Welcome to the Jungle
This story is a sequel to the episode "The Rack," though it is meant to take place a couple years after the events of that episode. I make no claim to any of these characters, I am borrowing them solely for my own enjoyment.
The world had always been a certain place to me. I knew where I stood, how things ought to be. My parents had raised me well, with respect for my home and country. Middle class for sure, but I was smart and determined. I worked my way into a couple of the best schools, excelled in my chosen field. The law was a satisfying place to be. Everything fit together in neat lines of ancient text; the rule of law, morality, society - all bound together to serve the common good. I was doing something important, I could help people. And I rarely lost.
Oh it happened - sometimes. Even for a prosecutor with the weight of the Crown behind her, the evidence didn't always fall in line the way it should have. Witnesses were unreliable at best. But I fought hard and well, and always came home feeling like I had won the war, if not the present battle. Except once... but that memory was an edge of frustration; a loss which stung harshly in the dead of night. No one should be able to run roughshod over the common rights of all men. The knowledge that there were those out there who treated the rule of law with such disdain, even while working under the aegis of her majesty's government, made me furiously angry. But there was little I could do, having failed to win at the one chance I'd been given, so I tried to forget. But life is rarely that simple. It had seemed an easy case. The witness was a frightened child, barely eighteen years of age. I had a tough time seeing her involved with a terrorist group, this blond, cherubic-looking little girl with bright blue eyes. But she'd imagined herself in love, seen mystery and excitement in her lover's passion for his cause. So she'd followed him blindly, until her world exploded in a sea of flame and she knew the stain of blood upon her hands.
She was scared, and rightly so, but I was ever so confident of the ability of our police to protect her. Elsa clung to my surety like a drowning man clings to a life-raft. And I gave it to her, so easily then. This was London, center of the civilized world. While I was not naive enough to think that bad things couldn't happen here, I had total faith in my ability to provide protection for her, and I never even considered that there might be a danger to myself.
We'd had a good session that morning. The information she'd given me would go a long way towards putting an entire terrorist group behind bars, assuming we could catch them in this country. But that was a job for the police, mine was simply to prepare the case and swear out the warrants. We left the building with a pair of blue-uniformed cops trailing us, the sun shining brightly on our heads. All seemed right with the world, and all went wrong with the suddenness of breaking glass.
It seemed as though Elsa was smiling at me one second, and collapsing to the pavement in a flower of blood the next. I barely had time to breath before I felt something burn past my right shoulder, chipping into the pavement with a startling thud. And then I was down, clawing at the concrete, edging forward to Elsa, who shook and trembled. She looked like a china doll, all pink and fair, splattered across the unforgiving sidewalk in a sea of red paint. Only I knew it wasn't paint; a horrific nausea rising in my throat. She quivered and cried out...and then was still. I shook her roughly, my vision blurring with the salty flood of tears. And the sound I heard could hardly have come from my own throat, it was the moan of an animal in pain.
I curled up into a ball on the sidewalk, turning to see the two cops whose presence I had felt so comforting before now laying lifeless behind me. There were screams in the distance, but I couldn't focus on them. I couldn't think, couldn't move....and then a sudden wave of fear so intense it made my blood boil struck me, and I jerked to my feet. I tried to run....
And was hit by something big. A male voice, throaty and deep, hissed in my ear, warning me to stay down. I struck the pavement roughly, the impact burning my knees and scarring my palms. I gasped in pain, trapped there, the hot, heavy weight of another human body sheltering my own. My eyes misted, squeezed shut, I couldn't see him, but I could feel him. Broad-chested and long-limbed, his breath was steam on my neck. He wriggled, moving to cover as much of my body with his as he could. There were more loud bangs, some so close that they made my ears hurt, and I found myself staring up the length of a black-clothed arm towards an extended hand. Those fingers were tight around the metallic menace of a gun, and I felt the reverberation of its fire echo up through his shoulder and into my own. He fired again, and then again... and then he rose to his knees above me.
I tried to follow, but he shoved me back down, and I cried out as my face again struck cold concrete. He ignored my protest, crouching above me, still exchanging shots with the unseen enemy. I shifted again, trying to...I didn't know what. I just wanted to be somewhere, ANYWHERE other than where I was. This time he moved to my side, and a powerful grip seized my left arm and hauled me up against him. Only to a kneeling position at best. My legs weren't cooperating, my bones felt like they had turned to jello.
He grunted, releasing his grip on my arm, only to wrap his arm around my shoulders, hugging me into his side. My nose got buried in a field of leather, clean and musky with a hint of cologne, the warmth of his flesh leaking through the heavy fabric. I clutched out at him, clinging to the solid weight of him, he was big and male, and in a world that had tipped into a living nightmare, the strength of his presence was the only thing that made any sense at all.
A loud roar sounded behind me, the screeching of tires, and a blast of gas fumes shuttered the sunlight. My protector was moving again, half-dragging me with him. The fierce voice was yelling at me again, this time ordering me to move, to go, to run...but my limbs didn't cooperate, my mind wasn't capable of interpreting the directions into action. So he hauled me up with sheer physical strength, his steel-muscled arm closing around my chest, fingers digging into my waist. Emitting a soft grunt, he lifted me up and over. My face hit the car seat hard, my knees striking the frame with a jolt that woke some nascent survival instinct in me and I reacted. I crawled into the shelter of that car desperately, my nails scraping the plastic of the seats, his hands impersonally shoving at my backside and legs, forcing me against the far door. I curled up half across the seat, feeling the shift of the plastic-coated cushion as he clambered in behind me. The slam of the door followed the sound of the engine, and the sudden jerk as the car leapt away nearly tumbled me into the small footspace behind the front seat.
I groaned, trying to right myself into some kind of order, but no sooner had I turned and tried to lift my head, than an implacable hand closed upon my skull.
"Stay down," he ordered, and I shrank beneath his imperative, unable to argue with the certainty in that voice. So I curled up, my legs crunched below the seat, my head resting in a cradle of my arms. The car was rabbiting around corners, racing at a speed I could feel vibrating beneath me. There were moments when I thought for sure we'd go tumbling, rolling side-over-side, but somehow the car stayed upright.
There was a sharp patter of the now-familiar gun shots, and a bright sprinkling of broken glass; shards rained down over my head. Shielding my eyes, I looked up, only to see a dark shadow hammering away at the broken back window. I got the sense of power, dark and resolute, black hair matching the ebony of his clothes, and then another round of shots sent him ducking down beside me. He was up in an instant, returning the volley, his hands obscenely steady on his gun. We rocketed around another corner, and this time the car spun wildly. I screamed, clutching at the seat, the door, his legs, anything. He fell on top of me, but righted himself quickly. There were shouts, he was yelling something, and then he was firing again. There was a louder bang, a fiery one that rose in whoosh of heat through the air, and he ducked down over me again, but this time when he lifted up, there was no more firing, only the near blaze of fire and smoke blackening the air.
The car swung forward again, a screech of tearing metal protesting then giving way. The man beside me sighed with an abrupt loss of tension, and he turned to sit properly on the seat and lean over to converse with the driver in low, urgent tones. I remained huddled where I was for a long time, moments that seemed like hours. I could barely find the strength to breath. That effort of feeding my burning lungs was all I could manage. But slowly the haze before my tear-flooded eyes began to receded, and the discomfort of my position began to feed its way into aching, cramped muscles. I stirred, and slowly began to work my way upward. A pair of strong, yet amazingly gently hands closed on my shoulders, helping me to scramble up out onto the seat. With his help, I finally managed to reach something approximating a sitting position, and I found myself suddenly, awkwardly, brushing at my hair and clothes, rubbing at my arms and neck....almost as through my hands needed to assure themselves that I was whole. My companion remained silent, though he did tuck his arm around my shoulder, drawing me closer to that hard furnace of strength. Again, I found my face tucked into a massive shoulder, the leather-coated muscle providing a fierce sense of security. I sniffled, but fought to hold the tears back, a faint sense of awakening pride struggling to regain control over my shattered emotions. He let me sit like that for a while, relearning my awareness of the world, but didn't demur when I finally pulled myself away and sat up. A stammered "thank you" scratching my arid throat, I looked up into a pair of impossibly blue-black eyes. A startling familiar pair of eyes, framed in a chiseled, handsome face, the sharp lines of bone somehow softened by the tender pout of the mouth. I reared back, and his expression hardened instantly, the gentleness I had seen there fleeting and gone in an instant. Now, I was facing an icy hardness, the skin drawn tight over the perfect bone structure, the generous mouth pursed thin, the sapphire eyes glittering dangerously. Dressed in black, he was every inch the dangerous predator I'd always imagined him to be - the big black panther who belonged in a jungle, not on the civilized streets of London. Only this particular predator had just turned protector, and nothing could take away the memory of his large body shielding mine from a hail of bullets. This was his world I'd just stepped into, like Alice through the looking glass, and now I was the stranger. He seemed to look straight through me, and I shivered with the intensity of those blue eyes. Feeling like nothing more than an easy morsel staring into the face of a tiger, I bit down hard on my lip, tasting the salt of my own blood. But the pain helped, anger rising defiantly, even suicidally within me. And yet, somehow, the subtle shift in my attitude, the straightening of my back, stimulated his amusement. The grin was feral, leaving those diamond-sharp eyes untouched, but it was colored by very real appreciation. "Are you hurt?" he asked quietly, and it took me a moment to make sense of the words. When I did, I shook my head mutely, still unable to find words of my own. Part of me wanted to scream and rage at him, pound on him with my fists, and another, traitorous part, wanted to run back into the security of his arms and huddle against that broad chest.
"Good," he replied equably, withdrawing the arm that was still loosely drooped over my shoulder and leaning forward to talk to the driver of the car. "Any sign of them?" he asked.
"Nah, I think we're clear," came the cool reply. "For now at least." That voice was painfully familiar too, as was the wealth of brown curls that dipped quickly around the edge of the seat towards his partner and myself. I caught a glimpse of a large green eye and then it was gone, though the voice echoed clearly over the roar of the engine.
"How's the Lady Barracuda?" I winced at the edge of sarcasm, biting cold. That sense of being a rabbit in a den of wolves was nearly overwhelming now, and I had to fight against myself to keep from reaching for the door and throwing myself out. Only three things kept me from doing so, and two of those - while utterly sensible - did little for my remaining self respect. I couldn't forget the recent hail of bullets, and the car was going far too fast to make a dive anything more than suicidal. Even so, it was only my surfacing rage at this impossible situation that held me in quivering in my seat, blood pounding in my temples. I swallowed hard, digging my fingers into my thighs, trying to focus on their conversation.
The panther (as I had dubbed William Bodie irreversibly in my mind) threw me an icy, assessing glance, then answered Doyle's question with calm assurance. "Yeh, she's still in one piece. A bit shook up, but she'll be 'aving us for dinner soon enough, I'm sure."
I barely bit off a retort, not liking being talked about as though I wasn't there, but some small element of self preservation was counseling caution, and I clung to that spark of intuition. For now, at least. Doyle chuckled, even as he guided the car around a corner with terrifying speed, the tires screeching. When he did speak, it was an apparently senseless nonsequitor. But his partner seemed to know exactly what he meant - they spoke in codes and abbreviations. I catalogued every word carefully, but it was like listening to a foreign language. They understood each other, though, often ending sentences with unspoken ellipses. I could almost hear the "dot-dot-dot" present in the silences. They weren't happy with being stuck with me, though, that much was clear, and it was the one sentiment with which I heartily concurred.
Finally, my patience running to a close as we rocketed around yet another sharp corner, I demanded to know what was going on. The panther leaned back and regarded me unblinking for a moment, then that feral smile was back, bathing me in sudden sunshine. Terribly attractive it would have been, too, I had to admit, if it wasn't so subtly menacing. I shivered, but managed to hold my posture and meet his gaze. The menace lightened when I did that, and the resulting expression was almost boyish.
"Ahh, feeling better, are we?" he asked. I didn't dignify that with an answer, and his smile actually broadened before it shut off. Now I was met with serious contemplation. He titled his head to the side, then threw a quick glance around him, then focused back on me. "We got word...from an informant," his voice dipped into sarcasm, then rose swiftly, "that the Grubenhoffer group were going to make an attempt on you and your prize songbird. Mr. Cowley assigned us as security to protect the both of you...looks like we got there just a few moments too late." The bitter edge was back in his voice, brittle as broken glass, but my mind was already flying...remembering.
"Elsa..." I whispered, hating the tremble in my own tone, but unable to banish it any more than I could banish the memory of her body laying in a garish pool of its own blood. "Dead," he answered blankly, his expression shuttered. That face could have been carved in stone, it was devoid of any emotion. "You bastard!" The curse tore itself from my throat, my hands clenched with their desire to hit him. I think one even lifted, but he was too quick. My wrist was seized in a grip of near molten steel, his body heat permeating the chilled flesh of my arm, even as his fingers tightened just enough to convince me he could break the fragile bones without effort. I gasped, and found my eyes pinned by a pair of blue drills. He leaned closer to hiss in my ear.
"I didn't shoot her, remember?" An split second later, I was released, and he was inches away. I nursed my wrist, certain it would be bruised. But it wasn't, and the knowledge that he'd restrained me without hurting me was more frustrating than anything else. He was right - he hadn't killed Elsa. He hadn't been the one shooting at me - in fact, I was stuck with the bitter understanding that he had just saved my life. At considerable risk to his own. I didn't want to owe him that - I wanted to hate him, to despise this fierce man who radiated nearly overwhelming self-assurance.
I tried to remember my first meeting with him in that make-shift inquiry nearly two years ago. I'd been the one unshakable in my confidence then, so certain of myself and my cause that I could face these dangerous men without a single qualm. I'd held power then, and had wielded it with determination. He'd been all bluster and machismo, sliding so easily into the traps I'd laid for him, that I'd made the mistake of translating a lack of education and a predilection for violent occupation into unsophistication and stupidity. He'd seemed so hopeless in that witness chair, I'd actually managed to forget the meaning of the very accusations I'd been making.
That was what had destroyed my case in the end - I'd underestimated these men, and paid the price. But now...now...I had to face the rest of that bitter pill. Not only were these men smarter than I'd given them credit for, they were also just as dangerous as I'd accused. Maybe more so - I was discovering quickly that I really hadn't had a true sense for what it meant to say this man couldn't even count how many people he'd killed. How much human blood had spilled over those large capable hands? He'd said they were assigned to protect me, and he'd acted in accordance with that so far - but it was like asking a fox to protect the chicken coop with me as the chicken. A thought that did little for my peace of mind. He - they - had to be holding a grudge towards me, even it had been a long time since. But they wouldn't forget, anymore than I had. So I was left knowing that I ought to be grateful for my life, but all I could be was afraid. Very, very afraid.
I'll never forget the remainder of that car ride. Dusk was falling, and the long shadows only made the panther appear larger and more menacing. It went against the grain of my nature to be self-effacing, but I struggled for it, hoping that if I shrank far enough away, as far as the small confines of that car would allow, that he might not notice me. A false hope that, as I knew this man didn't miss a thing. And even if he did, his eagle-eyed, ex-cop of a partner wouldn't.
Doyle finally pulled the car into a tight alley way, then squeezed it behind an unremarkable small house. The color was a dull mud in the dim light, and the windows were dark and forbidding. The panther was out of the car without a backwards glance towards me; he was gone into the night in a blink of an eye. It was curly-haired Doyle who opened my car door, and extended his hand to help me out. I glared at him, gathering the remnants of my dignity around me like a tattered cloak. He shrugged and stepped back, leaving me a small space between him and the door to climb out into. But the moment I was free of the car, his hand closed upon my arm. He guided me forward, nudging the car door shut with a knee, his other hand held up and ready. A thin stream of light from a neighboring window glinted on the cold steel of the gun in that hand, and I tried to get free. His hand tightened on my arm, and his body was instantly pressed up against mine. He was barely bigger than I was, all limbs and bones, but he moved with that same graceful assurance that had so marked his larger partner. He was a cooler presence, but there was fire in those verdant eyes. "Move on," he told me, his voice a harsh whisper in my ear. His breath was warm and wet on my skin, and I shivered as I obeyed. It was barely a few steps to the door, but I think he would have run it, if he could have. As it was, I could feel the tension radiating from every pore of his body, smell it in the sweat that beaded on his skin in the chilly night air.
I was tense too, every muscle in my body aching with the horror and travail of the past...Dear God, how long had it really been? A couple of hours, an afternoon? It felt like an eternity.
I reached instinctively for the doorknob, but it swung open before I could take hold of it. I suddenly found myself face-to-face with a familiar plain of shoulder and ribcage. I didn't have to look up into those midnight eyes to know the man in front of me. Sandwiched between them, they maneuvered me into the house, down a hall, and into a dark room. Their hands were mercifully impersonal, they handled me like a sack of potatoes.
A dull light flickered on, and my eyes watered in response to the sudden glare. The panther released me, swiftly moving across the room, while Doyle dropped me onto a surprisingly soft surface. The cushions sank beneath my weight, the aged sofa dipping beneath my weight, slight as it was. It took me a moment to wriggle into a semi-upright position, and by the time I had done so, both men were standing by the heavily-draped window.
Doyle was balanced against the wall, one hand propping him up, his legs spread and knees bent, the other hand pressed into his waist. He looked strangely like a ballet dancer prepared to cavort on a stage, and an hysterical giggle choked in my throat. This man appeared so different from what he was, and the contrast to the dark man poised beside him only made that more apparent. Dressed in patched jeans, white tee-shirt, and scruffy plaid shirt, Doyle could have passed for a university student, or a grubby artist. Only the memory of Coogan's body caught in photographic stone reminded me to gaze past the surface. Those slender hands were no less deadly than his partner's, and that agile grace could fly into a killing frenzy.
I became caught up in imaginings, my mind circling endlessly on itself. I suppose I was finally lapsing into honest hysteria, the relative safety of this shabby room allowing me space to give reign to my fears. I suppose I must have been making some noise, the next physical awareness I had was of a weight descending on my shoulders. I jerked up, my eyes struggling to focus, but a pair of firm hands wrapped me up in sweat-scented leather.
I turned to find the panther seated beside me on the couch, his jacket now adorning my shoulders. It draped around me, and I tried to push it away, but he was implacable. Silently, but insistently, he covered my shoulder with his jacket, the thick fabric warm and pungent with the musky, male scent of him, then he pulled me into the shelter of his arms. I was shivering now, didn't know how I hadn't realized that before, but the tremors only seemed to increase with the heat of his presence so close by. It was like coming in out of the snow into a fire-lit room, your body shakes all the harder as it attempts to adjust to the change in temperature. I ceased fighting him at that point; I was bone-deep exhausted. The removal of his coat revealed long, bare arms, the thick muscles braided beneath the smooth porcelain skin. He could have snapped me in half if he'd wanted to, instead he was cradling me like a newborn infant. It didn't really make sense, but I'd given up on comprehending my situation. This menacing, deadly man had decided for some reason of his own that I was to be protected, and I was hardly in a position to argue. A small sliver of protest in the back of my mind warned me not to trust him, fear still trickled along the nerves of my spine, but I was simply too tired to care. If he wanted to be protective, I was not going to argue. He was a warm presence in the dark, and I was quite certain that he was far more dangerous than anything else that might be waiting outside. There was a perverse comfort in that knowledge, even if it was one I didn't want to analyze too closely. I was warm and apparently safe for the first time in what seemed an eternity. My body felt bruised, my mind was beyond rational thought, and sleep was an unrelenting temptation which overwhelmed me with ease.
I woke to find myself curled up on the couch alone, my fingers clenched into the folds of that musky leather jacket. A scratchy woolen blanket provided a second layer of warmth, and I was reluctant to leave it. My head ached, a merciless hammering behind my temples that made the world swim with agony when I attempted to open my eyes.
I groaned loudly, rubbing damp curls out of my eyes, and struggled to sit up. Pulling the jacket and blanket with me, I managed to reach some semblance of a sitting position, and I peeked out of my covers to find myself staring into a pair of huge green eyes. I blinked, he blinked back, and then abruptly he grinned at me, revealing a mouth full of white teeth, one prominently chipped in front. "Feeling better?" he asked.
My throat was too dry to make much of an effective sound, but the look on my face must have given him his answer. His smile turned wry, and he turned to pick up something from a long wooden table behind him. "Here, drink this," he directed, holding out small metal flask. I looked dubiously at it, and he pushed it closer towards my mouth. "Go on," he urged. "It'll help until we can get some solid food together." He seemed ready to pour it down my throat on his own, so I made a grab for it with a hand still half-draped with blanket. But I managed to get hold of it, and then lifted it up to my nose.
"Ohh," I winced, frowning at the strength of the alcohol fumes that had stung my nostrils. Doyle chuckled, then pushed at my arm. "I know. It's rather rank stuff. But it'll warm you up and take the edge off. Go on, take a good draft of it."
I pushed it back towards him, he pushed it back towards me. He was obviously determined, and some spark of amusement in his eyes warned me that he wouldn't be past forcing it on me. Better to avoid the embarrassment of that, so I closed my eyes and took a drink, swallowing as quickly as I could... And came up sputtering. He was laughing openly now, but he did take hold of the flask before I could drop it. I rubbed at my mouth first with the back of my hand, and then, with willful spite, the sleeve of his partner's jacket. That didn't bother Doyle in the least, he was still grinning. That made me perversely angry, and I grabbed the flask back and made a good show of drinking down the contents. And, damn him, he was right. It did warm me up, the alcoholic heat spreading down my throat and into my belly, soothing the soreness of my muscles and nerves.
"Tha's enough," he said finally, retrieving the flask from my hand. "Bodie's trying to rustle us up some food. They're supposed to keep the kitchen stocked for times like this, but I can't promise anything particularly edible." The toothy smile was back in full force as he added with easy humor, "especially when Bodie's cooking."
The alcohol on an empty stomach went a long way towards lifting my courage, and I suddenly found myself able to give him my best prosecutorial glare. "Where am I?" I demanded.
He got up from his crouch on the floor and plopped down beside me on the couch. "At a safe house," he answered equably. "A safe house..." I echoed, trying to make sense of that. "But..."
"Don't worry. We've got a man across the street and another on the roof," he reassured me. "And us inside. You'll be fine."
"No," I shook my head, then winced at the jolt of pain that sudden motion sent lancing through my temples. "No...what's going on?" My voice was rising now, all of the pent up emotion coming to the fore. "Why am I here? Why are you here? When can I go home? What is going on!!!"
"Hey, take it easy," he told me. I looked daggers at him, and he sighed aloud. "All right, look. The GHA didn't take kindly to Elsa Morgan spilling the beans on them. A few days ago, we got word that a handful of their best soldiers had filtered into London. Cowley informed the minister, and he decided that she, and you, needed better protection than a couple of Metro's finest. Bodie and I got the assignment, and were on our way, when the GHA struck. You know the rest...Elsa and the two cops got killed, Bodie and I grabbed you and got the 'ell out. Our people are trying to round up the rest of the GHA members in this country, but until they do, we're assigned to look after you. I know this isn't exactly a five star hotel, but it oughta be safe enough for a few days." This was a lot for me to absorb, but my attention was instantly seized by his last statement. "A few days...." Oh no...no, no... "No! You can't possibly expect me to stay here for a few days! I've got to be in court tomorrow. My case... I've got to call..."
"You're not calling anyone," he interrupted me. "Now look here..."
"No, you listen to me very carefully, Ms. Mather," he insisted, leaning close enough to me that I could smell him, a mixture of sweet cologne and very male sweat. "Out there, somewhere, is a group of very determined terrorists who have decided to use you as target practice. Now you might want to go throw yourself to your death, and under any other circumstances, I'd get out of the way and let you go to it. But like it or not, Cowley has decided that he wants you kept alive, and he's stuck Bodie and me with the job. So that's exactly what we're gonna do. We're going to keep you alive until ordered otherwise. Once the job is done, you can do whatever you like, but until then, you'll do exactly as you're told. Understood?"
"YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO KEEP ME HERE AGAINST MY WILL!" I shouted at him, trembling. My emotions were in utter turmoil, all I could think of was my desperate need to get as far away from here as possible. Dumping the jacket and blanket aside, I leapt to my feet and tried to run. I didn't get to take more than about two steps before I was grabbed from behind by a pair of shockingly strong arms. He lifted me right up off my feet, swiveled, and deposited me roughly onto the couch. I screamed, trying to strike out blindly. I tried to claw him. He seized my wrists and he shook me hard. My head snapped back and I cried out in pain.
He released me instantly, and I sank back down on the couch with a moan. My head hurt more than I thought I could bear, and the rush of the alcohol had left me dizzy. I buried my face in my hands, and he was suddenly beside me, those strong, yet delicate, hands, closing on my shoulders. "I know you're scared. But it's going to be OK." He really was trying to reassure me, but it wasn't helping in the least. I could feel his fingers on my back, and it made my skin crawl. Those hands had killed, I couldn't forget my knowledge of that. The sound of my own voice terrified me more than anything else, it was so weak as to be barely recognizable.
"I want to go home!"
"You will," he promised. "In time."
"Now," I insisted, grabbing for my self control and shoving him away. I glared at him through a veil of tears. "Take me home now!"
"No," he shook his head. His mouth opened to continue speaking, and I slapped him hard across that broken cheekbone. He reared back, his own hand lifting as though to return the strike. He trembled with the burst of rage, his eyes glittering with fury, but somehow he managed to hold it in. His words spit out at me like bullets formed of ice.
"Look, Ms. Mather, we can do this easy or we can do it hard. Our orders are to keep you here, alive, until instructed otherwise. It would be far more comfortable for you if you cooperated, but if you won't we'll simply tie you down."
"You wouldn't dare!" I hissed at him.
"I would, and I will," he replied, with a hint of feral amusement burning through the ice of his expression. "But the choice is yours. Sit here as you are now, or in handcuffs. Up to you." He got up and slowly turned his back on me, walking over towards the window with that characteristic, cat-like grace. I fumed silently at him, my hands balled up into fists, but there was no question that he meant exactly what he had said. These bastards wouldn't hesitate to chain me up if they decided it was expedient, and that was something I couldn't even begin to contemplate.
Dinner was about as good as Doyle had predicted. I'd never had a taste for meat paste, fried chips or canned tomato soup, and this meal was not about to alter those opinions. Doyle's reaction mirrored mine, but it was the panther who complained most vigorously, even as he delivered the food. His partner teased him back, and the two men eased into a verbal exchange that seemed vicious on the surface, yet rang with an undeniable affection. The words, the language, I could understand clearly, but there was a subtle subtext that went over my head, and the closest I could come to understanding was the knowledge that it existed at all.
I ate my meal in cold silence, unwilling to join the conversation. What could I possibly have to say to these men - what could they possibly say to me. Our worlds were separated by a gulf that seemed unbreachable, and yet had been abruptly bridged by the spill of blood on a city sidewalk. But I didn't want to be a part of their world, so I stayed silent and separate, concentrating on the simple task of putting food into my mouth.
They drifted away from me soon enough. The panther swiped a few chips from Doyle's plate with a smile of self-satisfaction then rose to his feet and glided towards the window. The grimace thrown at his back from the curly-haired ex-cop was tenderly amused, and it didn't take Doyle long to join his partner at the window. Their heads bent together, their voices were a low murmur that I didn't bother to interpret. My stomach was revolting against the unpleasant meal, stressed by the horror of the day. Giving up the remainder of the sandwich, I pushed the tray aside, and curled up on the couch, finding a strange sort of defiance in the act of slipping my arms into the panther's leather jacket and wrapping it around my body.
They ignored me, whispering and laughing together, bodies leaned close together. So I took the time to study them closely, as I had never done before, memorizing the lines of muscle, bone and sinew, the way they stood, the way they moved in such easy synchronicity. The panther spoke against his partner's temple, his lips almost brushing a soft brown curl, and Doyle's laughter rang like the chime of a chapel bell in response. Next to his larger partner, he looked almost frail, the jeans molded to his legs, not an ounce of spare flesh clinging to his hips. And the panther...I found it hard to tear my eyes from him. He wasn't really that much taller than his partner, it was the simple solidity of the man that made him seem so much bigger. A thick shaft of muscle rippled in his exposed forearm as he moved, instinctively nudging the drapes aside to give his alert eyes a glimpse of the street beyond, even as he listened intently to Doyle's conversation. He responded, his voice a low burr, the words unimportant, the sound strangely comforting and disturbing all at once. The verbal machismo I'd seen at the inquiry had yet to make an appearance, and I felt as though we'd been stripped all of our masks and left rawly open. I wasn't sure what was left of me, but I knew I was seeing the truth of them.
A shiver rose up my spine, then fell back downwards like a wave to pool in a rush of nausea in my belly, as I watched and considered the two men. Doyle...Doyle was no surprise. I felt as though I'd seen all that there was of him under the pressure of the long-past inquiry. Rough, scruffy, scrappy, a child of the city streets, his badge was the only difference between him and a hundred small-time criminal toughs. He was born and bred to violence, physical intimidation his instinctive response. I didn't like him, I found him easy to revile, simple to dismiss. But...
The panther. William Andrew Phillip Bodie. Here were masks beneath masks, a changeability that far overreached his partner's mercurial shifts of temperament. Layers upon layers of personality, all wielded together with fire and brimstone, tested in the molten steel of the African jungle, tried by the most demanding sections of the British military. A capability to kill? Yes and yes again, with the dispassionate ruthlessness of the professional soldier. A machine built and trained to move at the snap of finger or the shout of an order. But where, then, was the man beneath the mercenary? I'd felt the heat of his body against mine, tasted his sweat, fell asleep to the steady beat of his heart. But that didn't tell me about the man beneath the surface - the human being who thought and questioned, felt and loved, hurt and wondered. The gentle protectiveness shown to me earlier suggested that he existed...but how much of that was real? How much of any of this was real? I didn't know anymore.
I suppose that I could have sat there for hours, my mind running in more of these endless circles. I was an expert at debates, even with myself. I could analyze just about anything to its logical foundation. However, life doesn't always stand still long enough, and sometimes the simplest needs are the most intrusive and insistent.
This was embarrassing, but I had taken Doyle at his word. The shame of asking this question was hardly worse than ending up handcuffed to a chair if I left without permission.
"Where's the bath?" I shouted, my voice ringing out painfully loud. I startled them, both reached instinctively for the guns cradled under their arms as they turned. They relaxed nearly simultaneously as they saw me, and I automatically tipped up my chin in defiance.
"Well?" I prompted imperiously.
They exchanged a quick glance, communication flying rapidly between them, then the panther sighed and stepped forward. Gesturing for me to proceed him, he offered, "Right this way."
I got quickly to my feet, letting the blanket slide off my shoulders, but retaining his jacket. It was hard not to lose a touch of dignity draped in that oversized leather garment, knowing that I must look like a child playing with her parent's wardrobe. But I pulled my back up straight, tried to get the sleeves shoved up around my elbows, and marched out of the room without looking back. Besides, I didn't need to see him to feel him there, and he didn't waste much time in taking the lead. A quick hand on my shoulder stilled me, and he squeezed his lanky bulk past me, our hips grazing as he moved ahead of me. His fingertips tracing the length of my arm, he led me a few paces down the hall, then turned sideways in front of a door. Raising one hand, palm out towards me, his other closed in on the butt of his gun. I paused, not willing to argue the issue, though he took that agreement as automatic. Even before I stopped moving, he had reached out for the doorknob. He twisted it open and nearly leapt into the room. Light flooded out into the dim hallway an instant later, followed his dark-capped head.
He flicked his fingers at me, gesturing for me to join him in the small bath. The facilities were bare, ancient, but adequate, and I was grateful for the chance to rediscover one of the basic conveniences of civilization - hot, running water. Something of my relief must have shown, because he rewarded me with a wide smirk that actually lit up his eyes. For the first time they were truly blue, instead of a hard raven black.
"There you go. I'll be right outside if you need me." With that unsurprising piece of machismo, accompanied by a broad wink of one dark-lashed sapphire, he slipped past me and closed the door, leaving me - blessedly - alone, at last.
I made rapid, grateful use of the facilities, relieving my aching bladder, then burying my hands and face in the rusty hot water. It felt like the sheerest of luxuries, and I scrubbed harshly at my skin, trying to wash away that insistent feeling of dirt. Finally finding the courage to face myself in the dingy mirror, I looked up, only to frown horribly at my own reflection. I looked like a refugee, my eyes large and bruised, the skin beneath them hollowed and blackened. My hair was a tangle, tendrils sticking to the skin of my temples and cheeks, the rest curling riotously over my neck and the collar of the jacket. A mess, the elegant poise I was so accustomed to projecting broken into a million shattered fragments.
I combed my hands through my hair, frustration biting at my heels. Not so much as a comb available to me here, and despite the desperate need, I hardly threw the scratched white-enamel bathtub a second glance. I felt bared enough without skinning myself of my clothes here, with him - such an intrusive male presence - waiting just outside the thin wooden door. No, as much as would have given for a bath, I didn't have the courage to try it.
Instead, I washed out my mouth with the metallic water, smoothed down my hair, and rearranged the remnants of my expensive suit. My nylons were torn, ripped to shreds around my bloodied knees. I stripped and dumped them into the wastebasket with barely a backward look. That left my feet cold in the increasingly uncomfortable low-heeled pumps, while I examined the rest of my clothes. The cream-colored jacket and the white silk shirt were stained and torn in spots, but there was little I could do to repair them. I hadn't abandoned the big leather jacket, and though it looked absurd draped around my body, it reached nearly to my knees and thus provided safe cover. I could almost wear it as a dress, a strange one though it might be, and I hugged it tightly to myself. I was staring sadly at myself in the mirror, one hand tugging at my hair, when a loud shout from the hallway made me turn towards the door. That scream was followed nearly instantaneously by the crash of an explosion, like lightning striking, and the impact shook the very foundation of the house. I cried out, falling against the sink hard enough to leave yet another bruise on my hip, and I grabbed the edges of the basin for support. The door burst open, a heavy hand seizing my arm and yanking me out into the hallway. Smoke was billowing in from the room we'd been sitting in, but I didn't have time to look more closely. The panther shoved me at his partner, and took off down the hall. Doyle grabbed me, turned me around, and threw me forward. "Move!" he shouted, "GO!" And run I did, knocking against the wall, my legs trembling as they struggled to obey the imperative of my brain. I could feel the heat of the fire burning behind me, sense Doyle's tenseness as a mirror to my own. He pushed me forward, shouting over my shoulder at his partner. The panther snarled something in return, coming to a sudden halt before the door. I nearly collided with him, and two hands steadied me, one from each man, closing in on me from either side. Dangling between them, I waited, breathless, all of my elegant ideals slipping from my grasp. I wanted to come out the other side of this door alive, and the only chance of that was held in the iron grip of these two cold-eyed predators.
Their eyes met over my head, and the waiting was over. The panther moved like a strike of lightning; forcing the door open he burst through it, leaping across to the fence on the other side of the alley, pressing his back to the wood. Doyle moved next, taking me along with him, as unstoppable as the tide. Our feet clattered on the uneven concrete, we came up short against the front edge of the car. Doyle paused there, his fingers still clenched around my arm, his nose lifted to the wind. An instant there, the length of a single breath, then we were moving again. He was reaching for the car door... And hell broke loose again...
"DOYLE!!!" The panther screamed his partner's name, the simple sound torn from his throat. He moved swiftly, shooting over the top of the car, his long arm extending out towards us. There was a patter of gunshots, like rain on a tin roof, followed by a single clink and thud. Both men yelled now, and I found myself lifted up off my feet and tossed back down the alley. Before I could do more than gulp for air in the preparation for impact, the air itself exploded in a brilliant wave of light and heat.
I came down then, striking the pavement with jangling limbs and brittle bones, a heavy weight smashing me even harder against the unforgiving ground. The impact stole the breath from my lungs, a thousand new aches erupted in every inch of my body. I tried to scream, but couldn't. I couldn't breath. I was sure I was dead. The world tilted and spun like a windmill out of control... But I was running. I can't remember getting up, I can't remember how we got out of that alley. All I will ever remember is the agony of forcing my feet forward, hot needles of pain lancing my knees and ankles, stabbing at my diaphragm, burning my lungs. Run...run...run... until it became a litany in my mind, step by bloody step...step...step...
I couldn't keep going, I couldn't... but something kept pushing me onward. The knowledge emblazoned on my consciousness like a neon billboard that if I stopped it was the end of everything. Or perhaps it was the hands that pulled and pushed, the voices that wavered at the edges of my awareness, urging me to keep on going. And going...
It didn't matter. We moved through darkened city streets like rats caught in a maze, turning corner after corner, slipping from shadow to shadow. My protectors were insistent, unstoppable, determination gritted into jaws and blazing from large-pupiled eyes. They communicated in fleeting touches and hurried, rough whispers, nearly nonsense syllables that meant nothing - and everything. For a while it seemed as though we had broken free, yet the quiet was a menace that held terror in its wake. The dark was both enemy and friend, hiding all with impenetrable equality.
They found us again, and then again, just as we'd round one corner and twisting around, yet another. Until the panther held me back, tucking me neatly between his body and a brick wall, a shield of flesh and bone. A few steps ahead, Doyle swiveled, his cat's eyes making an round circuit of our surroundings, even as he cocked his head to listen to his partner's murmur. I was too shaken to listen carefully, I caught pieces of words...syllables...but only one stood out to my dazed mind.
Trap. That caught me...held me...and I stiffened against his body, my concentration uncertain, but survival instinct piqued. I listened... "Got us boxed in on all sides. No way we're getting out this way..."
"Damn. We're bloody soaked and getting wetter all the time..."
"Yeah, well save that for later..."
"Oh, I will, mate, I will..."
"We go around...or through, as the case may be..." Then we were moving again. Tracing back our steps, then dipping sideways into an alley. The panther released his grip on me, and I stumbled, only to get caught by Doyle. He pulled me back up against his body, my stomach and chest pressed flat into his left side. His eyes weren't on me, though, they were watching the way we came, and my eyes followed his, seeking danger in the anonymous shapes of buildings, dumpsters, and piles of abandoned refuse.
A sudden crash beside me stole a beat of my heart, my head jerking around too fast. A cry strangled on my lips, Doyle clamping a hot, sooty palm over my mouth. I gurgled, then fell silent, and he let me go for an instant before pushing me towards a newly opened door. The panther was waiting just inside, and a quick shake of head, a press of his hand to his mouth, warned me to keep silent. I obeyed. There was little else to do. We moved through an unlit house, kitchen to living room to front door, squinting at the shapes of unfamiliar furniture, stifling cries of shock and pain as knees struck corners, elbows hit table edges. Then we were out on the street again, but only for a moment. We dodged from house to house, doors broken open by stealth when possible, force when necessary. Never once did we linger long enough to be caught by an outraged tenant, though the occasional stream of light from across a street warned us of how close we'd come. And somehow it became amusing to me, the progressive breaking and entering of home after home across the city of London. A crime spree of historic proportion, even if nothing had been stolen, and I a willing accomplice.
Hysteria welled up within in, replacing the nearly paralyzing fear with a buoyant, but false sense of joy. It was like taking a ride on a roller coaster, up and down, around and through, on and on and on. Until the houses thinned out into a string of iron-meshed business fronts and from there into a field of warehouses. Wire fences separated long, dusty brick structures with tiny windows and fragments of machinery. The chill of the wind deepened, biting at my flesh, even though the borrowed leather coat.
I scaled my first fence that night, fingers trembling on icy metal, feet slipping into rungs of curved steel. Hands pushed me from below, and dragged me from above. I nearly tumbled over the top, but I was caught and steadied in a cage of goosebump-scarred arms, the satin of the flesh a mere disguise for the braided cord of muscle and bone that held me tight for an instant, then released me, to settle weakly on my battered feet.
We broke into the warehouse, and found, at least, some shelter from the wind that had begun to blow with chilling intensity. My protectors wanted to keep moving, at least until we hit a maze of boxes, piled high upon slabs of wood. Shadowed, hidden there, we stopped long enough to breath, air pumping into lungs that protested, hearts pumping blood through veins that throbbed. I sank to the floor, and curled up, hugging my knees against my chest. They stood on either side of me, catching their breath. The panther touched my shoulder lightly, looming over me, while Doyle slid away, peering anxiously around. He drew a small object out of his pocket, and spoke rapid, staccato, into it.
"4.5 to alpha control. This is 4.5, reply alpha control..." There was a burst of static and then a familiar voice, deep, yet lilting with a Scottish burr, answered. "This is alpha, what is your status 4.5?"
"Ummm....safe for the moment. Safe-house 13 is a wreck, though. Any word on 3.1 and 6.2?"
Silence for a moment, then a swift reply. "6.2 is wounded, but will recover. 3.1...didn't make it.
The panther tensed by my side, I could feel him shift his weight, balancing on his feet as though ready to leap, and yet he remained in place, that tiny motion falling away into a statue-like stillness. Doyle swore roughly, swiveling to exchange a glance with his partner.
Cowley was moving on, though, focusing on the task at hand. "4.5, where are you?"
"I dunno, sir. Holed up in a warehouse...offa Labour Lane, I think. Long square, brick building with a wire fence. Lots of boxes."
"Fine, sir. A bit bruised is all. Ms. Mather is a bit stunned, but otherwise all right." All right? I opened my mouth to argue, to complain, to shout... I was anything but all right! Bastards!! I struggled to get to my feet, only to be held down by implacable hands. "Stay down," the panther hissed in my ear. I rewarded him with a furious glare, but he merely grinned and patted the top of my head. I gritted my teeth and fought a sudden blazing urge to bite that hand. Doyle was still reporting, listening now, as his employer rattled off a list of instructions. All of it boiled down to "sit tight and wait for backup." The CI5 man did not seem happy with it either, but he swallowed his protest, sighing a reluctant "Yes, sir," into his radio before returning to us. "Well, you 'eard the man," he said.
"Yeh," the panther replied. "Not a surprise that. 'ope they get a move on it, though."
"Dunno...makes me nervous just sitting 'round 'ere. 'ow'd they find the safe-house. Shouldn't 'ave done."
"Could've followed us..." the panther let his words trailing off, obviously not believing it, even as he spoke.
"Nah, mate. No way. We'd have noticed. They're not that subtle."
"So we've got a leak somewhere," the panther sighed, rubbing at his bare arms, grimacing. I felt a brief flash of guilt for keeping his jacket, but it died a quick death. If I had to be utterly miserable, then so could he, I decided bitterly.
"Or we're being set-up again. Bloody Cowley...never tells us all of it." The panther shook his head, moved closer to Doyle. "Nah, I don't think tha's it. Anyway, it won't do us any good standing 'round 'ere worrying 'bout it. Better grab what cover we can and sit tight 'till the boys get 'ere."
"Yeah, yeah," Doyle replied though he didn't move a muscle. His hands plunged into his pants pocket, he stared grimly at the nearest pile of boxes. The panther shifted even closer, wrapped a long arm around Doyle's waist and pulled him into a partial embrace. I stiffened, my muscles tensed where I huddled in the dark cold, waiting for an explosion of temper from the mercurial Doyle. It never came. Instead the tension leached out of his body; he melded himself as fluid as water against his partner's larger frame. His hand closed over the panther's arm, squeezing tightly, then releasing. As swiftly as he had relaxed, he peeled himself away and darted away into the shadows, leaving the panther looking bereft, a tall black shadow alone in the night.
The moment he stood there was fleeting; gone in the space of time it took me to breath. I could have imagined it all. I could have been wrong. But the whole world was so skewed that night, turning on an unfamiliar axis. Enemies had become protectors, life was cheap, the most powerful man I'd ever met had feelings for his male partner. The abrupt sense of knowing hit me like a fist in my belly; God, I should have seen it earlier. I should have known...and now that I did...why did it create such an ache within me? I detested everything William Bodie was, everything he stood for. This one weakness in his stony facade should have been satisfying, given me yet another reason for easy hatred. So why did I suddenly feel so empty? The ground felt like it had reached up and swallowed me, and I sank down to the wood-planked floor, my emotions tangled into knots.
I wasn't given time to separate those strings of thought and feeling, to follow one or abandon another. He was by my side faster than I could blink, strong hands lifting me up and urging me forward. I let him do it. I didn't want to think. I didn't need to think. All I had to do was move where he told me to move. One foot forward and then another, my ragged pumps clanking on the planks. In and around row after row of sky-high piles of gray boxes, towering above us. I stumbled, my toe striking something that clattered, and he caught me tight up against him. Even with chilled, goose-bumped flesh, he was like a furnace of heat, and it was instinctive to burrow deeper into it. My arms found their way around his waist of their own accord. He stiffened and then relaxed, hugging me briefly, before gently untangling us. He held me out at arm's length, peering down at me, though there was too little light to see, and I couldn't bring my face up to meet those penetrating, impenetrable eyes. But this moment was lost, too, as a shout stole him away from me. Leaving one large hand clamped to my arm, he turned, his other hand drawing his gun. He propped me up against a shelving unit, then stepped away. I could hear the click as he primed his weapon, and the rush of his breath as it speeded up in anticipation.
A patter of shots broke out, and he jerked as though he had been hit. I gasped, and he hissed at me.
I bit at my lips, shivering, feeling the now-familiar pulse of blood beating in my temples. It was starting again, and a new rush of fear blanked out everything, roaring in my ears like a hurricane. I clutched at the panther, but he roughly pushed me back. Another quick order, "Stay still," and then he was dancing away from me.
I leaned against the cardboard wall behind me, feeling it shift, then hold against my weight. Every shift of light and shadow was an enemy, my eyes ached from trying to see in the dark. A faint gleam of light came from a nearby window, but it only made things worse, it wavered, glinting and rippling, turning objects into monsters, giving reign to my sweat-soaked terror. Footsteps scattered and beat upon the floor, they seemed so close. The fall of bullets peppered the harsh sounds of grunts and crashes. The panther was a huge shadow, balanced, waiting, melded into the darkness, the rapid hiss of his breath the only sign of tension emanating from him. And then the battle broke in upon us. First a volley of shots, sharp lances of sound, striking hard into wood and cardboard. The panther dove, rolled upon the ground and came up shooting in return. A groan and heavy thud spoke of success, another pitter-patter of bullets warned of more to come. I sank down onto the floor and curled up, shrinking in on myself, praying to whatever God or mercy may be that I could become invisible. And for a while it seemed as though I was. The panther fired mercilessly, exchanging volley after volley with the unseen enemy, moving, circling, but never venturing far away. He fought a defensive game, waiting close to me.
A shadow moved behind him, and I screamed, but even as he turned the shadow cried and fell, the shot hidden within another burst of gunfire. The panther dove sideways, swinging his gun around, aiming as he moved....but the body hit the floor at my feet too soon. Still, he poised to fire, eyes burrowing into the darkness...
"'EY, sunshine, it's me. Don' shoot!" The rough whisper was balm to my ears, I never thought I'd ever feel such joy at hearing Doyle's voice. His partner sagged slightly, his shoulders squeezing in on themselves for an instant of aching relief before he straightened. They moved close to each other, but before another word could be exchanged, a pile of boxes came clattering down upon our heads. Both men swore, leaping, shoving, crying out as heavy weights pounded down on them. Curled up where I was, little hit me, but I wrapped my arms around my head and tightened up into a fetal ball. Voices shouted, indistinguishable, unintelligible, grunts and groans punctuating the sounds of men struggling amid a sea of obstacles. A flood of presences surrounded me, acrid, musky, stale male sweat, mixed with smoke and dust.
The fight turned close, fists replacing bullets, the thud of flesh striking flesh scratching at my senses. Punch, crash, thud, punch, crash, the sounds rose and receded. Peeking out between my arms, I watched a shadow ballet unfold, shapes weaving, dancing, shifting in the faint glimmer of light, swimming through the muddy dark. I couldn't see who was who, attacker and defender indistinguishable animals crouching, leaping, swinging arms and legs. They moved around me, lingering close, then falling away. Until a booted foot struck my side, and I cried out, shrill and shockingly loud.
There was an instant ripple in the fight, notice taken, but only barely, individual battles resumed a heartbeat later. Except for the one who had stumbled over me, he reacted with angry hands, seizing me by my arm and dragging me up against his pungent-smelling body. He was a big shadow, unfamiliar, reeking of fish and unwashed male, his fingers digging into my already bruised flesh. A faint grunt of triumph sounded in a rush of fetid breath against my face, then he drove me back against the wall.
I screamed again, breaking into a fury of motion, writhing in his grasp, kicking, scratching, hitting at any part of him I could reach. He yelled a bitter curse when I scraped his cheek, slapping me hard. My head snapped back, tears stinging my eyes, what little vision I had blurring beneath a flood of pain. He shook me again, giant hands closing hard upon my throat, squeezing, pushing, robbing my lungs of air.
I struggled again, kicking helplessly at shins that felt like concrete posts, certain I was facing my death, terror hurtling through my veins like wildfire. I couldn't breath...I couldn't...I...
CRACK! The pressure on my throat abruptly vanished. I doubled over, barely hearing the thud of fist striking flesh, the repeated crunch of shattered bone, as it surrounded me. All I could do is try to draw air through burning passages, heaving, fighting the nausea that threatened to strangle me again. I dropped to my knees, gasping like a beached fish, my fingers tracing bruises that burnt my skin like heated iron. A hand closed on my arm, and I jerked away, striking out blindly, but he was strong, and I was pulled up against a hard, bony leg and hip. I fought for air, trying to scream and a hand clamped over my mouth. A familiar voice filled my ear. "Shhh, be quiet. Bloody 'ell, it's Doyle. You're all right, now be still."
I froze. A mixture of relief and rage flooded over my senses. It was senseless to blame him for this, but he was convenient. I opened my eyes and stared up into the bleak visage of his face, the features barely visible, only the line of jaw and crooked cheekbone clearly defined. I know I stiffened in his grasp, my entire body expressing distaste at touching him, but my struggles stopped. He took that with cool control, tightening his grip on my arm and dragging me sidewards. More shadows moved, and Doyle staggered as he was hit from behind. His hand released me, only to shove violently at me - forcing me away. I staggered, only barely staying upright, moving away, twisting to watch him fight. Smashing arms and fists and kicking feet, the painful thud of battered flesh, the groans of force and pain, I shuddered, held horrified and spellbound. Doyle was quick and agile, a dancer, spinning, pounding his adversary with hands and feet and knees. I watched, and barely noticed the figure that loomed up behind me until iron hands clamped around my waist. I screamed, kicking, struggling, only to find myself crushed in a bearhug against a massive chest, arms like steel chains encircling me. But he smelled....
Familiar. I went limp. He didn't waste a breath on words. He didn't bother to give me a choice. One moment I was clasped in his embrace, the next I was tossed up over a powerful shoulder. My breath whistled past my teeth, a faint sound of astonishment, shock, caught in my lungs and expelled against the heat of his broad back. I was dangling over him in a fireman carry, a dead weight in his arms. He barely seemed to notice...he moved swiftly, forcing me to bounce against him until I wrapped my arms around his waist and clung to him, steadying myself.
I don't know how far we got, how long it took, all I saw was a flash of light on metal, the faint gleam from a distant streetlight penetrating the gloom and glinting against silvered steel. It shifted, glittering, then came straight at me. I dug my hands into the panther's flesh and shrieked a warning. Too late.
The blade nearly caught my cheek, impacted with his shoulder. He fell forward, bringing me with him. We tumbled together into a heap upon the floor. I wriggled, my legs pinned beneath him, the shaft of the knife neatly embedded in the edge of his back, he groaned with every move I made. But I finally pushed myself backwards, sprawling on the floor below him as he crouched on hands and knees. He twisted, trying to pull the knife free, his hand closing on the hilt and jerking. With a feral moan, he pulled it free, rolling sideways, to hold it out before him. A man closed in above us, the one who had thrown it? I couldn't know...I didn't care. And neither did the panther, his body coiled into crouch, prepared to leap.
The other man hovered, holding something in his hand, but it was too dark to see. A knife, a gun....a weapon it had to be. And my only defense a wounded man...
They leaped. A glimmer of metal, a scrape of metal on metal...a pair of knives. They circled warily, striking and dodging. Again and again, the fear of waiting for the final strike to fall boiling within me. The panther leapt again, his aim deadly true, and his opponent stumbled downward. A horrible sense of triumph burned within me, feral pride and satisfaction searing my soul. But he was too hurt to be careful, the enemy too desperate. The knife-man threw himself forward onto the blade, forcing it deeper into his own chest, he committed suicide to strike an answering blow. And the panther staggered beneath the second blow of a knife. He twisted, pulling free, doubling over. The knife-man fell, blood gurgling in his throat, bubbling out of his mouth. I ignored him, reaching out for the panther, trembling hands closing on his shoulders. He winced, a low moan in his throat as I touched the first wound. I withdrew, recoiling as though burnt, then gritted my teeth and tried again. He pushed me aside, trying to get to his feet. I grabbed his arms and steadied him.
I couldn't see much, the light was too dim, the blackness of his clothes hiding the stain of blood. But he was hurt, his breath came harshly in my ear. My heart sank, I cast around desperately for help. There was no one...there was...only... "DOYLE!!!" The sound ripped from my lungs, burnt me damaged throat, tore from the depths of my soul. "DOYLE!!!" I echoed myself, over and over, in a litany of panic. He had to be there, he had to be all right, he had to help... Something came racing through the shadows towards us, stopping to swing at unseen barriers, breaking through them like a runaway train. Two men stepped between us, both went down, so fast, Doyle was a flurry of flying fists. He barely paused, they didn't have a chance. He was bent on one thing only, and he found it, shoving me aside with uncaring hands, stealing away the heavy weight of his partner's body.
I sank to the ground, watching through blurry eyes as Doyle dropped to his knees, easing the panther's big frame across his lap, hands searching, feeling, seeking damage. The panther moaned, batting at Doyle's hands, trying to get back to his feet. "Be still, you stupid bastard," Doyle hissed, his voice jagged, broken. "Noo....Ray...I'm all right...Ray... "
"Shut up, Bodie and let me take a look!"
"Noo... there might be more of them...You 'ave to...'ave to...RAY...." Footsteps, running, pounding, many of them, closing in, voices shouting....
The panther rolled free and Doyle spun in a squat. Both reached for their guns, ready to fight to the last...
"BODIE!!! DOYLE!!!!" The names rang out in a commanding Scottish lilt, and both men relaxed as one, collapsing to lay side-by-side on the floor.
"Over 'ere, over 'ere," Doyle said, barely raising his voice. The panther was silent, his breathing rapid and unsteady. I crawled the few inches over to him, reaching out to support his unwounded shoulder. Doyle turned at my movement, and I didn't need to see his glare to feel it. He bristled, sliding closer to his partner, taking firm hold of him. He didn't push me away, he didn't need to. I wasn't welcome and I knew it without a word or gesture more. My hand fell to my side, and I sat there, silent, stunned, waiting.
Cowley took charge, dawn light filtering in through high glass windows as the warehouse filled with big, purposeful men. I barely paid attention, didn't make a noise as I was lifted by strangers, placed on a wheeled stretcher and moved outside. I was limp, exhausted, empty...nothing left to argue with. They treated me with calm efficiency, soothing cream over bruises, bandaging scrapes, then wrapping a heavy woolen blanket around my shoulders. My hands were closed around a steaming cup of fluid, but I could barely lift it my lips. I sat - let the organized chaos rush around me, like a river around a stone. I waited, my eyes lifting only at the sound of a familiar pair of voices, too distant to make out the words, too close to miss. A few brief words were carried on the wind, but I didn't bother making sense of them. They were angry, though, and when I finally focused my vision, I could see Doyle gesturing widely, his hands shaping the air in sharp, swift strokes.
Cowley responded, his voice too low to hear, a soothing murmur. It didn't seem to appease Doyle's ire, instead it was the panther who drew him down, a hand upon his arm. Doyle bent to listen, shook his head, not wanting to agree, but giving in anyway. Slumping to sit beside his partner on the stretcher, eyes lingering on the stark white bandages on the panther's shoulder and side. Their boss spoke to them again, softly, then turned and walked towards me. I lifted my eyes this time, the numbness sharpening into a fierce cramp in my belly. The rage swelled again, hotter than the tea in my hand. "Ms. Mather..." he began, but I didn't let him finish.
"You bastard!" I swore roughly, "You bloody bastard."
He didn't even wince. He nodded almost sadly, then spoke in that gentle burr.
"I'm glad to see that you're all right. I know this has been a difficult experience..."
"Difficult!?" I shouted, but had to stop, pain lancing through my throat. I swallowed, feeling it burn like someone had thrust hot metal down my esophagus. I moaned.
"Don't try to speak now," the CI5 controller urged. "We'll get you to a hospital and see they take good care of you. The worst is over now. We've caught them all, thanks to you and Elsa Morgan. They won't trouble anyone again...." I let Cowley talk, tuned him out, let the soft murmur of his voice waft above me. So tired...so very, very tired. My eyes blinked back tears, then focused yet again. And all I could see were two men, one slight with dawn-struck fire in his curls, the other dark and sleek, a wounded panther with midnight eyes. Their heads were bent close, Doyle hovering, elegant hand splayed across his partner's broad back, together. Always together. And I had never felt more alone, adrift in a world that had shifted on its axis.
Lost amid the shattered fragments of my life's illusions.
-- THE END --