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.