Ishmael Sings of the White Whale

by Lizbeth Marcs

Apollo: After you've lost the big one, what else can you do but try to win a few of the little ones?
Serena: Captain, I think you should know…back there? That wasn't one of the 'little ones.'
—from 'Saga of a Star World,' Battlestar Galactica (original series)

***

"You really need to rest."

Faith snarls into the darkness, her mouth stretched in a rictus across her bared teeth.

"Really, Faith. I understand you're as worried as I am. Truly I do. But you aren't helping Angel if you drop from exhaustion."

She ignores him as she traverses the alley on cat feet. There's a clue. A sign. Somewhere. She just needs to keep on the case. She trips over an unseen piece of liter and stumbles a few steps.

"You're getting careless."

She ignores him as best as she can.

He returns the favor by — finally — shutting the hell up.

***

Faith is the picture of exhaustion as she crawls into her bolthole just in time for sunrise and blesses the bankruptcy laws that drove these high-tech firms out of business.

Of course he's waiting for her.

"I did tell you," he sniffs in his light British accent.

She stares through him, focusing on the official-like sign announcing that all contents of this property are scheduled for auction — on May 19, 2002 to be exact. Lucky for her the auction never came off. This property and all its contents have been forgotten; tossed aside like trash on the high-tech superhighway.

Sorta like how she's been tossed aside.

Sorta like how he seems to have been tossed aside.

Otherwise why the hell would he be bugging her? Sure, they vaguely buried the hatchet when he broke her out of jail, but he did it only to save Angel from Angelus. He would've left her to rot in prison otherwise. She knows that.

She stalks by him as he leans against the receptionist's desk and hates him for looking so very much the same. When anyone's gone what he's gone through, they should look different. They should be fundamentally changed right down to the microscopic level.

Most importantly, he shouldn't be here.

She wanders through office jungle to the Great Kahuna Suite. All the comforts of home are here. Foosball table. Nerf basketball net. Ping-pong setup. Leather chair wide enough to accommodate the fattest of fat cat asses. A mahogany desk that just screams, "I've got a very small dick!" An attached bathroom complete with shower stocked with all the hygienic necessities; necessities that she liberated from several drug stores and supermarkets. A real bed, for crissakes.

And let's not talk about the big-screen TV with high-end, multi-regional DVD player and X-Box.

Too bad there's no electricity. Right about now she could stand to raid the stash of rated XXX DVDs she found in the dick desk. Problem is, according to the descriptions on most of the discs, the porn seems to involve rape fantasies both het and homo, which really isn't what she's looking for. Watching two twinks going at it while some asshole holds a gun to their heads just ain't her cup of tea.

Don't think about fucking tea.

'Course, those are just the XXX DVDs she let stay. The smaller stash hidden at the bottom of the pile definitely involved actors of the underage variety. She set fire to those. While all it managed to do was warp the cases and the discs as opposed to obliterating them like she wanted, she felt was satisfied enough with the attempt.

Maybe that's her problem: being "satisfied enough" ain't cutting it, but she's too afraid of going for the full satisfaction. It's too close to Want. Take. Have. That kind of shit attitude is what landed her in this mess in the first place.

Then again being afraid of going for the full satisfaction is how she lost Robin.

Just when she thinks she's got it all figured out someone goes and changes the road signs on her.

She frowns at the dick desk, the pictures tucked into those now-long-gone DVDs still sticking in her craw. She hopes that wherever Fat Cat Ass is he's experiencing the finer points of prison rape as a guest of the state of California.

"If there's any justice in this world he is."

"Fuck!" she exclaims as she spins around to see Wes lying on the floor and staring up at the ceiling.

Just when she thinks she's used of him haunting her footsteps, he still manages to stop her heart at least once a day.

Awww, who the fuck is she kidding? More like he manages to do it two or three times a day.

And that fucking mind reading thing he does? Drives her up the wall.

"Go away," she clips as she jerks her head to a closed door, "gonna make use of the facilities to shower and shit, not necessarily in that order. So unless you wanna watch my naked ass slide between the sheets, vamoose!"

"Sure you want me to go?" The question isn't flirty or teasing. It isn't a challenge or a threat. It isn't anything really. It's just a question devoid of any layers of meaning.

Faith snorts and stomps into the bathroom without bothering to answer.

***

The mean streets of LA are getting meaner with Angel gone.

She flips back to her feet and spins a kick to the demon's midsection. Right about now she could use a little of that famous Watcher knowledge.

"You telegraphed that move," Wes says from the sidelines as the big ugly grabs her foot and tries to twist it off.

She goes with the motion, spinning in midair like a corkscrew until the demon fumbles its hold and she drops to the ground with a thud.

"Try being helpful," she mutters as she charges her opponent.

A few slams against the brick wall later and she knows this isn't going to end well. She's not exactly afraid of dying. She's more afraid that this thing will leave her broken on the ground and that she'll take just long enough to die for a vampire to find her in the nick of time.

Wes is pacing the periphery, hands behind his back. Faith figures he's trying to come up with a killer move to tell her so she can take the big ugly out. It's not like he can actually hurt the damn thing given his condition.

She's barely keeping her feet now and swinging blindly. Sometimes she connects. Sometimes she doesn't.

"He's playing with you, Faith," Wes says.

"No shit," Faith mutters through a mouthful of blood.

"Perhaps you might consider retreating. It's highly unlikely that it has anything to offer by way of information."

The demon picks her up and throws her to the far end of the alley. She lands on the pavement and rolls, feeling a slight crunchiness in her ribs. She struggles to her hands and knees, shaking her head to clear it of the grey-edged pain.

"Faith," Wes sounds panicked now. How nice that he's finally worried about her wellbeing. Too bad that he's only desperate to see her get out of this because she's just a means to an end. "Don't try to fight it. Just try to—"

The sounds of a thrown punch connecting interrupts Wes's tirade. Faith wobbly crawls over to the brick wall and then crawls up it until she reaches something resembling a standing position. "What?" she asks.

There's someone fighting the demon using smooth fluid moves that seem relaxed. Demon boy falls back under the assault, probably because she managed to soften up the ugly for the new guy.

And it is a guy. She can tell by the build.

Wes is transfixed by the fight, his expression unfolding into wonder and hope, two things Faith hasn't seen since he showed up out of the blue in one of the many crappy hotel rooms she'd been hiding in.

She knows who her big savior is even before she asks. "Who?"

"Angel." Wes says the word as if it was the answer to all his whispered prayers.

***

Faith stretches in bed, feeling the pull of aching muscles under the skin. With a start she realizes that she's not back in the hideout.

Shit! Crappy hotel room!

For a brief second she wonders if the past six months had been a dream. Maybe there is no Wes. Maybe there is no missing Angel. Maybe she's still stealthing in America's forgotten corners on the run from just about everyone who is anyone on both sides of the Slayer divide.

It says something about the past six months that she kind of hopes it is a dream.

"I managed to get breakfast."

The voice is enough to tell her that reality is real, and yes that really is Angel setting some cellophane wrapped Hostess "breakfast food" on the nightstand next to the bed.

Her stomach growls a protest — she hasn't really been eating well since Wes blipped into her life — but she stops herself from going for the satisfaction. Instead she studies Angel. He looks much the same — yeah, like vampires actually change all that much, dumbass — if a little bit haunted. Ooooh, yeah. She's so on board with that feeling.

"'Splains why the room's dark." It's a fucking stupid thing to say when you're in a darkened crappy hotel room with a guy you know is fatally allergic to sunlight. She can see hint of daylight through the not-very-good blinds. One stiff breeze from the nonworking air conditioner and the only safe place for Angel would probably be under the bed.

Angel sighs. "I miss necrotempered windows."

"Nekkid wha?" Faith asks.

"Necrotemp— I mean special windows that let the sunlight into the room without turning me to dust."

"Shit. Musta cost you a pretty penny."

Angel's face shifts from his typical weight-of-the-world expression to no expression at all. "Cost me everything I had."

Faith swings her legs out of bed and notices that all her cuts have been bandaged and her ribs are wrapped tight. She's more than a little disturbed that she doesn't remember when the TLC happened.

"You passed out in the alley sometime during the fight," Angel says apologetically.

"Hey, no big." She reaches for her empty calorie breakfast. "Figure you were probably a gentleman given the no sex routine you got going."

Once again Angel's face does its imitation of a marble statue.

"You were a gentleman, riiiiiight?" Faith glares at him.

He offers a tight smile in response. "That I was. Although I couldn't exactly close my eyes while cleaning you up."

"Right," Faith nods. She tries to casually look around and see if she can spot Wes lurking in the shadows as she takes a bite.

Not casual enough as it turns out. Angel notices, but obviously he misreads her reasons. "Yeah, not as comfy as the Hyperion. Certainly nowhere near the luxury of…well…my last place residence," he apologizes. "But it's the best I can do under the circumstances."

Wes mentioned something about a big battle that killed him and scattered Angel and his crew, but Faith is a little fuzzy on the details mostly because Wes didn't give her details, so it's not that hard to play dumb. "Where's the gang?"

Angel's face darkens in a terrifying manner. "Long story. Very long story. I'll fill you in later."

"Angel…"

"You need to rest." Angel stands and crosses the room, cutting off any further questions.

As he heads for a table in shoved in the corner, Faith realizes that it's piled high with books that look very old, very thick, and very difficult to read. She can smell the must and dust just by looking at them.

Angel sits in a seat and reaches out to grab a book. "Really, get some sleep. It's going to be a long night." As he settles in his chair he looks at her, finally cracking a smile. "I'm so glad I found you, Faith. You have no idea how much it means to me that you're here. Of all the people I was hoping to cross paths with again, you were at the top of my list."

No that's not her heart leaping into her throat. And no she doesn't feel warmth in the pit of her stomach. And no, she isn't going to fucking start blubbering because she's so goddamned pleased that someone is happy to see her.

Instead she sinks back onto the mattress and allows herself a relaxed smile. "I'm glad I found you, too."

***

Faith can only stare at Angel in dumb disbelief. The takeout Chinese and her growling stomach are forgotten.

Angel is watching her. His is expression frozen in a frightening imitation of a corpse as he waits for her response.

"Are you fucking joking?" Okay, not a really great question, but it's just about the only thing she can think after hearing what she just heard.

"It's all true," he admits.

"Wolfram & Hart? The fuck was going through your head that you'd even think—" She waves off the end of her sentence. "No. Don't fucking tell me. You already told me. Christ on a pogo stick, Angel. You fucking knew there were goddamn strings attached and you walked right into that hellhole."

"I thought—"

"You could tame that bronco, yeah. But Jesus…"

"I paid for that in spades."

"You paid? Sounds like everybody else paid in spades. You're definitely still breathing. Or…or not breathing." Faith stands and paces the room; trying to make all the Angels she's seen and heard about in the past few hours match up.

"Faith, please do calm down," Wes says from his shadowed corner.

"You fucking calm down," Faith snarls.

"I'm not the one pacing the room," Angel points out.

"I'm talking to myself," Faith mutters as she tosses Wes a glare. Shit. She forgot. Angel can't actually see Wes. She's going to have to remember that if she doesn't want Angel to think she's crazy. Well, crazier.

Angel bows his head. "I understand if you want to walk away."

"Walk away from what, Angel?" Faith asks. "You ain't asked me to do shit." She shakes her head and looks down at her feet. "Look, I may think you were a dumbass to even think Wolfram & Hart would ever play straight with you, but I get that you think it was the only way. I do." She drops back into her former seat. "Hey, been there, done that, served the time, so I ain't exactly a shining example of good choices when life goes down the shitter. But I ain't gonna just abandon you. I won't do that. Not to you."

When Angel looks at her, there's such hope in his eyes that Faith wants to cringe. Suddenly she wants to play Indian giver, take it back, and flee the room. Because she knows — she just knows — that she just signed herself up for a gig that's gonna put her in way over her head. Jesus. She never fucking learns. Give her a scrap of affection and a few good vibes, and she's like dog. Happened with her first Watcher, happened with Wilkins, fuck, even happened with Bitchface Lawyer when Wolfram & Hart were sweet-talking her.

But this is Angel. Angel. She fucking owes him and owes him big. Besides, it's not very likely he's gonna ask her to kill anyone.

He reaches out and grabs her hands in his own, bringing them up to his lips in a dry, cold kiss. "Faith, I can't…I don't have the words…I can't…" A thousand emotions cross his face, all of them breaking her heart into a million pieces.

"Tell me what you need, big guy."

"You and me Faith," he smiles, "We're going to slaughter the Senior Partners. When we're done with them, they won't even be a memory."

"Oh bloody hell!" Wes explodes.

Angel's smile turns slightly manic. "When it's all over, Doyle, Cordelia, Fred, Wes, Gunn, Spike…they'll finally be able to rest in peace."

***

The stake drives home with a satisfying whump and a shower of dust. Years of experience tells her to turn her head quickly — partly to avoid getting grit in her eyes and partly to see if the latest roadkill has buddies.

Dust avoided and coast clear, Faith allows herself a small, tight smile as she tucks the stake back up her sleeve.

"As I was saying—" Wes begins.

"Jesus, can't you just let it go?"

"Angel is again not on the streets tonight," Wes huffs. "He's once again locked up with some musty old books containing nothing more than dead languages and lies."

"Glass houses, Wes." Faith tries to walk away but Wes does that shifting thing he does and he's standing right in front of her.

"Surely you must see that he's obsessed."

"What I see is him trying to get the guys who got you. C'mon, Wes, he's trying to pull off some justified vengeance here."

"Eye for an eye? Is that it?" Wes crosses his arms and taps a foot. "If that is how the world should work then—"

"Everyone would be blind? Jesus, try avoiding clichés, will ya?" Faith steps around him because she can't quite bring herself to walk through him.

"That wasn't what I was going to say," Wes snaps at her back. "What I was going to say is that if that is how the world should work then where would that leave you?"

Faith freezes and clenches her fists. She was wondering when Wes was going to hold her past against her. Now that the shoe's dropped she can almost relax.

There's a soft sigh behind her. "I am sorry, Faith. I didn't mean…"

She turns around then, schooling her face to hide the stab wound. "Yes you did."

Wes doesn't bother trying to deny it. "The thing is, Faith, Angel belongs out here where he's needed. The demon population is turning L.A. into its personal playground without him keeping a lid on things."

"I got eyes, Wes."

"What's more," Wes continues as if Faith hadn't interrupted, "he needs to reconnect with people. He needs to remember why he fights. He does not need to be locked away in dusty rooms with ghosts and old books that'll just get him lost in a labyrinth. He's not doing anyone any good there, least of all himself."

Faith throws up her hands. "What do you want me to do, Wes? What. Do. You. Want. Me. To. Do. I can try to drag him away, but I sure as hell can't make him cooperate."

"Yes," Wes frowns, "Angel won't be led unless he wants to be." He focuses again on Faith, mouth set in a grim line. "I need you to make him want. Make him remember why he fought and for whom he fought."

Faith wonders if Wes was even listening when Angel told her about the deal with Wolfram & Hart and why he was ripping through every mystical and not-so-mystical book he can find, because she can see Angel's reasons clear as day. "Wes, he fought for and is still fighting for his family. Even I get that."

"He's fighting for corpses and corpses don't care," Wes snips.

"You care."

"Note that I don't care about vengeance. I care about—"

"Angel," Faith finishes for him. For Wes it always comes down to Angel. She wonders how much shit he's had put up with over the years because he was doing it all for Angel. Not that she really wants to think about it too hard because — guess what — in the end doing it all for Angel got him killed.

Wes seems apologetic as he says, "I'm sorry to be pushing the issue Faith, but the city needs him. You see how the demonic element is running rampant without him keeping it in check."

Yeah. That she does. "Look, Wes, we only hooked up, what? Three days ago? He's been hanging on his own for six months. Six months is long enough to drive you well and truly batshit. Gimme a break. I need more time."

Wes falls into step next to her as she leaves alley. He can't resist adding, "Not too much more time, Faith. I'm not sure the city or Angel can afford it."

***

She finds him standing on a rooftop, glaring at the still-standing Wolfram & Hart building across the street.

"Well, lookie who's come up for air," she cheerfully says as she vaults to a spot next to him. She can't help tossing Wes a triumphant look as she adds, "It's been a rumble down in the streets. C'mon and give me a hand. It'll get the blood pumping."

Angel gives her a crooked smile. "Not really. No working heart to pump the blood."

"Sheesh. I'm being what ya call metaphysical."

"I think you mean hypothetical," Angel corrects. "You know, if I hypothetically had a working heart, I'd be able to get the blood pumping."

"Whatever," Faith waves it off. "Been here three weeks and this is the first time I've seen you out and about, aside from the big move." She nudges him in the ribs. "So, do you dig the digs or what? All the comforts of home."

"Except for blinds," Angel points out.

Faith kicks the rooftop in embarrassment. "Yeah, sorry about that. Totally didn't cross my mind. Good thing the bathroom doesn't have windows."

"Good thing there are still fire blankets in the building," Angel adds. "Gotta admit they're great for keeping out the sunlight."

"Hey, I'll getchya some blinds. I've just gotta figure out how to liberate a couple and you'll have all that room to go roaming in the daytime."

"Liberate," Angel deadpans. "Faith, if you get caught shoplifting—"

"I won't get caught. I've got a PhD in liberating supplies for the good cause that is me." Faith's mouth falls into a dimpled grin. She's so happy to see him at least making the rounds in the open air that she feels hopeful. It's a small step, but she'll take it. "Don't sweat it. Those blinds are as good as got when I set my mind to it."

"Faith…"Angel shakes his head and kills whatever he was going to say.

"So, scouting out the enemy turf, hunh?" Faith focuses on the building across the street. "Sure that's smart standing so close? They might have snipers just waiting for you to waltz onto their property."

Angel goes quiet and refocuses on the Wolfram & Hart sign. "Already have."

Faith glances at Wes and sees that he looks surprised. This is news to him. "No shit," Faith remarks as she leans against the small wall at the edge of the roof. "What happened?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing?" Once more she exchanges looks with Wes. "C'mon, I'm not buying that shit."

"Walked right through the front door," Angel says as if he didn't hear her.

"Now why would you do something stupid like that?" She grabs an arm and squeezes until he turns his head to look at her. "Angel, you could've been dusted."

His laugh sounds brittle as it breaks through the night air. "About a month after — well, I told you it took me that long to even recover enough to stand upright. Thank god for stupid rats, right?"

"I guess," she says as her hand drops.

"I figured the best way to get information about the Senior Partners was to go right to the source," Angel says bitterly. "Maybe I was looking to die, too. That may have been part of it. So, I walk right in and no one stops me. I get on the elevator, and no one even reacts. I might as well have been just a client or a…a…"

"Ghost?" Faith prompts with a meaningful look at Wes.

"For all they reacted to me, yeah." Angel's eyes track to the stars, his jaw working to keep his expression from collapsing into despair. "I made it all the way up to the White Room."

"The White Room?" Wes asks. "You would've been better off going to Records. That's where all the information is stored."

"So, they were waiting for you there, right?" Faith already suspects the answer is no. She asked more to shut Wes up so she wouldn't be stuck listening to DVD commentary about what Angel did wrong in this situation.

"No." The word sounds hollow. "Just an avatar for the Senior Partners informing me that I was fired."

"You've got to be shitting me, right?" Faith wants to laugh because she can almost picture it: Angel, you've wiped out the Circle of the Black Thorn; threw our long-term plans out of whack; killed a large number of our clients and allies; nearly wrecked our offices; and worst of all, our profits are down not just from projections, but from last year. Your ass is fired. Don't expect a letter of recommendation.

Angel chuckles as if he can read her mind. "Turns out that I'm not important enough to kill." He looks at Faith with haunted eyes. "Can you imagine that? For all the damage I did to them even before I was CEO of the L.A. branch, the Senior Partners have declared that I'm not worth the effort to even wound, let alone kill."

"Why?" Faith asks.

"They're interested in the vampire with a soul mentioned in the Scroll of Aberjian. That's the vampire they want. The one who'll play a pivotal role in the final apocalypse. The one who'll shanshu."

"Shan shoe?" Faith asks.

"I'll explain later," Wes quickly says.

"No one's sure what side that vampire will be on. Could be on the side of good, could be on the side of evil," Angel says almost to himself, "But when it's over, he shanshus and becomes human. That's the epilogue."

"I dunno, Angel. Given that Spike's dust in the wind, that pretty much leaves you as champion and winner," Faith says cautiously.

"No it doesn't." The bitter smile is back. "I signed it away."

Wes's mouth drops open so wide that Faith's pretty sure he dislocated his jaw.

"I don't understand," Faith says.

"I had to prove to the Circle that I was on their side, so I signed away all rights to the prophecy," Angel says. "Besides, it's not like the scroll named me by name."

"So what? They think that they're just gonna find another vampire who happens to have soul somewhere around here?" Faith snorts. "Ain't like you guys grow on trees."

"Faith," Wes says meaningfully as he rolls his eyes.

"The point is that it's already happened. Twice," Angel turns to look at her. "That means it can happen a third, forth, or fifth time. Yeah, not going to happen every year," he shrugs, "but the thing is, it could happen again and that's the point. I have no claim to it. Spike is gone since there's no amulet to bring him back. That means the prophecy must apply to someone else."

"That is logical," Wes mutters.

"Once they informed me that I was no longer worth their attention, the room went fuzzy and I was back on the street," Angel says, his eyes once more turning to the building. "I knew right then that they had just made the biggest mistake they'll ever make."

"You want the Senior Partners because they dissed you?" Faith asks.

"What?" Angel looks momentarily confused. "No. That's not it."

"Well that's what it sounds like to me," Faith backs off a step. "You're gonna throw your life away because they gave you a swift kick in the ass."

"This is about justice!" Angel's fist smashes down on the brickwork. Faith can hear the bones crunch in his hand when he makes contact with the surface. "They've stolen everyone that matters from me. Everyone. Do you honestly think that them laughing in my face even compares? Do you? They laughed in my face years before I chained myself to one of their desks. It would've been like old times if Cordy and…and Doyle and Wes…and…and…"

Angel's voice trails off as he crumples inward, falling in a heap on the rooftop with a small groan of pain. Wes gasps as if he's been stabbed in the gut. Faith can only stand and watch him mourn. She has no idea if she can fix this, but she knows this much: she has to try.

***

"See? See?"

No, she can't fucking see. All she sees are a bunch of overlapping circles with scribbled words in the centers.

"There's the pattern," Angel triumphantly says.

"The same kind of pattern you'd get if you threw a buncha rocks in a pond at the same time," Faith points out.

Angel holds up a finger and, to Faith's surprise, proudly says, "Exactly."

Here she is making the point that these never-ending circles look wicked random to her and Angel thinks she's seeing whatever it is he sees. If there's a pattern then she's failed this inkblot test. Actually, she's being unfair to the inkblots. They made a hella lot more sense when she was behind bars and the social worker on the other side of the table told her to make up shit.

"I'm not getting it." Faith glances over Angel's shoulder to Wes and hopes he at least knows what Angel's talking about.

"Sorry," Wes apologizes in response to her silent plea, "I fear I got lost five minutes into Angel's explanation."

Angel tries again. "This circle right here," he stabs a finger at the page and Faith is pretty damn sure that it's not the same circle he pointed out the first time he tried explaining it to her, "is the Senior Partners. They're the spider at the center of the web."

Faith suppresses a strangled moan. Angel's not going to let this go and she really needs to pee something fierce.

"These circles around it are the layers of different organizations you have to go through to get to them," Angel's finger brushes through the concentric circles around the first circle. Problem is, it's not the only circle with concentric circles that Faith can see scribbled on the pad so she's already lost. Again.

"Now the Senior Partners seed these organizations with their minions," Angel continues, not noticing her pained look at Wes. "These minions take their powers and orders directly from the Senior Partners. Some of them are aware of that, some of them aren't. There is, at minimum, one person in each organization who is in direct contact and is aware of that link. Usually there's more than one in each organization."

Jesus. This is the first time he mentioned minions with a red phone to the People In Charge. If there's someone out there with the direct line, this job just got a whole hell of a lot easier. "So, find the guy who's got the direct link and shake the information loose," Faith says.

"You really haven't been listening, have you?" Wes asks with a sour tone.

"Not that simple," Angel's getting feverish now. "They're well hidden. Very well hidden. They could be anyone and anywhere. They could be at the top of their respective organizations or they could be the janitor."

"Get any more paranoid, we're treading into wack-a-loon territory," Faith says lightly, ignoring the irritated sound Wes makes at her lack of tact.

"When it comes to the Senior Partners," Angel says seriously, "there's no such thing as paranoid enough."

"I'm not scanning the office for bugs every day," Faith says.

Angel only gives her a dry chuckle. "Now these circles here," he sweeps his hand over the overlapping circles each with their own concentric circles — all of them overlapping each other and the concentric circles around today's Senior Partner's circle, "have both direct minions and the minions of the minions. The further away you get, the less likely it is that you'll find the direct minion."

Faith concentrates. She's trying. She really is trying, but all she can see is a page so packed with circles that's dangerously close to looking like a page-wide scribble. "So just go for the circles — I mean organizations — that are butt buddies with the Senior Partners."

"I really wish you wouldn't encourage him on this foolishness," Wes growls.

"Like the minions, it's difficult to know which organizations are the ones directly controlled by the Senior Partners and which organizations are several points removed," Angel patiently explains.

Faith begins, "Well, we know Wolfram & Hart—"

"No. We have to steer clear of Wolfram & Hart," Angel says urgently. "I don't want to tip my hand to the Senior Partners and trying to shake more information out of Wolfram & Hart will do just that. I want them to be shocked when I plunge the knife in their chests."

Well, at least he wasn't promising to rip their throats out. Yet. "Angel? Jesus. This is more complicated than Whitey Bulger's mob operation in Southie."

"Exactly!" Angel crows.

Wes throws his hands up in the air and begins to pace.

"Unh, not exactly," Faith corrects. "FBI defanged a lot of Whitey's boys a bit back. Made 'em all turn state's evidence against each other."

"So, this, Whitey?" Angel looks to Faith for confirmation on the name. When he gets a nod, he continues with satisfaction, "Justice got this Whitey. He's paying for his crimes just like the Senior Partners will pay for theirs."

"You might wanna re-think that comparison." Wow, she's just full of the 'not-so-fast' today. That hasn't happened since…well…ever. "Whitey's boys are doing the time or living under the big snitch cloud. Whitey ain't with 'em. He's free as a bird and probably living it up in some South American paradise where the Feebs'll never find him."

Angel's hand falls gently on her shoulder. He looks directly in her eyes and promises, "I'm motivated by more than just a government salary. We'll get the Senior Partners. We're getting closer. I can feel it."

What Faith feels is a slippery slope underneath her feet. She suspects that before this is over she's going to be sliding right to the bottom on her ass.

***

"I cannot believe this!" Wes is shouting in her ear.

If he were solid Faith would smack him one.

"We're supposed to be working to get Angel back on the streets and what do you do?" Wes paces around her in circles, keeping up with her as she continues walking. "For the past three days you've been acting like…like…"

"A ho?" Faith finishes calmly. She fingers the four calling cards in her pocket. There's $150 worth in there and she plans to put them to good use. Thank you John One, John Two, and John Three.

"Well…no…no…" Wes stumbles at Faith's harsh admission, "but this is a bad time to be falling back on old habits."

"Not old habits. Never got paid for it before." Faith feels oddly calm. It scares her how the plan popped into her mind. It scares her that she didn't even flinch carrying out her plan. It scares her that it's come to this.

"I cannot believe — what is going through that head of yours?"

Faith stops and gazes levelly at Wes. "Buffy."

"Buffy? Why on earth—"

"I've been working my ass off for more than two months trying to distract Angel and it ain't working." Faith can hear how even her voice is. "That means I gotta call in the Golden Girl herself. Maybe the big love of his life can wake him the hell up by flashing her twat at him. I dunno. But it's worth a shot."

"But Faith! Prostit—" Wes's complaint is cut off mid-word when the Slayer fixes her blank-eyed stare at him.

"I don't see the big deal," she shrugs through the tightness in her back, "been getting laid since I was 14 by dicey guys. Not like there's a real danger, right?"

"That's hardly the point."

"That is the point. That's exactly the fucking point. Slayer healing means I don't have to worry about the hiv. Slayer strength means I don't have to worry about an asshole making me do what I don't want."

"You wanted to — with that man in—" Wes waves his hands. "I can't even begin to finish the sentence. I'll be haunted with that image for many years to come."

"Welcome to my world," Faith says shortly. She begins to prowl the sidewalk in search of a payphone. "I'm not a hundred percent Buffy'll take a collect call from me and I can't exactly liberate an international phone call from Ma Bell. Money had to come from somewhere and I can't exactly take a legit job given my sterling record."

"There had to have been another way," Wes weakly argues.

"Why the fuck does this bother you so much? Unless you're bugged because you were getting off on watching."

"I wasn't—" Wes shakes his head. "I just don't want to see you degrade yourself for a collection of calling cards."

Faith clenches her jaw at the concern in Wes's voice. Maybe a small part of him, the part that isn't devoted to saving Angel, actually does give a shit about her beyond what she can do for him. "Tell you what," she says softly, "when my minutes run out, I promise to swipe some chick's cell phone and run up her bill."

"A much better plan," Wes agrees. "Even if I prefer that you drop this notion of trying to drag Buffy into this."

That's a first. Someone wants her more than B. "Why the hell would you say that?"

"One, I highly doubt Buffy can be bothered," Wes ticks off on his fingers, "Two, even if she could be bothered, I don't believe she really understands Angel anymore, and that's assuming she ever did."

Bullshit. She's not going to let Wes talk her out of this. Reaching out and touching B is worth the shot and she's not going to give up without even trying. This is to help Angel. What she thinks about B ain't even worth factoring into the equation as far as she's concerned. She's laying the bet on B coming running and Angel needing only one look at B's bright shiny face to solve all her problems.

She spots a payphone, smiles, and gives what she knows is a low blow. "Well Wes, we can't all understand Angel as well as you do."

***

While the receiver pours a chirp of clicks and rings into her ear, Faith shoves the dog-eared number of Giles's lair in England into her jacket pocket. It's her best shot at tracking down B's latest location. Last she heard before she took off from the planning session in Vegas, all the little Scoobs were making plans to scatter. For all she knows B might be in East Cupcake contemplating her navel.

Someone picks up and a male voice cheerfully announces, "International Council for Women's Rights. We train and educate today's young ladies to be tomorrow's leaders. This is Andrew Wells speaking. How can we help you?"

Son of a…she thought sure the Scoobs would've dumped Andrew in a ditch by the side of the road long before now. She remembers that B barely tolerated him, Xander refused to even look at him, Robin didn't trust his lily-white ass, and the newbie Slayers hid when they saw him coming. Only people who didn't seem to want him to disappear was Giles, who was too damn busy to give a shit one way or the other, and Willow, who at least was willing to talk to him, probably out of solidarity with a member of the "Formerly Evil" club.

Even though she is a member of the "Formerly Evil" club, but she just couldn't warm up to Andrew. The guy struck her as a flakier than a nor'easter and that kind of shit gets people killed. Will get people killed. Yet here he is answering phones like he's some Fat Cat Ass. Then again, she's been outta touch for almost a year-and-a-half. Maybe things have changed. Maybe Andrew changed. Not like she has a whole lot of room to doubt since she's the poster child for turning a new leaf. Faith crosses her fingers and launches into it. "Yo, Andrew. S'me. Faith."

"Faith!" The squeal is so loud that the Slayer has to hold the phone away from her ear. She's unable to help the wince.

"Good lord!" Wes complains, his wince matching her own.

"So how are you? How's life on the road?" Andrew's voice comes out in a breathless rush. "I betchya just traveling from town to town, saving people like Bill Bixby did in the Incredible Hulk, the fuzz and a nosy reporter hot on your trail. I betchya even got a big motorcycle that you can ride off into the sunset after…."

Faith's ears shut Andrew out. Several times she opens her mouth to get a word in edgewise but the guy just keeps going and going like some vocal Energizer Bunny.

Does this kid even breathe?

Finally she gives up and runs roughshod over the squealing. "No. Not traveling right now. Settled in L.A."

The news stops Andrew cold. "L.A.? We've heard some bad things from—"

"Yeah. Wolfram & Hart. Guess you guys would know about that," Faith interrupts before Andrew can go off on another tangent.

"We heard no survivors."

Warning bells start dinging in Faith's head. The Council knows about the story behind the story, but they have no frigging clue about what happened after. It doesn't help that Andrew's voice sounds suspicious and cautious. Well, no surprise there. Wolfram & Hart are up there on the evil hit parade and here Faith has all but admitted that she's in the clued circle despite being out of touch with Slayer central. If she were Andrew, she'd be getting pretty damn suspicious herself.

"Not exactly true. Angel's still among the living…I mean unliving…I mean…fuck it. You know what I mean," Faith leans into the booth as she drops her voice. She doesn't exactly believe the Senior Partners have a spy on every corner like Angel does, but it's worth being careful just the same. "He's the one that gave me the straight dope."

Andrew's voice also drops in volume, probably in response to Faith's own tone-it-down voice. "A-a-a-a-are you sure that's wise? He's been corrupted by—"

Faith grits her teeth. Yeah, she heard about how the Council and Giles gave Angel the big kiss off when it mattered. Okay, if she were at Giles's end she'd be cautious, sure, but to completely shut the whole L.A. gang out like they did? After everything Angel did up to and including delivering that goddamned amulet? She would've done more investigating before jumping to conclusions.

"Andrew? I don't have fucking time for this," Faith interrupts with a little more harsh than she intends. "I'm calling from a goddamn payphone in the middle of South Central. I only have so many calling cards I can use and I don't have all fucking night. I need to get Buffy on the horn, as in yesterday. So cough up the contact so I can get busy."

Andrew clears his throat and drops his voice even more. "Buffy's a little," he hesitates a little, "busy at the moment. She really isn't in any position to take your call."

"Listen," Faith growls into the phone, "I didn't ask your opinion. I asked for B's number. I want her to tell me she doesn't have the fucking time, not you."

There's more coughing and stumbling at the other end as Andrew starts running through a string of words that Faith knows is going to end with "get lost" and the phone getting slammed in her ear.

Suddenly there's a muffled sound as if Andrew is covering the receiver. She concentrates and blesses Slayer hearing when she hears Andrew's distant voice talking to someone with a female one. "Andrew?" she yells into the phone. "Andrew you little shit! Who are you talking to?"

"Please do calm down," Wes frowns at her.

The female voice gets more insistent, which means someone else at the other end heard her. Ten-to-one it's a Slayer with the complete enhanced hearing package.

Then she hears Andrew's muffled voice, "Nothing….wrong….call…no one…prank…"

"Andrew goddamn it! It's Faith! Faith! Faith!"

There's a sound and the line becomes breathtakingly clear. The sudden shock of the non-muffled receiver hitting something hard as if it was dropped makes Faith jump. The female voice is much more clear as it shouts, "Andrew? Andrew? What's going on? Andrew?"

There's a million-year pause before Faith hears the sounds of fumbling. She yells into the receiver, "Don't hang up! Don't hang up! It's me! It's Faith!"

Another pause before a cautious female voice shoots into her ear. "Faith? Oh god, Faith?

"B?"

"Yeah, it's me," Buffy says warmly. "Is it really you?"

Faith doesn't get it. Buffy sounds almost relieved to hear from her. She has to be wrong about that. As a little bonus, she feels like such a freaking dork. She expected that she'd dialing numbers to countries she'd never heard of just to track B down and then she expected she'd have to plead her case just to get B to even listen to her. Not only did she get Buffy at the first place she tried, but also the Queen B herself sounds like she wants to chat.

"Yeah, in the flesh." Faith nervously fidgets. "Well, in the not-flesh. I mean…shit…B?"

"I'm here." No, it isn't Faith's imagination. Buffy definitely sounds relieved.

"Look, I know you're wicked busy" — C'mon, c'mon, spit this shit out already — "but I really could use your help. It's Angel."

"Angel?" Buffy sounds hesitant, like she can't believe her ears. "We know about Wolfram & Hart and…and…well, the big battle. You're in L.A.? Did something happen?"

"He's alive."

Faith can hear the sharp intake of breath. Hook, line, and sinker.

"How?" Buffy's question is like a silver bullet.

"Luck. For him. Sort of. Everyone else is dead. You know the gang, right? Wes," she gives the ghostly Watcher a glance, "Cordelia, Spike—"

"What…what…Spike?" Buffy interrupts.

Faith frowns. "Yeah, Spike. He was working with Angel after—"

"But Spike's dead," Buffy insists.

"Now he's dead. A year ago not so much," Faith insists. "C'mon, didn't Andrew tell you about Angel and Spike visiting your apartment in Rome?"

"No." There's a growl in the answer at just the timbre that always sends electric sparks right to Faith's groin.

Interesting.

Now she's curious about what B did actually know, since it turns out that she doesn't know a hell of a lot. She throws out the bait, armed with the information Angel has fed her over two months. "Well, maybe he didn't want to interrupt your happiness since you were screwing around with that Immortal dude and partying it up in the clubs."

The explosion at the other end of the line is nothing short of spectacular. "WHAT?!"

"Hey, don't yell at me. I'm just repeatin' what Angel said Andrew told him and Spike." Faith is especially proud of the fact that she can keep so calm while B's temper goes in a downward spiral.

"Andrew."

That one word is so full of quiet menace that Faith just knows that Andrew's Fat Cat Ass will soon be called mowed grass. "So you wasn't—"

"Robin and I were looking for some key books the Council needed and the Immortal had connections that could get us within sniffing distance," Buffy quickly explains. "That's why we were in Rome and that's why I was letting the Immortal drag me all over town posing as his girlfriend. It was a really long month."

"Wait. Dawn wasn't with you?"

"Dawn? She's in boarding school in Switzerland." Buffy sounds confused. Confusion quickly returns to flat anger. "Andrew. Again."

"Wow, sounds like he's not exactly bein' straight up with anybody." Faith's enjoying this too much, probably because she just realized that her job just got a hell of a lot easier. She just knows B's gonna be on the first plane to L.A. to save Angel from himself.

So what if some part of her heart is sinking? So the hell what? Angel and her are still buds and Angel ain't gonna just forget about her. But that's not the point, her mind pipes up, you kinda like the idea that Wes and Angel look at you like you're their last hope. When B's back in the picture, you know that's all going to change. She's gonna be the hero, not you for thinking to call her in.

No. Forget it. She's not going to sabotage this. This is for Angel.

"I don't get it," Buffy's voice sounds hurt. "I don't even understand why Angel would even believe that I wouldn't want to see him. I mean, I get Spike. Spike might feel a little…I dunno…like he wouldn't want to because we all thought he died at Sunnydale, but—"

"Unh, Andrew knew Spike was alive for months before they showed up in Rome," Faith interrupts.

"What? How?"

"Dana," Faith simply says. "Remember her?"

"I know who she is. She's in Devon with the Coven for—"

"Ran into Spike then," Faith interrupts. "As for why Angel would think you wouldn't want to see him? Comes down to that visit, too. Andrew said that you said that none of the little Scoobies trusted him no more. That you all thought he'd gone evil."

Faith can almost picture Buffy's shocked face at the other end of the line.

"Andrew," Faith prompts, mimicking Buffy's flat angry voice.

"Faith, are you somewhere I can call you back in 20?" Buffy asks. "I need to make sure Andrew is thrown in a cell in one of the Council's ickier dungeons so I can chat with him later."

"Nope. At a payphone. I'm using my precious supply of calling cards up."

"Fine. Call me in 20. Reverse the charges," Buffy says shortly.

"Right-y-o," Faith cheerfully responds as she rings off.

While waiting she tells Wes the sitch. She takes more than a little comfort in the fact that he's shocked down to his Watcher toes and that he's forced to concede that maybe Faith had the right idea after all. She practices a short version of Angel's story to tell Buffy — making sure to include all the Andrew-related bits — as she keeps glancing at her watch. She lets a half-hour pass before calling.

After going through the ritual of accepting the call, Buffy doesn't waste time. "Tell me."

"Andrew?"

"Turning the house and the grounds upside down to find him," Buffy says with assurance. "Don't worry. We'll get him. Now tell me."

Faith launches into it, looking at Wes throughout the session to make sure she's getting as much right as he can confirm. Buffy occasionally asks a question, more to clarify points than anything else, but otherwise stays quiet.

"…so that about wraps it up," Faith finishes. "Angel's gunning for the Senior Partners, but, B? I'm worried. He's obsessive. He just sits there with his books day-in, day-out. I can't do shit. It's like he's addicted to the ink."

"I don't see what I can do," Buffy says quietly. "As far as Angel's concerned I turned my back on him when he needed me, so I don't—"

"Getchyer ass on a plane and tell him face-to-face that you didn't know anything. Tell him you'll take him back. Do something," Faith pleads. She can't believe Buffy's even hesitating. "I'm hanging on a heart attack over here. I've tried to do it on my own, but it ain't workin'. Maybe the two of us together—"

"I can't."

Two words and Faith can feel all her hopes shattering.

"Not right now," Buffy clarifies.

"Because of that shit-stain Andrew? C'mon, you got a million Slayers over there, so—"

"Not just that," Buffy interrupts. "That's why I was so relieved to hear from you. Faith, things are bad here. We've been starting to stumble over dead Slayers, Slayers that were murdered before we can get to them. Plus, we're hearing rumors that there's some group out there recruiting our Slayers."

"Your Slayers," Faith deadpans.

"We don't know why," Buffy is clueless as she blithely continues. "And Willow right now…there was a spell…a really difficult one and she…well, she…" There's a shuddering breath. "She's alive. Almost didn't survive, but she's alive and that's what's important and—"

"What happened?"

"She lost her mind." It sounds like Buffy's ripping off a band-aid. "She barely knows where she is half the time and…and we're trying everything but—"

"Jeez, sorry about that B."

"Plus Xander tangled with one of those militia groups in the Sudan. Y'know, the ones who've been doing the slave trade thingie and, crap, I'm not sure of the name of the group or why they're capturing people and making them slaves, but Giles knows the sitch," Buffy says. "Anyway, Xander managed to get a message to us through one of our operatives asking us to get Council people down to Sudan to help get him and his people out of the country. He, unh, he kinda did a number on one of the cells to free two Slayers that got caught and wound up with a whole bunch of their frightened friends and family as part of the bargain. So he's on the run with a mess of people looking to him for protection and a whole lot of other people chasing after him howling for his scalp."

"Awww, he's got a couple of Slayers on his side, so—"

"Not sure that's going to help, Faith," Buffy sounds shaken to her core. "The news from Sudan isn't good. The group he's tangled with has got government backing and he's made the 'Most Wanted' list down there if I heard right. I guess murder, kidnapping, and acts of terrorism in a good cause will do that."

"You're fucking kidding. You don't buy that shit, right?"

"Look, I'm telling you what they're charging him with," Buffy snaps. "And believe me, I have no doubt that kidnapping charge is bullshit since those people are running with him and not away from him. But murder and terrorism? To get those Slayers out of there? You bet I believe it."

"You're not going to leave him swinging, are you?" She's now caught up in B's excuses. If she's gonna fail she might as well know why.

"Of course not!" Buffy slips into defeat. "I just hope we can get him and his people out of there before the government or one of their militias get their hands on him."

Faith tries one last time. "Look, I get that shit's raining down on your head, I do, but Angel really needs you."

There's a chuckle at the other end masking a sob. "I want to be there. I do want to be there, but Faith…I can't. I just can't. Not right now."

"B, there's always shit raining down on your head. You are the queen of shit raining down on your head." Faith knows she's pushing too hard now. She got her answer, but damn it she has to try. "This week it's Andrew, Willow, and Xander. Next week it'll be something else. You know it and I know it."

There's a frustrated sigh at the other end and Faith for a moment lets herself hope that she managed to convince B to get on that plane.

"Look, it sounds like Angel isn't moving anywhere right now—" Buffy begins.

"Today. If he thinks he's got a straight shot at the Senior Partners tomorrow, I have no fucking clue what he'd do," Faith insists.

There's a stretch of silence. "I have to take my chances. Faith, I promise. Look, call me in three weeks. Four weeks, tops. I promise I will get on that plane when you call. By then Xander'll be safe and we'll know how we'll be able to help Willow find her way back. Plus, we'll have Andrew in custody. I suspect he knows how the other guys are finding the new Slayers. Once those three things are cleared up I'll be able to go to L.A. with a clear conscience and help you help Angel."

Disappointment tinged with the tiniest bit of guilty relief rages through Faith's solar plexus. She tried. No one can say she didn't fucking try. "Fine. Three weeks, B. You better have your bags packed."

"Call me if you need anything, Faith, and make sure to reverse the charges." Buffy sounds fervent. After a brief pause, she adds, "I wish you were here right now. We need you."

The receiver feels heavy in her hand. She wonders how much it killed Buffy to say it. "Yeah, well, Angel needs me more."

"Fair enough." Buffy then says her good-byes and rings off.

Faith stares at the receiver a few moments before putting the handset in its cradle.

"She's not coming, is she?" Wes asks. "I did—"

"Don't," Faith holds up a warning finger. "Don't say it. I don't wanna hear it right now."

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