The Way, Way Back
by Liz Estrada

Title: The Way, Way Back
Author: Liz_Estrada (liz_estrada@ yahoo.com)
Rating: R (bad words, sex, violence)
Summary: Kate conscripts Faith to help with a tricky problem
Disclaimer: Characters not mine. Makes me sad.
Warning & Spoilers: This story is much longer - and much weirder - than I ever intended. Short on action, long on talkyness... I think I'll blame it on excess exposure to paint fumes. Not many spoilers, just a few random refs to events from season one of Angel and seasons 3 and 4 of BtVS.

| Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 |

So we settled on Indian take-out and hied it back to the Echo Park trailer. Curried beef and rice and DAMN that stuff was hot! I actually raided the fridge for milk to cool the burn, though the milk nearly made me gag. I can't drink the stuff now without thinking about the Mayor. Milk's not supposed to make you feel bad, but it makes my stomach hurt something awful. Maybe I'll ask Doc Steinman if lactose intolerance could be psychosomatic... sheesh. Sometimes, I catch myself thinking words like that and wonder if I actually *am* getting smarter.

On the way back here, Kate ducked into a drugstore and bought me a purple and green toothbrush -- the kind with the fancy bristles that poke up at angles -- and I had to fight off the urge to kiss her again. Now she's in the kitchen, on the phone to Magic Shop Rick, and I'm in the bathroom brushing my brains out and enjoying it waaay too much. I know I've been at it a while, at least four minutes so far. It just feels so good, getting clean. I like taking my time.

Even though there's no mirror over the sink to see and I didn't hear her come back, I know Kate's behind me now. Watching me. Probably smiling over me being so dorky about this. I rinse and spit, drop the toothbrush in the plastic holder right beside hers, then I spin around and flash the pearlies. As expected, she laughs at me.

"Who'd have thought you'd be so obsessive about dental hygiene," she says.

"What can I tell ya? I've got an oral fixation." I waggle the eyebrows for effect and she rolls her eyes.

"Down, girl. Rick's coming over tonight."

"Ooh, kinky!" I moan, and this time, she actually blushes. I still think it's cute.

"Faith, please..."

"I know, I know - for the spell stuff. You told him about the stupid effect?"

"And the chill in your lungs, yes. He said he would do some research and bring the ingredients for a countermeasure. Also, he's bringing reference materials to help identify that crystal you took off the machine."

"Hot damn! Get a little info, get the magic on our side - that Tailor demon is in for a *serious* smack-down. This'll be wrapped up in no-time flat!"

I'm nearly jumping up and down, but Detective Kate is subdued. She purses her lips and nods, then heads back down the hall, leaving me alone with a fast-fading happy. It's tough being the only cheerleader on the squad. I don't get it -- I thought this was *good* news.

On the way out, I peek into the bedroom for a sec - nice and clean and almost bare, just like I expected. No lamps, no dresser, nothing at all but the bed and night stand. There's vacuum tracks on the carpet. The bed is made with hospital corners. There's a light blue pillar candle close by that almost matches the sheets. Only one pillow, though.

Kate must've left most of her stuff at her regular place, wherever that is. I bet it's spic-and-span, too, probably real nice. My head starts to drift that way and I cut back, reminding myself that I'll never see where she lives. Once this is over, I'm going back to jail. Doesn't do any good to daydream about dead ends.

The tv set is on and I go check out what she's watching. The early news is getting started, and I sit down on the sofa beside her to see what's going on in SoCal... well, not really. I think we're mainly waiting for any news of a police-aided jailbreak this morning, but the half-hour passes without chatter and without any mention of yours truly. The show closes out and Kate mutes the set.

"We got away with it," she says. "If no one questioned the release forms today, the computers won't note the inconsistency for months."

It takes me a tick to swallow my shock and respond. "Did you say months??"

"Mmm. Even then, they'll probably write it off as a processing error and correct the entries without re-checking the paperwork. Corrections is the busiest department in the justice system, and clerical mistakes happen. Nobody has the energy to run them all down."

Man, I've heard of people slipping through the cracks before, but this is just wacked. I wonder if she's being dollar honest; maybe she's planting this in my head to get me to reconsider running. I've never run off before with nobody chasing me. Now, I can only think of one person who'd even notice I was gone.

"Angel might think that you've decided to stop responding to his letters," Kate says. "He wouldn't know you were out for at least a week, maybe two, depending on when he has time to check your status."

I turn to face her, but her eyes are fixed on the carpet. "Quit reading my mind, okay? It's creeping me out."

She smiles a little. "Sorry. Bad habit."

"Cops," I say, like that explains it. "Bet your dad had ESP, too."

I wait and wait and it seems like she's not gonna respond at all. "No. He didn't," Kate finally says, in a cracked whisper that makes me wish I hadn't brought him up. He just died within the last year or two, I remember her telling me that. Probably still stings too much to joke about him, especially with a nobody like me. Okay, sooo... distraction time.

"Gimme the remote," I demand, reaching over and plucking it out of her hands before she can respond. "I wanna check MTV, see what fashion taboos I'm breaking this year."

Kate just groans quietly and sinks into the sofa pillows as I channel surf on up to music television. Strangely enough, MTV's actually playing a music video. It's some yummy boy band singing in tandem, doing weak little pelvic grinds for screaming teenyboppers. I don't turn the sound on, but I can't help watching. The effect they have on those girls, the power of being popular and cute and famous... lucky fuckers.

I remember being fifteen and boy crazy, chasing down the ones who ran and blowing off the ones who wanted me to stick around. I went to shows in Boston, but I wasn't content to just stand in the throng and yell - I had to get noticed. I had to get backstage and bluff my way through the cursory 'are you jail-bait?' interrogation so I could get high and go down and get gone. Thing is, the high was never long enough, the sex was blank, and I was already as *gone* as a girl could get without being dead.

It was just something to do because I could, something to hold over those middle-class 'burb bitches who sneered at me and talked shit behind my back. Hey, you go ahead and wear that t-shirt and buy the CD, sweetie - I know what his cock tastes like.

God, I was so pathetic, thinking that rubbing against some flash guy would change what I was. Garbage. Whore. Nothing. I can still hear those girls saying those words. I can still hear B saying those words. It doesn't matter. It's over now. Let it go, just let it go...

"Faith, are you okay?"

I drop the remote. Kate's hand is on my arm and she's watching me close, looking all concerned like she does. I blink at her and smile... and I taste tears leaking over my lips. I'm crying? When the fuck did that happen? Jesus, talk about pathetic. Weak. Dirty.

I pull away from her and stand up, give her my back. "Can I take a bath?"

"Listen, if you're worried about this and you want to call it off - "

"I'm not worried," I snap. "I missed latrine break today and I just want to get clean, okay? Unless you don't want me using your tub."

She steps around front and reaches out a hand, but I can't help jerking away. I don't need pity. I'm supposed to be the one helping her, right? The strong one. Kate's eyes fix on me and won't move off my face and I hate it that she's seeing me like this. I hate being like this, all weak and blubbery like some goddamned Oprah guest. I should be over this by now, right? I've been in therapy for over a year now -- how long does it take to grow past this crap? I shut my eyes and want it to be over right now.

"There are towels under the sink," she says. "I'll get you some fresh clothes."

By the time I look, she's walking away and letting it drop. Not pushing me, not trying to figure me out. I'm not sure how to react. I don't recall dealing with anybody this up-front and real before. Deeds, not words. Don't just talk nice, do nice. That's her.

"I think these will fit you," she calls out, coming back with a pair of chinos and a dark green tee shirt, a pile of clean socks and undies on top. She kinda stares off to the side while handing me the clothes. If I don't want her to see me cry, she's not gonna look. Kate. Why the hell was I crying, anyway? I wipe my face and haul out a weak grin.

"You know, you say you don't want me to kiss you again," I tell her, "But you're making it awful tough not to."

Again with the blushing. Still cute. "Maybe you should take a cold shower instead."

I shake my head, lean in and whisper as I walk by. "It wouldn't help."

++++++++++

I'm soaking deep in hot water, eyes shut, washcloth over my face, lights out. It's quiet here, just the plop of the faucet leaking, the random sounds of Kate cleaning up the kitchen. The only noise I can't block out is in my own head. I'm trying not to think about the last time I had a real bath instead of a shower. Naturally, this isn't working and I can't *stop* myself from thinking about it. It was nearly fifteen months ago, in Joyce Summers' house on Revello Drive. She only let me use the tub because I was wearing her daughter's skin at the time.

It was so weird, feeling that skin from the outside and the inside at once. I wondered if that was how it felt for her when I laid my hands on her body, if she got those same tingles and spasms under my fingers. I ran my hands down those legs, soap-slick, smooth-muscled... and sorta short. Same with the arms, but they were still nice. Strong as steel, too. I was hard under soft and golden everywhere... well, *almost* everywhere, but I already knew that particular secret. I used to tease B about that, told her we were both dark at the center. She never laughed at that line. At the time, I didn't know why. I didn't want to know.

I didn't even consider how it would feel if she got her body back, how it would feel being pulled out of her life again... albeit in a totally new way. I didn't think about seeing things through her eyes until it was almost too late. I just plain *didn't think,* you know? I didn't use the time right, just fucked it away like I always used to do. Only learned two things from that switcheroo mess, and both of 'em surprised me. First off, the Mayor, for all his smiles and sno-cones and fatherly poses, felt sure that I'd be dead meat without him. Erroneous assumption, boss. Second and even more surprising -- I hated me a lot more than Buffy did.

I wonder if she's still with that blond dude, the one who said he loved her. What was his name? Riley. Livin' the life of Riley. Mrs. Donnelly from my old school used to say that about people who had it made. If B's still with him, Riley Finn's sure got it made - just don't fuck around on her or lie to her, and don't tell her what to do. Don't hurt her. For God's sake, don't hurt her. If you really do love her, causing her pain will eat at you for the rest of your days.

There's a soft knock at the door. "Faith?"

I groan a little and whip the washcloth off my face. "Present. Come on in."

Kate hesitates. "Are you dressed already?"

"Nope. I repeat, come on in."

No response. Either she's thinking it over or she's trying to suppress her gag reflex. I wonder what I'd do if she called me on all this flirting, if she did come in and wanted to... naah. Not gonna happen.

The knob turns and the door opens. Okay, so I was wrong. Sometimes, being wrong is a good thing. Kate steps through and leaves it open just a crack, so a little light slants in from the hall. She's finally taken off the shoulder rig. Her blue shirt is untucked, sleeves rolled up.

The room seems smaller now, smaller and a whole lot warmer. I'm not gonna assume anything off her coming in, I'll just lie here in the tub and see what's what. Kate sits on the toilet lid and folds her hands, kinda looks over at me, but only my face. Doubt she could see much else, anyway. It's still pretty dark in here.

"I just wanted to know if you were okay," she says. "You seemed upset earlier."

"Passing thing," I tell her. "All better now."

"I meant what I said. If that was about you being nervous or not wanting to go forward with this - "

"It wasn't, okay? It wasn't about that. I'm over it."

Looks like she only wants to talk about my boo-hoo fit. Just my luck. This is kinda cool, though, her being this comfortable around me, even with all the trash I've been talking. I swish the rag in the water and soap it up again, take another scrub at my arms. She watches me, and I catch myself flexing a bit, showing off my new prison muscles.

I've never been this cut before, never spent so much time on the weights. Didn't need to; I had the strength already, it just didn't show. Now it shows. I used to work out mostly by sparring, but nobody will fight me anymore. Chuny's taught me some capoera moves she learned from her Brazilian dad, but she won't step onto the mat with me so I can try them out. She says I'm too fuckin' scary, even though I'm reining in the Slayer Bam as best I can.

Kate doesn't seem scared of me. For me, yeah, but not of me. As far along as we are with this Tailor demon mess, she's still trying to give me an out. I wonder what Judge Guerlain would have to say about that, about her coaxing me to run off. I see her shift around a little and whatever she's gonna ask, I'm probably not going to feel like answering, so I jump first.

"Are you doing that judge?" Stupid, rude question, but now I want to know.

She adjusts to the change pretty fast, doesn't seem offended. "No," she says, shaking her head. "Daniel is just a friend."

"Must be some friend. You say the word and he sticks his neck out like a giraffe."

Kate shrugs. "He had no choice. I have pictures of him with a three-headed prostitute."

Despite the deadpan, I know she's pulling my leg this time. "Come on, straight-up. Why'd he sign on to help you in the first place?"

After a few seconds of dead quiet, she sits back against the tank, slumps a little. She looks tired in the shadows, the dark circles around her eyes stand out worse. Maybe the dim light and the heat from the tub are working on her, making her sleepy. Good. She could use a nap. Just when I think she's on the edge of dozing, she straightens and the eyes snap wide.

"In college, I was engaged to Daniel's son," Kate says. "His name was Hulce. We were too young, it ended, we remained friends. He was killed last year. I went to the funeral, cried with Daniel, met Hulce's family. I placed a lily on his coffin and said goodbye. Two days later, Hulce... rose... and fed on his own wife and son."

Jesus. I stop scrubbing and sit still. "Vamp?" I ask, low and quiet.

Kate shudders and nods. "Next evening, he came for Daniel in the courthouse parking lot. I was waiting... and I staked him. Daniel saw it happen, so I had to explain about what's out there, all the stuff we don't want to see. He sees it now, looks for it in his cases. He's become Wolfram and Hart's least favorite judge."

That explains why he was talking up Mexico when he was here earlier - the satanic lawyers must have his picture on their dartboard. If they really want him gone, he'll get gone.

"Maybe *he* should take that trip south of the border," I suggest.

"Only if there's no alternative. He'd rather stay here and fight the good fight," Kate replies.

"See, that's why I don't wanna vacate." I splash a little to sell my point, and I start scrubbing at my legs. "I don't wanna quit on California - it's already in deep shit."

"We don't want to quit, either, but without a badge, I'm just another vigilante. Without his seat on the bench, Daniel has no authority to punish Wolfram's dirty clients. We risked all that when we... you know. Now we have to fix it by using the Tailor, or fix it by confessing. If we confess, we either run or go to jail and, either way, we're deserting our obligations.

"You, on the other hand, can take the fight anywhere, and you don't need some huge organization to back you up, to give you the power to act. You can make a difference on your own, anywhere in the world. That's what I want you to keep in mind."

Yeah, right -- I'm hell on wheels solo. Righting wrongs and singing songs... where have I heard that before? Hmm. Well, I've shampooed and scrubbed as much as I can stand, so I rinse off the suds and pull the tub stopper. Kate stands up and hands me a big, fresh-smelling yellow towel.

"You know, Detective, the truth is that every time I go it alone, I wind up diving headlong into a pile of crap," I tell her while toweling off. She's still looking at me, but not in a pervy way. Just taking me in, I guess. "Until I know I've smashed down my Darth Vader tendencies, I need something pushing against me to keep me straight. Jail does that pretty good."

She only makes a hmph noise in response. Her eyes have stalled somewhere over the middle of me. "How did you get that scar?" she asks, pointing toward... oh. *That* one.

"Tragic, senseless accident." I wrap the towel around my head turban-style, and Kate hands me another. I assume this one is for the bod, so I oblige and cover myself. She's still waiting for the rest of the story. "See, I was making a bologna sandwich and the knife slipped - "

"Forget it," she sighs, waving her hand for me to hush. "I see this is a one-way thing. I don't mean to push."

Uh-oh. She's serious; the flip trip is ticking her off. She serves up something real, and I hand her a stack of tired jokes. "Hey, I'm sorry. My shrink says it's a defense mechanism."

"I didn't realize I put you on the defensive."

"You don't. It's me, you know? I'm just not used to this."

"Faith, you can tell me something's not my business and I'll drop it," she says. "I'm trying to get to know you, even though it's against my better judgment, and if you want me to back off, I don't have a problem with that. I just... it's been a while for me. I was enjoying having someone to talk with."

Kate turns to leave, opens the door just as I open my mouth. Hope it's not too late.

"Buffy. Big knife. Kidney damage. Tall building. Head trauma. Eight month coma."

She takes all that in, turns her eyes on me and says, "I'm sorry. That must have hurt."

Big, fat understatement, which I shrug off. "Ehh, I earned it. Everything healed up okay... except I pee through my left ear now."

"Well, I'm impressed," she says, rubbing her eyes and trying not to laugh. "You were serious for all of twenty seconds. Maybe next time, we'll try for a full minute."

"Don't rush me. I'll keep trying."

"I'm counting on that."

She speaks in that sly fox way some people have, like a bunch of things are being said at once. They all sound good to me.

Kate steps out and shuts the door, and my face gets split in half by a hugely dopey grin. Bet I look completely stupid right now, stupid and happy. I snag one of the broken mirror fragments from the trash can and take a look at myself -- yep, stupid and happy. I doubt I've ever looked like this before, 'cause I sure don't remember feeling like this before. Too bad it won't last. Nothing good ever does.

++++++++++

I spent about an hour and a half reading nifty little things from The Temporal Arcana of Jeulnor while Kate watched CNN. She let me alone so I could focus and take the stuff in properly, but I got pretty tired there toward the end. I think the text and the tv audio started getting crossed up in my head. I quit reading right around the time the Chronos crystals of Meregar were rescued by sports anchor Inga Hammond. Shortly after that, company arrived.

Magic Shop Rick identified the crystal I stole from the Tailor, and I was pretty much on target. He said the thing is kind of like a battery charged with temporal magic, so it probably works as a power source for the machine. He said the seam ripper was pretty hot, too, that it's charged-up with magic just like the crystal. For the moment, I've got that rocket scientist feeling, all shiny in the eyes from my brush with smartness.

Kate and me are standing by the stove, watching this moderately cute wizard-for-hire do his thing on the kitchen table. He works fast, this guy. Measures out the ingredients, mixes 'em up like a pharmacist.

"You don't have asthma, do you, Nadine?" Rick asks me.

I key in on the southern accent -- Kate's suggestion, like the fake name. Another puff of smoke to keep me hidden, just in case. "Naw, sugar. I'm healthy as a horse."

"Super. Glad to hear it."

He's fiddling around with a small metal cylinder, hitching it to this thing that looks like a miniature air pump. The feed chamber for the pump is filled with all his weird little magic fartblossoms. After I explained in detail about the spell effects, he chucked a bunch of stuff in that chamber and burned it to ash, trapping the smoke until was "ripe." Ripe is a good word for it -- a little bit of it leaked out, and whoo! The stuff smells worse than dead cats on fire.

"And here we go!" Rick flips on the air pump and the smoke is sucked from the chamber and shushed into the little metal canister. He shuts down the machine and plucks out the canister, then slips it into a little plastic holder with a button and an open tube... uh-oh. I've seen one of those before. I'm gonna have to suck that crappy smoke into my lungs. Shitsticks.

"Voila!" he says, handing the inhaler to Kate with a flourish. "This should counteract the inhibition spell and effectively neutralize the malleability enchantment. I took the liberty of adding a second-sight enhancer, which could come in handy if you find yourselves temporally displaced, or in non-linear positions."

"Non-linear positions -- like in the Kama Sutra?" I wink at Kate and she rolls her eyes.

"Are you sure this will work?" she asks Rick, one eyebrow on full skeptic alert.

He flashes a salesman smile. "Double your money back guarantee, Detective. But... there may be a side-effect."

"Lemme guess," I chime in. "Skunk breath?"

He nods slowly. "Extreme, lingering halitosis is a possibility."

"Lingering for how long?"

"Up to and possibly exceeding three days," he mutters. "The taste of food and drink could also be... altered. Unpleasantly."

"No eating, no drinking, and no kissing? Christ, just shoot me now!" I complain.

Rick shrugs in apology. "Your results may vary," he offers hopefully.

I huff, Kate nods, and Rick gathers up his stuff in a big black leather duffle. On his way out, Kate slips him an envelope. He checks inside, smiles, then tucks it inside his sport jacket and goes on his merry way. I wonder how much she paid him.

"How much did you pay that guy?" Geez, that was direct. Almost Kate-like.

"Tonight?" she asks, dropping onto the couch. I nod and she says, "Eight hundred."

Holy crap! $800 for that rat to make a housecall? What a racket! "How much, total?"

She thinks for a second, taps her chin."About four thousand."

"Holy crap! Four large for a couple of spells, an old box and a piece of string??"

"And his silence," she adds. "Don't forget that."

"Katie, consider the bargain route: I can stuff his mouth with five singles and and a tape gag and he'll be quiet as a monk!"

"Faith..."

"The guy's ripping you off!" I'm trying not to yell and pace, but I'm yelling and pacing anyway. Jesus, my head feels like it's gonna pop! "Plus -- no offense -- but I know cops don't draw much green, not unless they're some scumbag on the take and I *know* you're not on the take! You can't afford to let people jack your cash like that!"

"It's not my cash," she says quietly.

I stop pacing at the edge of the carpet. "Come again?"

"It's not really mine," she repeats. Her eyes are down, her voice is shaky. "I didn't want it, but my father... he left me some money. Actually, he left me a *lot* of money."

"But he was a cop, too, right? Where did he get that kind of... uhhh... "

I see it now, in the ABC logic of us talking and in the way Kate's reacting. Her dad was on the take. I want to suck those stupid words back into my mouth, but it's too late. I am such an asshole. Super-sized. Biggie. Kate's got her elbows on her knees, her face stuffed in her hands.

"I'm sorry." My voice cracks, and I take a step toward her. "I'm surprised I can even talk with this damn foot wedged in my mouth. I'm real sorry for saying that."

Kate shakes her head, sighs. Her eyes look red, but she's not crying. She just looks beat. "You called me Katie," she says.

I think back a minute and remember -- it just slipped out. "Sorry."

"Stop that. You haven't done anything to me that merits being sorry."

Hard tone, but at least she didn't threaten to beat me to death for apologizing. "If it bothers you, I'll try to remember not to call you that anymore."

"No, it's okay," she tells me. "Dad called me Katie. I think my mom did, too, but it's hard to remember. I liked hearing it again."

"Oh. Good." She liked it. I like that she liked it. I did something right. I take a couple more steps and lean against the end of the couch. "Your cop friends don't call you Katie?"

She squints and frowns. "No. These days, nine times out of a ten, they call me Lockley. The tenth is usually either 'Kate' or 'ball-busting bitch.'"

I laugh through my nose and it comes out as a loud piggy snort. Man, I hate when that happens, but it's usually only when something totally takes me by surprise and I forget to be cool. Kate is taken aback by the gross noise and she starts laughing at me, which makes me laugh even harder. She looks like a kid when she laughs; light and sweet and pretty, no worries.

"I think your family tree may have sprouted from a pig pen," she cracks, wiping good tears from her eyes. She sighs and flops back into the couch cushions, sinking in deep. "I didn't know sounds like that could come out of human beings."

I'm bent over the couch arm trying to catch my breath and I can't think of a clever comeback, so I just lay my face against the pillows and get my air back in order. The back of my head hurts, all tight and hot from laughing. My stomach muscles are tired, too, like I've racked off a few hundred ab crunches. Come to think of it, between the Tailor's wacky moron spell and Kate's B.B. Bitch crack, I've laughed more today than any day I can remember.

I feel good. I really feel good. It's hard to say how much of it is from the situation, since breaking out of jail and running around like a free fool gives me a serious misbehavin' high, and how much of it is from today's action - I really felt a couple pegs above worthless after dancing with that demon. Kate factors in there somewhere, too. It's just that, after what she said about the circumstances making us imagine some connection that isn't there, I'm trying to be careful. I don't wanna buy stock in Warm Fuzzy, Inc. just to see it go belly-up tomorrow.

"If we're gonna get that early start, I better hit the rack," I mumble into the cushions. The couch is in good shape, so I oughta be able to catch some winks out here, drift off watching the tv. Kate says nothing in reply, so I look up and... I'll be damned. Lady Blue is zonked-out.

"Kate?" I lean over and nudge her leg. Nada. She's down for the count.

I think for a second about taking the bed and letting her doze on out here, but that doesn't seem right. She hasn't slept right for a while, and it'd probably do her a world of good to snooze eight hours and wake up in a bed, like normal people do. I touch her leg and give her a little shake, but she's not waking up. Maybe she's passed out from exhaustion. I hear that can happen to people when they're under heavy stress for long stretches.

Whatever. Point is, she's not couching it tonight. I loop one arm under her legs and slip the other behind her back, scoop her up careful and slow. Her head lolls and she makes a little moany noise when I start walking, but we make it to the bedroom without any trouble. I lay her down flat on top of the sheets and she turns on her side, slips her hands up to the pillow - same position I tend to sleep in. Back against the wall, hands up high to guard the head. The posture of someone who expects trouble, that's what the doc calls it.

I take off her shoes and set them at the foot of the bed, then turn to leave. Wait -- blanket. She needs a blanket or something. I don't see one near the bed, and I don't want to turn on the bright overhead light to look around. There's a lighter and a candle on the nightstand, so I flick and flame and use the wick light to see. I find a folded throw in the closet, one of those soft things that feels nice against the skin. Buffy's mom had one on her sofa.

Don't go back there. That is not a happy place. Put the candle back on the stand, unfold the throw and drape it over the sleeping cop. The one who broke me out of jail this morning, who I kissed this afternoon, who looks as lost and lonely in sleep as I've ever felt awake. Impulse takes over again as I lean down and tuck the throw around her shoulders, brush a fingertip across the cuts on her knuckles - and she grabs my right hand.

I don't think she's awake, maybe less than half-way, so I whisper to calm her back to sleep. "It's alright. Everything's okay. Rest now." I try to pull away but she hangs on.

"No," she murmurs. Her eyes squeeze tight and her fingers dig into my palm.

I sit on the edge of the bed and try to make my voice smooth, low. "Shhh, shhh. Everything's gonna be all right, I promise. Sleep now, Katie." Again, I try to slip from her grip, but she hangs on. Jesus, she's got strong hands.

"Stay," she says. At least, I think she said it. Maybe I just imagined it.

"I'll be close-by. You need me, just call." Another escape attempt, no luck... or too much luck. She's not letting me go.

"Stay here."

Her voice was clear that time. Stay here. I heard it. I wonder if she's actually asleep, or if this is some guilt-free way to get me in bed. Oh, it wasn't my fault - I was asleep! Would she pull a cheap stunt like that?

Shit. Who cares? No matter why she's asking, I'm not gonna turn her down.

I quietly kick off the borrowed Adidas and stretch out on my back beside her. No pillow for me, which means my neck is gonna have a crick in the morning. I fold my left arm under my head and Kate finally lets go of my hand... and her arm slides across my stomach. Just when I think 'the move' is about to be applied, she sighs and nestles her face in the pillow. She really is asleep. I don't know whether to be disappointed or relieved.

Relieved, I guess. After all, I can't think of one person I've fucked who doesn't hate me or think I'm a total slag. Kate likes me. All that psych-jabber aside, she actually likes me and I know that for a fact. So as much as I'd love to roll a quarter-turn to the right and give her a three-to-one kiss (called such 'cause the odds are three-to-one that she'd wake up horny as hell and ready to spread for me), I *will not* do it.

I'm not gonna wreck this. I know it won't last much longer, but I'm not gonna be the one to drive us into the wall. Instead, I think about tomorrow morning and the return trip to the Tailor's den. I have a game plan this time. Screw Slayer instinct; I want to beat this demon fast and get Kate back on track. I can't afford to blow it. I go over the routine again and again until my brain gets muzzy and all I can hear is my own inner voice and Kate's breathing.

Needle, blood, fatecord, wind into machine, small pedal, large pedal, hissing sound, green glow, seam ripper, gap opens over mirror, go into the black...

Then what? Assuming I can crank the machine, how do I get Kate back to three p.m. on January 13th? And once she's done there, how do I get her out? That's what the demon's gonna tell me tomorrow, unless he wants to swallow a whole lot of pain. I'd surely love to feed him some.

A smile slides across my face. I lick two fingers, reach for the candle and snuff the wick.

++++++++++

A rude brightness sneaks under my eyelids. I must have slept through lights-up and first bed check. Wonder why the hacks let me sleep in? I'm on my side facing the light and it's so warm, it's almost like the sun. I don't want to get up, but it feels like nearly six-thirty and the breakfast bell is gonna ring soon. I frown and dig my face into the pillow that smells like hair and breath but not mine and not Chuny's and the long arm around my waist cinches tight and pulls me close and I remember that I'm not in prison.

That was yesterday morning; today, I'm in bed with a cop.

"Wha?"

I hear her speak and I open my eyes just in time to see Kate wake up. Her face is about three inches from mine, so it's hard to miss the sparks of panic jumping off her like fleas. Her eyes dart downward and she notes that we're both still dressed, that she's under the throw and I'm not. I can see her relax in that very second. Her eyes drift shut and she sighs.

"Thank God," she mutters.

I yawn and smile as I notice she hasn't moved her arm. We're side-by-side, face to face on the same pillow -- you couldn't slide a cigarette between us in most places. She doesn't seem in a big hurry to let go, either. "Thank God, my ass. You dig me like a ditch."

Kate grins, slaps at my hip and rolls onto her back. "I slept through the night?"

"Sure did. How do you feel?"

She stretches her arms out, arches her calves, moans kind of low. "Good. Really good."

"Beauty." I sit up and throw my legs over the side, reach for the sneakers. I feel her hand rest on my back and I freeze half-way down.

"You carried me in here?"

Come on, nimrod. Speak and move. Take shoe, slip on foot, repeat. "Yeah. Slayers are handy that way."

"Thank you," she says.

Her hand draws away slow, trailing along my spine and making my sides clench. I know she had to notice that -- I practically *shook,* for Christ's sake. What is wrong with me? Steinman hasn't gotten around to picking apart my sexual problems yet, but I know this is something I need to tackle, why my brain automatically translates "friendly" into "naked friendly." Maybe it's something I can work through, or maybe I'm just doomed to be arrecha por vida (horny for life), like Chuny Escobar or Angelina Jolie.

"Are you hungry?" Kate asks.

Lady, you have no idea. "Hell, yeah. My appetite's rolling in, Code Three."

A snicker over my stab at cop jargon, then she's off the bed and stretching her back. I hear a couple of pops and she groans deep and long, then turns around and smiles at me. "I think I can find you something suitable to eat. Let me go clean myself up first."

You're clean enough for me right now, is what I'm thinking. I am *such* a dog. When I get this way, everything sounds like a come-on. I need a second to wipe the smut off my brain before I can respond.

"10-4, Detective," I say, martialing a half-salute. I should probably advise her to proceed with caution, but part of me wants her reckless and stumbling through whatever this is, whatever's happening between us. I don't want to be the only one who's ass-backward lost.

++++++++++

Kate's running low on clothes; I'm wearing her last pair of clean jeans and a U.S. women's soccer team t-shirt, and she's sporting a sleeveless black t-neck under yesterday's suit. I told her the wrinkled look works on her, gives her that rumpled Columbo vibe. She told me I was full of crap.

I'm loading up on protein and carbs, fuel for the day ahead. Eggs, bacon, English muffins with jam, juice and coffee, and it's all ten times better than anything I've had in forever. It's taking a real effort on my part not to fall on the food like a starving dog. Good thing the talking is slowing me down.

"The demon gets his mojo from the machine," I'm saying around a mouthful of turkey bacon, "so it makes sense that if the machine is hobbled, his power is slashed, too. He might not even have those wards up -- the stupid spell, I mean."

"If he does, you'll use Rick's inhaler."

Eww. Skunk breath. "I don't *want* to, but yeah, I'll keep it handy. Either way, I don't think he's real dangerous without his gadget feeding him juice."

"But will he be weakened enough to intimidate?" Kate asks.

"Total wuss. I popped him once in the gut and he went down hard."

Kate nods and licks a spot of strawberry jam off her fingertip. "A lover, not a fighter."

"I don't think he's either one," I say. "It evens out, though. Some of us get to be both."

She looks at me for a long tick, her finger on her lips, eyes locked on my mouth. Poker face is in full effect - I can't tell if she sees a piece of egg on my chin, or if she's thinking about sweeping the dishes aside and pulling me across the table. I honestly can't tell and the not knowing just sucks like a Hoover. Makes it hard to pick your moments.

Kate turns her head. There goes another chance, up in smoke.

"Do you want to take something in with you? A weapon of some sort?" she asks.

I haven't fought with a weapon since I killed that demon in Angel's apartment. I don't think I'm ready to run with scissors yet. "Naah, don't need one. I'm the all-American bad-ass, no accessories required. My hands are usually enough to get the job done."

She glances at me sharp, then shakes her head. "I guess it would be pointless to ask you to stop that."

I didn't realize I did anything. I'm not fidgeting or whistling, not even chewing with my mouth open. "Stop what?"

"Flirting with me. Being so... suggestive."

Oh, she thought the stuff I said about hands and accessories was... heh. Katie's got a naughty streak. Good to know. "I'm not sure I can go cold turkey."

The corner of her mouth turns up; guess she's not too disappointed. "Could you scale it back a little? Until this is over."

"I'm getting to you, huh?"

She looks me straight-on and says, "Yes, you are. So, please... "

I know it wasn't all me, but I started it, I pushed it to a place where she's saying 'please let me alone.' God, I am such a dick. "Okay, consider it dropped."

I'm reaching for another piece of toast, something to stuff in my yap so I don't have to talk anymore, when Kate reaches up and takes my hand, gets my attention back.

"Until this is over," she repeats. "Then I'm gonna come see you."

Dazed now. She's gonna come see me. "In jail?"

"That's up to you. Wherever you are, we're gonna take some time to talk - without this strangeness hanging overhead - and we'll see if there's something here."

Something real, she means. Something that doesn't depend on intense circumstances and close quarters. Makes sense, but there's a big downside. "What if there's nothing?"

"I'll thank you for your help and I'll walk away." She blinks slow and tightens her fingers around mine. "But I don't foresee that happening. I can't write this up as a false alarm."

My eyes feel like they're stretched wide open - the always popular 'deer in headlights' look -- and my hands are starting to sweat. On the outside, I must look terrified, but the truth is that I'm not scared at all. I'm on intimate terms with scared, and this is different; it feels like excitement, like anticipation but better.

Not too familiar with it, so this is just a guess: I think it might be hope.

A few seconds slip by quiet before I tighten my hand around Kate's, lean across the table and kiss her again. It's better this time. She sees me coming and she's ready; her mouth softens and takes me in, tongue wraps me up, strikes a bright flare inside me and I know in that instant that it's not a false alarm for me, either. This feeling is too good, makes me forget everything that got me here, makes me believe that nothing bad will ever happen to me again... it's too good. If I don't stop now, I won't stop at all. We won't leave this place for a long, long time.

But there's work to do. A demon to whip, mistakes to set straight. This can wait, right? It's gonna have to wait. We'll have time to pick this up later. Kate's surprised when I break off and back away, but I smile at her and eventually she smiles back. It's embarrassing, how much I like seeing her happy. I sit down and let go of her hand, fold my arms over my stomach.

"That'll have to hold you," I tell her. "Until this is over."

Kate groans and buries her face in her hands. "I have completely lost my mind."

"It happens. Just treat it like a roller coaster ride -- throw your hands up and scream! Enjoy it! I'll make sure you don't fall out."

She rolls her eyes, shakes her head... then Detective Kate Lockley of the LAPD literally throws her hands up and screams loud enough to shake the windows.

Damn. I think she's one of the coolest people I've ever met. I want more time with her, wanna hear everything she has to say about anything. Well, visiting day comes every week.

Then again, I've never been to Mexico. Wonder what Cabo's like this time of year.

++++++++++

It's nearly nine and we're back on the road, cruising toward the scene of the crime. This time *I'm* the one having second thoughts. I can't put my finger on it, but there's something gnawing at my confidence, something telling me to back off. It's just nerves, I guess. Only reason I was so gung-ho before, I had nothing to lose. Now, I just might have something to look forward to.

For the third time on the drive, I check my pockets. Inhaler in right front, seam ripper with the point wrapped in left back, spark plug/crystal dealie in right back... and a wad of fifties from Kate in the left front. Running money, in case the sky falls down and we have to split up. She has a plan for this.

There's an airport locker key tied into the laces of my left shoe. In that locker, there's a couple of birth certificates, driver's licenses and passports under the names Rita Lance and Stephanie Frieberg -- two fake broads who bear a freaky resemblance to me and Kate, though I'm pretty sure Katie got the cool name.

I'm to pick up the papers, buy a shuttle ticket to San Francisco, and meet Kate and Judge Guerlain at the Southwest terminal. From there, we'll head to Cabo and regroup, figure out what steps to take next. This is Kate's plan B, and she says my participation is totally optional, since there's another way out of trouble for me.

In the locked case under the back seat is a letter to the warden excusing my absence from prison, explaining that I was just an innocent caught up in a misguided cover-up scheme. It details the events that led to those two boys getting convicted, and gives the location of two security camera videotapes that would back the boys' version of events. The letter is signed by Detective Kate Lockley and Judge Daniel Guerlain, and it would get me off the hook for sure, but it would also turn their names to mud for cops and judges and the Hispanics to throw at each other. Sure, they screwed up big-time, but they don't deserve that kind of eternal dissing.

I haven't told Kate yet, but even if I have to walk back to jail, I won't be using that letter. I can leak the videotape tip to the boys' lawyer so they can appeal the convictions and get a new trial, but that's all I'm giving up. If the cops want more answers about the case or about my vanishing act, let 'em sniff around that dummy paper trail and earn their paychecks.

I can take the heat for the escape. Let Corrections tack as much time onto my sentence as they want, since it doesn't really matter what the number is, anyway. If something comes up, if somebody worth helping needs this backup Slayer, you can bet your ass that I will leave prison again. It's not like they could stop me if I really wanted out.

Jail was my choice. I went inside to get my shit together, to have time away from everyone I hurt so I could figure out why it happened and make sure it would never happen again. I figured it would take a long time to get things sorted out, and I know I'm not done yet, not by a mile. There's still a few black wells hiding in my head and I need to keep searching them out, keep tapping and capping before they blow.

I'm pretty good now, though, better than I thought I'd be after fourteen months. Part of that's Doc Steinman helping me see things clearly, part of it's Angel writing to me and believing in me, but it's mostly just me. Just me trying to do the right thing minute by minute. After the first few months, jail wasn't a challenge anymore. I knew the routines. Nothing tested me or pushed me except the therapy sessions.

Steinman says that people are like tea bags, since you never know how strong they are 'til you drop them in hot water. Prison was lukewarm, tops. Kate Lockley, on the other hand, dropped me in some seriously hot water and took a sip to check my brew. She says I can pass muster now and I want to believe her. Like I told Kate, I just don't know if I'm strong enough to jump into Slaying again, especially alone.

The world is way bigger than Boston and Sunnydale and Los Angeles. There's so much I want to see and do and feel and touch and taste... I want to live some more before I die. I'm not in danger of croaking in prison, but inside I was half-dead and getting stiffer as the months dragged on. I feel alive now, my blood is loose and warm. I don't want to let this feeling go.

If there was a way to know that I could trust myself, a way to be sure that I wouldn't do that dark side dance again, I'd say buh-bye to prison life. I'd fix this Tailor demon mess, slip out of the pen, then take Kate Lockley to Cabo San Lucas to raise some serious hell. Maybe she'd go back to the force after her vacation days were used up, or maybe she'd decide to hang with me for a while, see what kind of trouble we could get into together.

I haven't come right out and asked her about that. If she can go back to work clean, I'm assuming she'll want to do that. Being a cop is her total deal, as far as I can tell. She's not a Watcher, not trained to back a Slayer, and why the hell would she want to try it? It's a hazardous gig. She could get hurt. Killed. I've failed my backers before. What if I couldn't protect her?

My stomach's starting to hurt. I'm getting ahead of myself, worrying about things that might not even happen. The Tailor demon could ambush me inside the shop, split my skull with an axe... but I seriously doubt it. I've got this sinking feeling that working the machine and dealing with the demon will be the easy part -- I don't mind sitting in the way, way back. There's nothing behind me that scares me or tempts me as much as what's ahead.

My future. I don't know where it's set - an 8x8 cell or a Baja beach. I don't know what role I'll play - the convict, the fugitive, or the hero. Maybe I'll make good and Buffy will forgive me. Maybe I'll sprout wings and fly over Sunnydale, drop a loaf on Willow Rosenberg's head. I don't know. All I'm sure of is that by the time I wake up tomorrow, this will be over and at least one thing's gonna be different. At least one thing will change.

When this is over, Kate's gonna come see me. And we'll talk without all this strangeness overhead. And there *will be* something there, something real. That's what I'm worried about.

Every time I've wanted something this bad, I've gotten it. But I always lose it. I want Kate Lockley, and the chances are pretty good that I might get her. The chances are also pretty good that I won't have her for long. Something bad will happen and it'll probably be all my fault. Jesus, my stomach hurts...

"You're awfully quiet," she says.

Her voice startles me. I wince, then try to play it off as a grin. "Makes two of us."

She snorts softly, hangs a slow right turn. "I wish I knew what to say."

"Makes two of us." I look at her, then out the window. We're in the city, on surface streets, probably getting close to Melrose. "Are we almost there?"

"Yeah. Another three blocks."

"Good." She lifts an eyebrow and I explain, "Nerves are starting to jangle."

"Mmm. Does that always happen before you face a demon?"

"No, it's not about that," I tell her. "I'm thinking about after. What comes next."

"Is that a question?" she asks, half turned to me.

I'm not sure. Maybe it was. "You got an answer?"

We're waiting at a stoplight, one block away from the Tailor's last known location, as Kate locks onto my eyes and reaches for my hand. Her fingers wrap around mine and squeeze tight. My stomach eases off a bit and a warm feeling spreads inside my chest. I don't want her to let go of me; I like how she hangs on.

"The good part," she says. "That's what comes next."

Aww, fuck it. Seriously, just FUCK IT! I wanna go to Mexico. I want to lay on the beach and drink sangria and eat at Edgardo's and slay vampires who don't speak English and make love with this woman until we forget our own names.

I don't care how long it lasts - a week, a day, an hour - if Kate's around, I'll take it and smile like a drunken monkey. I won't screw it up. I won't lie and I won't steal and I'll only kill bad guys and I won't ever, ever do anything to hurt her. Please, God, please... just give me one more turn. I fucking swear on my fucking life that I'll do it right this time.

I'll even stop cussing. Just... please... please... please.

The Dodge stops and Kate tries to pull her hand away. I hang on. She gives me a look, then reaches over and awkwardly uses her left hand to shift the car into park and cut the engine. Over her shoulder, through the driver's side window, I can see the Tailor's shop. The Retro Active illusion is still up and running, and the "Closed" sign is still in the window -- as is the blue leather jacket. I point at the shop and Kate turns to look.

"That leather jacket really got me. It was part of the spell, sucked me right in."

"I only see an empty storefront," she responds. "For Lease from McKenna Realty."

"The demon slid us together, me and that jacket, and it was wicked trippy. Sweet and warm and nauseating all at once. Like eating a peyote coin and a half-dozen chocolate bars."

"Really." Kate looks amused. "I have no point of reference to help me understand what that might be like."

And I don't know why I'm telling her this. I might be stalling. My stomach is churning again and I'm none too eager to start sucking on Rick's skunk smoke, which I'll probably have to do real soon. Uggh. I think I *am* stalling.

"You didn't miss any big wing-ding. I saw a giant chicken jump into Boston Harbor, then the water started boiling and I was thrilled because now there was enough soup to feed everybody in the world. I was so hungry, I actually drank some of that sludge, then I puked for about three hours and passed out. I woke up next afternoon on the roof of a Burger King in Watertown -- no clue how I got there."

Kate's quiet, letting my tirade slack and fade. That's the closest I've come to poor-mouthing myself in front of her, and it's as close as I ever want to get. No pity.

"Maybe the giant chicken dropped you off," she suggests.

Heh. I forgot for a second who I was dealing with - Miss Unflappable '01.

"Smart-ass." I squeeze her hand, smile a little. "Chickens don't fly."

"You can," she whispers. "It's not too late."

One last reminder that I'm not obligated to stick around, that my safety means more to her than her job, her rep. She's not the kind who puts herself first. She'd go to jail to spring those two boys she wronged, and she'd probably go with me to the far side of the planet if I told her I needed her help.

"If I cut out right now, you'd have to leave, too," I remind her. "Like you said, you and the judge would be over in this town. No badge, no robe."

Kate glances down, nods. "I know."

"You sure you could give it up?"

"We wouldn't stagnate," she tells me. "Daniel has connections in several countries. I think that, between the three of us, we could make a real impact somewhere."

"A cop, a judge and a Slayer." The words don't seem to go together. What's that kiddie song? One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn't belong...

"Team Faith," Kate says, smirking.

"Aww, geez! Just cut it out." I'm blushing so hot, it's like a bad sunburn. Add that to the stomach ache and the warm wash in my chest that's happening every time I look at her too long, and I'm feeling altogether too weird. "I gotta go in there and finish this thing, okay?"

Ten, fifteen seconds pass in silence. I haven't let go of her hand and she hasn't tried to pull away. She must be waiting for me to do something. Even though it means breaking my word, and even though we're parked on a very public street within view of heaps of people -

Kate slips her free hand behind my neck and pulls me into a kiss. I've finally come to a decision about how she heads me off; I like it. Third time's the charm as far as this kiss goes. I feel my scalp tighten, my toes stretch, and everything in between is melting. All good things in my mind: soft black leather, butter and maple syrup, a straight grassy path under blue skies, clean and honest and no more pain...

I feel Kate tense up and pull back and the door opens behind me. Shit! Carjacker? I turn around and a something smashes against my head and I hear Kate yelling "No!" just before the black sky rolls in and the stars dance and dance just for me.

++++++++++

Continue to Part 4

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