liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,
liz_marcs
liz_marcs

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Ishmael Sings of the White Whale (Pt. 3)

Choirs of angels sing. Polished and posted.

The stats? 69 pages and roughly 26,000 words. Yike. Not exactly a nice, short, fluffy fic-a-thon piece. Me and my big mouth.

I can't wait to get back to Living History now, even though I suspect it's going to be celebrating its first birthday on August 8 at this point.

For the record, yeah, I kinda pegged this story to Moby Dick, one of my all-time favorite books. What? Don't look at me like that. You're talking to a sad little Hawthorne fangurl who kinda pegs her Xander and Faith characterizations off a Hawthorne template. Shut. Up. I am not so a geek. Come over here and say that, pal...

*ahem*

I'm really, really, really, really, really, really tired. And punch drunk.

Right. Now the end...

 

Continued from here

“Five days.”

“Not now, Wes.”

“You’ve been on book retrieval missions five days in a row.” Wes tsks his point. “I thought…”

“Yeah, yeah.” She hates that Wes is right. She’s slowly getting yanked right back in bit-by-bit. First it was three days. Then it crept up to four. She knows Angel’s gong for six days this week.

“Don’t ‘yeah, yeah,’” Wes snips.

“Look, at least I’m still getting out for the Slay, right? Not like he’s bogarting my whole night.” Jesus that statement sounds like weak shit, even to her.

“And by the time you deliver the book, turn around, and head back out, more than half the dark is gone,” Wes argues as he keeps pace.

“I thought the goal was to get Angel out here with me, not keep me out here,” Faith remarks as she stops short of the alley entrance.

“And if you don’t stay out here, Angel will never get out here,” Wes points out as he watches her carefully scan the streetscape. He sighs and adds, “What are you looking for?”

Faith merely grunts a response. She hates admitting it, even to herself, but her little Wolfram & Hart run-in makes her dead nervous. Granted, she’s only been fucking around with small shit: vampires and demons out for a little fun and food, but experience has taught her that you never know. She could off a right-hand guy to a big fish without even knowing it. If that happens, the wrath of the fine State of California will pile on her ass.

No one’s paying attention to her. She slips out of the shadows and takes her place on the sidewalk. A small adjustment in her body language and she’s tromping down the cement like she owns it.

“Someone needs to be out here,” Wes continues.

Faith resists the urge to reply because the last thing she needs is someone giving her the hairy eyeball for talking to herself.

Wes apparently knows this too, because he’s taking full advantage of the situation. “It’s bad enough that you’re out here alone. It’s even worse that you’re out here only part time.” He sweeps a hand across the streetscape. “Someone has to protect these people from the dark. More than one someone, actually. They’re getting, at best, a half-a-person.”

“Geee, thanks,” Faith mutters.

“I dare you to say it isn’t true,” Wes argues. “The reason why I want Angel out here isn’t just for him, but for these people as well. Surely you can’t disagree with that.”

“You’re doing it more for Angel,” she whispers. Just in case anyone’s watching her, she makes it look like she’s trying to remember something.

Wes doesn’t even bother to argue the point, opting instead to give her an irritated sigh.

“Short-cutting through there,” Faith continues her whisper as she jerks her head to another alley across the street.

Wes blips away and Faith lets out a breath. This is the same conversation she’s been having with Wes all week. The really shitty thing about it is that she agrees with him, even if she can’t quite admit it. Someone needs to be out here full-time and she’s not out here nearly enough. She makes a little dent here and there, but she feels helpless. She’s one person and, as Wes was kind enough to point out, not even a fully committed person at that.

The hell of it is if she takes to the streets full-time she’ll have to walk away from Angel and she’s not prepared to do that. Furthermore, she suspects that even if she takes to these particular streets in this particular city, she won’t be able to cut the cord as neatly as she needs to because she’d feel obligated to help Angel.

So she’s stuck. She can’t leave. She can’t stay. She suspects that she’s making this harder on herself than she should, but she’s been so twisted up since Wes invaded her life that it’s a wonder she remembers her own goddamn name sometimes.

“Faith!”

The Slayer frowns at herself for getting distracted and focuses across the street at Wes. He’s jumping up and down in front of the alley entrance and waving his arms at her in a desperate bid for attention.

“There’s a feeding back here!” Wes is hollering at the top of his lungs. “Hurry! I don’t think he’s got much time!”

Faith launches across the street, weaving around the moving cars and ignoring the squeal of locked breaks. Shitshitshitshitshitshitshit…

“There’s three,” Wes says the second her foot hits the sidewalk. “They’re distracted…”

“Right.” Faith shoots into the alley, drops her book bag as she goes, and slides the stake tucked up her jacket sleeve into her hand. She dusts the first two with successive quick jabs in the back before they know what’s hit them. The third one—a youngish woman, or she would be if she were still alive—jumps back with a hiss and bared fangs.

The guy lying in a pool of his own blood stares glassy eyed at the sliver of sky between buildings. The sluggish ooze from his neck tells Faith that he’s still alive. The shallow breathing tells her that he won’t be for long if she doesn’t end this now.

“Let me guess,” she says as she charges the vampire ho, “Your two buddies were male. So I’m guessing a little play-acting, right? Make like some helpless chick falling victim to two big bruisers wanting a piece of ass.”

She slices with her stake and only manages a cut across the vampire’s upper arm. When she was alive this woman was probably into self-defense because she-thing doesn’t miss a trick. She recovers and kicks out a roundhouse that Faith barely avoids.

“So, along comes stupidhead and makes like a fucking hero and gets a nasty-ass surprise,” Faith manages to box the vampire up, “How am I doing? Am I even close?” Faith’s fucking furious and she’s not sure why. She’s seen this particular scam a couple of times since she became a Slayer back in Boston, so it’s not like she’s come across a horrible new idea in how vampires hunt humans.

Vampire ho rushes her with a flurry of striking moves. “You’re not the Slayer I want,” yellow eyes lisps through her fangs.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Faith demands as she ducks and strikes out with kick.

“Faith! Be careful! She’s…”

Next thing Faith knows, she’s grabbed by her throat and shoulder before being flipped. She lands on her back with a painful exhalation of breath and is momentarily stunned by the force of impact. She registers the sound of running footsteps as her quarry takes off.

“Are you all right?” Wes’s worried face swims into her vision.

“Stunned but okay,” Faith breathlessly answers. “Lemme guess…”

“Our friend ran,” Wes finishes.

“No friend of mine, that’s for sure,” Faith disagrees as she gets to her feet. She quickly moves to the victim’s side to check him, but she knows even before she drops to her knees on the ground next to the hero-wanna-be that she’s way too late.

He’s dressed nice. He looks like a fucking Dudley Do Right complete with the square jaw and broad shoulders. Before the trio got their hands on him, he was probably clean and neat. Hard to tell what color his hair is, hard to tell what color his clothes are. There’s so much blood. These guys weren’t what you’d call neat eaters.

What they left behind is barely recognizable as human.

Who the fuck said that? Giles. About Xander. Maybe about Willow. She’s not hundred percent sure on any of that.

“Faith, we have to go,” Wes says. “Sirens.”

There should be rain, she thinks as she pulls the body into her lap. Someone’s going to miss this guy. And if someone doesn’t? Well, then there’s no fucking justice.

“Faith.” Wes’s voice climbs the scale in desperation.

“Too late,” Faith replies. “Too fucking late.”

“We can talk about this later,” Wes insists. “We have to go! The hell?”

“Miss?”

The new voice snaps Faith out of the mental loop and she looks up into the eyes of a petite, blonde-haired woman.

She clears her throat. “I think we need to talk, young lady. But not here. If the police come in and see you covered with blood…”

“British,” Wes needlessly points out.

“Watcher?” Faith asks.

The woman obviously thinks that Faith is asking her. “Why, yes.” The woman sounds surprised. “Madeline Gossworth.”

“Faith.”

Madeline’s eyes widen. “Faith? Wait, Mr. Giles’s Faith?”

Faith doesn’t even know how to begin translating that question.

“If you are, we must get out of here,” the woman insists. “The police are coming.”

“But…” Faith begins.

“The young man is gone. There’s nothing more you can do.”

“My book bag.”

“I have it,” the woman says as she holds out a free hand. “Please.”

After a beat, Faith gasps the woman’s clean white hand with her own bloodstained one.

***

Faith feels dirty.

She’s standing in Madeline’s neat-as-a-neater-than-neat-thing kitchen while the woman honest-to-god bustles around. She’s got water on the stove for instant coffee; she’s already got the cups, saucers, sugar, and cream on the table; and she’s filling the sink with warm water so Faith can get the grime and blood off her skin.

Then there’s the Slayer, May. She looks as Mexican as Mexican can be, which shouldn’t be a surprise because this is California and not Massachusetts. The surprise—at least to the part of Faith’s prison-trained mind that learned to crudely toss people into certain categories based on skin color—is this chick’s English doesn’t have a hint of an accent, Spanish or otherwise.

But it isn’t the neat kitchen, or Madeline’s insistence on cleaning her up, or the fact that there’s a part of her that pegs someone as a ‘spic’ before they open their mouth that makes her feel dirty. It’s that look in Madeline’s and May’s eyes. They look at her as if she’s some fucking hero and not like the Slayer who fucks up everything she touches.

She’s got to get her ass out of here.

Wes is making ‘oooooo’ sounds as his eyes roam over the piles of books all over the apartment and the full-to-bursting bookshelves. It’s like Wes has achieved nirvana without managing to make it to those heavenly dimensions. She knows that if Wes could choose, he’d choose to hang here for as long as he could.

“…so, that’s who you’re up against,” May breathlessly finishes her report. “We’ve been picking them off one-by-one, but they keep making more.”

“And this despite help,” Madeline agrees as she hands Faith a washcloth. “I do apologize, but I don’t have any clothes in your size, otherwise…”

“S’okay,” Faith mumbles, “Got a change of clothes back where I’m staying.” She scrubs uselessly at the dried blood on the front of her shirt, but all she manages to do is make it wet.

“Here,” Madeline says as she takes the washcloth out of her hands. She looks at Faith with something resembling sympathy as she begins gently cleaning the Slayer’s dirty skin. Her voice drops low, “Please, don’t beat yourself up. You did everything you could.”

“Hear, hear,” Wes agrees from his station on the other side of the apartment. Faith’s head snaps around to see her personal ghost giving her a sad smile. He adds, “You can’t be everywhere. There’s no way to know if we would’ve been on time even if we weren’t ferrying books to Angel.”

“Is something wrong?” Madeline asks.

Faith latches on to something Madeline said earlier since she sure as hell doesn’t want to admit that she talks to a dead person. “You mentioned ‘despite help.’ I was going to ask May ’bout that.”

“It’s this gang who hangs out down by the waterfront,” May says.

“Gang?” Faith questions as she looks at Madeline. “You sure you want to get mixed up with the Crips and the Bloods? That don’t sound none too safe to me.”

Madeline warmly chuckles at that. “Hardly the same thing,” the Watcher says. The way she uses the washcloth to remove the blood from Faith’s hands and face is soothing. “To my eternal shame, I thought these ladies and gentlemen fell into that ilk. They are a gang, but they are rather committed to keeping the streets free of vampires.”

“Gunn’s old gang,” Wes breathes as he moves away from the books. “Must be.”

For Wes’s sake, Faith throws out the question. “I mighta known someone who used to run with them. Ever hear of a dude called Gunn?”

Madeline’s eyebrows crease. “Nooooo, I don’t believe…”

“I have,” May interrupts. “One of the guys mentioned him to me. Last they heard he was getting into some fight with Wolfram & Heart. That was almost a year ago, though. They haven’t heard anything since.”

Faith’s throat tightens. They don’t know. Well, they damn well are going to. “He’s dead.”

May draws a sharp breath.

“Went down fighting from what I hear,” Faith quickly adds with a glance at Wes. “Took out a room fulla vamps who was working for this skank politician. Nearly buys it then. But he marches into battle, axe in hand, barely keeping his feet, and starts taking out some really nasty-ass demons. He spit in the bastards’ eyes right to the end. You be sure to tell his crew that next time you see ’em.”

May wordlessly nods and Faith knows that the message is as good as delivered.

“I couldn’t agree with that eulogy more,” Wes says. “He made mistakes, but in the end he always tried to put it right, even if some part of me can’t quite forgive him for what happened to Fred.”

That’s Wes: champion grudge-holder. Guy’s fucking dead. Doesn’t matter no more what Wes thinks. Gunn’s probably somewhere where he don’t give a sweet shit. At least she hopes that’s the case.

“Well, I wish I could say he didn’t die in vain,” Madeline says gently. She winces just as Wes reacts like he’s been slapped. “I am sorry, I didn’t mean…”

“Didn’t know him that well,” Faith quickly says. Christ. She really didn’t know anyone that fucking well it seems. She’s getting sick and tired of saying that line like it’s the story of her life.

“May, please pour the water for the coffee,” Madeline says.

As May leaps to do it, Faith asks, “So what’s the deal? She live here?”

“Yes.”

The clipped answer is enough to tell Faith that there’s a long and painful story behind the deal, so she doesn’t press. Madeline’s attempt at cleaning her up has helped her gain a little equilibrium, but she’s just not ready to face the outside world yet. Might as well try to get some missing pieces for her own story.

“You called me Giles’s Faith,” she prompts. “How…”

Madline interrupts her by firmly guiding her to a kitchen chair. “We came to L.A. last month to bolster reinforcements. Mr. Giles mentioned that you were operating here and that we should keep our eyes peeled for you.”

“Reinforcements?” Faith asks.

Madeline drops heavily into a kitchen chair. “There are other Slayer-Watcher teams operating in L.A. because…well, I’m certain you’ve been on the streets. Things are boiling at barely controlled chaos right now and it’s too much for one Slayer to handle. All of us are working with the gang down on the waterfront, something that’s unprecedented in Council history.”

She spares a glance at Wes. He looks paler than normal, and that’s even considering he’s already dead. “Dear god,” Wes prays

“I knew things were bad, but…” Faith begins.

“Imagine your worse-case scenario, and then double it.” Madeline’s voice reveals bone-deep exhaustion, like she’s been fighting since she landed in L.A.

“What’s going on?” Faith asks.

Madeline takes a breath and says, “Between your people in Sunnydale two years ago and the business with Wolfram & Hart last year, there’s been quite the one-two punch on the balance of power in this dimension.”

“I don’t follow,” Faith says.

“’Cause of the First Evil going down and all the new Slayers being called,” May responds as she pours the hissing water into Faith’s cup. “Then because of Circle of the Black Thorn getting wiped out.”

Faith peers suspiciously at the sludge-like consistency of her coffee and opts to dump as much cream and sugar as she can into her cup. “Still missing something there.”

Madeline sighs and curls her hands around her own cup. “The Hellmouth in Sunnydale was the largest and most powerful in this dimension, so much so that it tended to drain energy from the other Hellmouths elsewhere. That’s not to say they weren’t active, but they weren’t powerfully so.”

Faith catches on. “We shut it down and all that power’s got to go somewhere.”

“Precisely,” Madeline gives her a tired smile. “To be brutally honest, there are several major Hellmouths now kicking up quite the fuss.”

Jesus. No wonder why Buffy crumpled. If she knew…

“Please don’t,” Madeline reaches out and gasps Faith’s hand. “I can see from the look on your face what you’re thinking. It had to be closed; no one disagrees with that. According to the few records that have survived from prior to the First’s activities, the Sunnydale Hellmouth was about to blow wide open and that would’ve resulted in widespread devastation.”

“Like a volcano,” Faith mutters.

“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Wes agrees.

“So, lemme guess: activating all the Potentials crossed with Sunnydale going down and that means war,” Faith remarks. She checks with Wes, who gives her a nod to indicate that he’s thinking the same thing.

“Actually, things didn’t get bad until Wolfram & Hart,” Madeline says. “Oh, we were dealing with the blowback, but we did manage to keep on top of things. When Angel and his people took out the Circle of the Black Thorn,” the Watcher shrugs, “it left a power vacuum. What you’re seeing…”

“…is a turf war,” Faith finishes for her. “So if we had one without the other…”

“If we didn’t have the number of Slayers we have now, the human race would be much, much worse off,” Madeline harshly interrupts. “Frankly, I get down on my knees every night thanking every god in every known universe that you folks did what you did.”

“I’m rather surprised the Senior Partners aren’t yanking on the choke chain,” Wes says.

“Yeah!” Faith winces and quickly adds, “Where’s the Senior Partners in all this?”

“They’ve lost control of the situation,” Madeline answers. “At least, that’s what we believe. In many ways, the Senior Partners kept things in check. Evil couldn’t be too evil, otherwise nothing would get accomplished. Ergo, we theorize, many of the major demonic factions agreed to work through Wolfram & Hart rather than battling out in the open. In exchange, Wolfram & Hart promised to eventually deliver this world back to them with interest.”

“What do you want to bet that was never going to happen,” Faith leans back. “They’re in the sweet spot. Once they deliver the goods, they’re not the ones with the big dicks anymore.”

May giggles and blushes at that.

Madeline gives her Slayer an affectionate, exasperated look. “Perhaps. We honestly don’t know what the long-term intention was. All we can tell you is that without the Black Thorn, the Senior Partners have lost credibility. They’re not able to keep order and right now they don’t have the wherewithal to enforce anything.”

Faith whistles.

“The Senior Partners are actually vulnerable?” Wes sounds amazed. “That lawyer in the alley…it was for show, a form of whistling in the dark. Good lord, if Angel manages to get to them while they’re still in this state…”

Funny. That’s not how she sees it. What she sees is that a whole lot of people are getting crushed underfoot while the giants battle it out. If she’s hearing right, ain’t no way people can just flee town because this shit’s happening everywhere. They can’t run because there’s nowhere for them to run to.

“Giles didn’t tell me any of this,” Faith says.

“That’s because we didn’t know until we started looking into the Senior Partners for you,” Madeline explains. “Things started falling into place only recently.”

“You guys got a plan?” Faith asks.

“There’s a plan? No one mentioned a plan,” May jokes.

“I fear May is correct. We’re not precisely sure what we can do besides hang on,” Madeline says. “L.A. and other cities that host Wolfram & Hart branches are hot spots, as are areas with Hellmouths. Between the growing crisis, the desperate need to find all the Slayers we can, training new Watchers, and trying to find out the intentions of a rival group recruiting Slayers and killing those who don’t join them, we’re stretched rather thin.”

Faith sags into her chair. This is fucking humungous. There’s massive, massive problems on an epic scale going on all around her and she’s got her head so far up her fucking ass that she completely missed it. “That’s why you’ve been looking for me,” Faith says dully. “To tell me this.”

“And to give you information that’s too delicate to send to the drop box,” Madeline nods at May, who excuses herself. “Mr. Giles believes that we should perhaps aid Angel as much as we can. If we remove Wolfram & Hart from the equation, the raging battle in their territories might cool off.”

“Or it might get worse,” Wes says.

“Or you might have more people gunning for top dog,” Faith relays.

“Perhaps. But until we get more information that states otherwise….ahhh, May. Please give Faith the book.”

May places a ledger-sized tome on the table next to Faith. It looks like the bazillion other books Angel’s collected: old, musty, hard-to-read, and ultimately a dead end.

“So what you’re saying is that, for now, you’re going to feed the beast for Angel even though you don’t know if it’ll help,” Faith says. “Sounds to me like you could use an ass kicker even more.”

“Actually, I’d say they need a strategy more than anything else,” Wes argues. “Sounds like they’re so busy putting out raging forest fires that no one’s sat down and tried to put the pieces together.”

A shadow crosses Madeline’s face as she leans back. “As someone in the trenches, I would much rather see more people taking up the good fight. Purely for selfish reasons, you understand.”

“’Cause more bad asses on your side means less work for everyone,” Faith agrees.

“Means less death for everyone,” Madeline swipes a tired hand through her hair. “We’ve suffered some terrible losses in recent months.”

And damn it, her throat’s tightening again. “So I heard.”

“You only heard the beginning,” Madeline dismisses. She shakes herself. “Regardless of what I believe, Mr. Giles is pushing ahead with, as you put it, ‘feeding the beast.’ Thanks to his decision to aid Angel in his quest, we are beginning to see a picture emerge. He believes it to be a worthy line of enquiry and I can’t argue that it has yielded some promising information.”

Faith closes her eyes and wishes she didn’t hear this. “So, what now?”

“Mr. Giles has asked all of us in L.A. to relay a message to you should we find you,” Madeline says. “He’ll continue to use the drop box, but he’s rather hoping that he’ll be able to send misinformation through it, just in case someone is on to our investigations.”

“That is very clever,” Wes nods.

“As for the real information, he’d prefer that you use one of us as a point of contact,” Madeline continues. “Once you give the green light on the plan, we’ll work out the details.”

“I’ll check with Angel on that and get back to you,” Faith promises. She looks down at her bloodstained clothes and adds almost to herself, “Wish I could tell you that it’ll make a damn bit of difference.”

“We won’t know until we try,” Madeline says.

“And if it turns out that Angel’s being an idiot and his mission will make things worse?” Faith asks.

“We’ll get to that when we come to it.” The tone in Madeline’s voice tells Faith that the Watcher doesn’t like the uncertainty of this deal.

“The Council is sticking its neck very far out,” Wes remarks. “They’re accommodating Angel by sharing information, but if the wrong people find out, it could be dangerous for everyone. Rupert is taking quite a gamble.”

Rupert is drowning in fucking guilt and it’s knocked his judgment out of whack, you idiot, Faith furiously thinks.

May yawns.

Madeline grins. “Too right. It is quite late. Perhaps you should be going.”

Faith shoots a hand out and grabs Madeline by the wrist. “You mentioned more losses. Fill me in. Who else has…” she can’t quite say died.

“I’m certain you’re tired and this can wait,” Madeline says.

“No, it can’t. I need to know,” Faith insists.

“I suspect you’re going to be sorry you asked,” Wes says.

Madeline takes a breath before breaking the news. “Mr. Giles, Buffy, and yourself are the only ones left alive from the Sunnydale inner circle.”

Faith goes numb. “Robin? Dawn? Kennedy? What about…”

“All gone,” Madeline says.

“What about Andrew?” Faith asks.

Madeline closes her eyes and replies, “We don’t know where he is.”

Faith can feel the pulse in her neck as her hands clench. “Tell me. Start from the beginning. Don’t even fucking think skipping anything. I want to hear it all of it.”

***

Faith arrives back at her bolthole just as the sun hits noon fueled by a fury unlike any she’s ever felt. She storms through the Office Jungle and bursts into the Big Kahuna suite to see Angel sitting behind that dick desk in the fat cat ass chair.

At her entrance he looks up. “Faith! I’ve been worried…”

Faith grabs the edge of the dick desk and yanks. It skitters across the carpet but sadly doesn’t crash into anything. “They’re dead. They’re all dead. They’re all fucking dead. And you fucking sit there…”

“Dead? Who’s dead?” Angel leaps to his feet. “Faith, I don’t…”

“Some guy in an alley. Robin. Xander. Willow. Fucking little Dawn wasn’t even safe.”

Angel sinks into the chair as the news sinks through to his brain. “What…”

“It’s falling to shit, Angel!” Faith screams at him. “It’s falling to shit around our goddamn ears!” She marches over to a window and yanks the fire blanket down, letting the sun flood the office. She hears Angel hiss behind her as he retreats to a shadowed part of the room. She doesn’t bother to turn around. “Take a good, long, fucking look. Open your goddamn eyes. Look up from one of your precious books and take a look!”

“You’re covered in blood. You stink of blood. What happened?” Angel asks.

“Faith, please try to calm down,” Wes urges.

“What happened? What happened?” Faith begins to laugh crazily. The world is spinning off its axis and tumbling down. The demons of the world are fighting, but sooner or later someone not Wolfram & Hart is going to unite them and then what? Where does that leave everyone?

“Faith?” Angel tries to reach out, but the light is too strong and he’s forced to retreat. “Please, talk to me.”

Faith finally turns to face him, feeling the warmth of the sun beat down on her neck. “I’ve been getting in touch with the Council. Those little surprise packages you’re getting? From Giles.”

Angel’s nostrils flare in anger. “He’s a little late with the help.”

Faith takes a step away from the window, but keeps in the sunlight. The Slayer part of her brain notes that Angel is well and truly cornered. He’s stuck. He’s going to have to listen to her.

“Giles was lied to. Buffy was lied to. All right down the line. They had no fucking idea what was going on here, because if they did? You would’ve gotten all the help you needed. And get this: you were lied to. Buffy didn’t even fucking know you and Spike were in Rome. She didn’t even know Spike was alive.”

“But Andrew…” Angel begins.

“Andrew sold them out to the highest bidder. ’Course they don’t know who because he’s disappeared. But right around the time Buffy gets wise, people start dying. First it was Xander. Then Willow. Followed by Dawn. More right after that, like fucking dominoes.”

Angel’s face darkens dangerously. “Sounds like the Senior Partners are…”

“It’s not the Senior Partners!” Faith shouts. “Your little scam last year is part of the fucking problem! They kept a lid on things and now no one is keeping a lid on things. You’re wrong, dead wrong.”

“Faith…” Wes warns.

“That’s what Giles told you?” Angel asks.

Faith yanks Madeline’s book out of her backpack and throws it with all her might at Angel. He ducks just as the book crashes into the wall where his head was.

“Because I asked him to, Giles is running down this road. He’s doing it for fucking you, Angel. That book? Right out of the Council library. Down payment on their little information feed to you. They’ve dug up a lot shit and I gotta admit, their evidence looks a whole lot more solid than yours does.”

“Giles is still being lied to,” Angel insists. Faith’s impressed that he doesn’t move to pick up the book, even though he could get it without getting singed. “Trust me, I know. The Senior Partners are very good at deception.”

“The Senior Partners didn’t kill the guy who died tonight!” Faith screams. “Know what killed him? Vampires. Fucking vampires. There’s a little clan taking advantage of the fun and games and offing the populace, get me? While the Council is running around trying to keep its shit together, while you’re keeping your eyes on the fucking prize, people are dying in some pretty fucking awful ways. Who’s helping them, hunh? Who’s out there saving their asses?”

“You are,” Angel says quietly.

“It’s about damn time,” Wes cheers.

“No, I’m not,” Faith spits. “I’m your fucking go-to girl. I’m running your goddamn errands and protecting you from the vicious truth while you sit there and fight for ghosts who don’t give a shit.” She flings an arm out the window. “You’re fucking needed out there. There are other Slayers fighting and dying while you sit there and…”

“Try to stop the evil that will consume them all,” Angel quietly says.

“Keep pushing, Faith,” Wes urges. “Don’t give up.”

Wes doesn’t see it, not like she can. Angel’s not giving up. He’s never going to give up. She knows Angel better than anyone she’s ever known in her life. She’s walked through his brain. She’s picked at his memories. She’s stared his demon in the eye and she’s made love to his human. She can show him oceans of proof, she can rub his nose into the blood on her shirt, she can force him to talk to poor broken Buffy and it wouldn’t change a damn thing. There is nothing she can say that’ll force him into the night because he believes that this is the only way to win.

Angel obviously mistakes her silence for wavering. “Don’t you see? In this dimension, the Senior Partners are the ultimate evil. They’re the ultimate source of power. Lindsey told me that this is how it begins: the world slowly falls apart. By the time the cracks show, it’s already too late. That’s what you’re seeing, Faith. We’ve let the world slowly fall to pieces and this,” he waves his hand around the room, “is when it starts to catch up with all of us.”

Faith steps back until she can feel the heated glass against her back. It’s such a seductive scenario: blame something bigger than either one of them for all the shit raining down on planet earth. Maybe there’s a sinister master plan at work, maybe there isn’t. All she knows is that a lot of good people are dying in the dark and that she has to do something.

“Faith,” Wes hisses.

Angel steps dangerously close to the light, as far as he dares. “Lindsey also told me this: Heroes don’t accept the world as it is. Heroes fight to change it. If we step out there and get lost in the everyday battles, all we’re doing accepting that world. We’re not fighting it. Nothing will change unless we take out the people who started us all down this path.”

“I can’t hold my nose and step over the bodies, Angel,” Faith finally says. “I can’t do it any more. I can’t get the fucking smell of blood out of my clothes. You doing what you’re doing…it’s not going to bring any of them back. But maybe we could save…”

“No,” Angel digs in. “Saving one or two people isn’t enough. We have to save the world.”

“You lost him,” Wes says quietly. “Dear god, you’ve lost him.”

Faith wants to scream bullshit on Angel. This is about vengeance. He told her that right from the beginning. Somehow he’s managed to spin himself a story on why he sits on his ass while she goes out to fight, not because he doesn’t care, but because he cares too fucking much. She can see the pain still lurking behind his eyes.

“There’s too many people between us,” she finally says, “too many ghosts. Wes, Cordelia, Fred, Gunn, Spike, that guy Doyle you told me about. Hell, maybe Lindsey, too. It never was just the two of us, was it? They’re always there in the room with us.” She draws herself to her full height. “I can do the fucking math, Angel. I may not be too smart, but I know how to fucking add. What we got here is crowd and as far as you’re concerned, they’re all on your fucking side.”

Faith turns to leave.

“Where are you going?” Angel calls after her.

“I need to take a walk,” she shoots over her shoulder.

She escapes through the Office Jungle and out the door. When she makes it to the first floor, she’s not at all surprised to see Wes waiting for her.

“Running again?” he nastily asks.

“No,” Faith says firmly. “I’ll be back, but I need to be alone right now.”

“Lovely performance. Very charming.” Wes isn’t letting this go. “What was that supposed to accomplish?”

Faith looks at him a beat. “Stay with him, Wes. The last thing I need right now is your prick act.”

***

Faith crawls out of bed and plants a kiss on Angel’s forehead. He opens his eyes in response and gives her a smile.

“I gotta go,” she says gently.

“I know.” He reaches out and holds her hand. “Faith, for everything…thank you.”

“Hey, hey,” she soothes. “This ain’t goodbye you know. When you find those bastards get a message to Giles. He’ll be able to reach me.”

“This isn’t your fight.”

“But it is yours,” Faith says. “Don’t start the party without me, hear?”

“I won’t.”

She gets dressed and checks her duffle to make sure everything is packed while he watches her from the bed. A final swing around the abandoned offices tells her that there’s nothing she wants to take with her.

Well maybe one thing, but Angel made it clear that he’s not leaving.

She turns around and sees him standing the doorway of the Big Kahuna office. She blows him a kiss that he snatches out of the air and brings it down to where a beating heart would be if he had one.

She turns on her heel and leaves, knowing that if she dawdles much longer she’ll stay. When she hits the sun-drenched sidewalk outside Wes is waiting for her, his face pinched with disapproval.

“So this is it then. You’re abandoning both of us.”

“I made you the same offer I made him. You can come with if you want.”

“I asked you to do this,” Wes says tightly. “One thing. One very small thing.”

“That’s not a small thing in there. Wes, he’s never gonna stop. There’s nothing me, you, or hell, even Buffy can do about it. He’s gonna keep going and going long after I’m feeding the worms. You know it. I know it.”

Faith feels calm. In her heart she knows she’s doing the right thing. There’s a difference between satisfaction and Want. Take. Have. She understands that now. Running after something that will never let you catch it is not the road to satisfaction, let alone the road to a better tomorrow. It’s a one-way ticket to insanity and it’s not a road she’s interested in walking again.

Wes tries again. “He needs…”

She drops her duffle, gets in his face, and growls. “Fuck, Wes. I heard you the first billion times you said it. You’re right. I know you’re right. But Wes? That crazy shit is catchy. He pulled me in for Chrissakes. Me. You saw it. You fucking yelled at me about it. If I stick around, he’ll suck me right back in or get me killed while trying.” She shakes her head. “I just can’t do it any more. I just can’t.”

“It’s been only six months,” Wes pleads. “Give it time.”

“How much more time? Hunh? How much time do you think needs to pass before he gets with the acceptance?” Faith asks. “It’s been a fucking year, Wes. One year. He’s stuck to his plan through all that time. In six months, I’ve been all over the goddamn map with this Senior Partners bullshit. I can’t fix this. I don’t know anyone who can fix this.”

Wes’s shoulders deflate.

“I’ve tried everything,” Faith presses her point. “I tried tempting him into fighting. I’ve tried Buffy. I tried fucking him. I tried appealing to his pity. Hell, I even signed on to his mission. Nothing worked. If there’s something I haven’t tried, please tell me. I’m all fucking ears. Because if there’s something I haven’t tried, I’d sure like to hear it.”

“Perhaps if Connor were in danger…” Wes begins.

“No. No, forget it, Wes.” Faith throws up her hands to ward off the idea. “This whole fucking mess started because of Connor and you know it. We throw Connor into this situation and fuck knows what’s gonna happen.”

Faith can see Wes finally give up. “So you really are leaving?”

“Gotta. For my own mental health,” Faith replies. “’Sides, I don’t think me staying is going to help in the long run. As long as I’m here, he can avoid reality. Now if he wants information, he’s going to have start knocking on Madeline’s door. Sooner or later he’s going to have to start pulling his head out of his ass, if only because he’s going to want to keep his connection to the Council safe.”

“You’re rationalizing,” Wes accuses.

“Probably,” Faith shrugs. “But even you gotta admit that he’s better off now than when I first found him.” She takes a deep breath and focuses on Wes. “He’s probably the only person living or dead who can say that.”

Wes looks down and quietly counters, “Don’t blame yourself for more than your share. I’m fairly certain some people simply made bad decisions that had nothing to do with you, even if they sometimes found you an easy to person to blame for that.”

“Thanks, Wes,” Faith quietly says.

Wes slaps his hands together and forces a smile on his face. “So what are you going to do now?”

“Like I told Angel, I’ve talked it out with Giles and I negotiated myself an expense account plus salary. Plus, the Council is gonna start exerting a little influence to erase my record so I can travel more freely, but their influence? Not what it once was. That shit’s gonna take time.”

“So, back on the streets then to live the Slayer’s life?” Wes asks.

Faith gives him grin. “Last I checked that’s what you wanted Angel to do. You figured saving damsels in distress would make him get back in touch with his inner human.”

“Touché,” Wes allows.

“Only sort of for me,” Faith continues. “Giles asked me to start sniffing out activated Slayers in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Maybe give ’em a seminar, get ’em to sign on the dotted line, and then send up a flare so the Council can send a Watcher to work one-on-one.”

“Congratulations.” Wes sounds almost sincere.

“Look, I could use a little mentoring since making small talk ain’t exactly one of my strengths,” Faith holds out a trembling olive branch and hopes he’ll take it, “so come with. You’ll at least have someone to talk to and who can actually see you.”

Wes studies her for a moment and Faith thinks he just might take the offer. She’s disappointed when he dredges up an answer.

“I can’t Faith. I just can’t,” Wes’s eyes track to the covered windows in the building, “he needs me.”

“He can’t even see you Wes, so how do you figure that?”

Wes’s face is full of soft sadness. “Because I’m Starbuck to his Ahab. Where he goes, I must follow, even it is into the maw of the white whale itself.”

Faith’s not exactly sure what Wes is on about, but she can break it down to the basics: he’ll follow Angel straight into hell if that’s where Angel’s going. Doesn’t matter what happened in the past. Doesn’t matter what’s going to happen in the future. Doesn’t matter that, as far as Angel is concerned, Wes exists in the present only as another item on the list of things he’s lost.

Wes is staying because he’s doing it for Angel. It has always been and always will be about Angel and there’s nothing she can do about that.

Wes reaches out a finger and touches a spot in the middle of her forehead. She can almost imagine that there’s physical contact there, even though the only thing she can feel is the warmth of the sun after six months of darkness.

“But you? I call you Ishmael,” Wes says.

“Ishmael, hunh?”

Wes drops his hand and favors her with a genuine smile. “You’ll be the one who’ll talk about all the people who got lost. People from Sunnydale. People from L.A.” He nods as if he’s made up his mind on the matter. “Yes, I really do believe you are Ishmael.”

She knows that this is important, but she’ll be damned if she knows what it means. She reaches down, slips the strap of the duffle bag over her shoulder and says, “Goodbye, Wes.”

She turns and walks deeper into the sunlight.

***

She dumps her duffle to the dusty ground and tries to remember what town she’s in. Failing miserably on that score, she drops to the ground next to her bag and fixes her eyes on the high school across the street.

Christ that building has seen better days.

With one hand she reaches in and pulls out a battered copy of Moby Dick that she bought—not liberated—from a second-hand store. She opens the book to a folded down page, lifts the flap, and silently reads the paragraph. A frown line appears between her eyes as she re-reads it again, puzzling out Ahab’s mental wandering on the nature of sin and vengeance.

She doesn’t understand Ahab. She feels like she should, but she just can’t. How can killing a dumb animal, no matter how white or how big, give him his leg back? And when you start chasing monsters and ignoring the rolling sea underneath your feet, well…there’s only one way it can end.

She’s pretty sure that it’s not a happy ending.

Wes called himself Angel’s Starbuck and called her Ishmael. What it means, she doesn’t know. Maybe when she finishes the book she’ll figure it out.

Who’s she kidding? The book’s a tough read and she was never much for reading the classics in even comic book form. She figures she might finish it in a year or two.

She hears the sound of a muffled bell. She closes the book and tenderly tucks it into her bag hoping like hell that if Angel finds his white whale his ending will be happier. Right now she’s got a bigger fish to fry.

If her dreams are right, there’s a Slayer in the crowd who could use a helping hand, starting with being told what…no, who…she is.

Faith’s not sure if she’s the one to tell her, but she has to try. There’s no one else left willing to bother with such greasy kid stuff.

As children pour out of the high school she wonders briefly if the girl will be like her, or Buffy, or someone in between. Will she be a loner? Or will she have a Willow and Xander who’ll die trying to help? Or will someone like Angel have come along and filled her head with tales about unseen monsters bigger than the world that need Slaying?

The thing is someone has to tell this girl a simple truth, one that got somehow lost among the multiple apocalypses, destinies, prophecies, and Powers playing humanity like chess pieces on a board:

If you’re going to save a world full of people, you have to save them one at a time.

END

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