredulously, then sighed and looked away, muttering something about how he really should've learned, by now, not to ask.
Something occurred to me and I shot upright. Wesley caught me as I staggered dizzily and almost fell flat. "We gotta go after Faith," I explained, desperately, struggling to recapture my balance and take my own weight. I wasn't sure whether it was the fall that had knocked my centre of balance so far adrift, or something else. "I wasn't thinkin' straight, sendin' her after them alone. I -"
Wesley's eyes focused on something over my shoulder. My words dried up as I turned and followed his gaze.
Faith was walking back out of the building with an irritated, no-luck expression on her face.
"Looks like they've cleared out," she said as she closed with us. She frowned malignantly, dark thoughts collecting behind her eyes. "Smart of them."
"We'll go after them..." I - my demon - would find them while the telltale trail of their scent was still fresh.
"We'll do no such thing," Wesley said, aghast. "You could have been killed. You could have internal injuries. And even if you don't, you're still in no condition to face them again tonight. What we will do is go home, rest, and do some proper research on Darla. Then, tomorrow night, we can all of us face them - prepared. You know, preparation is the key to..."
For once, Faith nodded in positive, absolute agreement with her watcher, although she also gave him a very dark warning look which cut off the old familiar "three p's" lecture before it was even begun.
I would have argued, but since I could barely stand up straight on my own just then, I didn't really have much choice in the matter.
Wesley sat hunched amid an enormous pile of books at the kitchen table, and occasionally darted furtive, nervous glances to where I paced back and forth across the floor. Presumably, he thought I wasn't aware of the concerned scrutiny. I didn't care - I had other things on my mind.
Back there in the Tours office, Darla had made me feel like another person, one who'd been over three years dead... The man she'd killed along with Harry.
And I hadn't like it one bit. It had been a long time since I felt quite that helpless.
One more humiliation at Darla's hands, and another reason to fuel my desire to see her dead.
Now that I'd recovered from the events which, earlier, had left me so shaken, that desire was becoming harder to ignore. And though I knew Wesley and Faith were right - that it was better to go in prepared, to go in rested and with back-up - I was also increasingly aware that every moment I let slip past added to the chances of them deciding not to stay in LA now they'd been rumbled, and going back to Sunnydale before I could get to them.
And would I follow them, there?
'Probably,' I admitted to myself grimly. 'If I had to.'
I didn't want to drag this out any longer. Almost four years, it had taken me, to stumble across them again. I wanted it over.
And then what? wondered a treacherous little voice at the back of my mind. Once they're gone, what's left? Settle back down to a normal life?
It would continue to go on - the visions, the vampires - until I was dead.
The new me wasn't built for anything else.
I pushed the thought aside. Deal with it later. Hell, I was probably a dead man anyway. And would that necessarily be such a bad thing?
My eyes were drawn to Faith, sitting cross-legged on a chair with a book lying open on her lap, glaring down at the pages with focused concentration. Joining in with the research she hated, for once. For me.
A reason to live?
I wasn't sure.
Wesley coughed, apologetically, as though he felt guilty at breaking the silence. "Oh dear. I believe I've found something," he said, dragging his glasses from his face and rubbing a hand across his eyes, looking tired. "It looks very much like Darla was sired by the Master. She's certainly one of his most valued minions."
"Crap," Faith said. "That's all we need, to draw the attention of the boss-vamp-man himself."
Wesley nodded slowly. "It also seems she might be, ahem, 'related', I suppose you could say, to our friend Spike. One or other of her own protege's turned him, although the chronicler here seems unsure precisely which of them it was. But they all of them caused a good deal of mayhem together, back before the turn of the century."
There was a snap as Faith broke a pencil between her fingers. She flung the pieces to the floor. "Great. Bloody William the Bloody, too. This is so not good."
Wesley looked up at me, saw my bleak expression, and misunderstood. "It's not much information to go on, I know, and none of it good so far - but we will find more," he began to reassure.
I shook my head, picking up my jacket as I headed for the door. "It's all I need," I said. Somebody had to stop her, especially if she was that close to the Master. She was more dangerous than any of us had realised.
"What...?" he began. I ignored him and continued walking.
Abruptly, Faith was up from her chair and she'd launched herself across the room to intercept me, blocking off my path to the door. "Now, hang on there a minute. These guys are serious vampire muscle, Doyle."
"Quite right," Wesley said, his chair scraping noisily as he stood up and left to kitchen to join us, limping badly without the cane he'd left leaning against the table. "I suggest we need to find a better plan than 'charge in and allow ourselves to be brutally killed'."
"You may. I don't. I don't think I ever said anythin' about wantin' any company." I glared at Faith, and realised how distanced I suddenly felt from these two people who'd become such a part of my life these past months, with my past looming up so close behind me. I said softly, "You're not goin' to stop me."
"Doyle," she said. There was something pleading in her eyes that I hadn't seen before. Or maybe I was imagining things. "I know you have to get them. I know you have to do it alone. But wait 'til you're rested, and stronger, and in your right mind to do it, boss."
"No," I said. I moved forward to shove past her and she shoved me back.
"Not getting past me." She saw the anger in my eyes and some spark in her own ignited in response. She said softly, dangerously, "Wesley - go. Get out of here. Now. Research Darla upstairs."
"But -!" he spluttered.
"I'll handle it." And that was said a little too meaningfully, there, for my liking. "You really don't wanna stick around."
He squinted down at her with suspicion before reluctantly retreating out of the door without another word, his back set straight and his bony shoulders squared in annoyance.
Faith looked at me.
"You can get out, too," I told her, darkly.
She gave me a bemused appraisal, a suspiciously amused smile on her face, then planted herself solidly, standing with her legs braced slightly apart and her arms folded. I knew that stance.
"Make me," she said.
I eyed her for a moment, not sure she was serious. While we'd been speaking, I'd been sidling around her slightly. I thought I could get to the door. Of course, if I didn't, Faith would kick my ass halfway across the continent.
There was a flurry of movement from behind me as I darted past her. I didn't turn around, just trying to get out of there quick and lose her outside in the streets I knew better than she did, but I'd barely gone two steps when she grabbed my arm with both hands, one above the elbow and one around the wrist, and hurled me roughly, face-first into the nearest wall.
I grunted in surprise, finding myself the next minute sat on the floor with the room spinning in circles around me.
"Going somewhere?" Faith said. "Don't think so. Not like this. I've kinda got used to having you around. Besides, if you got yourself dead, I'd have to find someplace to live. Probably with Wesley."
"You hit me," I muttered in mounting fury, climbing with some difficulty to my feet. "You bloody... well, you're not gonna stop me, Slayer or no. I'm damn well going, and you can just -"
"Uh-huh. Well, obviously you're not thinking clearly, if you think you can take me." She actually looked annoyed, like I'd insulted her. She tripped me neatly, caught my weight before I fell again, and shoved me back into the wall. The demon came out to play automatically. I forced it back into its box - no way was I letting it loose against Faith, whatever crap she was trying to pull.
"Hey, this isn't fair!" I snapped, whirling around, breaking her grip, staggering and almost falling. My shoulders hit the wall and its support kept me standing. "You're stronger'n I am!"
"Yeah," she agreed, with no small amount of glee. "Ain't that a kick in the teeth?"
I lunged forward, trying to barge past her, and she intercepted me. Angrily, I snapped off a fast punch aimed at her face. She blocked it easily, and then she did this sort of lunge and jump move, straight up in the air, which looked more like a gymnastic turn than a fighting move.
I didn't figure out what she was doing until it was too late. Her legs scissored around my waist, gripping, and her weight and momentum knocked me backwards. I hit the floor hard, with her on top of me. I tried to shove her off and her hands snagged each of my wrists. She twisted them outwards, pinning them to the floor, and leaning her weight forward to keep them there.
"Doesn't look like you're going anywhere, Doyle," she said.
She had me effectively trapped. Her arms pressed down on my wrists, crushing them into the floor. I felt bone grate threateningly and yelled in pain despite myself. "Faith! You're -"
"Hurting you?" she cut in. The way she was leaning over me, her hair hung down on either side of her face in two dark wings, casting her features into shadow. I couldn't see her eyes. "Thought you wanted some pain, huh? Want to go kill yourself? What's wrong, isn't this good enough for you?"
"Hell, Faith! I'm gonna have two broken arms here in a minute -"
She eased off. Slightly. "Can't go after them then, can you? And that would never do." She paused as though thinking. The pressure returned. "Maybe I should, huh? Two broken arms might just save your life."
"Don't you bloody dare. Get off me, you freakin' bitch!" I struggled desperately, both against Faith, and to keep the demon at bay, instinct screaming for me to change and use that extra strength.
She only laughed again at the insult, flinging her head back, her hair flicking back out of her face so I could finally look her in the eye. Not that that did any good.. "You don't know the half of it. C'mon, hit me again, lover. 'Cause guess what - I've heard it all before."
"An' you guess what? You're... bloody... fired!" I snarled, and as the pressure of her fingers became too much and, convinced my wrists were about to snap and lose me the only opportunity I might ever have to go after Darla, I finally lost my control over the demon.
"Whoa! So you're finally getting the big guns out, huh?" Faith jeered, not flinching from the spikes. "Won't do you any good. Hell, you know I don't mind playing with Prickles every now and then. Fired, huh? Well, that assumes I was ever working for you in the first place, and I don't recall ever getting any kinda official paycheck."
She was still stronger than me in demon form, and to my annoyance I found I still couldn't escape her grasp. Only difference was, she was unlikely to be able to break my bones while I was in this form. But if anything, the pressure she was applying increased, like she hadn't been using her full strength before. It wasn't much comfort to see I was forcing her to exert every bit of that slayer strength against me now, her expression set in a grimace of effort, sweat springing out on her skin.
The places where her body was applying pressure, pinning me to the floor, were becoming a lot more than uncomfortable. It was also getting hard to breathe with her sat on my chest. "Faith, get... off... me," I managed to snarl out, my breath rasping.
"No way. Not while you're still trying to do yourself a damage, or ready to run off on some crazy suicidal revenge mission," she panted.
I blinked up at her, taken aback as her logic struck me. "What, you're gonna stop me hurtin' myself even if you hafta beat me into a pulp to do it?" I asked incredulously, so surprised I stopped trying to resist.
Something changed. A little of the anger died away, a little of my sense came back.
She relaxed her grip slightly for good behaviour. The expression on her face had changed, too. She said, as though she was considering carefully, "I could do that. Could do other stuff instead. Either way, I reckon you won't be thinking too much about Darla anymore." She finally loosed my wrists - for all the good that did me, since she'd crushed all the strength out of them and I couldn't feel my hands.
Her hands crept inside my shirt. They felt cold despite all her activity, and I shivered as they touched my skin.
After a moment, one of the hands meandered elsewhere. I gasped.
"Faith!" I struggled again, still futilely. "This is not the time!"
"Seems as good a time as any, to me. Hell, in fact, we should do this more often. All this fighting and squirming together's made me hot." She snickered. "How about it, boss?"
Her mouth descended onto mine in an aggressive kiss. Her hands were busy too.
Her lips muffled my protests - but after a moment, I lost all thoughts of wanting to voice them anyway. And by the time she was so preoccupied she forgot her plan to keep me weighted to the floor, I wasn't about to go anywhere.
It must've been about an hour later before I was finally convinced Faith had fallen asleep. I opened my eyes and blinked around, cautiously hitching up on one elbow, conscious of the body sprawled loosely half across mine. In the darkened apartment, we were still wrapped around each other on the floor. It was late, but not so late that dawn wasn't still a long way off.
There was still time...
Time to kill. Time to die.
I slowly, carefully, disentangled myself from Faith. She snorted and shifted in her sleep as I lifted her head from my chest and pillowed it on my abandoned shirt. She settled back to quietly snoring as I stood and pulled on the rest of my clothes, retrieving a new, relatively clean, shirt from the bedroom, and along with it the pistol that had hung unused on a gunbelt in the wardrobe ever since I'd left the force.
Bullets might not be able to kill vamps, but they sure as hell could hurt them, and I'd need all the weapons I had tonight.
I paused to drape a thin blanket across Faith's quiet form. She looked so different, sleeping. I knelt down and touched my fingers to my lips - then touched her hair, one last time.
She still didn't stir. It occurred to me that perhaps I'd wanted her to wake up and stop me.
But she didn't move, and I couldn't not go, and so I left - stopping by the weapons cabinet to collect up a few items before I walked out of the door, not looking back.
The large demon looked up at me, his glowing eyes narrowing with displeasure. His companions around the table regarded me with equal hostility, their varying shades of demonic hide mottling with annoyance.
"Whaddya what, Doyle?" he rumbled irritably, gesturing at the stack of chips before him with a fan of cards. "Can't you see I'm in the middle of a game?"
"Nice to see you too, Paullie," I said pointedly, leaning against their table as I glanced around the rest of the bar. The place was jam-packed with various non-human clientele, all there for their different definitions of 'fun'. An unspoken code of conduct, as in most supernatural bars, meant that most demons were safe from violence here, even do-gooders like me. Hopefully, that code would keep me alive tonight.
"You said you knew where he was when I called," I reminded Paullie in a lower tone of voice.
His fiery eyes rolled in their sockets. "Oh, right. That stupid deal. Sure you don't want just pull up a chair and join in instead? I'm on a roll!"
"Temptin', but I've got other plans." Paullie's 'rolls' never last. If I sat down, I could probably win enough to pay the rent for four months. But that wasn't why I was here.
I put my hand on his shoulder and looked directly into his craggy face. "This is important, Paullie."
Paullie's eyes narrowed slightly in response to my intense stare. If he didn't spill his guts in the next few seconds, I'd spill them for him, and the code be damned. And he knew it.
The demon shrugged. "Whatever. He's across the room. Corner table." I followed the line of his clawed hand and spotted the bleached head of my target.
"You're a prince, man," I said sincerely, patting his horny shoulder and bruising my fingertips. "Or at least a frog with prince potential."
Paullie raised a hand to his warty features defensively. "Funny."
"Yeah." I leant closer and murmured into his ear, "By the way, the Ano-movic who's smilin' all the time? He's got a flush."
"Aw, hell," he snarled, tossing his cards down as I slapped his shoulder one last time in gratitude and walked away.
I carefully pushed my way through the crowd, trying not to cause a stir. In the mood I was in, I wanted to cause a stir, to grab one of those demons and pound him until my hands were bloody, but I couldn't afford the luxury of aggression. Not here, not now.
I still looked human to the naked eye, but most demons have a pretty good sense of smell so none of them gave me any hassling. My quarry had his back to me as he nursed a small glass - beer, not blood, I noted - and rocked on his chair.
I took a single calming breath and before my common sense could intervene, sat down in front of him. "Spike."
The vampire looked surprised and amused at the same time. "Doyley! Wouldn't have expected to see you here." His leather duster was as rumpled as always, and he looked like he was wearing exactly the same outfit I'd seen him in last time we'd met. Minus the bullet holes.
I pulled a cigarette from my jacket pocket and lit it. "I'm a social guy."
Spike nodded, playing along. "So, what next? Crutches and your Slayer going to leap out of a secret door and nab me?" He inclined his head in the direction of the demon-populated tables. "Could get hairy."
I smiled easily, keeping up the façade of friendly conversation. It wouldn't do for anybody else to get too interested in our conversation, particularly if Spike wasn't prepared to be reasonable. "It's not like that."
"Isn't it?" he asked mockingly. "Wait, I know! You just felt like a nice drink so you came out and decided to get boozed up at a bar, surrounded by demons and seated next to your ol' pal Spike. Am I getting warm?"
"You got a problem with that scenario?" I responded coolly, blowing a cloud of blue smoke across the table towards him.
Spike seemed undaunted by my calm demeanour. "Works for me. Any last words?"
"Somethin' will come to me," I said, deadpan.
The vampire chuckled. "Still got guts, haven't you, Irish Avenger?" Spike plucked a pack of smokes from his duster pocket and shoved one between his lips. "Got a light?"
I shoved my lighter across the table. Spike lit his cigarette and took a long drag, savouring the smoke. He sent my lighter flying back to me with a flick of his wrist. I fumbled the catch and nearly dropped it, scratching its side on the hard table. My hands shook slightly as I tucked it away.
Spike snickered. "Graceful. Those reflexes slipping, huh? Must be a pain for someone in your line of work."
I exhaled cigarette smoke slowly, stilling my hands. Suddenly, I was tired of this, tired of baiting Spike and exchanging barbs. I had older fish to fry. "I want some information," I said abruptly, stubbing out the cigarette.
Spike leaned back in his chair, appearing truly interested for the first time in our conversation. "I hear that right? Doyley, whatever you've been drinking, you've got to tell me where to get some."
I glared at him. "I'm sober. And serious. I need information."
Spike laughed. "Oh, please. What do you think I am, some weasely little snitch you can beat up until he squeals?" He actually sounded offended at the thought.
"Works for me," I riposted.
He tucked his hands behind his head, not intimidated in the slightest. Not that I'd been expecting him to be. "I think our fellow customers might take that the wrong way, mate. I'd hate to have to queue to kill you."
Spike had a point. I had come looking for him with only the vaguest idea of what I was going to do when I found him. Spike was still my best lead on Darla, bar Wesley's research. And Wesley and Faith had been taking far too long for my taste. 'Sides, I didn't need them. I'd been killing the undead for more years than either of them. I didn't allow myself to dwell on the fact that Darla had been killing humans for more years than I had been alive.
Still, I had to find some way to convince Spike to tell me where she was hiding, and I guessed appeals to his better nature were out.
And thanks to the demonic crowd around us, there was little chance of me using violence to convince him. Not to mention that Spike would simply respond in kind and probably smack me across the room. I would sooner break my own arm than bribe him, and so most of the usual fact-obtaining methods were out. Luckily, I had another option.
"Speakin' of things the customers might take the wrong way," I said casually, "do you remember Phil?"
"What, that shopkeeper I killed?" Spike asked, smiling. "Oh, I never forget a face. Or its last expression."
I found my hand fingering the stake tucked beneath my jacket as he spoke. Phil had been a friend, and here I was, chatting calmly to his murderer with the power to avenge him in my hand. But the stake stayed under my jacket. It had somebody else's name on it, so Spike would just have to wait in the queue.
"Yeah. I'd guess about half the demons here visited his shop on a weekly basis. He was liked, for a human. His services were well appreciated. Now, what do you think would happen if I walked over to Lucius over there an' told him that you're the reason he now has to trek to the other side of town to buy his sheep's brains. He might 'take that the wrong way', doncha think?"
Spike eyed the huge Gorshk demon by the bar who I was indicating. "You wouldn't risk it," he said slowly, but his voice lacked the brash relaxation of a few seconds before.
"Wouldn't I?" The fact was, I wouldn't, since I owed Lucius four hundred bucks for a dice game that had got a little bit out of hand. Snake eyes can be a very sobering sight, even after eight tequila slammers. But hopefully Lucius wouldn't notice me until my business with Spike was concluded. And then, well, I could run faster than either of them. I hoped.
Spike chewed his lip, his eyes flicking to the demon and then back to my poker-face. "I could kill you in the five seconds it would take him to get here."
I smiled sardonically. "Quit the crap, Spike. We both know you couldn't."
"All right then, I would take ten seconds," he allowed. That was probably the nearest I would ever get to a compliment from him.
"An' then Lucius would be very displeased. I've seen him displeased, Spike. People get damaged."
"I could take him," Spike said harshly, cracking his knuckles.
I glanced at him quizzically. " Really? An' me? An' Lucius's brother Danner over there in the corner? An' the bartender? An' the bouncers? Amazin' how quickly the odds change...Spikey."
"What do you want?" he bit out, glaring at me.
"See, that wasn't so hard, was it?" Spike's ensuing growl convinced me to keep the discussion moving. Even though I was pretty sure he wouldn't risk the exposure of a serious brawl, I wasn't a hundred percent sure, and taunting him wasn't so much fun that I'd risk my neck for it. "Got any family, Spike?" I asked. "Of the vampiric sort, I mean."
"Some," he said guardedly.
I leaned closer, resting my elbows on the table as my eyes bored into his. "Well, I'm lookin' for one of your relatives. Name of Darla. You know where I could find her?"
"Darla?" Spike asked, his brow furrowing in confusion. "What do you want with her?"
"My business, Spike," I told him grimly. "Your business is to see if you can tell me where she is before I yell for Lucius. I know you vamps stick together, an' I'm enough of a gamblin' man to bet that you know where to find her."
Spike stared at me intently for a few seconds, as if weighing his options, and then gave one of his quick, off-hand shrugs. "Why not? She's at the old West Empire Mental Care Asylum. You can find it on any road map. You do know how to read maps, don't you Doyley?"
I ignored his mocking tone. "Asylum?"
"Yeah. Nuthouse. Loony bin. Place for people who have a vacancy in the penthouse apartment. You get it?"
I felt like a coiled spring that had just been wound a little tighter. I knew where she was. And she wouldn't be expecting me. For the second time in days, I had a chance to avenge Harry's death. And this time, I wasn't going to dive out of a damn window.
"You know, it's almost a shame," Spike said philosophically. "I'd been looking forward to killing you, and now Darla's going to beat me to it. Oh well, at least we're keeping it in the family."
"Not goin' to happen, Spike," I told him as I stood up. Darla had murdered the old me along with Harry. But the new me wasn't going to follow in his predecessor's footsteps.
Spike looked at me dubiously. "Listen, Doyle," he said frankly. "You're a dead man. You can go after Darla and get yourself killed, or you can wait a few weeks until I get around to doing you in. Your call."
"Then I'm makin' that call." I turned my back on him and walked away.
"Before she kills you, tell her I send my regards," Spike called after me.
I kept walking and lit another cigarette.
An abandoned mental hospital. The cop in me, or maybe the demon, had to admire the twisted logic of it. Places like those close down regularly, at least compared to regular hospitals. Some other facility is built, with better treatment, and then all the crazies get pulled out by the relatives and dumped into the new one. It's like a game of musical chairs, except that the people sitting on the chairs could at any moment pick them up and beat each other to death with them, because 'God' or 'voices' told them to.
Oh, sure I know not all the patients are violent, but I heard bad things about West Empire's brand of client on the force. They specialised in the serious sickos, real Hannibal Lecter types. Kate and I had sent some people there who I really wouldn't like to meet in a dark alley, demon or no demon. The kind of guys who would hack up their own wives and kids because their pets said so.
Every now and again, I wonder what would happen if someone with medical training saw me have a vision. Would they try and send me to the nuthouse?
'Kinda losin' the plot, aren't we?' I asked myself as I entered the facility, walking along the smooth, cream-coloured passageways. Well, mostly cream-coloured. Several of the more artistic patients had apparently taken it upon themselves to carve pictures on the walls. A few seemed to have used somebody's blood as paint.
Apart from the artwork, the place was in pretty good shape.
Yup, few windows, no visitors... perfect vampire territory, I mused. And a few toys. Or more correctly, sets of electro-therapy equipment, just the kind of thing a vampire would get a kick out of. I passed by the menacing metal boxes with a shiver.
I picked up the murmur of voices from a side corridor and pulled on the demon. Vampire scent. And engraved on my mind, Darla's own distinct scent, like a thin, lifeless perfume.
Half-following the voices and half the scent, I quickened my pace, shaking away the demon.
"...damn...half-breed." I heard Jesse say. Nice to know they were thinking about me.
"We should kill him," Luke's louder voice said firmly.
"Hush, both of you." There was the voice I had been listening for. Darla's languid tones continued, "My baby won't be any trouble. I can handle him if he tries to disrupt the business again."
The corridor ended in a plain white door. I slipped to the side and listened.
"The Master will be displeased if our operation fails," Luke noted.
"He'll gut us," Jesse said more literally and probably more accurately, judging from what I'd heard about the Master.
Darla's voice was sharper. "I know that! But we won't fail. He'll have many more tourists to feed on and turn before we close, and that'll satisfy him, no matter what...inconveniences we incur along the way."
The topic of conversation changed, as they began to discuss how to load the most passengers onto the next bus. The calm, cheerful way in which they discussed packing people off to a vampire-run slaughterhouse was sickening.
It looked like they weren't going to get anymore detailed about the Master's plans, I rationalised, so best to strike now, before Darla could pick up my scent.
Luke said dourly, "I don't like this. The half-breed is inconvenient. We should just kill him."
"Luke..." Darla sighed. "I expect such idiocy from Jesse - "
"- but surely such a one as you can see the potential here? This half-breed wants to kill us, so let him try. When he makes his move, we'll take him and use the facility's equipment to... extract information from him. He'll be able to get us connected to LA's demons and vampires, and give us valuable allies for the Master's expansion or tell us what we need to know to eliminate those who might choose to stand in his way. And of course, we serve the Master in all things, don't we, Luke dear?"
Luke laughed. "Don't try to convince me, Darla. You're the one who almost left him when your soul boy - "
"Don't mention his name." Darla's voice went cold. "I've been serving the Master since long before you were born into this world as a puny, whining human."
"Funny, you seem to have taken a special interest in this particular puny, whining human."
"Half-human, and don't worry. I created him. I can destroy him."
"Looking to replace your lover?" Luke taunted.
I had heard enough. Feeling eerily calm, I kicked the door open. "Hello, mommy."
Their room looked as if it had once been used as a nurses' rest station. There was a coffee machine in the corner and the entrances to several padded cells at the far wall. Jesse was seated in front of a laptop at what looked like a nurse's work desk, with Luke beside him and Darla beyond her two companions. Their faces all reflected the same surprise.
"Well, what kinda welcome is that for a son come home?" I asked, my voice bitterly sarcastic. "No hug? No flowers?"
Darla slowly smiled, studying my movements. "Very brave. Stupid, but brave."
I couldn't reply. The calm of before had vanished the second I saw Darla's face, and now my throat was too dry and tight for words. Jesse growled, going vamp as he stood up, his chair clattering against the floor. "Screw this," he said venomously and strode towards me, his hands wide.
I pulled my pistol out from under my coat and fired. Jesse jerked as the shots hit him, the crack of the gun shattering the quiet of the hospital. I kept on pulling the trigger as blood rolled down his chest and he twitched and spasmed. As he slumped to his knees, I lowered the gun.
"You think you can kill me that easily?" he hissed slowly, rising to his feet again and stepping forward, his yellow eyes berserk with fury.
I let him get a step closer, and then I plucked the stake out from under my jacket with my free hand and shoved it into his chest. "Yes," I told the dissipating dust cloud.
My eyes returned to Darla. Luke's enraged rumbling distracted me, as the large vampire stormed through the cloud that had been Jesse. I brought up the gun a second time and yanked on the trigger, but the hammer clicked on an empty chamber. Luke flashed me a fang-filled smile.
I dropped the gun and hit him right in the centre of the smile. Luke didn't even try to block what he thought was a flimsy human punch, which is why he was considerably startled when my suddenly spike-encrusted fist slammed into his teeth. The rest of the change rippled through my body as I snarled, feeling the demon growl with me.
Darla smirked from a safe distance. "Baby's all grown up," she murmured.
Luke was considerably less amused. He took a single step back and shot a right cross for my nose. I smacked the punch aside and hammered my own fist into his jaw. Luke grunted as I brought my other arm whirling across and under the angle of the first punch, slamming his gut. I caught his clumsy responding blow on the palms of my hands and stepped in close, pummelling his meaty torso. Luke shook off the punches and raised a huge hand. With my fists too low for an adequate defence, Luke easily drove the blow home.
I felt my teeth crunch together as I lurched backwards. Luke stepped up to me and his hands went around my head.
The wrench tore through my neck with searing pain and I dropped like a rag doll, my head flopping to one side.
I heard Luke laugh as he stepped back from me to survey his handiwork. Darla's softer laughter rose beyond his.
Damn it, I swore, Even if they do kill me, they won't be laughin' at the end. I owed Harry that much.
A choked snarl escaped my throat as I wrenched my head back into position and rose with the full force of my outrage, my arm curving around in an uppercut that threw Luke back into Jesse's desk, flattening the laptop.
The vampires had thought they were fighting the same man they had beaten so easily before.
But things had changed. I had changed, and now I could fight them on their own level. It was time they learnt that.
Luke pulled himself from the wreckage of the table, shaking away splinters. "I'll break you in half for that!"
"Show me!" I growled furiously.
The vampire's charge hit me full force, lifting me up and slamming me hard against the wall. My back crunched against the plaster as my fists slammed his face and shoulders again and again, but Luke refused to quit. He grabbed me by the shirt and slammed me up against the wall a second time. This time, with the full force of his arms behind it, it felt like my spine had shattered.
Gasping for breath, I tried to push him away, but he just knocked my weakened strikes aside and threw me against the wall again. A burst of agony shot through my neck muscles, and I could feel that my neck was about to snap again as Luke scooped me up for a fourth throw. As he hefted me, I grabbed his shoulders and pushed down with every inch of force I could muster. I rose above him, suspended by my aching arms, and drove my knee hard into his nose. He groaned in pain and grabbed for my feet.
With a grunt of effort, I lifted them up and kicked out against the wall, propelling myself right over him.
As I flipped over him, my hands shifted position and gave a sharp twist, accompanied by the sound of snapping bone.
I hit the ground awkwardly, dizzy and confused, and nearly leapt out of my green-coloured skin when I turned and found myself eye to eye with Luke.
But the yellow eyes that met my own were glazed and in pain, and they were staring directly over his shoulder, like one of those owls that can rotate its head around 360 degrees. From the way his neck was bent, there was obviously something seriously wrong inside.
"See how you like it," I snapped as he collapsed, moaning like a child in his crippling pain.
I turned slowly to face Darla once more. Her amused smile was gone. I was too tired, too angry and in too much pain to be witty. "You're dust, lady."
As I strode towards her, she grabbed a hospital trolley and shoved it at me, the wheels screaming. I flung myself out of the way, hearing with grim satisfaction how Luke groaned as the wheels of the trolley jolted over his prone form.
Darla was on me in a flash, her punches thudding into my face I tried to defend myself. And despite her apparent slenderness, her punches hurt a lot more than Luke's. Reeling, I staggered back against what felt like a counter of some kind. Shooting a quick glance over my shoulder in between Darla's strikes, I saw that I had fallen against some kind of prescription counter, probably where the nurses had given out medication.
My hands found the rim of the counter and I pulled myself up and over, my feet catapulting into Darla's delicate face. By the time the blonde vampire was ready to fight again, the counter was between the two of us.
"I'm beginning to think you need some disciplining, my boy," she said dangerously.
I smiled bitterly. "Harry used to tell me that all the time."
As Darla leapt for the counter, I scooped up a box of old medicine bottles and hurled it straight into her face. She snarled in rage and pain, smashing the box aside with an arm, her suddenly-hideous face pale with fury. I threw myself across the counter and into her.
We hit the ground hard and kept on rolling, but it was evident the second we landed that I had made a mistake. Darla was smaller and more agile than I was, and I didn't have a hope in hell of pinning her. A flip of her long legs slammed me flat on my back, and then she straddled me and smashed both fists into my jaw.
My head lolled about as I tried desperately to retain consciousness. I felt Darla's cold hands go tight around my neck and her breath touched my cheeks. "Immune to neck-breaking, are you?" she asked. "Let's see what happens if your head gets ripped clean off, shall we? Call it research." I tried to keep my eyes open, but my entire body seemed very numb and far away.
She yanked hard at my head, and the pain of my neck injury rose again, pulling me from my semi-conscious daze. I shoved a hand up at her face, and she sunk her fangs into my palm, then spat my own blood back at me. "Disgusting, filthy little half-breed!"
I shifted my hand to her throat and squeezed. "Now, I admit my bathing habits aren't world-class, but there's no need to be unpleasant." Tugging hard to one side, I threw her off and rose to my feet.
Darla was already standing by the time I was capable of looking for her. There was a row of marks along her neck from my fingers, but she seemed unconcerned. I, on the other hand, felt as if I was slowly strangling in a noose of fire.
The sudden flare of triumph in her eyes, combined with a feral growl from behind, warned me that Luke had recovered at last. Both vampires moved at the same time.
But I still had one trick left to play. Both my arms struck out in open-palmed punches, one before me and one behind. The admittedly pathetic blows fell far short, but a twist of my wrists lengthened my reach by a good few inches as the spring-loaded stakes in my sleeves lunged out.
Darla's eyes went wide with horror as she tried to halt her charge. Desperately, she whipped a hand up, the stake sinking deep into her palm and halting in front of her chest. I felt Luke's bulk slam into my other arm and then suddenly the weight vanished, as dust covered my shoulders.
I ripped the stake out of Darla's hand and my back arm came across and around, pounding her face. I spun with the blow and thrust a kick hard into her belly, launching her into one of the padded cells.
Before she could rise to her feet, I slammed the door shut and heard the lock click into place.
Peering through the grille at her, I allowed myself a grim smile. "Oh, yeah," I told her. "Almost forgot."
"Spike sends his regards."
My hands pressed to the grilled glass window in the door as I looked through - seeing my own reflection and, behind it, Darla.
She flung herself at the glass in fury, but it was made to withstand the almost-supernatural strength of the criminally insane and it bore up against her vampire strength too.
Her hands battered in futility upon the glass which was all that kept us from touching.
I wondered how long she'd last, abandoned in this padded cell, without blood, without company. Would she starve? Would she go mad? Could a vampire even die from starvation, or only wither, remaining ever alive and conscious in a decaying shell?
Either way, I knew she'd suffer.
Her lips moved. I could only just hear her through the insulating padding of the cell and the thickened glass.
She said, "Let me out."
I was still breathing heavily from the exertions of the fight, and when I caught my breath enough to answer her, the words came out bitterly sarcastic. "Ya think?"
Her vamp mask had left her features, leaving me faced once again with the petite blonde innocence of her human disguise. Her eyes were large and frightened. Hard to imagine that a demon lurked behind them, but all the same, those mind games were not going to work on me now.
I stretched the muscles of my face into a grim smile, and extended a hand to tap out a mocking, jaunty tune on the glass with my fingers.
She shrieked in fury at being mocked, and threw herself at the door again, this time not so much like an angry demon as like a child having a tantrum. Her bleeding hand painted red stains across the window.
It lasted a few seconds before she collected her composure - assuming she'd ever really lost it: I had to remind myself that I couldn't underestimate her dexterity with these head-games, as convincing as her acts could be.
She stared at me, putting her face up close to the glass, clawing her dishevelled hair out of her face with one hand. Something in her eyes was different, like she was really seeing me for the first time. As something other than an amusement, or an annoyance.
"Do you know, I don't even know your name?" she said slowly. "Imagine - all this, and I don't even know who you are."
"It's a little late for introductions, darlin'," I said. I was trying not to let myself get too cocky. Trying to keep in mind that she could still be dangerous, even caged.
Her eyes went misty, as though she was thinking, dredging her mind for something. "Your wife called you Francis," she said abruptly. "But... that's not who you are now, is it?"
I stayed silent.
"Is it?" her voice was soft, and pleading.
"Doyle," I said, harshly, reluctantly, and then wondered afterwards why I had. I certainly felt no pity for her. Perhaps it was just that I wanted her to know who it was that was killing her, just as she seemed to need to know the same.
"Doyle," she repeated, and laughed girlishly with pleasure. "Why do we have to be enemies? Nobody's ever got this close to killing me before. I like that in a man. Perhaps I like you. And since I killed your partner... perhaps we could join forces, and I could give you... recompense... in kind. You find me attractive?"
She was playing the wrong game, if she expected me to go for that. "You disgust me," I snarled.
"I do?" she appeared to find that interesting and amusing, setting her head on one side in a philosophical pose. "Why?"
"You have to ask? You killed my wife. You kill people, an' you don't even do it quick and clean, like most vamps - you have to screw with their heads first."
"Everyone needs a hobby. I made you the man you are. Aren't you even a little grateful?"
"I guess I'm just funny like that. You wouldn't know what it feels like, to lose the one person that matters to you, to have your world fall apart. Have a nice life, Darla, stuck in your little padded room." I'd heard enough of this. I was going. She could stay here and rot.
I started to turn my back and she said "Wait!" sharply.
Her eyes flashed anger, and after a moment she said, "Do you think you're the only person who ever lost anyone they loved? You think I can't feel as you do? You can't know how it feels to lose someone after a hundred years of companionship."
I blinked at her. A hundred years meant some other vamp. From her apparent lack of reaction to his dusting earlier, I guessed she wasn't talking about Luke. "You got a hundred years," I said. "I barely got three. Excuse me for not sympathising."
"Two hundred years wouldn't have been enough," she said, her voice a hoarse whisper I could barely hear. "I had to watch what they did to him, the Master and his people, and say nothing... to lose him twice over. I thought we could break the curse, but all they did was torture him, and kill him when he finally escaped. Now all I have left of him is dust... so don't tell me I don't know how it feels to lose someone!"
I didn't know what she was talking about, and to be honest I didn't particularly care. The thing I owed her least of all was sympathy.
I said, "Well, d'you know what? This time, you just plain lose."
I'd made up my mind. I would leave her in this place, keep tabs on the building to make sure nobody decided to start occupying it or pull it down. Maybe check in person every now and then, to see that she was still there. To watch the process of her decay, or whatever it was that starving vampires did.
I turned to leave, and heard the thud of her weight once again impacting heavily on the door.
"You're really going to leave me?" she asked, a harsh challenge in her voice now. "You're really so afraid to open this door and fight me that you'd risk leaving me here to be let out by any passing stranger, any squatting tramp or vagrant who wanders inside?"
"I don't call this winning. I call it a stalemate!" she practically yelled. "I can't get to you, but you can't get to me without risking letting me out. I thought you wanted revenge, Doyle? I thought you wanted it over. To kill me with your own hands, isn't that right?"
I spun around. "I'm not letting you out," I growled.
Her face, framed in the small window, was laughing. "But you know I will get out, darling. Sooner or later. I won't die in here, because I can't die, although it's true I may want to, a few years down the line, if my imprisonment were to last that long. But consider this - what if you die? It isn't exactly a low-risk business, what you do. You can't check up on me, then - can't be my jailor forever to make sure I stay shut in this box. I'd live longer than you anyway. But that's all immaterial, because you simply can't watch this place day and night, every day, and it won't stay empty forever. One day, someone is going to come in and let me out, while you're not here to stop them."
Although I knew what she was trying to do, my resolve faltered - because she was, to some extent, right. There was a chance she'd stay in here for a long time undiscovered, but it was a gamble. And even though I was a betting man, it was a gamble I wasn't prepared to take.
'Leave her,' I told myself firmly. 'Sure, so it's impractical to leave her here indefinitely, but give it a few weeks, come back when she's weak and starving, and stake her then.'
But somehow, that suddenly felt like cheating. A cheap, cruel, cowardly revenge. Not the grand gesture I'd wanted to make for Harry. Leaving her here at all was not really what I'd wanted to do.
My plan... shortchanged me. And yes, she stood to gain from it if I risked opening that door, she didn't want to gamble being stuck here a long time, suffering - certainly better a quick staking or a chance of freedom than that.
But, also, what if somebody came in the next few weeks? Someone in Sunnydale might know they were based here, and come to check up on them when the Tours didn't turn up. Then, Darla would get away free.
I couldn't leave her here. But I also didn't want to give in to her manipulations. A few days wouldn't harm.
Tomorrow. I could come back tomorrow, with more stakes and Holy Water.
Come back, maybe, to an empty cell?
I looked at Darla, separated from me by the glass, and knew I couldn't let her out of my sight until she was dust.
My neck felt awful, and I didn't feel like fighting her again right now - but on the other hand, she wasn't in the best of shape either, tired and battered and with a hole through the center of one palm where the stake had gone in, earlier.
"All right," I said smoothly. "If that's what you want, lady, you're dust."
I retrieved one of the stakes from where it had fallen, and cautiously stepped forward, reaching for the door's complex locking mechanism.
I turned it, slowly.
I yanked on it, hard, using all my demon-enhanced strength, and it didn't budge.
Darla, on the other side, shrieked, "No!" She battered on the window with her bloodied, maimed hand. "No, no, no!" She screamed, her face contorted in fury and fear.
We could neither of us get to each other. She couldn't get out, and I couldn't get in.
I couldn't kill her. Stalemate.
I fell back from the door with a groan.
The empty bottle fell from my fingers and splintered on the floor. I barely noticed. By that time of the evening, I was pretty drunk, just like most days now.
I leaned over the window, seeing my own reflection there, seeing the city stretched out beyond it. My reflection didn't look like me any more. Even though, at that moment, it didn't look like a demon either. I pulled the window up, fumbling with alcohol-induced clumsiness, and the image disappeared.
Leaving me faced with only the vast, dark, sprawling vista of LA.
It was a fairly long way down, and I looked at it for some time before deciding, no, not today. I left the window wide open, letting a mild breeze blow through to toss papers around the shoddy little apartment, but I was too drunk to feel its chill.
The bottle... the traditional, effective anaesthetic.
I fetched myself another from the kitchen, and sat down in a tattered armchair to drink it, and tried not to think about the events of the past few weeks... as usual, a futility.
I didn't know exactly what it was that vampires did to make new vampires, and I didn't know whether it was done to Harry or not, but I wasn't going to take any chances. Harry's family never did forgive me for having her cremated the day after her death.
I couldn't exactly explain to them that I was making sure she wasn't going to rise from the grave. Then again, if they went ahead and had me committed, it might be the best thing.
The guy at the crematorium did ask me if I wanted to leave the ring on her hand, since it would only get melted into a useless lump. I hesitated for a moment, then said: "I'll switch rings, then."
"Same thing will happen."
"That's all right." I switched my ring with hers; our hands were the same size. From now on, I would wear her ring.
I brought the ashes home in a little box. The living room was still in a shambles, with fragments of the mirror and Harry's blood all over the rug. I could even see the imprint, in her blood, of where I lay sprawled for half the night beside her.
I broke the lease the next day and moved into a hotel until, a week or so after, I found this apartment. The company that managed the building billed me top dollar for cleaning up the place, but they didn't say a word about what caused the mess.
The police had been just as indifferent to the strangeness of my story, and the condition of Harry's body. I half expected them to lock me up. After all, isn't the husband always the first suspect? And I didn't have nearly the fight I expected to get them to release the body for a quick cremation.
The cop who took my statement, a big, burly guy who reminded me uncomfortably of Luke, didn't seem to be too interested in the details. Death by exsanguination even had its own little abbreviation, just another D.B.E. in L.A. As I left the police station, I heard him joking to another cop: "Tell Lockley she's won the pool on D.B.E.s for this week."
Somehow I didn't think that the Los Angeles Police Department was going to do much about the creatures that killed Harry.
I took a leave of absence from my job. It took awhile before I got around to telling them that I wasn't coming back. They would have figured it out fast enough when they read my obit in the paper, but somehow I never quite got around to the suicide that I thought about almost every day.
I spent a lot of time coming up with ways to do it, but I never actually tried. I didn't even know what the demon part of me would mean happened, when I died. For all I knew, it could be worse than this.
Instead, I found out that there were bars in L.A. where it didn't matter if you turn into a demon when you get drunk, because everybody else is just the same. It was a side of the city I'd never noticed before, and I could see it fast becoming my home.
After awhile, when I closed my eyes, I didn't see Harry's face any more. But sometimes, I still saw Darla's, and heard her laughing at me.
In the abandoned mental hospital I lay on my back on the floor, staring up at the settlement cracks in the ceiling and feeling the odd angle of my neck. Putting off the sickening wrench of pain that I would have to endure, sometime soon, to set it back right.
I'd only discovered my mistake when the door swung back. Then I'd realised what her unseen hand had been doing while I tried to open the door.
She hadn't stopped to fight me, just delivered the single, powerful, open-handed slap which snapped my already-weakened neck out of place again, and then ran.
I supposed I could take some comfort from the fact that she hadn't wanted to risk fighting me again, either. Unless, like before, she just enjoyed the irony and the cruelty of knowing someone she'd damaged was still out there, alive, still feeling her legacy.
I was a work in progress.
My mind floated over disconnected things. Harry, and the past. Things I couldn't change. Coming back, eventually, to wondering what Faith and Wesley would say when I got back home.
It took a long time just lying there alone in all the padded, empty space of the abandoned hospital before I finally pulled myself to my feet, to begin that journey back.