Best Laid Plans: Assimilation
Cordelia was puzzled as she watched Doyle uncap a vial and pour its silvery contents into the basin.
Her eyes widened slightly as she saw the incandescent liquid briefly flare, as if affronted that it had been disturbed.
How in the name of Prada did he expect her to believe that this stuff was someone’s memories?
The problem was that she did
believe it, and a sliver of perversion shot up her spine.
What was she supposed to do? Casually view the memories of this boy, this Harry Potter person, so she could learn everything about him – his thoughts and feelings and fears, all of his secrets, his joy and pain – so she could, what, help him?
It was ghoulish and voyeuristic.
She valued her privacy and believed the privacy of others should be respected. Unless violating it amused her. Or if someone was in danger or it affected her.
Two out of three. Damn.
Still, she was pissed and growing angrier by the second. Was this how the Powers got their kicks? They would come into this room and select someone’s life at random, and then kick back to scan the highlights? What the hell was this? The Truman Show?
Had they done this with her memories? Had someone else? Had Doyle?
She felt violated.
“It’s not like that,” Doyle quietly said.
Her eyes flashed. “Have you added mind-reading to your bag of tricks since you walked into the big white light?”
He blinked and then sighed. “Princess, I have never viewed your memories. I wouldn’t do that to you and you know that.”
Did she? She was unsure. How well had she really known him when he lived, and how much had he changed since his death? How did she know she wasn't being punked? And he hadn’t answered her question.
“You know everything about me that matters.”
She raised a brow. “And you can say the same about me?”
She set her jaw and looked away. After a moment, she nodded. “Okay, but I don’t want to do this. It’s not right.”
“Cordelia. Cordy, look at me. Please.”
Grudgingly, she did.
“What’s not right is what’s been done to this boy. The Powers have chosen you to help him because they believe you’re the most qualified.” He held up a hand. “And before you ask, I don’t know how they arrived at that conclusion. Does it really matter? Are you refusing to help him?”
She curled a lip. “I didn’t say that.”
“Then how do you expect to do it if you know nothing about him? There isn’t time just to drop you into his world and let you fly blind, trying to find your way.” He cocked his head. “Weren’t you always the one demanding answers from Angel before he rushed to action? How can you help Harry if you don’t know what you’re up against?”
Her anger smoldered. How dare
he manipulate her with her own logic! That was what she did with other people!
She then deflated.
“It’s not the best way,” he conceded, “but it’s the only way we have that will maximize your efforts.”
She bit her lip and waved a hand at the Pensieve. “So how does this thing work?”
He suppressed a sigh of relief as well as a smug grin. “You’ll be able to review the key events of Harry’s life as he himself saw them.”
She rolled her eyes. “You can stop saying his name; you don’t need to humanize him for me. I’m not some serial killer.” She laced her fingers together to quell the nervous energy flitting through them. “What am I supposed to be looking for?”
“Look at the people closest to him, both good and bad. Study how he reacts to them, both mentally and physically.”
Her gaze narrowed. “Why do I think this has less to do with Harry and everything to do with the dorks surrounding him?”
“Because you’re smart.”* * * * *
Willow only half-listened as Anya yammered into her cell phone, explaining to Joyce that Dawn was with Giles, who would be keeping the girl with him for the night so Joyce herself could rest, and that she was taking Willow and Riley to Los Angeles to help Xander.
Since when were Anya and Joyce so chummy, anyway, and why did that bother her? Whatever.
From what she could deduce, Willow gathered it had been Xander himself who had asked Anya to come, which suggested that he was still running the show despite the presence of Buffy and Angel. She wasn’t sure if that was good or bad; it was good for Xander, and therefore good for Cordelia, but Buffy and Angel were two of the most headstrong people…or girl and vampire…she knew. She just hoped there weren’t any broken bones or noses.
Anya disconnected after once again reminding Joyce to lie down and take it easy and began humming tunelessly along with the radio.
“How is she?”
“Tired. Her head hurts.”
“It’s getting worse.”
Anya refrained from voicing her suspicions that Joyce most likely had a brain tumor. She watched enough Discovery Health Channel to know these things, or to suspect them, at least. She wasn’t going to say anything to the others, because she knew her concerns would be met either derision, denial, or panic – none of which were conducive to helping Joyce.
So she would hold her tongue and do what she could to help, and hoped it would be enough until the idiot doctors realized what was going on. Maybe there were some doctors in L.A. she could call, get a referral to a specialist or find out about some new x-ray. Something had to be done, and she decided it was up to her to do it.
Anya knew the others loved Joyce, but nothing would be accomplished by standing around and hoping for the best.
“Why am I here?,” Willow suddenly demanded, unable to consider any longer the precarious state of Joyce’s health.
Anya shrugged. “I’m going to meet Xander, and he asked me to bring you.”
The words, if not their bearer, suffused Willow with warmth. “And Riley?”
Another shrug. “Riley was my idea. I’m sure he’s feeling very frustrated and useless, and probably worthless since Buffy didn’t even bother to tell him she was going to L.A.”
Willow groaned. “Where Angel is.”
“Exactly. And people tell me I’m
insensitive.” Anya shook her head in confusion. “Anyway, Riley is a good friend to Xander, and Xander needs all the support he can get right now. Besides, I think it would be good for Riley to be reminded that he’s our friend too, not just Buffy’s boyfriend.”
Willow felt the heat rise in her cheeks, startled by Anya’s thoughtfulness, and embarrassed at the unspoken and unintended condemnation she insisted upon reading into the girl’s words.
The arguments of Buffy and Giles both came rushing back at her, and while she had known that she often acted like a sulky, spoiled brat toward Anya, it was only now that she was able to accept that judgment. She debated what to do, what to say, how to phrase an apology that wouldn’t sound forced or perfunctory or melodramatic, but before she could utter a word, Anya pulled to a stop before Lowell House, where Riley was waiting at the curb.
Willow swallowed a sigh as he stowed his gear in the trunk and climbed into the backseat.
“Hiya Riley,” Willow grinned, putting her best face forward.
Anya glanced over her shoulder. “You have a right to be angry, so if you want to yell, feel free. Giles yelled at us this morning. It was very sexy.”
Riley stared at her, blinked, and finally released a peal of vaguely hysterical laughter.
“If it makes you feel any better,” Anya continued, “Tara got bored with Buffy and Xander shouting at each other, so she froze and silenced them so she could yell at both of them about their stupidity without being interrupted. Oh, she also told Angel that if he tried anything funny, she would make sure he burst into song at inappropriate moments.”
She then turned to Willow. “Tara would have made an excellent vengeance demon. You’re very lucky to have her for a girlfriend.”
Anya didn’t understand what was so funny, but she was pleased by Willow and Riley’s snorts of wheezed laughter, which led them to miss completely the idiotic pedestrian with whom she almost collided because the moron didn’t know enough not to step off the curb when a car was doing forty-five in a ten mile per hour zone.
She sighed. Humans.
She had truly believed the Black Death would wipe them out, but alas.
Still, many millions had died in extremely painful and comedic ways! Memories. She brightened. This must be what Xander meant when he told her to look always for the silver lining. She had a very smart boyfriend.
With a very large penis.* * * * *
Had she known beforehand that using a Pensieve required slamming her face into a pool of liquid memories, Cordelia would have refused. Supernatural facials were not on her list of things to try, thanks ever so, but luckily she had the presence of mind to reach up behind her, grab the back of Doyle’s head, and drag him in with her.
She was the first to scramble to her feet, disoriented by the lack of not only light, but of all sensory information. There was not a sound, nor anything which she could grasp to steady herself. She was surprised to find that she was completely dry, figuring she’d have Pensieve juice on her. Some magic thing, she supposed. Weird.
And where was she? If these were Harry’s memories, he desperately needed a life. Unless he was comatose. In which case she could unfortunately relate. And when she finally woke up, if she discovered that her perfect body had been touched inappropriately by any geeky doctors or hairy orderlies, she would soon be named the director of Cedars-Sinai.
“What’d you do that for?,” Doyle squawked, trying and failing for indignation.
She paused from looking around the pitch blackness of wherever the hell she was, and sneered. “Well, Lassie, you’re supposed to be my guide, right? So guide me.”
He was glad she couldn’t see his grin. Christ, he had missed her.* * * * *
will you tell us what’s going on?,” asked an exasperated Willow at the same time a panicked Riley trilled, “Are you sure you wouldn’t like me to drive?”
Anya decided to answer his question first, prefacing her response by throwing her hands into the air, causing him to blanch. “I’m perfectly capable of maneuvering this vehicle! I have not imbibed any alcohol, nor taken any medication which precludes me from operating heavy machinery!”
Her statements did little to quell his anxiety. Had she been drunk, perhaps then her driving would have made sense. Still, she was better behind the wheel than Buffy, which he supposed had to count for something. But not much.
“What’s happening!,” Willow shrieked.
Anya shrugged. “I guess now is as good a time as any. Just remember that if you lose your cool and start floating things, I might get distracted and kill us all.”
“Please Willow!,” Riley begged.
The redhead rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Is Cordy okay?”
“You really care?,” Anya asked, arching a brow.
“I don’t want her dead, Anya.” She sighed. “Look, Buffy pretty much tore me a new one last night about Cordy, and she made a lot of sense.” She hesitated. “Not that I wanted to admit then, or even now,” she muttered, the words bitter on her tongue. She squared her shoulders and forced a breath. “But I know it’s time I let some stuff go. I...I hurt Cordy badly, probably worse than she ever hurt me.”
“You mean the time when you used magic on Xander to get him to kiss you in that old factory, and then Cordelia and Oz came in and saw you making out on that bed, and then Cordelia fell through the floor and had a steel bar shoved through her stomach?”
Willow’s eyes widened.
“Oh, please. You think I couldn’t figure it out?”
“So Buffy was right,” Riley quietly said.
“Buffy knows?,” Willow shrieked.
“Probably Tara, too,” Anya interjected. “I’m sure she asked Xander what was up between you and Cordelia, and he would have told her. She would have put it together,” she nodded. “Tara’s a smart one.” She eyed Willow. “Despite some evidence to the contrary.”
“Does Xander know?,” the witch whispered.
“I don’t know. I’m not going to tell him.”
“You’re not?,” both Willow and Riley demanded.
“If Cordelia hasn’t, why would I?”
“Oh god,” Willow gasped.
“It serves no purpose, and Xander has enough to worry about.”
Riley furrowed his brow. “Why am I here?”
“Because you’re a good friend to Xander, and he needs that now. It’s regrettable that you’re not orgasm friends, but like I told Willow, he still could use your support.”
He felt the heat rise in his face and dropped his eyes to the floor.
“Besides,” she continued, “I figured you’ll probably yell at Buffy for running off and getting in the way, and that will amuse me.”
Willow bit her lip to keep from laughing; she, too, wanted to witness that exchange.
“There’s something you should know,” Anya said to Willow, rather begrudgingly. “What happened in the factory wasn’t your fault. Not entirely. The ingredients of the spell were unstable, and you were under their influence just as much as Xander.”
Willow choked out a sob.
Anya’s impatience grew. “Why are you so upset? Did you not just hear me tell you that you were not to blame? You were the only the instrument.”
Willow’s brow furrowed.
“That implies someone was playing her,” Riley frowned.
“Because they were,” Anya answered, “and no, I don’t know who. All I know is that I was sent to hover in the Lower Realms and wait for Cordelia to make her wish.”
“But…,” Willow rasped, “but that means…”
“Yeah,” Anya snapped. “Spike returning to town and kidnapping you? You and Xander in the Love Shack? Cordelia’s breaking up with him? Orchestrated.” She scowled as more incongruous pieces slammed themselves together. “So was her moving to Los Angeles, hooking up with Angel, and getting those stupid visions. Someone or something set her up, and used you to do it.”
Several emotions flitted through Willow’s mind at the pronouncement, from confusion to hurt to foolishness and sadness; she finally settled on rage.
“What the fuck
?!”* * * * *
“I know you want to know,” Xander sighed, “and I can’t blame you. I can’t expect you to commit to something when you don’t have any idea what’s going on.” He paused. “What I am asking is that you trust me enough to know I wouldn’t put you in danger if it wasn’t necessary, and that I’ll do everything I can to make sure the danger is minimal.”
“I do trust you,” Buffy insisted, “but it’s a little hard not to worry. I’m not saying you’re not smart or not, not capable
, but this is going to impact all of us long-term.” At his distracted nod, she pressed forward. “So what’s the plan? You’ve been checking your watch every five minutes. We already know Anya’s on her way, so what’s going on?”
“You’re waiting for someone,” Angel quietly guessed.
Xander startled. “I am.”
“It’s not Anya.”
“Not just her, no.”
Angel, Buffy, and Gunn eyed one another.
“Look,” Gunn said slowly after a minute, “I’m not trying to step on your toes here, okay? You’re helping Barbie, and I’m down with that. But it’s pretty damn obvious you’re planning to use us in whatever scheme you’ve cooked up.” He cocked his head. “Doesn’t it make sense to make sure we know what we’re doing before we actually, you know, do it?”
Xander nodded. “It does, and I have every intention of telling you, once she gets here.”
“She?,” Buffy asked, jumping on the clue. “She who?”
He frowned, chewing on his lip. “I don’t really know her. She wasn’t my idea, but she’s a good one, and once she gets here, I’ll explain everything.”
“You’re waiting for someone you don’t know?,” Buffy repeated.
“Can you at least tell us if this person is coming to help Faith or Cordelia?,” asked an exasperated Angel.
Xander grinned. “Both.”
The vampire gnashed his teeth, irritated by how easily he had walked right into that.
Buffy mentally ran through the list of potential guests: Anya was bringing Willow, and Xander would never remove Dawn without telling her. Well, that made sense, since he admitted this person, whoever she was, was unknown to him. But still, Mystery Date must have some clue about Hellmouthy things, which somewhat narrowed the field. She glanced at Angel and could see he was also frustrated.
“Okay,” Gunn sighed. “I guess you think you know what you’re doing.”
“I never know what I’m doing,” Xander blithely chirped. “That’s half the fun! Or panic.”
If the doorbell didn’t ring in the next thirty seconds, Gunn was going to beat the boy into unconsciousness.* * * * *
It was rare for Cordelia to have moments of silence, though she indulged on occasion, for she knew silence could at times be the most powerful weapon, undermining the confidence of those speaking.
As Doyle led her through Harry’s first memory, however, her silence indicated respect and compassion for the baby who had witnessed his mother’s murder.
She watched Lily Evans Potter collapse before her only child after pleading for his life, her last breath a vow of eternal love for her son. Cordelia was awed and humbled, and for a brief moment she longed for her own mother, before remembering that Katherine Chase was absent by choice, not circumstance, and she doubted her mother would ever be as selfless as Lily Potter or Joyce Summers.
“Can we pause this or something?,” she quietly asked Doyle.
He nodded and the scene stilled.
Cordelia walked over to Voldemort and examined his face as she would a specimen mounted on a slide beneath a microscope. She looked into his eyes and knew that what was looking back, though not at her, was purely and simply evil.
He was insane, of that she had no doubt. He was little more than the psychopaths which ran amok in her own world, the only difference which she could discern was that he used a wand rather than a gun or knife.
And what was up with the wand, anyway? She had thought magic wands were fairy tales. Willow didn’t use one, and Ms. Calendar hadn’t needed one. Whatever. She guessed that was something about which she would need to interrogate Doyle.
She tilted her head and looked more closely at Voldemort – and what a stupid name that was – sensing that within his madness laid the cold and calculating mind of a tyrant. He had a specific agenda, but its pursuit had rendered him psychotic. Nothing less could explain the casual murder of two people trying to protect their offspring, nor the delight he experienced in perpetrating it. She understood everything she needed to know about him.
She turned and studied Harry, standing on wobbly legs in his crib, his little fists curled around the rails, his wild black hair standing in tufts as frozen tears stained his face. She peered closely at the fresh scar bleeding down into a bright green eye and a rage far beyond anything she had ever experienced began to consume her. But it didn’t burn, this wrath; it was ice cold.
It was disgusting, all of it. It was obscene.
“Baptism by blood,” Doyle whispered.
“All of this over a prophecy,” she demurred. “Doesn’t this dumbass know that prophecy doesn’t mean shit? That it changes as circumstances change?” Hadn’t the Oracle told her that Xander refuted prophecy by saving Buffy, thus throwing the world out of balance?
“Aye,” he nodded. “Voldemort himself altered the prophecy by coming here this night.”
“There was a baby born the day before Harry who also fit the parameters of the prophecy, but Voldemort chose Harry as the one most likely to kill him.”
She’d unpack that later. “Who was the other baby?”
“His name is Neville Longbottom. He’s a classmate of Harry’s.”
Cordelia filed that tidbit for future reference. She swallowed heavily, trying to wash away the bile which had crept up the back of her throat.
“What’s next?”* * * * *
Xander painfully tugged on his ear before sliding his eyes toward Tara, who shrugged. She’d play this however he wanted.
“I can’t give you specifics,” he said slowly to the others. “Not yet. But I can give you a general idea.”
“Works for me,” Gunn said.
Angel and Buffy sighed with relief and nodded.
Seven minutes later, they wish they had never browbeaten him. They, along with Gunn, were slack-jawed, staring at Xander with incredulity as he finished outlining his plan to break Faith out of prison.
“Are you joking?,” Gunn finally asked, breaking the pall of silence which had descended over them all.
Buffy continued to roll over his words, unable to see how he could possibly expect to pull this off, while Angel looked at him with blatant respect and perhaps a trace of fear. He turned to Tara.
“Are you sure you can do this?”
She nodded. “Having Willow here will help. Our magic is complementary, and I’ll be able to draw power from her if necessary.” She shrugged. “It’s like Xander said: the more witchiness, the better.”
He exhaled and nodded. “Do you have everything you need?”
She frowned. “Actually, I’d feel better if I stocked up on some supplies. I brought my own, but I might need more, and I don’t know if Willow is bringing anything with her.”
“But Anya is,” Xander interrupted. He beamed. “It’s very helpful to have a girlfriend who manages a magic shop.”
Tara smirked. “Especially one who’s an ex-vengeance demon?”
He shrugged. “Not really, but especially one who’s a former witch.” At the collective stare, he scowled. “What? How do you think
Anya was able to summon D’Hoffryn twelve centuries ago?”
“Twelve centuries!,” barked a flabbergasted Gunn.
Buffy’s mouth fell open. “I…well. I mean…huh.”
“Anya was a witch,” Tara breathed. “Then that’s how she…”
“Stop!,” he shrieked, quickly standing up.
Her eyes widened and she clapped a hand over her mouth. Immediately, Buffy and Angel leaned forward, their eyes narrowed.
“What were you going to say, Tara?,” Angel pressed.
“Nothing,” the witch replied, now blushing.
“Since when did you start taking orders from Xander?,” Buffy barked.
“Since someone’s life was at stake,” Tara snapped back. “Which is, oh, every night of our lives? He’s been doing this longer than me, and almost as long as you. This is his show, and you said you’d let him run it his way, but whenever he gives you an inch, you take a mile.”
Buffy dropped her eyes.
“I think we already covered that we’re all upset and nervous,” Angel interceded.
“And I already told you about your off-Broadway debut,” Tara retorted.
“Thanks, but it’s okay, Tara,” Xander said earnestly. “I already talked about this with Anya. I can’t question their judgment if I don’t give them the same courtesy.” He shrugged and turned to the others. “This is why I didn’t want to tell you anything until it was all in place, because there’s stuff I can’t explain right now.”
He held up a hand to ward off the oncoming interruptions. “All I ask is that you wait till everyone arrives and I lay it all out for you, then I’ll answer every question you’ve got, I promise. Hopefully you’ll be in this with me, but if you decide you don’t want to – for whatever reason – I’ll respect your decision. And then have Tara cast a spell to make you forget everything I told you.”
They stared at him for a few seconds.
“I don’t know about you, boss,” Gunn finally said, “but that sounds fair to me.”
“It does,” Buffy nodded, not caring what Angel thought. “We’ll wait and then let Xander explain. It’s the least we can do. Cordy chose Xander and she needs us.” It was the end of the discussion as far as she was concerned.
Angel sighed and nodded. He suddenly cocked his head. “A car just pulled up outside.”
“It’s probably Anya and Willow,” Tara said.
He paused, straining to listen, and then shook his head. “There’s only one heartbeat.”
He felt Buffy tense and reach behind reflexively to withdraw her stake. Like her, he trusted Xander as far as Cordelia’s welfare was concerned, but he had an uneasy feeling about this surprise visitor, especially since Xander himself admitted he didn’t know the person.
Not to mention that the boy had a knack for attracting female demons. He frowned, wondering why he hadn’t asked the obvious: if Xander hadn’t met this woman, why had he involved her? How had he known to involve her at all? Who was she?
Xander stood and crossed over to the foyer, smoothing down his hair and rolling his shoulders. Before the guest could knock, he opened the door, and he was pleased to note she wasn’t surprised he had done so.
He offered his most charming grin, made all the brighter by how beautiful she was. A mass of blond curls tumbled down her shoulders, framing a stunning oval face which resembled that of a forties screen siren. High cheekbones, wide blue eyes, flawless creamy skin, and a full mouth completed the picture.
His own mouth went dry as heat began creeping up his neck and he felt like a complete idiot. He was an adult! Kind of. And he had a girlfriend! A beautiful girlfriend whom he loved. But, damn, this woman was gorgeous.
He nodded, his mouth falling open as he heard Angel gasp and rise to his feet.
She smiled and extended her hand. “Kate Lockley.”* * * * *
Cordelia was finished.
It had been disturbing enough viewing Harry’s memory of the death of his mother, but these people, these Dursleys, infuriated her far beyond that of anyone she had ever before encountered, including Voldemort, Willow, Harmony, her own parents, and any Big Bad she had faced. If the credits on this production didn’t start rolling soon, she was going to find a way to insert herself literally into these memories just so she could beat these wastes of DNA with a waffle iron at her leisure.
And she was going to start with that sadistic little shit, Dudley. Not that he was little in any sense of the word. What a whale! Someone needed to harpoon him, and soon.
She understood that some people were heavy by nature, but this brat was enormously fat by choice and due in part because of laziness. He was also ungrateful, obnoxious, cruel, and retarded, in the sense that he was proud of his aggressive ignorance.
She watched as he bullied Harry from the time each were old enough to walk and her anger grew. Oh, he was cocky as he beat on a boy much smaller and half his weight, but she was sure that if someone ever knocked him upside his head, he’d snivel like a bitch and bleed butter. Well, she would just have to make sure that happened, wouldn’t she? And she’d be there to witness it and take pictures.
The father Vernon had molded his son in his own revolting image, which certainly said a lot about the man’s lack of intelligence. He was overweight, overbearing, ugly, ill mannered, and purposefully dense. The way he treated Harry was an abomination, and there were several instances in which Cordelia refused to watch the memories through which Doyle guided her.
She didn’t know Harry, hadn’t yet seen him as anything other than a baby or a small child, but there were some things she knew he wouldn’t want her to see, and she respected that.
The majority of her vitriol was reserved for Petunia Dursley, who Cordelia thought was the worst of the lot. The woman’s words against Harry inflicted more damage than the fists of her husband or son. Thin to the point of malnourishment, perhaps because her husband and son ate everything with a calorie, Petunia looked nothing like her namesake or her sister. At the root of her being, she was driven by jealousy, which Cordelia found truly pathetic.
Petunia had envied Lily for the latter’s beauty and power; she could do nothing about her appearance, so she had sublimated all of her anger and resentment, allowing it to twist and fester until she discovered that Lily was a witch. Petunia, furious that Lily had become even more gilded, raged to all and sundry that magic and therefore her sister was unnatural.
When Lily was killed, Petunia’s regret and lack of closure were repressed further and fueled her rage against the magic which had taken her sister from her, rage which she spewed at Lily’s child. It was petty and spiteful, not to mention absurd.
Cordelia understood envy, both as its instrument and target, but even at her most shallow, she had never been such a miserable bitch. What made Petunia so viciously poisonous was her sense of entitlement, expressed as unearned righteous indignation. She feared what she didn’t understand, which in some circumstances could have been excused, but rather than facing her fears and educating herself, she sought to control and punish anything which caused her to question her very narrow worldview.
Petunia was so insecure about her sister and nephew, so terrified that magic was a legacy which she might unwittingly pass on to her own child, she not only authorized but encouraged Vernon and Dudley’s abuse of Harry. She even abetted it with neglect more cruel than any fist could ever be. She overcompensated with her own child, trying to ensure that she would never lose him as she had her sister, by spoiling him rotten and instilling within him perverse gluttony, all the while appalled by her nephew because she refused to see him as anything other than a wizard.
Cordelia was already overwhelmed with so much information, and wasn’t yet ready to digest what she had learned about Harry’s childhood and family. She knew all she needed to know about this part of his life, and was certain some images would keep her up at night. She understood Good and Evil, as unwelcome as their presence in her life were, but she would never understand – nor did she wish to – how humans sometimes behaved more atrociously than demons.
The Dursleys would be made to pay; she would make sure of it.
Cordelia had held her tongue through most of the memories, preferring instead to watch and absorb, to examine more closely when something confused or troubled her, but now she had one question which demanded an answer. She turned to Doyle.
“Why was Harry given to them?”
Doyle looked askance at Vernon Dursley, who was frozen in time as he kicked his nephew into the cupboard under the stairs. “That has to do with a man named Albus Dumbledore.”
She nodded. “I’ve seen enough. I know the prophecy and I know how Harry was raised. I want to see this Dumbledore person and what Harry’s life is like now.”
He gave her a sad smile. “You always were a quick study.”
“I’m Cordelia Chase.”* * * * *
“Kate?,” whispered a confused Angel.
Xander moved to the side to allow Kate entrance to the apartment. She moved past him, offering a nod of approval at the precaution; she knew all too well about issuing and denying invitations.
“Hello Angel,” she said, stopping a few feet in front of him, making sure to keep her voice even.
This was already proving more awkward than she had anticipated, which she never would have believed possible. Despite the past several months and the distance they afforded, she was still unable to qualify her feelings for him, and whenever she attempted to examine them, she felt foolish and embarrassed.
“What are you doing here?”
She raised a brow. “Good to see you too.”
Of course it was good to see her. He never thought he would have another opportunity. She hadn’t even said goodbye before leaving Los Angeles, and though he had attempted to contact her at her new precinct, she either hadn’t received his message or had chosen to ignore it. Most likely the latter.
“I…I thought you were in New York.”
“I was,” she nodded, “but when Xander called me about Cordelia, I caught the next flight out.” She paused and shifted her stance. “So how are you?”
He blinked and said nothing, trying to process the latest developments.
She waited for a moment, and then turned to the others. “You must be Buffy,” she smiled, holding out her hand. “I’m Kate Lockley, NYPD. I’ve heard a lot about you from both Xander and Angel. All good things, I promise.”
Buffy, who had taken the proffered hand, stopped shaking it. “You’re the detective, the one who used to work with Angel.”
“I wouldn’t say we worked together, but our cases sometimes overlapped. It was more a sharing of information.”
Buffy nodded, unsure of how to respond. She sensed major weirdness between this woman and Angel, and she didn’t wish to add to it, refusing to get sucked back in to Angel’s world. She suddenly missed Riley, wishing she had asked him to come with her and knowing she would pay later for that oversight.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you.” Really, what else was she supposed to say? She wanted to demand why the woman was there, but knew Xander would get pissed off.
As if sensing her confusion, Xander rushed over and guided Kate toward Tara. “This is Tara Maclay, witch extraordinaire.”
Tara blushed and mumbled her pleasantries to Kate, still wary of strangers.
“Witch, huh?,” Kate said. She shook her head and smiled. “Sorry, I’m still getting used to the idea of witches and vampires.”
“Join the club,” Buffy and Xander said. Tara laughed and nodded.
“And this is…,” Xander began.
“Charles Gunn,” Kate beamed, thrusting forward her hand.
He grinned as his own hand swallowed hers. “Lady Kate! How the hell you been, girl?”
“You two know each other?,” asked a startled Angel.
“We ran into each other on occasion,” Kate replied, winking at Gunn.
“Yeah,” he cackled. “She looked out for me no matter how many times I told her to fuck off, usually when I was in handcuffs. Made sure I showed up at school, too. This chick was on my ass like white on rice.”
“In your dreams,” she snapped back.
“White on rice?,” Buffy repeated.
“So how did you get involved in all of this, Charlie?,” Kate asked.
“Charlie?,” Angel repeated.
“Long story,” Gunn said, “but all that stuff I said you’d never understand?” He shook his head. “I should have told you. Guess I underestimated you.” He bit his lip. “Well, not you so much as myself as far as all this shit is concerned.”
She sighed. “Well, I didn’t learn about it by choice, let me tell you. Sometimes I think I’d be better off not knowing, but then I run into cases in which someone has been drained or has gone missing, and at least I know enough to try and give some comfort to the families left behind.”
He nodded tightly.
“And how’s Alonna?”
On reflex, he dropped her hand and lowered his eyes.
Her own filled. “Oh, no,” she whispered and threw her arms around him. “Oh, Charlie, I’m so sorry.” She held him a while, his head lowered and face buried in her neck. “What happened?,” she demanded, anger surging within her. “Did they catch the perp? Who worked the case?”
“It wasn’t like that,” he said gruffly. “Vamps got her.”
She closed her eyes and hissed. “Fuck. Christ, Charlie, you should have called.”
“I did! I tried getting in touch when I heard about your dad.” He winced at her flinch. “They told me you had transferred to New York,” he softly finished.
“They have phones in New York,” she scolded, her eyes wet.
“Yeah,” he mumbled, “well, the phone works both ways, baby girl. And things happened pretty quickly. Before I knew it, Alonna was gone and I got swept up into all Angel’s drama.”
“I have drama?,” Angel demanded.
Kate pulled back. “You mean you work for him?”
He snorted. “If you’re asking if I’m on Monster Patrol twenty-four seven, then yeah, but if you’re asking if I got a dental plan, get serious.”
“Hey!,” Angel whined. He was ignored however.
“Boss dusted the vamp who got her.”
She nodded. “He got the ones who killed my father.”
Gunn inhaled sharply, his eyes widening before he looked away and toed at the ground. He wished he had known; he should have tried harder to track her down. Fuck. “I’m sorry, Kate. Was it because…did they…?,” he trailed off.
“It wasn’t his fault,” Kate was quick to say, “but, yes, they targeted him because of my relationship with Angel, because I was getting too close to things and was attracting the attention of people with more power than myself.”
She exhaled through her nose, purposefully not looking at the vampire.
“I blamed him at first because it was easy. Easier than admitting that I needed help. Easier than trusting Angel when I knew I should have.” She set her jaw. “It got bad, Charlie. I became obsessed, working against Angel rather than with him, taking chances and putting myself and other people in danger.”
Gunn swallowed heavily, knowing how easily he could have fallen into the same trap.
“I’m glad you caught on quicker than I did,” she continued, now looking at the floor. “I’m glad you didn’t run away with your tail tucked between your legs.”
“Aw, now that don’t…”
“No,” she held up a hand. “That’s exactly what I did, but I needed the distance, the clarity it afforded me.”
“Has it helped?”
“Some. Being back here isn’t easy, but nothing ever is. I don’t hold any grudges against Angel, and if Xander believes I can help Cordelia, then I’ll do everything I can.”
Angel couldn’t take any more, and discreetly moved away. He was surprised to realize he had moved behind Xander, as if the boy was a shield.
“I, uh,” Gunn said thickly, “I staked her myself,” he rasped. “Alonna. I had to. She was my sister,” he added rather defensively. “I couldn’t let her go on like that, soul or not.”
Buffy and Tara caught each other’s eye before they glanced at Angel, who appeared defeated.
“I can’t even imagine,” Kate murmured.
“I can,” Xander quietly said. Gunn sharply raised his head, pained eyes searing into Xander’s own. “His name was Jesse.”
Gunn nodded, his admiration for the boy growing exponentially. He now better understood why Cordelia had chosen him. Xander would be able to make the hard choices if push came to shove. He saw Kate also regard the kid with respect.
Buffy said nothing, her eyes wetting. Tara kept her silence; she knew who Jesse was, who he had been to Xander and Willow, but neither ever discussed him any more than was absolutely necessary, not even with each other.
“Okay,” Kate began, slowly breathing out, releasing Gunn, and turning to Xander, “I verified everything you told me, which was almost nothing, but enough to convince me you're on the level. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.” She nodded, more to herself than anyone else. “What’s happening with Cordelia, how is Faith involved, and how can I help?”* * * * *
“Doyle, what the hell is going on? Is it me, or are these memories going by faster than before?” She groaned. “I need a Dramamine.”
“Your time here is running out,” he said with a noticeable trace of sadness. “You’re going to wake up soon, so the Powers are helping you to assimilate the information more quickly.”
“Resistance is futile.” Her stomach lurched. “I can’t keep up with all of this.”
“You don’t need to right now,” he said. “Fighting it is making it worse. Just allow the details to flow into you and then sort them out later.” He grabbed her hand. “Let’s go.”
Before she knew what was happening, she was pulled abruptly from the Pensieve and found herself back in the altar room of the Oracles. She promptly fell on her ass.
“Are you okay?,” asked an anxious Doyle.
She held up a hand. “Just give me a minute.” She closed her eyes. “I feel different.”
He nodded. “That’s to be expected. You’ve just incorporated all of the memories of an entire person. It’s a big adjustment.
“Yeah, no shit.” She inhaled and exhaled for several moments, trying to quell her racing heart and nauseated head. “The last thing I saw was McGonagall dragging Harry off to Dumbledore’s office.”
He nodded again. “When you awaken from the coma, you’ll have only a small window to prepare yourself before Dumbledore comes for you.”
“But I have questions!”
“And you already have the answers. You don’t need me for that, Princess.” He shook his head. “As much as I would like, I’m only your guide in the here and now. Once you’re at Hogwarts, you’re on your own.”
She balked. “Hogwarts! You don’t mean I actually have to go to school! I already graduated!” She pouted. “Am I going to have to blow up another school?”
He laughed. “You won’t be attending as a student. You’ll be a teacher.”
She snorted. Loudly. “And what the hell am I supposed to teach?”
“What you do best, of course.”
“Telling people off?”
Well, that certainly was a part of it. He was already relishing her first encounters with Snape and Malfoy. He felt it best not to impart that just now. “Cordelia.”
“That’s all I’m good for,” she whispered.
“That’s bullshit and you know it,” he said sharply, taking her aback. “I’ve already told you that the Powers wouldn’t have assigned you to Harry if you weren’t the best person for the job.”
“How am I supposed to go against Dumbledore? I can’t do magic!”
He grinned. “Oh, but you can.”
Her eyes bulged. “What!,” she shrieked after a moment.
“You’ll find out soon enough,” he said, “and anything I tell you now with regard to that will only confuse the issue.”
“Whatever! I still don’t even know what I’m supposed to do!”
“You’ll be the drama teacher, but that’s just your cover. Watch out for Harry. Be his friend, but more importantly, be on his side. That’s what he needs. He has friends and allies, but what he needs is someone who’s looking out for him and only him. Run interference when necessary. He has to get ready for Voldemort. Really ready. Not just whatever Dumbledore thinks he should be taught.”
“Stupid geezer,” she savagely muttered. "I'd like to introduce him to Dennis's mother." She paused. “One of those last memories, the one with Harry in that weird bank with the hottie redhead.” She ground her teeth. “Was that for real? Dumbledore really did that to Harry?”
“Son of a bitch.”
She sighed and began pacing. “How much time do I have?”
“Not much,” he whispered. “Ask me whatever you like while you can. I promise to give you any answers I have.”
She knew that time was working against them even more quickly than either realized and she needed to ask only relevant questions; everything else she would have to piece together herself, or wait for events to unfold.
“What about the visions?”
“You’ll continue to have them, but they’ll be confined to events surrounding Harry.” He paused. “They most likely won’t be as frequent and will probably relate only to Voldemort. The care you’ll receive from Poppy Pomfrey should mitigate the worst symptoms and help to reverse the damage from which you already suffer.”
He cracked his knuckles. “There’s a chance you could have visions related to whatever will be occurring in Los Angeles or Sunnydale, but I can’t be certain.”
Her brow furrowed. “Sunnydale? Why would they? Why now?”
“It’s happened before,” he reminded her. “Remember when I had that vision about Buffy and sent Angel scurrying off?” He shrugged. “Besides, you’re now not only a Champion in your own right, but one also tied to Angel and Harry, as well to Xander, and therefore to Buffy.”
She pursed her lips. She was about as anxious to be tied to Buffy as an ox would be to be yoked to a kangaroo, but if that was the worst thing to happen to her, well. Lots of worse things had already happened to her. Fine. Whatever.
“Why has Narcissa Malfoy involved herself in this?”
He rolled his neck. “I honestly don’t know.” At her curled lip and hair toss, he rushed to add, “I’m serious. Whatever her agenda is, it’s unknown and shrouded in magic. If the Powers know, they haven’t told me, and there’s a reason for that.”
“Oh, of course there is,” she snapped, rolling her eyes. “Is Harry the child in the prophecy? Is he the one destined to defeat Voldemort?”
“He is now.”
Well, she had certainly walked right into that one.
“Are the people to whom Harry’s reached out – Molly, Moody, the old Longbottom lady, and the Minister – can they be trusted?”
He frowned. “To an extent. Molly and Moody will do what’s best for Harry, but what they feel is best might not be in his own interest. Augusta’s true motivation is to protect Neville, and Minister Bones is charged with doing what’s best for wizarding Britain.”
She chewed on her lip. So she would have to police everyone with whom Harry was involved. It was nothing she hadn’t already figured out for herself. She shook her head. She needed to focus.
“Hermione and Ron. Am I going to have to fight them?”
“Yes, Hermione especially in the beginning. Once they learn that you’re there only for Harry, they will do whatever you require of them, but there will be confusion and jealousy, and you’ll bear the brunt of it.”
She had assumed as much. “And McGonagall?”
He grinned. “You already know what card to play where she’s concerned.”
Cordelia nodded to herself. “Is there anyone whom I can confide in, that I can trust with everything?”
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Doyle cautioned. “Dumbledore can read minds so subtly that, most of the time, people are unaware he’s doing it. Choose your confidante wisely. If the need arises, I would trust only Luna with the absolute truth.”
She raised a brow. “How certain are you he won’t be able to read me?”
“Very,” he said with authority. “You’re what’s called a Natural Occlumens. He won’t be able to read you unless you allow it, which might come in handy,” he smirked.
She replied with a wolfish grin, and then faltered. “But Buffy read my mind once, when she became a telepath or whatever.”
“Ah, yes, but that’s because you didn’t care if she read you or not,” he chuckled, “and she was stunned that your thoughts matched your words exactly. You were the only she read who was completely honest. You didn’t care what she thought of you or the situation, so you didn’t bother blocking her.”
“But I’ll be able to block Dumbledore?,” she asked skeptically.
“Aye, because you know you need to.” He stepped closer to her. “I think I’ve worked out why the Powers chose you. Do you want to know?”
She nodded, her eyes wide.
“Because it doesn’t matter who has a wand or who can read minds or who’s a Slayer or souled vampire. This situation demands someone with an incredible strength of will
, someone who can see through lies and manipulation and isn’t afraid to call others on their mistakes and trespasses; someone who won’t kowtow to anyone or allow themselves to be dazzled by cheap parlor tricks. You're the strongest person I know in that regard.”
“Harry aside, all of this aside…this is about separating me from Angel, isn’t it? He’s in serious trouble.”
He nodded gravely. “Yeah. I don’t know what’s to come, but it’s not good. All the Powers have told me is that whatever is after him will seek to use you to destroy him, which is why you have to go now, so you can save him later.”
That was almost acceptable. “And Faith?”
“She’s who he needs right now, and because of what’s happening with you, the Sunnydale group will no longer be cut off from ours, so Faith will be able to call them for help when she needs it.”
“And how will I know when he needs me?”
“Xander. You’ll be allowed to maintain contact with him and only him.”
Well, that wasn’t so bad. At least he’d tell her the truth about whatever was going on. “One last question.”
She raised her gaze to his. “Do you believe I can do this, that I can help Harry?”
“There’s not a doubt in my mind,” he smiled, smoothing her hair.
She shook her head, her tears spilling over as she cupped his face in her hands. “I’m not strong. If I was, this wouldn’t hurt so badly.”
“Oh, but this pain is old, sweetness,” he whispered. “It’s been waiting to be released for some time now, but you locked it away in a place so dark and hidden, it festered and became malignant.”
She choked on a sob before dropping her head and crying.
“It’s not your fault I died, Princess. Not yours, not Angel’s, not anyone’s. It was just my time.” He placed a hand beneath her chin and forced her to look at him. “And do you know what? I wouldn’t give up my time with you and Angel for anything. Not a damn thing. They were the best months of my life. Because of Angel, I had purpose, and because of you, I became a hero.”
“You already were one.” She buried her face in his chest and let him hold her for several moments. “It’s almost time, isn’t it?,” she whispered.
“Will I see you again?”
He laughed. “Not for a while, I hope, but yeah. One day.”
She nodded and drew back, quickly scrubbing her face with her hands. She nodded. “All right, then. Let’s get it right this time.”
She drew in a shaky breath – she wouldn’t start bawling again – and stroked his cheek.
“What are you waiting for, you great baboon? Kiss me goodbye.”* * * * *
She drew in a shuddering breath, her throat damaged from the respirator, her lungs burning and filling with more air than she could regulate. She threw herself up and forward, choking as she fought for breath. Once stabilized, she ripped the telemetry leads from her head and arm. That should bring a doctor or nurse or running.
She looked around her room, which was ridiculously small, made a mental note to make sure Angel was covering the charges, and wiggled her toes. Satisfied she would be able to walk, or at least hobble, she nodded and reached back to draw the hair out of her face.
She was going to do this.
“Okay, Hogwarts. Get ready to rock and roll.”