Collision Course: Things Laid Bare
This was a trip, she decided.
Cordelia still couldn’t get quite used to whatever Doyle or the Powers or whomever had done to her, and she was more than a little pissed off they had seen fit to do so without her permission or even any warning. As if she needed some kind of upgrade to her unchallenged fabulousness? Bitch, please.
And besides, seeing magic? Actually seeing
it? What was she supposed to do with that?
Still, it was interesting.
It was bizarre and beautiful and transformative; it was also scary, disconcerting, and just plain weird.
It was one thing to know that magic was real, to know people who possessed it and wielded it for both good and evil, but to see it pulsating and radiating and alive
was another thing entirely.
It had been distracting enough with Wesley on the ride back to her apartment. She knew that he had some reserve of power, although not, she guessed, anywhere near the level of Giles, but looking at those gathered in her living room, her breath was all but stolen from her body. It was both exquisite and terrifying.
And it was the best she had ever seen Willow look, not that she would ever tell her, of course.
She looked then at Buffy and could see the magic swirling about her. It was different from that of Willow, though she couldn’t think of the words to qualify exactly what that difference was. More malevolent? She didn’t get the sense that whatever was in Buffy was evil per se, but it was dark, ancient, and not belonging to the girl herself.
Her eyes flitted toward Tara, and it was all she could do not to weep at the sheer beauty of what she saw. Tara wasn’t as powerful as Willow, she noted, but the colors were more harmonious, more gentle. There was a peaceful calm which emanated from the girl and appeared to wash over them all, and she was grateful for it.
She cleared her throat and realized Angel was staring at her, confused and worried, and she felt her heartbeat thump like a snare drum, threatening to burst forth from her chest.
She could see it, his soul, and it was his; it wasn’t just some stupid curse or a spell of Willow’s – it was his, it was Angel. She felt the tears gather in her eyes and she blinked them back, because she absolutely was not to going to cry.
“That’s what I call an entrance,” a slightly jealous Anya said, nodding her head at Cordelia, who recovered herself and smirked.
Unconsciously, Buffy and Angel moved to stand next to each other, their eyes narrowed. Riley said nothing in favor of discovering what was troubling them.
“Anything?,” Buffy muttered.
Angel shook his head.
Cordelia raised a brow before unceremoniously pushing Wesley away, grabbing a squawking Willow and pulling the girl toward her. She looked at Angel and Buffy.
“How about now?”
They shook their heads.
“What’s going on?,” Willow demanded.
“I can’t sense them,” Angel said. “I can’t hear their heartbeats.”
Willow’s eyes widened. “Buffy?”
“Nothing,” the Slayer said tersely. “What’s happening?”
“Magical shielding,” Anya whispered, looking upon Cordelia with awe. “Now that’s nifty.”
Cordelia smiled at her and released Willow, both of them grateful for the loss of contact.
“How is this possible?,” Angel asked.
“All things are possible,” Cordelia sniffed. “It’s just a question of knowing how to do them.”
“Then how did you do it?,” he demanded.
“Well how the hell should I know?”
“Um, guys?,” Tara interjected. “That’s not really the hot issue here.”
“That’s not the hot…,” Wesley thundered, his eyes wide, before falling quiet. “Oh, yes.” He nodded. “Quite.” He turned toward Cordelia. “You were rather tight-lipped about your miraculous return. Not that I’m not thrilled you’re with us once more, but…”
She patted his arm. “We have time. Not much, but some.”
“Hugs,” Xander grunted.
“Please and thank you.” She’d make him wait for it, though.
Cordelia allowed herself to be passed from person to person, receiving hugs and well wishes, though she made sure to stay with no one for too long; there was only so much coddling she could bear. The embraces from Willow and Buffy were a strange mixture of perfunctory greeting and heartfelt concern, which she found surprising, rather lovely, and somewhat irritating, though she maintained her composure. She caught the eyes of those whom she did not know, pleased to see warmth and kindness in their gazes; she was always willing to be paid court by strangers.
Still, she wouldn’t soon forget that no one had thought to bring even one present.
At last she found herself in Xander’s arms, startled to be reminded of how well they fit her, wondering how she had ever let herself forget it, and a wave of soft sadness overcame her. If nothing else came from this mess and what was to come, her renewed connection to him was worth it all. He had no magic, she saw, and for this she was grateful.
There were no rainbows floating around him, no bursting prisms; rather, there was a complete absence of color. He glowed white. He absolutely glowed with goodness.
Xander was good
That was the only epithet which could possibly describe him, and that angered her, because he was so much more than a banal word which people tossed about and applied to everything from incredible sex to a tasty French fry. Xander really was
the White Knight. When he wasn’t kissing witches in abandoned factories, of course.
She was just thankful she wasn’t still in love with him, because…yeah.
“How are you awake?,” he finally asked, after placing a chaste kiss on her lips.
She frowned and raised a brow. “So I should still be on my back, waiting for someone to do something?”
“Not unless you’re Harmony.”
Her eyes darkened. “Do you know she came here and tried to bite me?”
“I always thought she had a thing for you.”
“Actually, she had a thing for Oz, but whatever.”
“What!,” Willow screeched.
They ignored her, smiling stupidly at one another. The others could sense their bond, all but see it tangibly joining them, and kept a respectful distance. Buffy inadvertently found herself looking to Angel, who appeared sad and nostalgic. She understood. Cordelia and Xander’s reunion was a painful reminder to all of them of simpler times.
Well, she frowned, perhaps not simpler, but less confusing.
She wasn’t sure that was right, either. It hadn’t been easier when they were in high school, when she had been with Angel, Xander had been with Cordelia, and Willow with Oz, but those were some of her happiest memories.
Xander guided Cordelia over to the couch, anxious for her to get off her feet, but paused to allow Dennis to adjust the cushions and fluff the throw pillows. When Angel came to sit next to her, Xander said nothing and discreetly moved across the room. Angel was touched by the gesture, almost a tacit permission or even approval, though he would spare them both the embarrassment of voicing his gratitude.
She folded her legs beneath her and curled into him, resting her head on his shoulder. “Hi.”
He went to touch her, his hand hovering in the air, then deciding he didn’t care what the others thought of their relationship or any speculations they might later posit, before twining their fingers together.
“Hey,” he said softly. “You okay?”
She nodded after a moment, giving his question serious consideration. “Comas? Not very rejuvenating, but yeah, I’m okay.”
He took that for what it was. “What are you doing out of the hospital?”
She turned to look up at him. “They dressed me in rayon.” She raised a brow. “I’m just supposed to put up with that?”
“Well, medicine is an inexact science.”
“Apparently,” she snorted before falling silent for a moment, wondering how best to answer his unasked questions. “I was with Doyle.”
She felt him freeze against her, his muscles stiffening with tension and sorrow, and she ignored the gasps from the others.
“He’s okay, Angel,” she whispered, grave eyes peering up at him as she rubbed his arm. “Really.”
He nodded but said nothing.
“Oh, before I forget, the next time you see the Oracles?” She smiled and bared her teeth. “Tell them I said hi.”
His lips twitched. “What did you do?”
“Threats, intimidation, and physical violence. Best meeting ever
He inclined his head. “Impressive.”
He looked down at their joined hands. “This was planned? The Powers?”
She nodded. “I really don’t like them and I don’t understand what they’re about – I’m not particularly sure I want to – but maybe things will be better now that Doyle is working with them.”
Angel doubted that but held his tongue. “Couldn’t hurt,” he finally said. His eyes flitted about the room, taking in the curious glances of the others. “What do they want with you? Why now?”
“Something’s coming,” Xander said.
Cordelia sharply raised her head, her eyes boring into his, and nodded.
He cocked his head. “It’s after Angel.”
“You’re the bait?”
She smacked Angel’s hand. “Stop growling,” she admonished, pleased when he fell silent. She smirked at Xander. “It’s kind of sad how little my role has changed since Sunnydale, but luckily it's been expanded from guest star to lead.”
“You were never just a day player,” Buffy said.
Cordelia looked askance at her, doubt and gratitude plain on her face. “Thanks,” she said, offering a small smile.
“I don’t know what it is, Angel,” she admitted, turning back to him. “Doyle wouldn’t tell me, and I’m not sure he even knows. But it’s real, it’s coming, and it planned on killing me to get to you. Xander has changed that.”
She sighed and looked up at her very best used-to-be. “You did everything right. Everything I would have wanted. Thanks.”
There was a lot more she wanted to say, but knew he would read between the lines. His calculated aggressive ignorance had never fooled her. He was the maestro who read the subtle notes in the voices of all those whom he loved, both in the words and the silences.
“I kind of owe you,” he said sheepishly.
“And, what, you think this makes us even?,” she barked, glaring, biting the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing.
His eyes narrowed and, after a moment, he released a breath and laughed. “I’ve really missed you,” he said quietly.
“Well of course you have,” she laughed. “I would too, if I were you. And I thank god every day I’m not.” Her nose wrinkled. “Jesus, Xander, what the hell are you wearing? You come to see me for the first time in two years, I wake up from a coma, and you’re sporting a shirt that looks like the awning of a Halloween store? It’s obnoxious, and so are you. Why don’t you just beat me with a stick?”
He colored as Anya, Buffy, Tara, and even Willow snickered.
“Why? Is all kinds of candy going to pop out of your ass?,” he sniped back.
“The closest you ever got to my ass was kissing it, and even then you needed Yahoo Maps.”
Riley looked at Buffy. “You really weren’t kidding.”
She shook her head. “This? Is nothing. It’s their version of getting coffee.”
His eyes widened.
“A thousand apologies, my liege,” Xander sneered, as if there had been no interruption. “I was a little preoccupied.”
“I guess so, what with fighting your best friend and mine.” She sighed. “Very well. Once again I shall overlook your ridiculous wardrobe and focus on what’s important: me.”
a radical shift in priorities,” he drawled, eliciting snickers from everyone, including Angel.
She couldn’t let him have the last word, so she flipped him off. “Oh, shut up.”
She looked up at Anya. “Hey.”
Anya waved gaily. “I’m very happy that you are not dead or mentally incapacitated.”
“What she meant…”
“I know what she meant, Xander. She’s happy I’m alive; so am I. We don’t need a translator. Anya and I understand each other just fine.” She stood up, cocked her head, and considered Anya more closely. Finally, she nodded. “I like the blonde. It suits you. And you actually do your roots.” She turned to Buffy. “Take a lesson.”
Buffy grinned and shook her head.
Anya felt a curious sensation, one which she had never experienced. Something moved through her, a lightness and warmth, something which she never would have admitted she craved: approval. Cordelia approved
of her, of her being Xander’s girlfriend. She felt hot and embarrassed as her eyes became wet.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
The others watched and felt like intruders.
Cordelia nodded. “Sure. Thanks for making him happy.” She turned to Xander. “I’m glad you are. It matters to me.”
He blushed and looked at the floor, mumbling something not even Buffy or Angel could understand, though acknowledgment registered on Cordelia’s face.
“Well,” she continued, “there’s a lot to do. Let’s start with introducing me to those I don’t know.” She looked at Tara. “I heard you in the hospital, dressing Wesley down. That was awesome! He totally deserved it. Nice to meet you.”
Tara smiled and nodded her head. “Same here. Glad you’re okay.”
“Dressing Wesley down?,” a hopeful yet forlorn Buffy repeated. “And I missed it?”
Cordelia nodded. “Too bad, because it was award-winning. He was being a big jerk, and Tara wasn’t having it. I think my favorite part was her threatening him with Joyce. He might have peed, but I’m not positive.” She leaned up to Wesley and patted his chest. “I forgive you. I know you were just trying to protect me, and I kind of love you for that. But not in a let’s-kiss-in-the-stacks way.”
He colored. “Yes. Well. I regret that I was rather rude.”
“You were concerned,” Tara said kindly. “I understood.”
He nodded and let it go.
Cordelia looked to Willow. “This?,” she said, pointing to Tara. “Pretty awesome. Probably better than you deserve, but congrats.”
Willow smiled, pleased. That was as close as she had ever gotten to a compliment from Cordelia Chase and she wasn’t going to allow the all but mandated snub to ruin it.
“And the stud in the corner must be Riley,” she continued, giving him a sidelong appraisal before turning to Buffy and nodding. “Nice.”
Buffy grinned and nodded her thanks. “I think so.”
Riley beamed bashfully at both of them.
“Now,” Cordelia said, “let’s talk about Xander and Angel making out in my bedroom. By the way,” she frowned. “Dennis! Do we have Lysol?” She raised a triumphant fist into the air as a can floated toward her.
“What!,” almost everyone bellowed.
“We did not
make out!,” Xander screamed. “It was just a hug!”
“You hugged?,” Buffy and Willow screeched, as Riley and Wesley gaped at Xander and Angel, respectively.
“You’re such a brat,” Angel said to Cordelia, who sighed with gleeful smugness.
“Yes, Xander and Angel finally had a Hallmark moment, and it’s all thanks to me.” She struck a pose. “Cordelia Chase: Miracle Worker.”
“Well, I guess so,” a stunned Willow remarked.
“So when are we breaking Faith out of the pokey?"* * * * *
Cho Chang sat at the bureau in her bedroom, her restless eyes looking out the dormer window and scanning the moors below.
A fine layer of mist swirled about the roots of the trees which marked the entrance into the woods bordering their property. She thought it would be marvelous if they would envelop her and carry her away to a place where she wasn’t praised for meaningless things or despised for her weaknesses, which were, admittedly, many.
She sighed heavily and looked down at her hand, which held the shiny new Head Girl badge. She found it rather difficult to find any joy in this achievement. She frowned and tossed it over her shoulder.
All of her work, all of her planning, all of her struggles had been for naught.
Two months would see her returning to Hogwarts, to the sullen whispers of the jealous and the outright hostility of the betrayed. She had provided further ammunition for those Slytherins who had always despised her, as well as to the Gryffindors, who would doubtlessly be rallied against her by Ginny Weasley and Hermione Granger. Hufflepuff House had never thought her good enough for Cedric, and her dalliance with Harry so soon after the former’s passing had only furthered that belief; her later perfidy of Harry put an end to any hopeful reconciliation or amiable indifference. The Ravenclaws would shun her.
She deserved it, she knew. She had been a right git. Thankfully, that twit Marietta had transferred to Beauxbatons, and hopefully her absence would help quell the ire her treachery had sown.
She grimaced and fought back the wave of memories threatening to assail her.
How stupidly she had taken Marietta’s side, how foolish she had been to endorse the girl’s machinations, all because she herself believed salacious gossip about the nature of the relationship between Harry Potter and Hermione Granger.
Her brow furrowed. Not that said gossip was completely out of the realm of possibility, she added to herself. Merlin knew that no two people were closer than Harry and Hermione, although for argument’s sake she should include Ronald Weasley somewhere in that equation.
Still, everyone knew that Harry and Ron had rowed on any number of occasions, as had Ron and Hermione. So, therefore, when all was said and done, it’s wasn’t unreasonable to argue that the relationship between Harry and Hermione was more than just mere friendship. That didn’t mean, however, her conscience lectured, that there was anything romantic between them.
She sighed. And, of course, rather than just asking Harry, she had chosen to believe rumor and speculation over the very real feelings she knew Harry had once had for her.
“I was a complete ninny. A jealous twit.”
It wasn’t as though there had been anything serious between her and Harry, but there had been a chance of real friendship, and she well knew that Harry didn’t take his friendships lightly. But, no, she had been hurt and petulant, and hadn’t gone when Hermione had called.
Now Sirius Black was dead, Hermione had almost died, Voldemort had attacked the Ministry, and the entire wizarding world was in chaos. She wasn’t arrogant enough to believe that her presence at the Department of Mysteries could have altered the outcome, but if she had gone, at least she could say that she had done something
, rather than acting like an arse.
“Cedric would be so ashamed of you,” she muttered to herself, angry at the tears which now threatened.
She furiously blinked them back and stared at her reflection.
“All right, then, enough sobbing. Enough regrets and hormones and irrational fears and stupid Madam Puddifoot’s and all the rest of it.” She nodded with a confidence she didn’t feel. “It is time to put childish things behind you.”
She watched with a curious detachment as her reflection mirrored her movements, as she tamped down her rage at her own ineffectuality.
“You will go back to that school with your head held high. You will be the best damn Head Girl Hogwarts has ever seen, and you will make both Cedric and Harry proud of you.”
She glared into her own eyes. “And Merlin willing, maybe for once you will be proud of yourself.”* * * * *
Interim Minister of Magic Amelia Bones sat behind her desk and listened impassively as Auror Tonks detailed the earlier scene at Diagon Alley and the attack on Harry Potter, disgusted by the idea that adults would swarm a teenager like a plague of locusts. She nodded and grunted at the appropriate lulls in the conversation, her eyes never leaving the face of Percy Weasley, who became even more despondent as the events were laid bare.
“Thank you, Tonks,” Bones demurred. “Weasley! Suggestions?”
Percy raised his head and blinked rapidly. “Minister?”
Bones rolled her eyes. “You were allegedly the brightest student of your class; you know all of the parties involved. I am interested in hearing your opinions.” She smothered a wry grin as she watched Tonks give Weasley a disgusted appraisal.
“I’m not sure…”
“You aren’t sure of much, are you?,” Tonks hissed under her breath.
Bones held up a hand. “That will be quite enough, Auror Tonks. Weasley, you are undoubtedly aware of how badly you miscalculated by placing your faith in Fudge and Umbridge. What I want to know is if your brain has atrophied to the point where you will be of no use to me. If so, you would be wise to leave now.”
She was relieved and heartened when the young man made no move to exit her office. Good; perhaps his character was not quite as weedy as events had led her to believe. She leaned forward and fixed him with a glare.
“You have unwittingly found yourself in a position once applicable to Potter himself: those whom you trusted have either turned against you or have proven to be incompetent. How do you suggest we handle this latest development?” She elegantly raised a brow. “You have been debriefed. Were you Potter, what would be your primary concern?”
Percy nervously licked his lips. “The media?”
“Is that a statement or a question?”
“A statement? Yes, a statement. The Prophet
has been maligning Harry since he matriculated at Hogwarts.”
“Oh, so now it’s Harry, is it?,” demanded an icy Tonks. “Not the crazy Potter boy?”
Bones said nothing as Percy hung his head. “If you are unable to face this woman, Weasley, how in the name of Merlin do you plan to reconcile with your family? Or do you not wish to do so?”
“Of course I do!,” Percy exclaimed.
Bones offered a rare benign smile. “Their loyalty to Potter far supersedes that of Auror Tonks.” She dismissed the strangled cluck emitted by Tonks. “Knowing Molly as I do, she will welcome you back into the fold, as will Arthur, though he will be harder to win over. As for your siblings, well.”
She shook her head. “I am unfamiliar with your eldest brothers, but the reputations of the twins speak for themselves, and given how badly they ran afoul of Umbridge, it will most likely be difficult for them to divorce you completely from her reign of terror. Young Ronald and Ginevra may indeed be lost to you forever.”
She watched as his eyes filled with tears. Excellent; all hope was not lost. Still, she wasn’t about to sanction his wallowing, for he had only himself to blame for his predicament.
“Weasley! Pull yourself together! Now, how can we best assist Potter?”
“If you were to come out and declare that the Dark Lord has in fact returned and throw the weight of this administration behind Harry Potter, that would be a start,” Percy blurted.
Bones narrowed her eyes. “Continue.”
“Well,” Percy said, primly folding his hands in his lap, “what I most noticed about Harry during the time we shared at Hogwarts was how he responded to the attacks on him from outside the school. While people like Draco Malfoy – indeed, most of Slytherin House, for that matter – harassed him on a daily basis, and it did
, and, I imagine, continues to bother him, far worse was his reaction to the constant onslaught of the wizarding press to his every word and action. Mister Fudge and Miss Umbridge used the Prophet to destroy what little credibility Harry had left. I believe that were it made clear that people in positions of power, other than Dumbledore that is, actually supported him, it would go a long way in his fight against the Dark Lord.”
Bones nodded to herself, steepling her fingers and looking out her window. “Agreed.”
“But it won’t be easy,” Percy cautioned. “Rita Skeeter has made it her mission to discredit Harry as well Hermione Granger whenever such an opportunity presents itself.” He scowled. “Insufferable cow of a woman.”
He startled, shot the Minister a panicked look, and then blushed.
Bones slammed her hand down on her desk. “That’s the kind of backbone I’m looking for, Weasley,” she thundered. “Woe that it took this long. As for Skeeter,” she smiled predatorily, waving a dismissive hand, “you leave that woman to me.”
Tonks raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
“This conversation is to go no further than this room,” Bones continued. “Is that understood?” She looked first to Percy and then to Tonks, her eyes promising swift action should her edict be ignored.
“Yes, Minister,” Percy replied.
“Of course,” Tonks agreed, nodding.
“That includes Dumbledore, Auror Tonks,” Bones said severely. “I will not allow this office to be used. If I get one whiff that anything said here finds its way into the next meeting of the Order of the Phoenix, not only will you be dismissed from your position, but criminal charges of espionage and treason will be filed against all parties involved. Is that quite clear?”
Tonks paled. “Crystal, ma’am.”
“Excellent. You both are dismissed.”
She looked down at the papers on her desk and said nothing further as Tonks and Percy rushed from the room. When the door closed behind them, Amelia inhaled deeply and slowly released the breath, wondering if she had the wherewithal to pull this off.
Heading the Department of MLE had been grueling, but relatively free from the political machine in which she now found herself. She didn’t question her integrity or commitment, but was cognizant that there were any number of people waiting in the wings for her to stumble so they might press some hidden agenda. She couldn’t afford to muck this up; too many people were counting on her to turn back the tide from Fudge’s idiocy.
She picked up the letter she received the night prior from Harry Potter and once again scanned its contents.
The media she could control, but Dumbledore was another animal entirely. However, Potter had provided her with some extremely persuasive ammunition. As Potter’s reputation had been attacked last year, so too had that of Dumbledore, and while Potter would eventually sway people back in his camp – they were too fearful to do otherwise – Dumbledore’s advanced age and his seeming inability to control the goings-on at the school which he administrated had damaged him in the eyes of the people far more than he realized.
Were Potter telling the truth, and she had no doubt that he was, should Dumbledore attempt to corral Potter in any way, there were any number of criminal charges that could be brought against him. Amelia smiled at the thought.
The question was who to trust? Despite Fudge’s ousting, the Ministry was still littered with his past appointments, as well as underlings desperate to line their own pockets with the bribes Cornelius had so readily accepted. She liked Tonks well enough; the woman was competent in her job and her affection for Potter was obviously genuine, but her loyalty to Dumbledore was profound, perhaps even eclipsing that to her career. She was quite certain Weasley was remorseful, but she was unwilling to allow Potter to be his sacrificial lamb in finding his way back into his family’s good graces.
She turned swiftly when the fireplace behind her roared to life.
“Amelia!,” a voice boomed.
“Ah, Augusta! So good to see you. How are you?”
Lady Longbottom’s face appeared in the flames. “Quite well, thank you. And you and your fair niece?”
A fond smile crossed Amelia’s lips. “Susan is lovely, thank you. I’m most pleased by her class standing, as I am sure you are with that of young Neville. How is he?”
The unmistakable beam of pride was answer enough. “With each passing day, Neville reminds me more and more of his parents.”
Amelia bowed her head to remember Alice and Frank Longbottom and their sacrifice. “That is fantastic. What can I do for you, Augusta?”
“Direct as always,” Lady Longbottom acknowledged. “How refreshing.” She grinned. “Amelia, I am in receipt of a most interesting letter.”
The amused Minister raised an eyebrow and held up her own Potter communiqué. “As am I.”
“Wonderful! I think it would behoove us to speak of this in more detail. Perhaps tonight?”
Amelia nodded. “Of course. I would like to invite both you and your grandson to my home, say half past six?”
“Right. See you then.”
“Augusta, before you go…”
“Do you believe him?”
Augusta chuckled. “Oh, Amelia, there’s not a doubt in my mind.” She disappeared from the flames.
Minister Bones swung her chair back around, her monocle affixed firmly in place, and nodded in satisfaction.
“Nor in mine,” she whispered.
So, Potter had reached out not only to her but to Lady Longbottom as well. She wondered as to his other allies. She was sure a Weasley must be among them, but who else?
She considered the question as she quickly composed a letter to Susan advising her niece that they would be having guests this evening.* * * * *
Cordelia sat back and watched as the others began arguing about how best to accomplish a mission in which only a handful believed.
She rolled her eyes as they debated points both major and minor, as well as attempting to convince each other of the efficacy of what they were doing. She looked down at her watch and sighed.
She had refrained from putting in her two cents because she had expected Xander to take them all in a firm grasp, but it appeared that her return had caused him to falter somewhat. She was sad that her mere presence had so shaken his confidence, but more than that, she was pissed off that he had allowed it to happen.
Well, time to take care of that nonsense.
“All of you just shut up!”
They turned as one to stare at her, blinking owlishly. She glared at each of them in turn before her eyes settled on Xander. She then broke out her best Glare of Doom, very pleased when he withered before her. To her surprise and delight, however, he immediately rallied and nodded to her.
“Listen up!,” he barked. “This is how it’s going to go.”
She sat back and smiled, satisfied. She knew Anya would have gotten him there eventually, but who had that kind of time? She was on a schedule.
“Angel and I are out,” Xander continued. “We’re both on record as having visited Faith in jail, and I scoped out their security while I was there. Vampires can be captured on video, so they have footage of Angel as well as of me.”
Angel grunted his agreement. He was angry, but Xander’s logic was sound.
“Gunn, Wesley, and Cordy are also out. They’re known associates of Angel, and we can’t take the chance that someone in the LAPD hasn’t taken notice of them.”
“That’s true,” Kate said, nodding her agreement. “I know I wasn’t the only one paying attention. I got the closest, but I know for a fact I was being watched.”
Buffy shrugged. “So that leaves the Sunnydale contingent, minus Xander. We can deal.”
Xander shook his head. “Sorry, Buff, but you told me yourself that you went with Angel and saw Faith when she turned herself in to Kate.”
Her eyes widened. “You can’t seriously be considering having Riley walk into that prison,” she argued. “Not only should he not have to deal with this, but we have no way of knowing how Faith will react to him!”
“Please don’t speak for me,” Riley said quietly.
Buffy turned toward him, her eyes searching. “I don’t want you to be hurt.”
His hand covered hers. “And I appreciate that, but this isn’t about me or Faith. It’s about Cordelia and whatever the hell is after Angel.”
“I didn’t know you cared,” Angel sneered.
Buffy turned to glare at him.
“Don’t be obnoxious,” Cordelia snapped at Angel, punching his thigh.
“I don’t,” Riley barked at the vampire. “I care what happens to the rest of us if something happens to you. In case you forgot what life is like in Sunnydale, we have our hands full. If whatever’s after you gets through, what then? We can’t control both the Hellmouth and your city.”
“Dude’s right,” Gunn said.
“I’ll go,” Willow said softly. She cleared her throat before raising her head and meeting their surprised gazes. “I’ll go,” she said more loudly. “I can do this.”
“I know you can, Will,” Xander nodded. “I have complete confidence in you.”
Willow beamed as Cordelia once again rolled her eyes, this time with Anya joining her.
“But,” he added, “I’m worried. Your magic can slip past your control when you’re angry, and you have a right to be mad at Faith.” He raised a brow. “Not as much as Buffy, Riley, or I do, but if you tell me that you will be able to control yourself completely, I’d like you in on this.”
Willow faltered, doubt seeping from her eyes as her teeth began worrying at her lower lip. She didn’t like it, but Xander was right. She knew she was powerful, but her magic was new; she was still learning its limits, and more often than not, she messed up. They couldn’t afford that now; too much was riding on this, and they only had one shot.
She blushed. “Maybe it’s not such a good idea,” she finally said.
Riley patted her shoulder. “There’s nothing wrong with admitting so. As part of a team, the best thing you can do for yourself and your teammates is acknowledging potential problems before they occur. It takes grace, dignity, and courage, but we already knew you possessed those strengths,” he grinned, eliciting a beam from Willow.
Cordelia and Anya snorted. Loudly.
“Oh, shut up,” Tara scolded them, running her fingers through Willow’s hair. “And don’t stick out your tongue, sweetie.”
Willow abruptly closed her mouth before she could stick out her tongue, causing her teeth to clack together. “You don’t know me.”
“Uh, yeah,” Xander said, giving his best friend the side-eye. “Anyway, from what I was allowed to see for myself, I’ve made a rough blueprint of the jail.” He turned to Kate. “I’d like you to look it over and make any suggestions.” She nodded. “As for the actual retrieval, the team will be Riley, Tara, and Anya.”
“Me?,” Anya asked.
He nodded. “Buffy and Willow probably don’t want to admit it, but you’re the best under pressure, and when things go wonky, you can come up with several alternative plans at once.”
She became smug. Cordelia nodded her approval.
“I learned from the best,” Anya chirped, tweaking Xander’s nose and laughing when he slapped away her hand.
“Besides,” he continued, now blushing, “you’ll be able to control Riley and Faith if necessary. Faith won’t hurt you because she knows doing so will bring down a load of hurt on her from me.”
“What does that mean?,” Angel demanded.
“It means that Faith isn’t dead because Xander didn’t want her dead,” Buffy said. “Believe me, there were opportunities both before and during the coma, and I was more than happy to take them.” She scowled. “He saw something in her, something I didn’t see either because I couldn’t or I didn’t want to, but I listened. It’s only recently that I’m glad I did. But trust me, Faith knows how dangerous Xander can be when someone he loves is threatened, and she knows that both Willow and I will back him up when it comes to that.”
Xander and Willow nodded.
Angel blinked and said nothing.
A slow smirk spread across Cordelia’s face. She never thought she'd see the day when Buffy would so blatantly come across for Xander; she was pleasantly surprised.
“Also,” Xander added, turning to his girlfriend, “if Tara needs help with the spell, you’re really the only one who can do that. It’s your spell, after all.”
“What spell?,” Willow asked. “What do you mean it’s Anya’s spell?”
Buffy rolled her eyes. “Honestly, Will, how did you think Anya was able to summon D’Hoffryn all those years ago? She was a witch!”
Startled, a flattered Anya smiled and nodded.
Willow turned toward Buffy and frowned, her eyes narrowed. “Xander told you that,” she guessed.
Buffy colored. “Doesn’t matter. It’s still true.”
“But what’s the spell?,” Willow asked Anya.
Now annoyed, Anya reached into her pocket and withdrew a sheet of parchment. She opened it and smoothed the creases before handing it over to Willow, who blanched.
“Wow. This is…wow. A simulacrum? Really?”
Anya nodded again. “The spell is neither that advanced nor that difficult, really. The problem is the amount of magic required to maintain it. It's constant.”
“How we do get around that?,” Gunn asked. “Once this is over, Tara will be gone, and she can’t afford to keep a spell running at that level.” He blinked. “And what the fuck is a…whatever that word was?”
“A simulacrum is a rudimentary representation of a person or thing,” Angel answered. “It’s fashioned in the model’s likeness and then animated by magic, and is more effective than a golem.”
He frowned. “Gunn’s right, though. The level of power required to keep a spell like that running is immense, especially when taken into account that in order for this to work, the simulacrum will have to be animated for probably several years.” He cocked his head and narrowed his eyes, looking up at Anya. “Blood magic?”
She nodded once. “As a Slayer, Faith is a magical person. Her blood will anchor the simulacrum to this realm and will serve as her substitute. Also, the fact that she will continue to reside in Los Angeles means that she can replenish the spell as need be.”
She bit her lip. “Although, I would prefer it if Tara, Buffy, and Willow would consent to use some of their blood as well. The more magic animating it, the more realistic the simulacrum. Tara and Willow can always come back to recharge the spell, but I don’t think it will be necessary.”
“Not a problem,” Buffy said. Willow and Tara nodded, the former somewhat reluctantly.
“What about me?,” Xander asked.
Anya smiled and patted his cheek. “You’re not magical, honey. I’m not either; not anymore. Wesley could contribute if he so chooses, and were Giles and Joyce here, I’d ask them as well. Dawn’s a wild card, and I don’t think that’s a good idea anyhow. I’m not willing to take any chances where she’s concerned while Glory’s still running amok like a whirling dervish.”
“Agreed,” said a grateful Buffy. “Wait. What? You’d ask Mom?”
“Well, of course. You’re the Slayer, Buffy. Slayers are only born of Potential Slayers.”
Buffy blinked. “What?” She turned to Wesley. “Did you know that?”
“No,” he answered slowly. “The Council always assumed that the choice of Slayer was random, left up to chance by the spirit animating them.”
“That’s what you get for assuming,” Anya sang.
Wesley glowered at her while Cordelia snickered. He turned to glare at her, but instead burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?,” she demanded, now royally pissed off as the others began joining in his laughter.
A guffawing Xander saluted her. “All hail, Pippi Longstocking!”
She then noticed that her friendly ghost had stopped brushing her hair. A very bad
feeling began coursing through her veins. She tentatively reached up to her head with her hands and discovered her tresses were now in two pigtails. Two very crooked pigtails.
“Dennis!”* * * * *
Minerva McGonagall stormed into the Headmaster’s office, dragging with her a weakly protesting Harry Potter. Luna Lovegood serenely followed, her eyes limpid as she stared around the space with undisguised interest.
Dumbledore rose to his feet, eyes twinkling. “Professor McGonagall! Now that we’re all here, perhaps you would kindly explain the purpose of this summons.”
She coolly regarded him, raising an eyebrow.
Flitwick, Sprout, Pomfrey, and even Snape, their eyes wide, took a step back.
Harry was positively mortified and shot a terrified look toward Luna, who was busy, calmly poking at one of Dumbledore’s silver instruments with her wand, frowning. He wanted to hex her into oblivion.
In lieu of a direct answer, Minerva turned to the other Heads of House, inquiring as to whether any of their students had reported unusual detentions assigned and overseen by Umbridge.
“Minerva,” Dumbledore interrupted, the twinkle now gone, “what is this about?”
“Well, Dumbledore,” she said coldly, refusing to affix even one of his myriad titles to his surname, “I was just wondering if perhaps Madam Umbridge had used her Blood Quill on students other than young Mister Potter here.”
Flitwick and Sprout gasped; Pomfrey and Snape scowled.
Dumbledore’s eyes widened as he sat back down in his massive chair. He stared at Harry, who was blushing fiercely, his eyes trained on the floor. Never had he suspected anything like this, and he was furious that the castle itself had not seen fit to inform him of these grievous developments; the castle’s protection wards should never have allowed such action, regardless of whether he was in residence as Headmaster or not.
Umbridge had briefly held the title, yes, and thus many of the wards which were responsible for governing the school, but the Founders themselves had created protective wards to guard the students against such assaults, for one never knew when a teacher or other administrative official might misuse their power, and the use of a Blood Quill against a student was indeed an assault, far more so than Severus’s perverse abuse of the house point system.
“Harry?,” he whispered, devastated.
Harry said nothing and McGonagall was far from finished. He winced when she snatched his wrist in her hand and held it up for all to see.
“I must not tell lies,” she seethed. “That is what it reads.” Color rose high in her face as her blood pressure continued to climb. “Can you even imagine how often he must have been forced to write that line for it to imprint and scar his skin in this manner?,” she roared.
Poppy clucked her tongue and bustled over to Harry, all but tossing McGonagall aside as she performed with her wand an impromptu exam, muttering under her breath the entire time. This would not go unpunished, she decided, and if she couldn’t aim her wand at that miserable wretch Umbridge, she’d find someone on whom to take out her anger.
“Mister Potter, you should have come to the Infirmary directly after the first assault.” She raised an eyebrow. “In fact, I find it doubtful that Miss Granger would not have advised you to do exactly that.” His blush was answer enough. “Perhaps you would care to explain to me why, in all of your many visits to my office, I never once saw these scars?”
She turned and glared at Dumbledore. “Scars which never should have been allowed to happen within these walls.”
Dumbledore said nothing, but withered slightly under her condemning glare. He would wait and hear the explanation Harry offered.
Seeing that her student was loath to offer any details, Minerva decided to pick up the slack. “The only reason I myself discovered this,” she said stiffly, “is because while Mister Potter and I were discussing his course selection in my office, Miss Lovegood encouraged him to inform me of it. When he refused, she canceled the glamour disguising the scars and then told me how they came to be in the first place.”
Her eyes bored into those of Luna, who stared back with guileless nonchalance.
“And how is it you became aware of this?,” Snape demanded of the girl.
Harry bit his lip and waited to see how Luna would answer. He was hopeful she wouldn’t reveal her ability to see through glamours, as that talent was rare and he didn’t relish Dumbledore exploiting it.
“Miss Lovegood,” Snape snapped.
Luna continued walking around the office, observing all of the treasures it contained. She was fairly certain she detected nargles, but she wasn’t quite sure. Crafty little buggers.
Startled, Luna turned around to face the professor. “Oh. Hello.”
Snape drew in a ragged breath and rubbed his face with a hand. “How did you become aware of Mister Potter’s scar?,” he bellowed, each word an increasing decibel.
“Why, it’s always been there. Voldemort gave it to him, didn’t you know?”
His eyes bulged. “The scar on his wrist!”
“Hm?,” she asked. “Oh,” she smiled dreamily, “one morning while at breakfast, I was sitting at our table across from Harry, who was sitting at the Gryffindor table, because that’s his House, of course, and I suppose he forgot to put the spell on. He looked rather tired, you see, but that could have been from him trying to avoid the chupacabra, as there was one loose in the area around that time. Or perhaps it was that pesky leprechaun who likes to follow Harry about.”
She shrugged and twirled a lock of hair around her finger, seemingly oblivious to how angry Snape was becoming.
“Anyway, I saw the light from the candelabrum reflecting off the scars.” She sighed wistfully. “It was quite beautiful, really, like a peachy spider web. Oh, but that of a normal spider, of course, not an Acromantula.” Her eyes became impossibly wider. “It would be brilliant if Daddy could interview one of those for the next edition of The Quibbler
.” She nodded. “I best speak with Professor Hagrid. Oh, look! Nargles!”
She floated away.
Harry swallowed his snickers as Snape pressed his lips into an angry white line, the other professors staring at Luna with a mixture of confusion and consternation, although he noticed McGonagall and Pomfrey were smirking. He watched as Luna summarily dismissed them all from her thoughts and glided over to the corner to stare up at Fawkes, who regarded her with similar fascination.
McGonagall cleared her throat and glared down at Harry. “Again, I put to you my earlier question, Mister Potter: why did you not inform me of this,” she snapped, grabbing his wrist from Pomfrey’s hand, “when it occurred?”
He felt the anger rising within him, the frustration of the past year swelling and crashing over every raw nerve: Umbridge, the D.A., Fudge, the Ministry, Sirius. Despite the protests of Hermione and Ron, he thought he had been handling things rather well.
Granted, he was often surly and had isolated himself from his friends, in part to avoid a scene like this, when his control was tenuous at best and volatile at worst, hoping to spare them the brunt of his self-loathing and furious emotions.
He knew McGonagall was concerned for him, that her anger was directed at Umbridge and not at him, but the reins were slipping. He felt rather than saw Dumbledore silently urging McGonagall to forgo this line of questioning; he felt Snape’s glee at what was his impending eruption. And he knew it was impossible to stop himself.
“I tried,” he seethed, his eyes narrowed as he glared right back at her, yanking his wrist free from her grasp. “More than once, I tried. How many times did I come to you, like you always told me I should, only to be turned away, to be told that I was making things more difficult, to keep my head down and nose out of trouble because I was just feeding more fuel onto Umbridge’s fire?”
Minerva paled as her arms fell to her sides, her hands trembling slightly. She felt the blood drain from her face and pool into her feet, which felt like blocks of ice. He was right; he was absolutely right. He had come to her, several times, most likely for help, and she had shooed him away like an annoying gnat, inadvertently blaming him for whatever troubles he was experiencing, unwittingly reinforcing his belief that he alone was responsible for whatever befell him. She had always told him that he could come to her, she had tried so hard to instill in him that he could trust her, and the one time he had tried, the one time he believed her words, she had denied him. She had failed him.
“Minerva,” Dumbledore sighed heavily, his voice dripping with disappointment.
His scolding immediately relighted her ire, but before she could summon the words to castigate him in turn, Harry surprised the entire room by pushing McGonagall behind him, leaping forward, withdrawing his wand and brandishing it against the Headmaster, who paled.
“How dare you!,” Harry screamed, his entire body vibrating with fury. “How dare
you blame her? Where were you
, Professor? Where were you when that…that miserable bitch
sauntered in to this castle and proceeded to rip our lives to shreds? You think I was the only who was punished with that Quill? Do you have any idea what that woman did to us all? How she almost destroyed this school and everyone in it?
"No. You disappear with no warning, provide no reason, and then come back with your twinkling eyes and gentle smile, casting blame on the innocent when the only one responsible for all of it is you!”
“Harry,” McGonagall hissed. “I appreciate your words in my defense more than you will ever know, and they are perhaps more than I deserve, but you must…”
“No! He does whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and then hides behind this nebulous ‘greater good’ of his. I’m sick
of it! I’m sick of him telling me what to do, where to go, how to feel.”
He slammed open palms down onto Dumbledore’s desk, turning hateful eyes onto startled blue ones, as he fought for breath. He wasn’t going to allow his temper to give away that which needed to be hidden, but he was going to put Dumbledore on notice once and for all.
“You consigned me to hell for eleven years because it was convenient for you to do so. Do you have any idea what those people did to me? Do you even care?” He snorted. “Apparently not, as you saw fit not to check on me for over a decade. Then you bring me here, because you had no other choice, because you knew Voldemort would return, because you needed me to defeat him, because you know you are too weak to do so.”
Flitwick and Sprout gasped; an intensely curious Snape inched forward.
“I’ve accepted this as my burden,” Harry continued, “as you knew I would, but you will no longer be dictating anything to me, and if you try, you will discover how difficult winning a war can be when your primary weapon refuses to fight.”
“You are not a weapon, Harry,” Dumbledore whispered, “and I care very much about your well-being.”
Harry laughed, a horrible sound, like an mistuned piano. “Oh, yes, you care for me, as long as I prove useful. How foolish do you think I am, Professor? You knew Hermione would determine what was hidden on the third floor, and when the battle arrived at Hogwarts, you yourself were conveniently absent. The next year, the Chamber opened.
"The last time that happened was fifty years prior, a time when you were also here, as the Transfiguration professor. You might not be able to speak Parseltongue, but you will never convince me that you didn’t know precisely where the entrance to the Chamber was. I find it incredible that as someone who communes with all the ghosts in this castle, you wouldn’t know about Myrtle and how she died, not to mention where and at whose hand.”
Dumbledore said nothing and found he was unable to hold Harry’s gaze.
“Then in my third year, Sirius was returned to me, but only in name. He was wanted for a crime he never committed, by which time you knew he was innocent, but that point is moot. What I would like to know, Professor, is why the head of the Wizengamot did not demand a trial for the man he knew to be my legal guardian, the best friend of my parents? Why you did not insist that Sirius be questioned under Veritaserum?
"And let us not waste time by debating the ridiculousness of the Tournament, the agony of which you could very well have spared me had you the desire.”
“You have to understand…” Dumbledore feebly trailed off.
“I believe I’ve been more than understanding and for far too long. You say that I am the one to defeat Voldemort, but rather than training me to accomplish this, you dismiss me when I ask questions you would rather not answer. You disappear on mysterious missions which you never explain. You see fit to provide me with information only when you feel I am capable of handling it, when in truth you know there is very little I cannot handle.
"You have established some ridiculous schedule to which I am supposed to adhere," Harry continued, "when it is my
life that is on the line, and you are completely ambivalent about those lives lost because of your silence. Their names are Cedric Diggory and Sirius Black, in case they slipped your mind. Do you think about them, Headmaster? I do. I see them every night in my dreams. I see them die before me while I am helpless to stop it. You may not have killed them, but neither did you lift a finger to stop their deaths, and you and I both know you had that power.”
Harry took a deep breath and calmed himself.
“I will remain at Hogwarts and finish my education – on my
terms, thank you, as I am the one who has to pay both literally and figuratively for that alleged privilege. I will defeat Voldemort because I know that until I do, my friends will never be safe. I fully expect to die, and frankly, death would be a sweet release from the nightmare you have made of my life.”
His eyes narrowed. “But don’t you ever speak to me again as if we both don’t know what has really happened, nor will I participate in any more of your qualifying rounds simply because you wish to determine my mettle. Is that clear?”
Without waiting for a response, he turned on his heel and made his way across the room.
“I apologize if my tirade has in any way offended or made you uncomfortable,” he said to Professors Flitwick and Sprout, while noticeably ignoring Snape. “That was not my intention.”
He was unsurprised when both professors were too shocked to offer any replies. He nodded to them and crossed to McGonagall.
“Professor, I would suggest that you alert Minister Bones to Umbridge’s use of the Blood Quill. I will explain to her the circumstances and will provide the names of the other students she tortured.”
Luna appeared at his side, threaded her arm through his, and guided him over to the sofa, where they both sat down. She whispered into his ear, her words lost to those others present.
Dumbledore continued staring at his desk. Until this moment, he had had no idea how badly he had gambled.