Collision Course: Escapade
Viktor Krum studied the pleasant if ordinary house with some small concern.
He still wasn’t quite sure about wizarding Britain and how to find his way through it, and that obnoxious bus he had boarded was of little to no help. However, the psychotic driver had insisted that this was the correct address, and Viktor figured he had no choice but to knock on the door and determine if this was the case.
Merlin, he was nervous, even more so than when he had sat atop his broom and tried to prepare himself prior to competing for the World Cup.
He had no idea about the contents of that which he was about to deliver and was loath to bring even more pain upon the recipients, sure they were still grieving. Still, it had to be done. It was time, overly so, he imagined, and he felt guilty that it had taken him this long to comply.
He didn’t like remembering the Tournament and the events surrounding it. He was not ashamed of his behavior or performance, but he regretted that he had consented to enter. Outside of his friendship with Hermione and, surprisingly, Harry, it had not been a rewarding experience. He cleared his throat and tried to quiet his mind, nodding to himself and straightening his robes. Dithering would accomplish nothing.
He picked up his bag and began walking toward the house, reviewing silently what he would say. His English had improved dramatically due to his correspondence with Hermione, though he knew his accent was still quite thick. Hopefully he would not make a fool of himself.
He sighed and raised his fist to the door, knocking upon it with three short raps. He fought the wave of nausea threatening to overcome him. This was ridiculous, he knew; he was a graduate of Durmstrang, a professional Quidditch player, and had almost finished his mastery. He feared very little, and yet he was afraid of this house, of the people therein, and their reactions to what he was about to do.
He had waited too long to do this; whatever dressings these people had applied to their mourning, he was about to rip away. He jumped when he heard shuffling footsteps approach the door, and felt his eyes widen preposterously when it swung open. He imagined he looked rather like a startled house elf.
“Yes?,” a man asked. “May I help you?” He appeared to recognize Viktor, yet was having difficulty placing him.
“You are Mister Amos Diggory?,” Viktor asked, in slow, halting English. He vaguely remembered the man being present before the final task of the Tournament.
“I am Diggory,” the man nodded. “And you are?”
“Hello, Mister Diggory. My name is Viktor Krum.”
Amos Diggory paled, his lips turning white. He swallowed heavily and plastered a sickly smile on his face. “Yes, of course, Mister Krum. I recognize you now. What is it that I can do for you?”
Silently, Viktor reached into his cloak and withdrew the parchment. He held it up so that the man could read the handwriting, very proud that his hand did not tremble.
“I have a letter for you, sir, from your son.”* * * * *
Alastor Moody respected Hermione Granger; he respected her intelligence, her bravery, her loyalty, and her proven mettle in the course of battle. Potter was lucky to call her his friend.
However, he was now past all patience and ready to backhand the girl across the Channel.
He had been irritated, though unsurprised, when her incessant interrogation of him had begun the moment her custody had been transferred to him from the exhausted Auror who had been unfortunate enough to be assigned to her care as she rode the Knight Bus from London to Ottery St. Catchpole.
He had been startled to notice Krum on the same bus, and rather perturbed that Granger had not noticed the young man at all. The fact that Krum had been under a Disillusionment Charm might have had something to do with it, of course, so he was willing to cut some slack to the normally observant girl. He would attempt to discover later the game which Krum was playing.
The Burrow’s wards had been strengthened exponentially thanks to the due diligence of the eldest Weasley child, Bill. Moody had no idea what those infernal Goblins really did at Gringotts, but if Bill’s casting ability was any indication, he believed the wizarding bank truly was
the safest place in Britain. It was now impossible to Apparate within a square mile of the Burrow, so he was helpless but to escort Granger on foot.
At least the girl had the foresight to shrink and stow her trunk while still on the bus under the watchful eye of an Auror. Ridiculous that children were not allowed to practice magic outside the school. They were in the middle of a war, after all, not in the midst of tea with the Queen.
He frowned. He didn’t understand why the secrecy laws should apply to Potter and his friends, given that without their interference, there was a real probability that the Ministry would have fallen mere weeks ago. Besides, those who would be sixth years had received their OWLs, which should allow them to practice unrestricted. He suspected Dumbledore’s meddling was involved. He would speak with Amelia later.
He was impressed with Granger’s ability to keep a swift pace while never losing breath to ask her unending questions. He noted with amusement that she was untroubled by his lack of reply; in fact, other than a cursory greeting, she had not deigned to acknowledge him at all. He was also pleased that her wand was at the ready and her eyes darted about the road and the surrounding woods, searching for any sign of abnormal activity. Constant vigilance, indeed.
He doubted this was merely the influence of Potter; Granger, more than any young person he had met, was her own person. He rather thought the entire Auror corps could stand to learn from her. Of course, who couldn’t?
If he issued a command, she followed it immediately, but didn’t pause a second in her demand to know all of the information he had on Potter, his whereabouts, his relatives, and the new syllabus for Defense Against the Dark Arts, not caring that he was no longer the professor of the course. There were a host of other questions she posed, but he couldn’t keep up with her rapid pace and seeming ability not to require breath. He felt old.
He was of the mind that the girl deserved answers, for he truly doubted that Potter would have gotten this far without her, so any answers he could provide that didn’t compromise his own conscience, Potter’s trust, or Order operations, he freely granted, though all were perfunctory and he knew the girl remained dissatisfied. The subject soon became exclusive to Potter himself, which he had anticipated. Once she had discerned that he had no more knowledge than she about Potter’s voluntary exile from all things magical, she proceeded to rant like nothing he had ever seen or heard, lambasting Potter’s cavalier, thoughtless, and hurtful attitude.
“Merlin’s balls, Granger!,” he finally thundered. “If this is how you treat Potter when he’s in your company, it’s no wonder he’s not owling you!”
He shook his head. “In case you had forgotten, the boy led a group of underage, undertrained wizards and witches into a ministerial department of which most people have never heard, let alone understand, where he watched the Weasley girl and Longbottom attacked, where he watched you almost die, and where he was taunted and tortured by that sociopathic bitch Lestrange!”
His magical eye scanned the area restlessly. “And let us certainly not forget that he was possessed by the Dark Lord and watched as his beloved godfather was murdered by the man’s own cousin.” He turned to face her. “Merlin forbid he take some time to himself and attempt to wrap his head around the fact that he has lost another link to his dead parents – and his proper legal guardian, mind – almost lost his best friend, blames himself for all the injuries you lot sustained, and was yet again attacked by his mortal enemy
! If he doesn’t feel the need to check in with you every time he takes a piss, what of it? Grow up!”
Moody gave her credit for not bursting into tears or scowling and launching a tirade, pleased when she became contemplative and the telltale blush of embarrassment began creeping up her neck. He nodded his approval.
Hermione frowned. Proper
legal guardian? Well, yes, Sirius had been Harry’s legal guardian by virtue of being named godfather but, as a wanted fugitive, he had been unable to act in that capacity. She was sure, however, that Moody was trying to tell her something, his words precise yet carefully veiled.
What did that mean, exactly?
In her opinion, it could be argued that Sirius had been named by the Potters via their will as Harry’s legal guardian. She herself had never seen the will, nor had Harry spoken of it, but she highly doubted that parents who were being actively hunted by a serial killer and had gone under the Fidelius would not have made plans for their child in the event of their deaths.
Hermione gnawed on her lip.
Why hadn’t she thought about this before?
Further, it was suspect that James and Lily Potter would not have named backup guardians for Harry, given the fact that their best friends were also wanted by Voldemort. Of course, Remus wouldn’t have been allowed to serve as godfather either, his lycanthropy precluding him from fulfilling that role. And it was inconceivable that Lily Evans Potter – considered the brightest witch of her age – was ignorant of her sister Petunia’s prejudices of all things magical, so it would stand to reason that Lily would not have entrusted her only child to Petunia’s care…
Moody raised an eyebrow and stared down his nose at her.
Hermione’s lips thinned, pressed together so tightly they all but disappeared.
Dumbledore, of course. It had to have been. Only he would have the audacity and the questionable authority to place Harry with the very last people his parents would have wanted to raise him, not to mention the ability to keep Harry off the magical radar for a decade.
And if she
had been able to put all of this together in the space of a moment, than it was logical to assume that Harry…
She growled low in her throat. Now
it made sense why Harry was staying away. Yes, she was sure he felt guilty that she had been attacked by Dolohov; that Ginny, Ron, and Luna had been injured, no matter how slightly; that they had been there at all; that Sirius had died; that it was all a machination of Voldemort’s design. Regret and self-recrimination were Harry’s constant companions, but terrible things had happened before and Harry had not removed himself so completely from their lives.
But if he suspected Dumbledore had been manipulating things – and it was with sad irony that her mind quickly proposed several other possible scenarios for which Dumbledore might have been accountable – it was no wonder Harry was refusing contact. And how in the world had she not put these pieces together before?
She was supposed to be intelligent
, not some simpering schoolgirl who fawned over other people!
And Harry knew Dumbledore was watching them all: Harry, Ron, and she herself.
Harry was trying to protect
, was her first thought, which quickly faded and was replaced with a suffusing warmth of exasperated fondness. Stupid, wonderful boy
And obviously Moody was in on it, she realized. He couldn’t say anything without violating Harry’s trust and Dumbledore’s confidence. But, then, on whose side was he?
. Not another side!
She sighed and grimaced at Moody, who replied with a bland look.
At the noticeable lack of any noise whatsoever, they turned their eyes forward and noted they were standing before the open door of the Burrow, where they were being observed with wide eyes.
Molly Weasley was scandalized; Ginny began snickering, which set off the twins; Bill was unusually solemn, which made Fleur laugh; Ron decided he had absolutely no questions for Mad-Eye Moody regarding Harry Potter.
“Alastor Moody!,” Molly roared. “That is no way to speak to a lady!” She crossed the threshold, pushed him aside, wrapped an arm around Hermione’s shoulders, and led the girl into the house. “Welcome, dear,” she said gently, “we’re so glad you were able to join us!”
“You are?,” asked a befuddled Hermione.
Moody rolled his magical eye at Molly’s scolding, which only made Ginny and the twins laugh that much harder. He followed several paces behind, in search of any potential threat. Word was, there a ghoul who lived in the attic. Nasty business, ghouls.
Hermione was now hopelessly confused by Molly’s overt solicitousness. Yes, Molly had always been cordial, but their relationship had been rather reserved since those ridiculous articles printed about her and Harry during their fourth year. She watched with wide eyes as Molly scurried about to enlarge her bags, which were then banished to Ginny’s room, inquire after her parents, her own health in the wake of the events at the Ministry, her summer schoolwork, and any number of other things, the sheer volume of which soon had Hermione feeling overwhelmed.
In the middle of all of it, Molly had somehow managed to make tea and scones for everyone, the refreshments appearing on the dining table.
Hermione did her best to answer any and all questions, shooting Ron looks of utter incredulity, discomforted when Ron appeared as lost as she herself was.
Moody, bemused by the entire situation, rightly guessed that Potter had taken Molly Weasley to task about the importance of one Hermione Granger. Any third party could see the three of them would not be parted for anything, and certainly not by a parent’s sense of propriety.
Well, good for Potter. It said a lot about a young man who went to such lengths to protect his friends; it also suggested that Molly Weasley was more of a player than that for which she was given credit. He suppressed a chuckle.
Oh, Potter was good, so
good. He couldn’t wait to see what else the boy had planned! But now, he had to press his own agenda.
“Right then,” he barked, “you lot should be made aware that Potter was attacked this morning in Diagon Alley.”
The explosion was, of course, immediate and predictable.
“What was Harry doing away from his relatives?,” Hermione demanded, now furious that Moody had not seen fit to impart to her earlier this news. “What about those precious blood wards of Dumbledore’s, eh?,” she sneered.
Molly gave the girl an appraising look. Moody smirked.
“But Harry was with me this morning at the bank,” Bill argued, his eyes narrowing. “When did this happen?”
“What was he doing with you?,” Ron trilled.
“I was ravishing him in one of the private offices under the direction of the Goblins,” Bill replied, rolling his eyes, sending Fleur into gales of laughter as everyone else turned to stare at him. “Honestly,” he sighed, “it was Gringotts business.” He turned to glare at his youngest brother and Hermione. “And none of yours.”
Hermione went red in the face from anger, but Ron, startled by his brother’s unusually snappish response, paled and backed up several steps, dragging Hermione with him and whispering furiously into her ear. Whatever he said was lost to the rest, but she appeared to calm down.
The twins thought it best not to mention their visit with Harry, and if Hermione and Ron’s jealous response was any indication, they now understood why Harry had admonished them not to mention Luna Lovegood, though they were curious why Harry had not told them he had earlier met with Bill. Surely Harry hadn’t needed to consult with a curse-breaker merely to retrieve some Galleons from his vault.
“Oh dear,” Molly fretted, preparing to whip herself up into an hysterical mothering frenzy the likes of which the world had never seen, “was it Death Eaters?”
“No,” Moody scowled, “just your average run-of-the-mill fools in all their obnoxious glory.” He shook his head. “Potter was spotted outside of Flourish and Blotts by ordinary shoppers, who proceeded to harass and maul him when he declined to give autographs or speak of Voldemort.”
He again rolled his magical eye when several present flinched at the name.
“Is Harry all right?,” whispered a now tearful Hermione.
“Aye,” Moody nodded, “he’s fine now. Tonks healed his wounds.”
“Wounds!,” Ron exploded. “What did those sick bastards do to my Harry?”
He was incognizant of the curious glances sent his way by Fleur and George at his possessive phrasing. Ginny and Hermione were careful not to look at Ron, while Bill and Fred weren’t even paying attention. Molly glared at Fleur and George, a silent bid to ensure their mouths stayed closed. She wasn’t yet entirely sure how she felt about Ron’s relationship with Harry, whatever that might have been, or whatever her son might wish was between them – as well as Hermione, for that matter – but she would not stand to see him questioned or ridiculed for it. In that spirit, she let his language slide.
“They roughed him up a bit,” Moody gruffly admitted. “Now that Fudge is gone and a woman of sense has assumed office, the tide has changed, and the general public believes Voldemort has returned, even if the blasted Prophet
has not seen fit to comment on it. The public sees Potter as their only hope and the only answers they want are his.”
He clucked his tongue and shook his head at the stupidity of the populace. He then laughed.
“Anyone who ever wondered how Tonks got her job had their answer today. Bloody brilliant, she was, stunning people left and right and threatening to throw the lot of them into Azkaban and rustle up some Dementors just for funsies.”
“Go Tonks!,” the twins cheered.
“She let Potter finish his business and then Apparated him to Hogsmeade,” Moody finished. “I assume he is now at Hogwarts.”
Hermione grabbed Ron’s hand. “That’s where we need to be,” she said.
Ron nodded, and they made for the fireplace.
“No you don’t!,” Molly screamed. She sighed as Ron and Hermione flinched. “I’m sorry, I should not have yelled, but you two are behaving toward Harry exactly like those people in Diagon Alley. I understand that you love him and want him with you, but he is entitled to his privacy, even from his friends.”
She raised an eyebrow. “As his friends, I should hope you would respect that.”
Hermione deflated and nodded sadly, but Molly noted with displeasure that Ron’s stubborn streak was about to rear its ugly, pointed head.
“Ronald,” she began severely, “I do not agree with the way Alastor spoke to Hermione, but he made very valid points. Harry is dealing with an awful lot right now, and we need to give him time to process everything he has been through. I know you miss him; I do, too. I would like nothing more than to have him here with us, and as soon as he asks, I’ll go fetch him myself, and I don’t give a whit what Dumbledore has to say about it. If it will make you feel better, I will contact the Headmaster later and inquire after Harry’s condition but, for the love of Merlin, let the boy alone.”
Moody grinned at Molly’s words, noting with glee that she had said she would get Harry as soon as the boy himself asked; Dumbledore was no longer a consideration. Oh, he so wanted to see that
showdown. A feeling of utter bliss swirled about his head.
Ron scowled and stomped over to the sofa, throwing himself down atop it. “No one tells me anything. I’m always the last to know.”
“Drama queen,” Fred whispered to George.
“Oh, stop whining
, Ron!,” barked a cross Ginny, as Hermione rolled her eyes and shook her head.
“Potter will be fine. At least he’s not alone,” Moody said. “The Lovegood girl is with him.”
“What!,” Ron and Hermione thundered.
Ginny frowned. Bill raised an eyebrow. Fleur smirked. The twins eyed each other before Fred then conjured a box of popcorn.* * * * *
Anya twirled about Cordelia’s living room. “What do you think?”
“I think I’ve discovered a new fantasy,” a happy Xander sighed. “But you need some beakers or test tubes or something.” He nodded. “You know, to complete the look.”
She smirked, ignoring the mutterings of the others, and smoothed the lapels of the overly-starched lab coat before adjusting the glasses. She didn’t like the frames, but at least the lenses were regular glass. The pleated skirt was a bit snug, but she liked that. It was impossible for clothes to be too tight, in her estimation.
The silk blouse was lovely, and she determined then and there that Cordelia would not be getting back that particular item. She placed a barrette between her lips and hastily drew her hair into a chignon. She was wearing more makeup than usual, but Cordelia explained that wearing more than was necessary made her look older than wearing none at all.
It was all very confusing, but she was fairly sure that Cordelia knew what she was talking about.
“Why do you have so many costumes in your closet?,” Buffy demanded of Cordelia, who rolled her eyes.
“I’m an actress. They’re for auditions. Duh.”
Buffy’s brow furrowed. “Oh.”
“Cordy’s Closet,” Xander said, furrowing his brow. “Sounds like a porn movie.”
Cordelia smiled. “Well, you would know."
He blushed and fell silent.
“Are you sure this will work?,” asked a worried Angel.
Anya frowned. Okay, she had been a pretty good sport about all of this. She had encouraged Xander to leave Sunnydale and care for Cordelia. She herself had schemed and plotted to ensure the survival of her boyfriend's ex, a woman with whom she knew Xander still to be in love. She had put up with Willow and Buffy for two years just for the sake of Xander's happiness. But Angel had crossed a line, and now she was pissed.
As far as she was concerned, Angel was useless. Sure, he did some good, but if he got staked, the Powers would get themselves a new Champion the next day. She knew of the reputation of Angelus long before she had ever stepped foot on the Hellmouth, and she had borne witness to the path of savagery the Scourge had cut across Europe. She knew what Angelus had done during his last emergence, and she knew that eventually, he would find his way out again.
She herself didn't subscribe to the comfort of a soul curse in the manner of Buffy and Willow. The soul may have created Angel, but it didn't negate the presence of Angelus. In reality, it was Angel who was the curse of Angelus, not the other way around, the way Buffy and Willow had romanticized it.
For whatever mysterious reason, Xander was willing to put up with Angel during this mission, but she wasn't. She didn't know him, didn't like him, had never been in love with him, and owed him nothing. Not only was he a vampire, the lowest of the low in terms of demon classification, but he was male and thus doubly worthless. Right. It was time to punch his ticket in.
“Are you doubting my ability to portray someone of intelligence?," she demanded. "Do you find it impossible that I could present myself as someone knowledgeable of scientific principles and the study of psychology? I, who have lived over one thousand years, who have seen races rise and fall, the collapse of entire civilizations?” She snorted. “Get serious.” She then scowled. “Uppity vampires. They live a century or three and think they know everything.”
Gunn burst out laughing as Angel backed up a step.
“I wasn’t trying to offend you,” he said quietly. “I just think it makes more sense for Riley to play this part, given the fact that he actually has
an advanced degree in psychology.”
“Riley is the token penis of this expedition,” Anya sniffed. “As such, he is to protect both Tara and myself. He is strong and virile, with many muscles. He has military training. It only makes sense that he act as our bodyguard, for one will be expected given that we are heading to a prison. He also looks the part and is very gallant and commanding.”
Angel wisely offered no opinion on this declaration.
Riley said nothing, continuing to lace up his boots, though his cheeks were flushed.
Buffy watched him with amusement. It was obvious that Anya had a crush on Riley, and she suspected Riley had one on both Anya and Xander. She supposed she should be angry or jealous but, in truth, she found the whole thing endlessly
Of course, should the mutual crush proceed beyond certain boundaries, then action would be required. For now, however, watching Xander and Riley blush while pointedly ignoring each other as Anya shamelessly flirted with both of them was too endearing to halt, as well as providing her with future blackmail material.
“Let’s run through it again,” Willow suggested.
Anya nodded. “I am Doctor Margaret Forrest, junior psychologist with the Initiative, a joint operation between the United States Marine Corps and the National Institutes of Health. I am interviewing subject Faith Lehane as part of my post-doctoral research on the increasing rate of urban violence committed by young women.”
She nodded to Tara. “This is my research assistant, Joyce Osbourne, who will be recording the interview. Also with me is Lieutenant Graham Miller, who is functioning as our personal protection and official representative of the military.” She beamed.
Cordelia nodded. “Very good."
“I’m worried about the names,” Buffy said.
“They can’t use their real names, of course,” Cordelia patiently explained, “and it’s easier to remember aliases if they’re based in part on the names of people who they actually know.”
Buffy looked up at Riley, who was now shoving things into his bag. “What about Graham?”
He shook his head. “Graham’s on assignment in Belize. I doubt they’ll check, but if they do, he’ll cover for us.”
She nodded warily.
Tara raised an eyebrow at Willow. “Our badges?”
“I’m just finishing them up now,” the witch replied, making final touches on her laptop screen before sending the files to Cordelia’s printer. She jumped up, ran to her bag, and withdrew a small laminator.
“Have you all done this before?,” asked a suspicious Kate.
Willow, Buffy, and Xander looked at each other before turning wide eyes on Kate.
“No,” the chorused.
She shook her head and laughed and crossed to Xander. “I've added to your blueprint. You'll find additional cameras you didn't spot during your visit, as well as three exits which are unknown to any but personnel. Attached is a roster of personnel you would do best to ensure your team doesn't encounter." She raised an eyebrow. "I'm sure Willow can call up their files, including pictures, via the very illegal yet useful backdoor she somehow has established in the LAPD's firewall.”
He praised her profusely, to the point where it crossed the line straight into flirting, causing her to blush. Of course, being that Xander was irrepressibly Xander, he was completely oblivious to this. Cordelia, Buffy, and Anya watched with amusement. Xander finally finished his babbling and passed the map to Riley, who nodded, and the personnel list to Willow, who saluted him.
Anya was very jealous that she had not yet been saluted by anyone, and proceeded to proclaim this quite loudly.
Buffy exhaled noisily. “Okay. Phase Two?”
Willow nodded, handing out the badges to Tara, Anya, and Riley.
“I’ll be outside in Riley’s Jeep. I’ll hack the mainframe at approximately zero-nine-hundred and take the security cameras offline. Tara will have approximately two minutes and thirty seconds to cast the spell and create the simulacrum.”
She frowned and consulted her notes. “Then Tara will cast this charm of Anya’s onto Faith, which should make it so no one can see her. If she needs my help, I’ll be close enough that she can draw on my power. Faith should be able to walk right out with the others.” She looked up at Anya. “What is this spell, anyhow?”
“It’s called a disillusionment spell. It doesn’t make you completely invisible, more like transparent. No one will be able to see Faith unless they’re truly looking for her, and with the simulacrum in her place, it shouldn’t be a problem. And, like you said, if Tara needs extra power, you’ll be nearby for her to call on, but I really don’t think it will be an issue.”
“This is very risky,” Angel sighed.
“It’s what we’re doing,” Cordelia shrugged. “It’s our best bet. If it goes wrong, Tara can cast the charm on all of them and they can get the hell out of there. Good luck to the cops trying to track down transparent people with phony credentials.”
“What if the Initiative gets wind of this?,” Kate asked.
Riley shrugged. “Unofficially, the Initiative no longer exists. Officially, it never did. They might suspect me of being involved, and therefore Buffy as well, but they learned the hard way about what we do, and they’re not anxious to go against the Slayer and her friends. We know where all the bodies are buried – literally – and they don’t know who else we’ve told. Not to mention, they just don’t have the ability to control Buffy; the most they can do is keep her drugged.”
“And what if they just decide to kill her?,” Angel snapped.
“They won’t, because they have no knowledge of what a Slayer truly is, other than myths told to them by former HSTs, which are varying and therefore unreliable. They’re not even sure Buffy can
be killed. She's died once, but she's still here, and they don't know why. Xander's involvement in her resurrection is unknown to them.
"They also know a second Slayer is already in existence, and they won’t take the chance that killing Buffy won’t create another, one even more unpredictable about whom they have no knowledge. They’re unsure as to the true power of the Council and the extent of their holdings, and they’re unaware that Buffy is no longer allied with the Council, but they don't know whether the Council is aware of them through Buffy.”
“And they have no idea how to handle witches,” Xander added. “Their testing on human subjects was confined to werewolves, and after the episode with Oz, Walsh got so much flack from her superiors, human testing was banned. Willow and Tara are well beyond them, and they know it.” He looked down at the floor. “I’ve thought about all of this, Angel. I wouldn’t risk my friends needlessly.”
“We know that, Xander,” Tara said.
Buffy, Riley, Anya, and Willow all nodded.
“It’s just so many variables,” Angel said softly.
“No more so than what we’re up against every single goddamn night,” Gunn grunted.
“Angel, I know that you wish to take part in this scenario and I understand that you are worried for all parties involved,” Wesley said, “but the bottom line is that this is being done to help Cordelia and, by extension, you. That’s the end of it.”
Angel grimaced and fell silent.
“What will the rest of you be doing?,” Tara asked.
Cordelia sighed. “Packing up my stuff and getting ready for my departure, as well as trying to deal with Dennis.” She looked up at the ceiling. “I know you’re mad, Dennis, and I wouldn’t be leaving if it wasn’t absolutely necessary, but I’ll die if I stay here. As much as I like you, I’m not yet ready to be joining you in the afterlife.” She waited a moment and then looked at the others, shrugging. “He’s pouting.”
“Well, he’ll have company soon enough,” Gunn said.
Her eyes narrowed. “What does that mean?”
He blinked. “Isn’t Faith going to live here?”
Cordelia’s eyes widened. “I did not
agree to that
.” She shook her head furiously. “If you think for one minute that I’m leaving my
apartment and my
ghost in her
slutty hands, think again.”
“Where is she to live?,” asked a confused Wesley.
“Not my problem, but I assume at the hotel with Angel,” Cordelia shrugged. “And I sure as hell don’t like that option either, anymore than Buffy does, I’m guessing, but I don’t trust Faith enough to be out of Angel’s sight for one minute. And with her staying at the Hyperion rent-free, I suggest Angel makes her get a job. Since he won't be paying me my pittance of a salary, he can keep up the rent on my apartment. Eventually, I will be back, and I fought too hard for this place to let it go now.”
Buffy hesitantly agreed. “The only reason I’m involved at all is because Faith will be under Angel’s watch. She has to stay with him. He’s the only one strong enough to contain her.” She sighed. “Look, Xander and Angel say she’s changed. Fine. But as far as I’m concerned, Faith is still a wild card, and we really have no idea how she’ll react to being out. Angel should be able to keep her in check, but I’m going to be monitoring the situation, as will Giles.”
“And what is it you think Giles can do?,” Angel snidely asked.
Buffy raised an eyebrow. “Faith is scared of him. She respects him as a Watcher and wishes he had been her own. She also knows how far he’ll go to protect me. You tell her that Giles will be keeping an eye on her, and I can almost guarantee she’ll toe the line.” Her lips curved into a feline smile. “And if Giles wasn’t a threat, why did Angelus try so hard to remove him from my side?”
“Ha!,” Xander cried.
“Shut up, both of you,” Angel scowled.
“Testy, uppity vampires,” Anya groused.* * * * *
Susan Bones sighed and gently laid aside the letter from her aunt. She was pleased that Neville and his grandmother would be joining them for dinner, even if the latter was, frankly, rather terrifying. She didn’t know Neville well but, when their paths had crossed, she had determined him to be a genuinely kind and decent boy who was always unfailingly polite, if a bit skittish. Given the fact that he had joined Harry Potter at that assignation at the Ministry, however, perhaps Neville was finally growing into his Gryffindor heritage.
She stood up from her desk and errantly glanced over at her nightstand, frowning. She had never before been the recipient of so much mail in her life, especially from people she didn’t know or whose acquaintance could hardly be called familiar. She supposed the uncomfortable feeling was akin to that which Harry experienced on a daily basis. She shuddered.
She was justifiably proud of her aunt for being named the interim Minister, but the appointment had brought about with it a deluge of requests and offers of friendship from people whose intentions could only be called dubious. She knew they were hoping that some relationship with her would garner them favor with her aunt, but she was not about to be used for her name or connections, nor would her aunt ever tolerate such nonsense. She picked up the letters and tossed them into the rubbish bin.
Honestly. As if she wished to hear anything Draco Malfoy had to say.
“Little ferret,” she grumbled.
She didn’t really know Harry any better than she did Neville, but she had formed a speculative opinion about him over the past five years; while Hufflepuffs were gregarious with their own, they were more watchful of those of other houses. She knew Harry was brave, if rash; kind, if distant; and more intelligent than most realized. She knew that he, like both Neville and herself, was an only child who had lost his parents during the first war.
She had been raised by her aunt, thankfully, and Neville by his grandmother, but knew nothing about Harry’s life away from Hogwarts, save that he lived with Muggles when school was not in session. She had heard whispers of the sort of people they were, but as everything was unsubstantiated rumor and she was not one prone to idle gossip, she dismissed them, though she was curious. Indeed, she was very curious about Harry Potter.
She reclined on her bed and crossed her legs at the ankle, staring up at the yellow canopy stretched atop her bed, considering that which she did know of him.
His two best friends were Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. Ron she had known since childhood, mostly through Ministry functions and mutual friends. She liked Ron well enough, she supposed, though found him to be obtuse on occasion and rather belligerent. Little was known about Hermione outside of Gryffindor, save her incredible intelligence and her devotion to Harry. She was still unsure why Hermione had not been placed in Ravenclaw – where she clearly belonged, and where her intellect would have been a badge of honor for that house – but instead in Gryffindor.
Oh, she had little doubt of Hermione’s courage, but it was painfully embarrassing to witness how the Gryffindors treated her. They were full of pride and adoration when her actions brought fame and house points, but ridiculed her when someone of another house received a higher grade or she was bullied by an insolent brat like Malfoy.
Susan frowned. She supposed Harry and Hermione were very much alike in that regard: loved when it suited, despised when it was convenient.
She closed her eyes and let her mind drift.
The gossip surrounding Harry and Hermione – often perpetuated by their own house, no less! – had been circulating ever since he had saved her from that mountain troll in first year. While Susan herself did not engage in gossip, she did
pay attention to it. Her aunt had told her often that there was usually some kernel of truth in rumor and it was always wise to be aware of the intentions of the people who surrounded you.
Of course, said rumor also speculated with regard to Ron Weasley.
Harry and Hermione were frequently believed to be dating, with Ron somewhere in the mix. It was assumed that all three were involved with each other, but split off on occasion, which was why they rowed so often. Now that she considered it, Susan realized that from what she had directly witnessed, Harry and Hermione in fact argued very little. Harry and Ron argued on occasion – huge fights which echoed throughout Gryffindor tower – but usually blew over in a couple of days.
Ron and Hermione, however, fought frequently, which some mistakenly offered as proof of some volatile romantic relationship. So, depending on the month or the class or the whatever, Harry was either involved with Hermione or Ron or both of them.
She snorted. She found it absurd that three people her own age were engaging in some sort of illicit union right under the nose of Minerva McGonagall. The very thought of the stern professor not only allowing but tolerating
such a relationship was laughable.
In truth, she doubted that any of them were involved, or not seriously, at any rate. Harry had briefly dated Cho Chang last year and Hermione had been escorted by Viktor Krum to the Yule Ball in fourth year. Outside of that, however, it was rare that the trio were seen in the company of anyone but each other. Indeed, they preferred it that way, which only egged on the speculation.
She sighed and rolled onto her stomach.
Harry Potter was an enigma, one she found she wished to unravel. She knew that Voldemort was gaining power and that, eventually, there would be some kind of final battle, most likely at Hogwarts. She didn’t understand the belief that Hogwarts was the safest place in wizarding Britain, given that Voldemort had managed to infiltrate it one way or another for the past five years. If it was not possessed or Polyjuiced professors, it was possessed diaries or ridiculous tournaments. How did Dumbledore expect students to feel safe within its walls? Ludicrous.
She had been one of the first people who had signed up for the Defense Association, after learning from her aunt that Harry could produce a corporeal Patronus, and she prayed he would continue the secret lessons this year, as without them, she wouldn’t have passed her O.W.L. These were dangerous times, and she recognized that with her aunt in power, it was more likely than not that the Bones family would be targeted once again. She was determined that what befell her parents would not happen to her. She was a Hufflepuff, after all.
Many failed to recognize the importance of Hufflepuff House, dismissing its residents out of hand because they had not the cunning of Slytherin, the courage of Gryffindor, or the intelligence of Ravenclaw, but those people were wrong. Hufflepuffs embodied all
of those qualities, but tempered them with kindness and wisdom.
Hufflepuffs were brave like Gryffindors, but not brash, and while they had a thirst for glory, it was one that could only be slaked by glory for them all, not just one. It was why they had rallied so fervently behind Cedric Diggory, not because he was the best of them, but the best of the school.
And true to his nature, Cedric had insisted that his House not denigrate Harry during the course of the tournament. He had not demanded that they support Harry equally, but he refused to allow members of his own house to wear those ridiculous badges Malfoy had conjured. In the end, Cedric had argued, regardless of whether he or Harry won, the glory would belong to Hogwarts.
He also expressed his belief that Harry had not entered his name in the Goblet of Fire, which anyone with half a brain should have figured out for themselves. One need only look at Harry during the course of that year, and it was obvious that the boy was terrified, participating only because he was compelled by a magical bond.
Which made no sense whatsoever, for how could Harry be forced to compete under threat of the loss of his magic when – regardless of whether he had submitted his name – he was not of legal age to enter into a binding contract? It was tantamount to magical rape, Susan felt, and her aunt had agreed.
Hufflepuffs were not the brightest, but they were the most studious and hardworking. Ravenclaws competed with each other for grades, while Hufflepuffs sought to ensure that every member of their house did well in their classes; while a Hufflepuff might not be first in their year, there were none who were in the bottom half. They held study groups, had peer mentors, and often conferred with the older students over concepts which eluded them.
The pomposity of Ravenclaws was tolerated because there was no denying that its students were brilliant but, in the end, they had been outmatched by Hermione Granger, a Gryffindor. Susan wondered how Padma Patil would fare when they returned in September. She felt there would be some members of Ravenclaw who would castigate the girl for not overtaking Granger during the O.W.L.s.
She herself didn’t understand that kind of rivalry, where the pursuit of knowledge was somehow secondary to the speed with which it was attained.
Susan smirked and reveled in the knowledge that the entirety of Ravenclaw was most likely furious that Luna Lovegood was the first in her class for her year. Given the way the entire house shunned her, Susan assumed it was only a matter of time before the Ravenclaws tried to worm their way into Luna’s good graces. Not that it would matter, of course, for Luna was truly uncaring as to what others thought of her.
Susan herself wished she had that self-possessed a nature. She thought it atrocious the way Luna was treated, but the girl just shrugged it off, as if it hadn’t occurred to her to be offended or hold a grudge, and was pleasant to everyone. The behavior of the Ravenclaws toward Luna was not something that would ever be tolerated in Hufflepuff, for which Susan was proud and relieved.
She was not of the opinion that every Slytherin was evil; the idea was ridiculous. People tended to erase those portions of history which they found uneasy, and while it was true that Voldemort had been a Slytherin, the last Dark Lord, Grindelwald, had been a Gryffindor. The problem, as she saw it, was that it was loudmouths like Draco Malfoy and Pansy Parkinson who often took center stage of Slytherin House. They were rude and unpleasant people and, because of their grandstanding, others thought them representatives of Slytherin, rather than the exception.
Her experience with Slytherins was limited, granted, in part because most of her classes were held jointly with Ravenclaw, but she had always found Blaise Zabini and Millicent Bulstrode to be rather neutral. They weren’t outgoing by any stretch of the imagination, but neither were they cruel; they kept their distance from everyone, including their own house members. And there was something to be said for cunning, which was distinct from intelligence. There was nothing inherently bad about knowing the system and how best to work within it; it was all a question of ethics.
Hufflepuffs strived to be an amalgamation of all the houses, as the Sorting Hat had been suggesting for generations: they were loyal like Gryffindors, but theirs was a not a blind loyalty, and they preferred the virtues of people over the merits of ideas; they were intelligent but, unlike Ravenclaws, they understood that knowledge was more than a recitation of fact – what truly mattered was how one implemented those facts; they were cunning like Slytherins, but sought to improve the system rather than manipulate it.
She was proud of her House and her people, but she was dismayed by how many chose to remain on the sidelines of the coming war, overly cautious, rather than firmly announce themselves as allies of Harry Potter – or even of Voldemort, for that matter. She didn’t understand how people could see their world fall down around them and do nothing but wait to see who emerged the victor, and she was no longer willing to abide it.
She had been regarded since first year as the de facto
leader of her class within her house; perhaps it was time to lead by example.* * * * *
Willow was endlessly annoyed that Tara had the audacity to call shotgun, and was left with little choice but to climb into the backseat of Riley’s jeep and sit next to an equally perturbed Anya. She understood full and well what Tara was doing, or at least suggesting, and while Willow didn’t necessarily hate Anya, they sure weren’t going to become bosom buddies anytime soon. Sighing, she strapped herself in and glared sullenly out the window.
Tara and Riley exchanged amused glances and settled in for a long ride.
Anya glared at all of them before reaching into her purse and withdrawing a small, ancient book and proceeded to thumb through it carefully, ignoring everyone.
Riley was downing coffee like it was nectar; he was fortunate that the elixir didn’t affect him the way it did everyone else. Well, mainly Buffy and Xander. For him, coffee was a soothing balm, and his nerves were already frayed from lack of sleep.
Of course, none of them had gotten much sleep the past few days, and tensions were running abnormally high. Thankfully, Cordelia and Xander had taken everyone in hand, and Buffy and Angel were following their lead. His lips quirked.
It was actually rather pleasant that all of them were getting along as well as they had been. He wasn’t going to be Angel’s number one fan anytime soon, but he liked Gunn and Kate. He hadn’t yet spent much time with Wesley, so he didn’t have an opinion as to the former Watcher, but the man appeared knowledgeable and a decent enough sort. He certainly wasn’t looking forward to seeing Faith again, but she was needed, and he respected that.
Besides, soon enough, he would be back in Sunnydale and things would return to normal. Well, as normal as things could be.
He had a feeling that Buffy had cottoned on to his crush, or crushes. And how embarrassing was it to be a twenty-five year old man who had an infatuation with his girlfriend’s very male
best friend and that man’s girlfriend? Jesus.
He shivered, shook his head, and absently flipped on the radio.
“Ooh!,” Willow cooed. “I like this song! Turn it up, please!”
Tara and Riley shared another look. It beat the looming silence, they supposed. She shrugged, he sighed and complied, and the music got louder.
A cheerful Willow proceeded to murder with aplomb a once-pleasant pop song. Horrified, Riley turned to a nodding, knowing Tara.
“She’s tone deaf,” the witch quietly confided.
“Gee. I never would have guessed.”
“Come on, baby, let’s get away
,” Willow tunelessly shrieked. “Let’s save your troubles for another day.
Riley and Tara were then horrified when Anya gamely began singing along. In imperfect harmony.
“Come go with me, we’ve got it made. Let me take you on an escapade.
,” Willow and Anya chorused.
They looked at each other with bright smiles and increased their volume.
“Oh my god,” whispered a frightened Riley.
,” Tara lamented. This was unlike anything she had envisioned. This was ghastly
Suddenly, the car shook.
A nervous Riley glanced in the rearview mirror, his eyes widening, and paled.
“Do I even want to know?,” Tara asked dryly.
“I think, I think they just…busted a move.”
“The world is doomed.”