Collision Course: Moments of Lucidity
What kind of hospital was
Cordelia sat atop her bed for a full two minutes, jiggling a leg and waiting for some white coat to rush in and exclaim over her miraculous return from Coma World.
So where were they? Dorks.
She wondered what to do first. She had a general plan, but it required significant fleshing out before she could put it to action, and she was guessing she didn’t have that much time. She shook her head angrily.
There was too much, this was all just too much. How was she supposed to handle it?
It was one thing to work with Angel and boss him around, but Harry needed a lot of help, frankly more than she thought herself capable of providing. How could Doyle, the Powers, or anyone else think she had the ability to go up against someone like Dumbledore and win?
But Dumbledore was such an ass. And seriously, what was with that name?
She closed her eyes and forced herself to breathe, to think. She could do this.
But why her?
Okay, there were the visions. Doyle had told her that they would shift focus from Angel to Harry. That made sense, as Harry was in perpetual danger. Dumbledore knew she was the Seer, but she doubted he understood just what that entailed. That was a point in her favor which she could exploit.
Gaining Harry’s trust. That was going to be significantly more challenging. From what she had gleaned, she believed Harry all too trusting of people in positions in authority because of how he had been raised, and her position at the school guaranteed her such stature, but he was becoming more suspicious, more guarded. That was good, though, and she didn’t want to discourage that; in fact, she wanted to nurture it and point in the directions where it would do the most good, but it would make any connection between them tenuous.
So her only real option was to be frank with him and then gauge his reactions to see how much she should reveal and when.
Ron and Hermione were going to be real problems, the latter especially. She wasn’t yet sure how to deal with that, so she’d think about it later.
What else? The other teachers. She smirked. Oh, but that was going to be fun
Narcissa could prove to be a real pain in her ass, but Cordelia knew most of the cards the lady was holding, and could neutralize her if necessary. Although the Lady Malfoy could prove very useful.
“Huh. I’ll have to think some more about that one.”
She stood up and rolled her neck, inadvertently looking down at her hospital gown.
“I’ve been dressed in synthetic fibers against my will.”
Someone was going to pay.
But first, she had to save the world. Again.
Sighing and greatly aggrieved, she threw her legs over the bed and rose to her feet, annoyed by the feel of cold linoleum beneath her. How cheap. And who knew how many layers of baby vomit and other bodily fluids she’d rather not posit lay encrusted in the grout? Gross!
She harrumphed and stomped over toward something which she guessed qualified as a closet. If you were in the Third World. Her clothes had better be in there, and they better be in the same shape they had been when removed from her perfect body. She threw open the wardrobe door and peered inside.
Where the hell were her clothes? She doubted some thoughtful candy striper had gone that extra mile to have them pressed. There wasn’t even a claim ticket! She would have to look into pursuing legal action. At last, a case Lindsey could win.
She turned and smiled brightly at Wesley, who by then was staring stupidly at the floor, watching as his spilled coffee ran across it. “Hey! Where are my clothes?”
“Wes? Clothes?” She plucked at her hospital gown. “This is not the fashion statement I want to make.”
“Er,” he sputtered, scrambling to recover, “I believe Angel took them to have them cleaned.”
“Ten to one he took the money from petty cash.” She glared. “He better have left a receipt.”
He raised his eyes, which crinkled with warmth and relief. “It’s really you.”
It was almost enough to make her cry, knowing how much he loved her and was worried for her, but she wasn’t going to cry. “You were expecting Princess Margaret?”
“Of course not,” he scoffed. “This is the room of the Queen.”
It was at moments like these in which Cordelia wished Wesley wasn’t such a dreadful kisser.* * * * *
“Look, it’s not that I’m not happy to see you,” Angel said to Kate, “but I still don’t understand why you’re here.”
She blinked. “You had trouble following that?”
Xander rolled his eyes. “Deadboy has trouble following Matlock
Kate, Gunn, and Buffy all burst out laughing.
“I don’t watch Matlock
“Of course not,” Xander agreed. “Which is why you know what it is.”
Gunn laughed harder, hanging off Angel’s shoulder all the while. “He calls you Deadboy!”
“Yes, he does.” Angel’s lips twitched.
He absolutely would not smile. He second-guessed that decision only briefly, but decided it would probably send Xander into shock – which was good – while recalling unpleasant memories for Buffy, which was definitely bad.
“I’m sure Cordelia’s called him worse,” Buffy snickered.
“I keep an alphabetized list,” Gunn chirped.
Xander and Angel turned and looked out the picture window.
“What is it?,” Tara asked.
“A car,” they replied.
“It’s Anya and Willow,” Xander added.
Angel turned and scrutinized him. “How did you hear them?”
Buffy frowned. “Yeah. Even I didn’t.”
“Xander and Willow always know where the other is,” Tara answered, shrugging.
“Really?,” Buffy asked, her nose scrunching. “Why didn’t I know that?”
“How is that possible?,” Angel questioned.
Xander answered them both with a shrug.
Buffy’s eyes narrowed as she glared at both him and Tara. “What’s with all this shrugging? And when was it that you two became best friends? Even Willow was surprised that you asked Tara to come with you and that she agreed so quickly.”
Angel cocked his head.
Xander and Tara exchanged a glance; she was feeling particularly defensive and took the initiative. “Buffy, there are some things which you just don’t need to know.”
Buffy drew her head back as if slapped. She averted her eyes and said nothing.
“Buff,” Xander quietly said, “you remember Tara’s family?”
“How could I forget?,” she bitterly seethed.
Angel and Gunn recoiled from her scathing response and Kate’s eyes widened.
“There’s a reason I never invited you to my parents’ house.”
Her mouth slammed shut as her eyes filled. She nodded and said nothing more.
But she would.
When this was all over, she was going to say a lot
, and Xander was going to listen. And then she would pay a visit to his parents; they’d be lucky if all she did was talk.
Angel didn’t know what to say, which was becoming a regular and unwelcome occurrence, so he held his tongue, but he felt he had been afforded more insight into Xander Harris in the past three hours than in the three years they had lived in the same town.
“I hear three heartbeats.”
“Three?,” Buffy repeated. Xander also looked confused.
“Anya probably brought Riley,” Tara guessed.
“Oh shit,” Buffy and Angel sighed.* * * * *
Xander opened the door and was met with a mouthful of Anya, who promptly began inspecting his uvula with her tongue.
Willow rolled her eyes, a soft smile on her face, and sailed past them, straight into Tara’s waiting arms. Riley stood on the threshold, looking lost. Xander briefly made eye contact, reached behind Anya, and pulled Riley inside by the arm. Unfortunately, he crashed into Anya’s back and sent all three sprawling on the floor.
“Don’t be,” Anya cheerfully replied. “I have had many fantasies like this, but you’re usually wearing a toga and carrying a chalice. I have discussed these thoughts at great length with Xander.”
Riley blushed and began sputtering, while reaching down and pulling the other two to their feet. He tried to catch Xander’s eye, but was studiously avoided. Did that mean something? Did he hope
it meant something?
“You have fantasies about my boyfriend?,” Buffy demanded, hands on her hips and trying to keep the grin off her face.
“Oh, not just him,” Anya airily replied. “There’s also the one in the old library with Giles, and one with vampire Willow. And then there’s the one with both of them, and me laying down newspapers.”
“That was way too much information,” Willow and Angel said.
Xander tried to melt into the floor, but physics refused to comply.
“Damn,” Gunn breathed. “Where can I get a girlfriend like that?”
Anya turned to Xander. “See how lucky you are?”* * * * *
They all stood around Cordelia’s living room, discomfort so rife it could be filleted.
Riley was leaning against the wall, glaring at Angel, whose eyes found the sofa completely mesmerizing. Willow and Anya were interrogating their respective lovers, as Buffy found herself in the corner opposite to Riley, unsure as to how she got there. Kate and Gunn, meanwhile, had collapsed on the couch and were grinning like fools as Dennis brought them refreshments.
“How’s Cordelia?,” Willow demanded from no one in particular.
“Still in her coma,” Xander whispered, grateful when Anya squeezed his hand.
Willow sighed and sat down. “So are you finally going to tell us what’s going on?,” she asked crossly. Her eyes then found Kate and Gunn. She waved. “Hi!”
“I’m not going to like this, am I?”
“Is it dangerous?”
“Will it help Cordy?”
“I think so, yeah.”
“Okay, count me in.”
“Just like that?,” Buffy asked.
Willow nodded. “Sure.” She sighed again. “Look, you were right about all that stuff you said about Cordy and how I react to her. I didn’t like hearing it, but I can’t stop thinking about it, which means it needed to be said. Cordy and I don’t have to like each other for me to want to help her. We’re never going to be friends, but she’s one of us, you know? We don’t abandon our own. And if Xander has a plan which can help her, then that’s all that matters.”
“Right,” Buffy nodded, her voice shaky. She was flooded with shame and guilt that she had been unable to evince in Xander the easy trust which Willow had so readily extended him. She vowed to make up for that misjudgment.
“So what are we doing?,” Willow repeated.
“Well,” Xander began, wincing, “here’s the part of the plan you may not like…”* * * * *
“Are you insane?,” Willow trilled.
Xander rolled his eyes and wiped a hand down his face. “If you would stop gobbling like a turkey, maybe you would understand what I’m trying to say.”
“I understand just fine! Gobble gobble! You’re insane! You can’t break Faith out of jail!”
“But I am, and I don’t have time to debate this, so if you’re not going to help me, then you can go. No hard feelings.”
“No. No, Will. No amount of cajoling or pleading or Wounded Kitten Eyes is going to cut it here. This is the plan, and if Buffy and Angel are on board, then you can suck it up, too. I mean, we’re the ones Faith actively tried to kill.” He sighed. “Will, I’m not asking you like her. I’m not asking you to forgive her. I’m asking you to trust me.”
“It’s not a question of trusting you, Xander,” she barked. “It’s a question of unleashing a homicidal lunatic with lethal superpowers upon the city of Los Angeles!”
“Yo, girl’s got a point,” Gunn interjected. He held up his hands. “I’m not saying you’re wrong, Xander, but trust works both ways.” He frowned. “You talked with the Boss and Buffy about this, and Tara already knows, so why are the rest of us in the dark?”
“Charlie’s right,” Kate said. “Xander, I understand and respect the fact that you’re trying to help Cordelia, and I want to help you do that, but I know Faith. I’ve seen the damage she can cause.” She narrowed her eyes. “You’re talking about doing something which could very well cost me my badge, and I think I’m owed an explanation. And I still haven’t heard anything about how freeing Faith helps Cordelia.”
Willow sat back in her chair, arms crossed, a satisfied smirk on her face. Buffy looked at her and frowned. She had made the same argument less than an hour ago, but Willow’s presentation of the facts came across as snotty and condescending. Had she sounded so obnoxious, too? Would Xander be as kind to Willow as he had been to her? How did he put up with them?
Xander flushed and tripped over his words, trying in vain to explain his motivations but unable to communicate them. Finally, Riley crossed the room and sat in front of him.
“Look at me.”
After a moment, Xander raised pained eyes and waited.
“You know what Faith did to Buffy. To me.” He swallowed. “I don’t know her very well, if at all, so I don’t know if she’s changed. I don’t know Cordelia. But I know you. If you think this is what’s best, I’m willing to listen, but I’m not agreeing to anything until I know the whole story. I’m asking you to tell me. Please?”
Angel and Buffy silently watched as Riley’s words were absorbed and processed by Xander, each feeling vaguely jealous.
Xander inhaled sharply. “Okay. But first,” he turned to Angel, “do you think Faith has changed?”
“Do you think she’ll kill again?”
“A human? No.”
“If she did, would you stop her? Could you?”
“I wouldn’t like to be forced to hurt her, but I’d do it.”
Xander turned to Buffy. “Do you think she’s changed?”
She bit her lip. “I don’t know, and that’s the truth. Faith and I aren’t prison pen pals.” She sighed. “But, if I’m being honest, which I guess what you’re asking me to do, I think it’s possible. The last time I saw her, that night on the roof, something
had changed in her. I think she realized, truly realized, what she had done, and she was horrified by it.” She sat down. “What you said earlier, you were right. She’s not doing anyone any good sitting in jail.”
“I still don’t know what this has to do with Cordy,” interrupted a testy Willow.
“Because in order for Cordy to get better, she has to leave,” Xander said, “and she won’t do that if she feels that Angel’s not protected.”
“She doesn’t protect me!,” Angel protested.
“Like hell she don’t,” Gunn snorted. “You couldn’t find your head from your ass if it weren’t for Barbie and you know it.”
Angel grumbled nonsensical words.
“Her role is to guide you, Angel,” Buffy quietly said, “just as Xander guides me. She’ll help you before helping herself, and I’d like to think you love her too much to let her do that.”
Xander, Anya, Willow, Riley, and Tara all stared at Buffy with wide eyes.
“Good call,” Gunn agreed.
Angel stalked from the room.
“I didn’t realize they were so close,” Willow whispered. “I didn’t think how hard this must be on him.”
“Oh, but you couldn’t understand how hard this would be on me? Maybe that’s because you never thought Cordelia was worthy of breathing oxygen,” Xander snapped. His eyes widened and he flushed with shame. “Jesus, Will. I’m sorry.” He hung his head.
Her inhalation was ragged. “Don’t be. It’s true, and I deserve it. I’ve never liked thinking about her as a person. But you have to know that I would never, ever
wish this on her.”
“I do know,” he whispered.
Anya patted his hand. “It’s okay that you’re still in love with her.”
He cringed and drew into himself.
“What?,” Willow asked.
“Xander?,” Buffy prompted. “Is that true?”
“You’re a fine one to ask him that,” Anya barked.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Like you don’t know!”
“Anya, back off,” Xander growled.
She crossed her arms and huffed, but complied.
He cleared his throat. “My feelings for Cordelia are no one’s business, but since Anya let the cat out of the bag, then fine. Yeah, I still love Cordy. I’ve never stopped and I never will. She was my first love and she’ll always be in my heart, but she’s not the only one there. I love Anya, and I’m committed to Anya.” He shook his head. “None of you understood what Cordelia and I had, what we meant to each other, and none of you has the right to judge either one of us.”
“No we don’t,” Riley said, looking at Buffy and now better understanding her relationship with Angel, however much he didn't wish to contemplate it. He knew had a lot to think about.
“I’m sorry,” Anya said. “I’m not sorry if I hurt Buffy, but I’m sorry if I hurt you, Riley.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “I know you didn’t mean to, and you didn’t say anything I wasn’t already thinking.”
“Was I wrong to bring you?,” she fretted.
“No. I’m here to help Xander, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Buffy watched this interplay with detached curiosity. First Tara and Xander, and now Riley, Anya, and Xander. When did they all become so close, and why hadn’t she realized it? A quick look at Willow told her the witch was similarly confused.
“This is taking too long,” Xander said. “Look, the reason I want Faith out is because Angel needs someone there who will look out for him but who can also check him if needed. Faith can do that.”
Willow’s brow furrowed. “Are you talking about, you know, Angelus?,” she whispered.
“Not in particular, but if necessary, Faith can handle that.”
“And we couldn’t?,” Gunn demanded.
“You have no idea,” Buffy said. “None. I’ve faced the vampire who made Angel, and the one who made her. He killed me, by the way. Xander brought me back.”
She paused and watched as Gunn processed that.
“We’ve gone up against a cyborg made of demon parts, an immortal human who transformed into a fifty-foot tall pure demon, and we’re currently fighting a god from a hell dimension who’s targeting someone I love more than my own life, and you know what? Angelus is still
the scariest Big Bad I’ve ever encountered.”
“Christ,” Kate muttered. She’d had an idea of what Angelus was capable, but hearing it laid out like this by the Slayer of all people truly drove home the point.
Xander sighed. “What I’m saying is this: if Angelus returned and became a menace, Faith would stake him. Do you really think you could do that?“
A shadow fell over Gunn’s face. He had no answer.
“And you think Cordelia could?,” an interested Buffy asked Xander.
“Absolutely. It’s not a question of power, but of will. And do you know why she would? Because Angel would want her to.”
“Yes, I would.”
They turned and regarded him.
“Are you finished with your hissy fit?,” Xander asked.
Angel stared at him for a moment before grinning. “I think so.”
“So you want to use Faith to replace Cordelia?,” Kate asked.
Xander nodded. “In a way, and if you think about it, it’s the best parole ever. Faith could break out of jail any time she wants. The only one keeping her there is her. And if something did happen? If she went crazy again? How many people would be hurt trying to stop her? If it happens, Angel can deal with it.”
She raised a brow and briefly mulled it over. “Agreed.”
Angel blinked. “Just like that?”
Kate nodded. “Having the two of you keep each other in line makes sense to me, and Xander’s right. If Faith wanted out, she’d be out by now, so I think that means she’s trying.” She paused. “I’ve kept up with what’s going on in this city. You need help, Angel. This might not be the Hellmouth, but there’s more going on than just you and Charlie can handle.”
“How is Wesley going to react to this?,” Tara softly interjected.
“I’ll do what needs to be done.”
They turned toward the source of the declaration, surprised to see Wesley regarding them coolly, and stunned to find a very conscious Cordelia grinning at them.
“Hey! Is this my welcome home party?” She looked around and soured. “Where the hell are my presents?”* * * * *
Parvati Patil was sulking about her bedroom at her grandmother’s house.
She, her twin sister Padma, younger sister Payal, and their parents were on summer holiday at their family’s villa at Choward Beach, outside Junagadh in the state of Gujarat. Her shutters were thrown open to allow entrance to the sunshine and fresh salt air, cool and calm despite the heat. She heard the distant cry of gulls and the chatter of tourists making their way down toward the Arabian Sea.
She looked toward the floor, at the smoldering remains of the Howler which had just immolated itself before her eyes. “Come in, Padma,” she called before her sister even could knock.
Unsurprised at being detected, Padma entered and shut the door behind her, nodding at the ashes on the floor. “Who was it from?”
“Ginny,” Pavarti sighed. “All in all, I think I got off rather easily.” She started. “If that’s all she has planned. You never know with Ginny.”
“We didn’t know.”
“I doubt you’ll be getting one,” Parvati continued. “I’m betting that Ginny saves this particular delight for her fellow Gryffindors. For those in other houses, most likely she’ll just convince her family and friends never to speak to them again. She’ll reserve her ire for us.”
“We didn’t know,” Padma repeated, her voice now tinged with doubt.
Parvati sat up and blew a lock of hair out of her face. “Well, we didn’t need to know, did we? Harry called and we didn’t go, and now is godfather is dead.”
“Was innocent. And now he’s dead. And Hermione,” she sighed, shaking her head, tears coming to the fore. “Hermione almost died, Padma. She almost died
.” She waved a hand. “And don’t give me that rubbish about how she and I aren’t really friends. I’ve shared a room with the girl for five years; she’s a Gryffindor.” She hung her head. “How am I ever supposed to look her in the eyes again?”
“I don’t know,” Padma murmured, silently asking herself the same question. She and Hermione might be members of different houses, but that counted for very little in the scope of the fiasco which occurred in the Department of Mysteries. She would never forgive herself for not coming to Harry’s aid. “I think all of us in the D.A. have the same thoughts swirling about our heads.”
“It’s not,” Parvati began, struggling for words, “it’s not as if I’m particularly close with Harry or Hermione, and certainly not Ron, but how many times has Harry defeated the Dark Lord? How many times has he saved us all?”
Tears of frustration began falling from her eyes and she angrily swatted them away.
“And what have we done? Ostracized him when it suited. Betrayed him. Turned on him at every chance when he needed us. Hell, even Ron serves him up on a platter with regularity!” She laughed bitterly. “But Ron was there when it counted; he, Hermione, Ginny, and Neville were true Gryffindors. Even that bloody Lovegood!” She sighed and drew her knees under her chin. “But not me,” she whispered.
“He must be very lonely,” Padma offered. She had not much to say regarding Harry or Hermione, as her interactions with them had been confined either to scholastic matters or the D.A; they weren’t friends, nor did they really socialize. Most of what she knew of them came from Parvati. As for Ron, her opinion of him was not very high after the way he had ignored her during the Yule Ball, and while she thought he was cute, he was also a berk; she had seen the way he treated Harry and Hermione, and she didn’t like it. Luna’s presence at Harry’s side was confusing, and something over which she would puzzle later.
“He would do it for any one of us,” Parvati declared, sitting up straight. “He went down into that blasted chamber without a second thought to save Ginny, and he didn’t even really know her! He’d try to save any one of us, and where’s our loyalty? He’d probably even swan off to save that infernal ferret, Malfoy!”
She curled a lip. “And that woman! That horrid Umbridge woman!”
“At least she’s gone,” Padma said with relief. She was glad she had never been forced to deal with Umbridge, but the treachery that vicious wretch had sown would visit the school for years to come. She was appalled by the behavior of Marietta Edgecombe and was glad to be rid of her. As for Cho Chang, she would wait and see if the girl rose to the challenge of being named Head Girl. If she tried to abuse the position, she would find out how similar Ravenclaws were to Hufflepuffs regarding house loyalty and traitors.
“But the damage is done,” Parvati snorted, unconsciously giving voice to her sister’s thoughts. “The school is more divided now than ever, and that’s not going to resolve itself anytime soon.” She raised a brow. “I believe that was her ultimate goal, and she succeeded.” She shook her head. “And I’ve lost all confidence in Dumbledore. Where was he during all of this ridiculousness? He ran off and left us all!”
“It must have been for a good reason,” Padma replied, though her voice was doubtful.
“Must you always play the devil’s advocate? It’s very annoying. I don’t care
what his reasoning was! It was obviously flawed! That woman almost destroyed the school!” She ran her hands through her hair. “I’m tired of everyone placing Dumbledore on this pedestal, as if he’s the beginning and end of all things. Were that true and he is oh so powerful, why is always up to Harry to face You-Know-Who, hm? It’s a load of bollocks, if you ask me!”
This was the moment for which Padma had been waiting, nearly six years, ever since she and her twin had been sorted into different houses. For so long, Parvati had insisted on being a brainless lackwit, obsessed with boys and divination and other such nonsense. Their bond, while still strong, had nevertheless been weakened during their time at Hogwarts; but perhaps the damage was not irreparable. Now, her sister was showing that spark of determination which had all but been distinguished. Perhaps Pavarti had been sorted into the correct house after all.
“So what do you want to do about it?,” Padma demanded.
“Do about it?”
“Yes! Do about it!”
Parvati stared at her for what seemed minutes. “I don’t know!,” she finally wailed. “Last year during the D.A. was the first time I truly understood what it was to possess magic, what it was and what it could do. What’s the point of having it if you don’t use it to help others? If you’re so scared that all you do is cower in a corner with your wand up your arse?”
Padma’s eyes widened as she stifled a snicker. “Do you think Harry will continue the D.A.?”
Parvati jumped to her feet. “He has to! Last year’s Defense class was an utter waste of time, and we’re so far behind already! Were it not for Harry, none of us would have passed our O.W.L.s.”
She turned on her heel and wrung her hands. “He simply must. Oh, Padma, can you imagine what the Dark Lord will do to our family should he become more powerful?” Her expression was pained. “We might not be the right skin tone, but we are purebloods. Sooner or later, he’ll come to Father and demand obeisance. He’d probably want to marry us off to his disgusting Death Eaters to beget their devil spawn!”
Her laugh was brittle. “Of course, Father would never align himself with You-Know-Who, but our family would become targets, and we’ve already alienated Harry.” She shook her head in anger, her long braid swinging to and fro like a horse’s tail. “I won’t be made fodder for that brat Malfoy and his junior Death Eaters. I’d rather die first.” Her eyes narrowed. “And if I’m going down, I’m taking the lot of them with me.”
“I don’t believe we’ve alienated Harry,” Padma said carefully. “I cannot believe he would refuse to deny us protection. But I’m sure we’ve disappointed him.” She sighed.
“Harry must hate us,” Parvati whispered, covering her eyes with her hand.
“I sincerely doubt Harry hates anyone,” her sister replied. “Well,” she added as an afterthought, “perhaps Malfoy and Snape. And the Dark Lord, of course.” She squared her shoulders. “We’ll just have to apologize and take our lumps. Promise to stand by him from now on.”
“And why should he believe us?,” Parvati barked. “I know I wouldn’t, were I him.”
“But you’re not,” Padma sharply countered, “and neither am I. None of us is. Harry’s his own person, and he’s a forgiving person. I think you’re underestimating him, confused by your shame.”
“Who’s to say it wouldn’t happen again? It’s only a matter of time before the Dark Lord makes his next move, you know. Perhaps even at Hogwarts. What then? Death Eaters storming the castle, and a bunch of upper years are to ward off him and his army? Even with Harry as our leader, how many will fail? How many will die? The entire school could pledge their loyalty to Harry, but when push comes to shove – and it will – how many will renege on their promises?”
Padma raised her eyebrows. “Would you?”
“I don’t know,” Parvati confessed after several seconds of silence. “I truly don’t know. I’m scared, sister.”
“As am I, but I’m not about to run off and stick my head in the sand like some ostrich. Not again. Harry Potter is all that’s standing from Voldemort – yes, I said his name – taking over our world. And then what happens to us? We’d be enslaved regardless.” Padma shook her head. “We’re not children anymore, Parvati. We’re not ickle first-years stepping off the Express. The decisions we make now will define the rest of our lives, and I’m determined to make the right ones.” She paused. “I choose Harry.”
Parvati stared at her sister for several torturous moments. “As do I.”
“Are you confident enough in that decision to make him an Unbreakable Vow?”
The color drained from Parvati’s face as her hands shook, but her decision was already made. She swallowed heavily and then nodded.
“Yes.”* * * * *
Seamus Finnigan puttered about his mother’s vegetable garden in the back of their small cottage outside Cork.
His attempt to rouse himself from his latest bout of self-pity was as spectacular a failure as all those previous. For the first time since he began Hogwarts, he had welcomed returning home, hoping to find solace in his mother’s nagging and the house of his childhood, but had learned cowardice could not be outrun. He reached down into the struggling crop of potatoes, unearthed a garden gnome, and sent the squealing mass flying into the adjoining property. Let the O’Malleys sort it.
Christ, how was he going to go back to sharing a dorm room with Harry in just two short months? His shame at his own behavior had segued past guilt and regret and straight into humiliation, doubled by the fact that he had no one but himself to blame.
He sighed. He’d been so stupid, running off at the mouth whenever he and Harry had crossed paths; while they had never been close, he knew Harry was no nutter, and while he hadn’t believed the rumors about Harry that had been swirling about the school, he had nevertheless perpetuated them by opening his big fat mouth whenever the mood struck, which was often.
He hadn’t been friends with Harry, or Ron for that matter, but they had been friendly, enveloped by a sense of camaraderie, buoyed by mutual animosity for Snape, Malfoy, and girls, and united by love of Quidditch, Gryffindor house, and Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes. But what was there now?
Now, Sirius Black was dead. Now, Hermione Granger had almost been killed. Now, no one could prance about, secure in the belief that Harry was insane and the Dark Lord was nothing but the paranoid fantasies of a disturbed attention-seeker.
Seamus was positive their dorm room would become a war zone. Harry most likely would not want anything to do with him, for which Seamus could hold no ill will, and Ron would certainly go on the attack against all of those who had wronged Harry, and rightly so. Neville’s confidence had grown leaps and bounds, and the recent events at the Department of Mysteries were sure to have only deepened his faith in Harry.
And then there would be Hermione with whom to contend; coupled with that of which Ginny Weasley was capable, Gryffindor House was rife to become a battlefield.
He had no idea how Dean Thomas would react or adjust to these developments. As friendly as they were, Seamus was loath to ascribe to them the relationship that Harry, Ron, and Hermione shared. Rarely were they in contact outside of school save the occasional owl, and had few similar interests. Indeed, one of the predominant reasons they had migrated toward each other was because Harry and Ron had bonded so quickly, and Neville, who had once lingered on the periphery, was obviously more interested in being part of their crowd than in hanging out with Seamus and Dean; not that Neville was ever unkind – to anyone, really – but Seamus supposed it all boiled down to the laws of attraction.
He dreaded what the coming term would bring and what it would mean for Gryffindor House, though he knew deserved whatever punishment would be heaped upon him. He was worse than Malfoy; he was even worse than You-Know-Who. At least Malfoy and the Dark Lord, no matter how evil and twisted, had chosen a side. Granted, it was the wrong one, and one which Seamus himself would never join. Still, which was worse: doing evil, or doing nothing? He knew the answer and didn’t like it.
He was so lost in self-recrimination, he didn’t notice his mother’s approach.
He sighed. “I really mucked it up, Mam.”
She raised a brow and looped her arm through his, guiding him toward the swing among the rose bushes. “Is this about the Potter boy?”
He looked askance at her, eyes wide. As he sat down, he felt a weight lift, but still oppressed. “How did you know?”
“Oh, Shay,” she sighed. “I did you no favors when I refused to answer your questions about the First War against You-Know-Who.” She shook her head, her anger at herself apparent. “There were things I should have told you, things you needed to know.” She turned to face him. “Especially about Harry.”
He cocked his head. “You talk as if you know him. Personally, I mean.”
She nodded and averted her eyes. “Because I do. I was close friends with Lily, his mother. We were all at Hogwarts together, in Gryffindor, of course.”
He felt stupid. He should have known this. How many times had he walked past James Potter’s Seeker badge on display in the Great Hall. He knew the date. Why had it never occurred to him that his own mother must have been not only in school with Harry’s parents, but in their class as well?
Moira Finnigan faced east, the sun warm on her skin as she closed her eyes and listened to the cows lowing in the fields of the neighboring farm. “I ran, Shay.”
“I ran,” she repeated, her voice thick with anguish and shame. “Not very long after you turned one. I knew what was coming, what would happen. I didn’t need to read tea leaves to see it. So I packed us up and ran.” She bowed her head. “After Alice…”
“Who?,” he asked, when she didn’t further elaborate.
She cleared her throat. “Alice Longbottom,” she whispered.
He pulled a face. “Neville’s mum?,” he guessed. “You knew her, too?”
She nodded. “She was my best mate. I loved that girl, Seamus. With everything inside of me, I loved her. She was so sweet, so kind. She was the most decent soul I have ever encountered. I would have done anything for her. And then that…that…creature…Lestrange got a hold of her and Frank.” She trailed off, frowning at the ground.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me?,” he asked, his confusion obvious. “Neville and Harry have been my dorm mates for five years.”
She sighed. “You need to understand, son, those were dark days.” She shook her head. “So dark,” she whispered. She swallowed. “Like I said, I knew what was coming, and after Frank and Alice fell, I was never more sure. I felt in my bones that it was only a matter of time before he conquered us all and killed those who wouldn’t obey. So I ran, because I knew I wasn’t strong enough to stay, but neither was I weak enough to surrender.”
“You bring a child into this world, you want to make it the best world possible for them. Voldemort had been growing in power, but many of us deluded ourselves into thinking that he would be vanquished. We bought into the power and serenity of Dumbledore, wrapping ourselves warm inside our little cocoons. Even though I knew people like Lily and James, and Frank and Alice, were taking active roles in the struggle, I didn’t allow myself to believe I – or you, for that matter – would ever be touched, though I secretly knew better. And I was wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong.
“There remained a modicum still hope,” she continued, for once without prompting. “Most of the Aurors and their reserves had been depleted, but James and Frank and Sirius and Alice had signed up and were the brightest witches and wizards of their age, much like you tell me is true of that young Granger girl. We had Dumbledore and McGonagall. The hope was dim, but it was present, and we clung desperately to it. And then they all began to die. Or worse.”
“Nev’s parents were Aurors?”
She fixed him with a sidelong glance. “Neville doesn’t talk about his parents, does he, son?”
Seamus shook his head.
“They’re not dead.”
His brow furrowed. “What?” He shook his head. “But Neville lives with his gran. And from what I’ve seen, she’s a bit of a tyrant.”
Moira smiled. “Augusta was always a fearsome witch, and had the talent and determination to back it up. She loved Frank so much, Shay; Alice, too. I imagine she clings tightly to Neville because he is all she has left of her family.”
“Well then where are they?,” he demanded. “The Longbottoms?”
Her eyes drifted away and her voice donned a singsong quality he had never before heard. “Why, they’re in hospital, Seamus. Saint Mungo’s, actually. Long-Term Spell Damage Ward. I visit them on occasion, when you’re away at Hogwarts.”
He chewed on that for a moment. “What’s wrong with them?,” he asked, fearful of the answer.
“The Cruciatis Curse is a vicious beast, Seamus. Even the strongest of us buckle under its weight. But for poor Frank and Alice…” She sighed. “Bellatrix Lestrange captured them in their own home. Tortured them.” She bit her lip as tears slid down her cheeks. “They’re insane. They will never recover. They lie in their beds, never moving, never blinking, never taking notice of the world around them which continues to carry on as if they had never been a part of it.”
She stood and picked at her apron. “It’s worse than death, Seamus. Death stalks them, laughs and pokes at them, but never claims them.” She clasped her hands. “That is what evil is, son. It exists to spread loss, to spread suffering. That is why Voldemort is so dangerous – not because of his power or his minions, but because he doesn’t care. Whatever humanity he once possessed was snuffed out long ago, for whatever reason. He is, purely and simply, unadulterated evil.”
He had to force his mouth to close, his teeth aching with the effort, his tongue glued to his upper palate.
“It all was done right in front of Neville. He was her bargaining chip, you see. Bellatrix is powerful, yes, but so were Frank and Alice, second only to Lily and Remus in talent. But she had their son, and so she had them.” She sighed once more. “I only pray he doesn’t remember.”
Seamus looked up at her and blinked. “Harry does.”
“What?,” she snapped, grabbing his chin in her hand. “What did you say?”
“Harry remembers what V…what You-Know-Who did to his parents.”
“Merlin!” She released him and shoved nervous hands in her pockets.
“Do you remember when I wrote you about the Dementors? About how they affected Harry during that Quidditch match because they use your worst memory?”
“It was that memory they used, the one in which his parents were killed. I overheard him telling Ron and Hermione.” He closed his eyes. “He doesn’t remember much, but enough so that the Dementors can paralyze him. He remembers the Dark Lord coming into his bedroom. He remembers his mother standing between him and the Dark Lord. And then he sees a green light.”
Moira’s hands flew to her mouth as she squeezed shut her eyes and furiously shook her head. “Oh, that poor boy. That poor, sweet boy.”
No words passed for several long moments.
“I knew it wasn’t over,” Moira finally whispered. “Even after Harry defeated him the first time, I knew we were just biding time, that he wasn’t really gone, that he was out there somewhere, lying in wait. I was terrified when you got your letter, but I knew I couldn’t prevent you from going. You were already having too many bursts of accidental magic. I knew you had to go, and I knew once you saw Harry again…”
“Again? What do you mean?”
“You don’t remember?” She wrung her hands. “Oh, Shay, yes, I was friends with Lily and James, but you were friends with Harry, from the moment you both were born.”
He blinked. “What?”
She nodded, an unwilling smile tugging at her lips. “You and Harry and Neville all used to play together when you were babies. Lily, Alice, and I would get together to discuss all of the latest goings on, and you three boys were such good mates, but you and Harry in particular.”
“Me and Harry?,” he repeated.
“Oh, how that boy loved you, Seamus, and you him. Every time you two were together, it was as if you were brothers. You would play together, eat together, even sleep together. No one could calm you like Harry. You suffered so with the colic, but all I needed to do was deposit you in Harry’s crib, and he would squirm his way over to you, wrap an arm around you, and you’d nod right off. It was absolutely adorable. All of us were so pleased; we wanted you three to be as close as we were, especially since you would all be at Hogwarts together.”
“I can’t believe this,” Seamus breathed.
“Do you know your name was one of Harry’s first words?” She smiled. “He couldn’t pronounce it exactly, of course. He called you Shammy.” She laughed. “Oh, but you knew he was talking to you. Whenever he would say your name, your face would light up and you would clap with excitement.” She looked away. “It wasn’t long after….”
Seamus surprised his mother by bursting into tears.
Moira fell to her knees and took him in her arms. “What is it, son? What’s happened?”
“You didn’t betray anyone, Mam. I did.”
“What do you mean, baby?”
“All last year,” he sobbed. “I was so horrible to him, so miserable. A complete git. And he tried so hard, Mam. He tried so hard to warn us that You-Know-Who was back, tried so hard to protect us, to help us arm ourselves so we wouldn’t be cannon fodder. He tried to help me.” He choked on his tears. “And I denied him. I ridiculed him. I allowed others to do the same. I told him he was insane, that he was going to get all of us killed, and that our deaths would be his fault.”
“Oh, Seamus,” she whispered, her voice warring with disappointment and compassion.
“I know, Mam,” he rasped. “I know. But it’s too late now. What’s done can’t be undone. He’ll never truly forgive me, and I don’t blame him. I wouldn’t either.” He pulled away and hung his head. “He looked at me with such sadness, but he never gave up on me, not fully, even though I wanted him to. He looked at me as if he didn’t know who I was. And now I don’t know who I am either.”
She smoothed his hair with her hand and let him talk.
“I’m so scared, Mam. I’m terrified. You were right; the Dark Lord is coming. And if Harry falls, he’ll come here. I’m a half-blood; you’re a blood traitor. Da’s a Muggle.” He wiped his nose with his sleeve, even though he knew how much his mother detested that habit. “I thought if I didn’t believe it, then it just wouldn’t happen, and now I don’t know what to do. I want to be his friend again, Mam. I do. I joined the D.A. and tried to make it right, I apologized to him, but Hermione and Ron think I’m rubbish and I don’t blame them.”
“It doesn’t matter what they think, Shay. It matters what Harry thinks.” She raised a brow. “Maybe you should ask him what that is.”
“He said he forgave me.”
“Do you believe him?”
“Yeah. I guess. I don't know! Harry said he forgives me, and I've never heard him say anything he doesn't mean. And that just makes it worse!,” he raged, tears beginning anew. "Hermione called me that night, that night at the Department of Mysteries. And I didn’t go. I didn’t go, Mam. I apologized, tried to make it right, and then mucked it up all over again. Harry’s never asked anything of us, Mam, nothing that he wouldn't ask of himself. Less, probably. But the only one who’s stood by him from the beginning is Hermione.”
She rested her head atop his own. “I’d be lying if I said I would have wanted you there, Seamus. You’re my son, my only child. I love you more than I can ever possibly say. If I could, I’d keep you away from all of this, pull up stakes and run again, but you have to know that’s no longer an option. The Dark Lord is coming, and most believe only Harry can stop him. He won’t be able to do it alone.” She sighed. “If you can’t stand at his side, make it a clean break. Allow him to move on and distract him no further. Many will die before this is over, Shay. Maybe your friends, our family, maybe you, though Merlin knows I’m on my knees every morning and every night praying that doesn’t happen.”
“But?,” he whispered.
“But, if you wish to stand with Harry, then do so with your whole heart. I can’t make this decision for you, son, for that decision would be selfish, serving my own aims. But don’t do what I did. Don’t run. I abandoned my friends and my world out of fear. I carry the guilt with me to this day, and it is that and not my magic, which drove the final nail in the coffin of my marriage to your father.”
She sighed. “If I could have sent you away with him, I would have, to keep you safe, but you know how hopeless he is. As much as he loves and is enthralled by our magic, he doesn’t really understand it, nor does he wish to.” She released him gently and stood. “Learn from my mistakes, son. Hold fast to your friends. Don’t give them up, whatever the danger.”
She began walking back to the house. “Else one day you will wake up to find you have survived, but have forgotten how to live.”