The sign over the door of the bar read McGinty's in fading, gilded script. The door was locked due to the early hour, but Connor had a spare key; he fished it out of his pocket, glancing over his shoulder to make sure that no-one was watching, then let the four of them in and locked it up again behind them. The sound of the tumblers turning reminded Buffy of the jail cell they'd just broken the guys out of, and she shivered, rubbing empty palms against her upper arms.
The place was a little on the threadbare side: worn with heavy use, but clean, smelling of cigarette smoke and citrus-based cleanser. Buffy let her eyes drift around the main room as they stood in the entryway, taking in the scratched mirrors, half-empty bottles, worn stools, and the tiny chips and cracks left behind by a few bar fights too many-- the fingerprints of a rowdy, regular crowd. She couldn't help but wonder how many evenings Murphy and Connor had spent there before she and Dawn entered their lives; must have been a lot, if the owner was willing to trust them with the place when he wasn't around.
That was kind of irrelevant at the moment, though, much as she might like to revisit Egypt for a while. She took a deep breath, then turned to Murphy, wondering where on earth to start the conversation.
"Shh, not yet," he preempted her, pressing a finger against her lips as he stared calmly back. There was a waiting patience about him, something she'd never seen in him before, but which she recognized: that weighty kind of peace that came with knowing that a course had been committed to, and that all that was left was to let it play out. She was more used to experiencing it when facing Big Bads, though, not boyfriends, and the dissonance gnawed away at the kernel of hope she was trying to hold on to.
"Need to call Da first, then Smecker, before anything else is said," Connor explained, sliding around behind the bar. "Best we not leave 'em to find out the hard way."
"They haven't the discernment we do," Murphy added vaguely, lifting his gaze to lock with his brother's. "Things'll get messier the longer we wait."
A muscle jumped in Connor's jaw, but he didn't deny it. He shook his head, threw a quick glance in the direction of Dawn's hovering, wounded presence, then bent over the bar's phone and dialed a number. Buffy tuned him out, focusing on Murphy's face instead as he broke off their silent twin communication thing and turned back toward her. His eyes, too, lingered on Dawn for a moment.
"No, and yes, ye said," he murmured quietly, reaching for Buffy's hands. His palms and fingers were more callused than hers, roughened in patterns that suggested hard work as much as they did gunplay; she felt the gentle scrape over the backs of her hands as he ran his thumbs over them, and it sent a shiver up her spine. "The fighting ye spoke of; it was your task, not hers, then."
So they had picked up on Dawn's distress at the idea of killing. But why would he ask that now, when he'd pointedly told her just a second ago that it wasn't time to put all the cards on the table yet?
The obvious answer was-- he believed it might be better if Dawn didn't participate in that conversation. Protecting his brother from her sister's potential reactions, sheltering her from having to share in front of Dawn if she didn't want to-- wherever Murphy thought he was going with that line of logic, the concern lurking in the line between his brows and the depths of his blue gaze made Buffy swallow hard.
'Saint' or not, he was still the good man she'd fallen for; she really believed that. And in that case-- there was something else he should know.
"It was," Buffy murmured in reply. "She was ten when I was Called; I was fifteen. I kept her out of it as much as I could, for five years-- and then we found out she had a destiny, too. And it wasn't the same as mine." She swallowed again, eyes stinging a little as painful memories welled up from the darker corners of her mind. No need to elaborate on the Glory/Key situation yet; she'd never been sure how the brothers' Catholic sensibilities would react to the whole evil-goddess thing, much less her own death and resurrection, and recent revelations had only muddied her ability to predict them.
"I tried to protect her, but-- ask your brother about her scars sometime. She knows how to handle herself now; she's not fragile, and she won't reject him out of hand. She's just--adjusting. We'd actually thought that we might get to live normal lives here." She forced a chuckle at that; sometimes you had to either laugh, or cry. "Give her a chance to take it all in."
Murphy nodded solemnly, furrow deepening between his brows, but seemed to accept her reasoning. "Sometimes I forget how young ye both are," he said, turning her hands over and stroking those roughened fingers across her palms. A spike of heat shot through her at the sensation.
"Not that young," she said, drawing a ragged breath. Then she shook her head, dragging her mind away from what other sorts of comfort those hands could provide by main force.
His return smirk was dark and knowing; it forced Buffy to remind herself, again, that while it might be human to crave connection in the aftermath of turmoil and adrenaline, they weren't here as ordinary humans. They were here because of their other aspects, all four of them, and had more important matters to discuss.
It had been a long time since she'd last deliberately slipped into the skin of The Slayer: she who stood against the darkness, who had no friends, who lived for the kill and slept on a bed of bones. She'd always fought those instincts, but that didn't mean they weren't there, thousands of years of encoded spiritual framework affecting the woman within more than she'd care to admit. Right now, though, the emotional insulation that came with that immediacy of awareness was a welcome relief from the turmoil of the 'normal girl' she'd been trying so hard to become.
"So," she chirped, aiming a bland smile over Murphy's shoulder at Connor, who'd finished his conversation and hung up the phone. "Time to make with the 'splainy."
Connor exchanged another glance with Murphy, then nodded. "Beer first," he said, reaching under the bar and coming up with several bottles, two dark glass necks wedged between the fingers of either hand. "I'm thinkin' it'll all go down better with a little help."
Buffy was tempted to veto the idea-- she'd never found alcohol to be particularly helpful in anything other than fun-having, and sometimes not even then-- but Dawn grabbed one the minute he opened it with a defiant glint in her eye, and Buffy didn't want to turn the discussion into a fight before it had even begun. With a sigh, she accepted one as well, then followed the brothers to the nearest table. They waited for she and Dawn to sit, then slid into the chairs opposite, expressions drawn in solemn lines.
Buffy eyed them a moment, then sighed and took a drink, getting into the spirit of it. The beer was weirdly warm, the way Spike drank it sometimes; but it tasted better than she'd been expecting. "So," she said, meaningfully. "Seven years."
Connor nodded. "Aye. We've always had, well-- let's call it a sense about people. Murph and I, we could tell the ones that'd crossed a line and not regretted it-- not that we knew what that line might be, nor what it meant, when we were wee ones."
"We just knew that we were better off avoiding certain people," Murphy said with a shrug. "Not why, nor what that sense was for. Not until much later."
"In the meantime, our mother insisted we get a good education, pushed us at every opportunity to come our way. Said she didn't want us followin' our father's path just because that was all we knew," Connor added.
Buffy'd heard that part before, when they'd first found out just how many languages the MacManus brothers spoke. It was an interest Dawn shared with them; one that had made Buffy jealous for a while, until she'd found her own non-romantic niches to bond with them over. What she hadn't heard before was just what path Murphy and Connor's father had taken, exactly, other than that it had ended with him in jail. Knowing now that their father was Il Duce-- well, it wasn't hard to see why their mother might have been worried.
"And what path was that exactly," Dawn said roughly, "other than just-- killing people." Her voice was firm, but her eyes were wide and wet; she wanted to believe in the boys as much as Buffy did.
"Not just people, Dawn," Connor said, reaching across the table for her hand. "Those that deserve it. The corrupt. The ones who kill, who rape, who take bread from the mouths of others-- who know themselves to be doing wrong, and do it anyway."
"Want, take, have," Buffy muttered under her breath, suddenly grateful that Faith had been far from her childhood friends when she'd gone through her light-fingered, world-hating phase.
"God gives us what power we have, each and every one of us, to help others, not harm them," Murphy nodded. "Da doesn't have quite the same Calling we do, but even before he found us, the hits he took were only on criminals, and never women or children. Only those as betrayed not only the laws of society, but those they were meant to protect."
"So we learned guns, from our uncles; languages, from our mother; and discernment, from that special gift that belonged to just the pair of us," Connor continued the tale. "And when we woke up from the same dream one morning after killing that pair of Russians in self-defense-- well. We knew our Purpose, and we've never looked back since."
"Whosoever shed man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God made He man," Murphy added.
"Destroy that which is evil, so that which is good may flourish," Connor confirmed.
That part, they'd said earlier in the car; it had sounded just as quote-marked then, as though it were an oft-repeated phrase. Or a prophecy.
Stupid prophecies; Buffy might have known she'd never be able to get away from them.
"And that sense thing tells you which ones to-- shed, and which to let go?" she asked, thinking about her own intermittent success with the so-called 'Slayer sense', and how human some demons could look before they split their faces open and tried to eat you alive.
She'd already, long ago, made the leap of admitting that just because some demons didn't have the same type of soul as a human, that didn't mean they were automatically evil. She hadn't wanted to; but that hadn't made it any less true, in the end. Was it so much of a leap to look at things the other way around? She couldn't help but see the deputy mayor's shocked, dying face whenever she thought about killing people-- but then again, Caleb had been people before he'd been possessed, and Ben had been people, and she didn't kid herself anymore about what had happened to Glory's 'brother' after she'd turned her back on him. One of the other Scoobies had killed him, though she'd never bothered to find out which.
She'd be a hypocrite to damn her boyfriend and his brother just for doing what she hadn't been able to do herself-- what she'd depended on someone else to take care of, to keep her own hands clean.
Provided, of course, that they were telling the truth...
"Yes," Connor answered her. "Mostly Mafia at first. More Russians, some Italians our friend Rocco turned us onto, before they found out and killed him. Since then, we've had a little help from the inside, pointin' us to the nasty ones that would walk free if we didn't stop 'em."
"And have you ever not killed someone you were pointed to?" Dawn spoke up, again.
"A few times," Murphy said, frowning in distaste. "Not that they were innocents, exactly, but they certain sure weren't guilty of the crimes they were accused of."
"And one or two that felt honest remorse." Connor shrugged. "It's rarer than ye'd think, but some truly do repent of their crimes."
In other words-- they dealt with the evil in the hearts of men, the way Buffy and the Scoobies had dealt with the kind that didn't need hearts for dwelling in, just for eating and sacrificing. Which meant-- which meant that this just might work, after all; if she and Dawn took them out on patrol, they wouldn't even have to ask what they were fighting, they'd already know. They'd feel it.
Would they feel the difference in Angel, too? Or certain other of her reformed, less-than-human ex-boyfriends?
"And some that aren't even men," she agreed, glancing pointedly at her sister.
Something shifted in Dawn's eyes, then; an acceptance that hadn't been there before, though she didn't say the name aloud.
Buffy nodded, then turned back to Murphy. "So let's say we believe you," she began. "Let's say we even accept it."
"Let's say your story's at least as unbelievable as ours?" he replied, warily.
"Let's say," she nodded, and took a deep breath.