88: Of Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax
Three days after what Ron would forever call “the longest Saturday in history,” Hogwarts had almost resumed its normal pace. The end of the term wasn’t far off, and once it became clear that Voldemort would not be returning in the immediate future, everyone seemed to realize that, in fact, the end of the term wasn’t far off. While Monday became a holiday, classes were back on as usual for Tuesday, and the Gryffindors found themselves once again buried under a pile of homework (though their role in the weekend festivities earned them more than one generous extension).
Angel’s team returned to Los Angeles on Monday; despite her protests, Dawn went back to Sunnydale, chaperoned by Xander. Buffy stayed with Willow, who needed the support; Grey had been studiously staying far away from her since his awakening, and the witch was slowly coming undone because she didn’t know why.
After a short rest restored her, Jess announced that she knew a way to cleanse Dumbledore’s system of poisons. By Monday night, he was back in full health, though more than a bit tired. Following a lengthy debriefing of all of the participants, he decided to allow McGonagall to inform the Ministry of the events and went about preparing for the inevitable arrival of its representatives. He knew that meeting would be thoroughly unpleasant.
The Tuesday morning sun glistened on the surface of the lake. If Grey looked too long, his eyes burned from the bright sparkles swirling on the water and he had to look away. He didn’t care. The morning was too warm and too beautiful to stay out of, and he really had too much to think about to care whether his eyes hurt.
Could still be dead, he thought with a grim smile. Then they wouldn’t burn at all.
“Shouldn’t you be in the infirmary? I know Pomfrey wouldn’t have let you go yet; she’s too much of a mother hen. And what’s with those clothes? Some sorta symbolic thing, now that I’m back?”
He idly hefted a small rock and skipped it across the water, then ran his hands over the crisp white t-shirt and khakis.
“Is that what you really think,” he said, his voice non-committal.
“If I had to guess, I’d say it was wash day.”
“Right in one.” He still wasn’t looking at her.
“I know you pretty well. You don’t look good, new clothes or not, though.”
He nodded curtly. “And you?”
“Good so far. Your friends were spot on in their research, and Willow … the girl can play.”
“Yeah, she can. So can you.”
“Yeah,” Jess said, coming up beside him and dropping down onto the grass, “I can. Lucky for you.”
“Lucky for me.” Grey tossed a few more rocks into the water, but none of them skipped decently.
“Shouldn’t you be happier after getting to play Lazarus?” He finally turned, glaring at her with angry eyes. Eyes that wanted to be left alone to brood. She knew them all too well. “Don’t you give me that look, David. You’ve been awake and able to walk about for almost a day, and you’ve avoided me an’ Willow like the plague. Neither of us is happy about it, but she doesn’t want to push you.”
“And you do?”
“It’s one of my best things, knowing when you need a push.”
“You need to talk to him, Will, and not through somebody else.”
“Pretty hard to do when he’s playing keep-away with himself, Buffy.”
She watched through Giles’ classroom window as Jess sat down with Grey at lakeside. They had agreed to let the Irish girl approach him first; she seemed to think that he was avoiding Willow because he didn’t want to hurt Jess until he could figure out how to explain things between them. Willow knew better. He was avoiding them both because now he could have Jess back and he didn’t know what he wanted. She said as much to Buffy.
“I thought he told you he loved you,” Buffy said, trying to keep her voice even. She was heavily worried that Grey would, in fact, walk away from Willow, and she didn’t know if her best friend could take the strain.
“He did. He does. Except he loves her more, I think. Plus, the weight of history isn’t exactly on my side, y’know?”
Grey watched Jess thoughtfully through hooded eyes, choosing his words with great care. He was not ready for this discussion, not by any stretch, but she deserved some sort of answer. “I have to say a lot of things to you, but I don’t know how. I thought it was best to …”
“Bollocks,” she broke in furiously. “We both know what you’re going to say and do, don’t we?”
“Maybe,” he lied cautiously. This was exactly the quagmire he had hoped to avoid.
“You do, too, you fuckin’ lunkhead. Sure and you haven’t decided I’m the stupid one?”
“Of course not.”
“You think I don’t know you love Willow? You think I can’t see it?”
“It’s not on hers, either. You’re the one who described to me, in detail, the scars that make his chest a checkerboard, remember?”
“I guess,” Willow replied, lacking the energy to argue. “Why can’t I just find somebody without so much messiness? I mean, yeah, okay, Oz, but Xander was still making me all tingly, and then Tara – oh, everything’s great until, by the way, Oz is back. Now this. Know what the worst part is?”
“I knew this would happen. Knew about it all year. Knew it when Tara came back, knew it at Christmas, and I knew it when I got involved with him. So it’s all my fault that I’m gonna be miserable without him.”
She looked like she might burst into tears at any moment.
“Oh, Will,” Buffy said, wrapping her arms around her friend and hugging her with all of the Slayer strength she could muster.
Grey’s mouth dropped open, aghast.
“Evil doesn’t mean blind, David. What I truly can’t figure is why you’ve been punishing all three of us for the last two days.”
“Punishing? What are you talking about?”
“You punish yourself by feeling guilty, and you go off an’ hide to avoid sayin’ stuff that’ll make it worse. You punish Willow by avoiding her, and she gets all weepy an’ scared that you don’t love her. You punish me by not just coming out with it when we both know the deal.”
“Tell me you aren’t in love with Willow, an’ that you’re comin’ back to me. Go on.”
He hesitantly met a gaze pregnant with unshed tears.
“I didn’t mean to be in love with her.”
One of the tears escaped, making a mad dash down her cheek.
“Doesn’t mean you aren’t.”
“I am. I want to be. I just didn’t want to say it or express it without telling you, and I wanted to tell you the way that would … I don’t know, that would hurt the least? Does that sound too ridiculous?”
“Makes no difference. Hurts the same however it comes, because the result’s still the same.” Jess sucked in a deep breath. “You’re with her an’ not me.”
“Yeah, I guess I am.”
“You guess?” Her accent got thicker as her anger grew. “You better not be fuckin’ leavin’ me for an ‘I guess,’ you bastard! It better be the great fuckin’ love of Western civilization if you’re leavin’ me!”
His eyes widened in surprise as he stammered out, “I-It’s not an I guess. It’s real. I love her so much. I …” He reached out and gripped her hand lightly, then bent over and pressed it to his forehead. “Jess, I’m so sorry. Can you forgive me?”
Willow and Buffy both saw him take her hand.
“We … we should leave them, Buffy,” Willow said, her voice cracking with pain. “This is a private moment. I don’t wanna intrude. I want him to be happy.”
“Will, do you really think …”
“They’re gonna kiss. Which, seeing that? Way high on my real-life nightmare list. I’m – I’ll be up on the roof if Giles or anyone comes looking.”
“Want some company?”
“No.” Her green eyes, rimmed with tears, swept Buffy’s pitying expression. “Thanks, but I think two people kinda ruin a good wallow, don’t you?”
“If that’s what you think,” Buffy said, watching Jess and Grey, “but I think you’re wrong. I think it’ll be okay.
Willow shook her head slowly as she left.
Besides, Buffy thought as Grey leaned over, that’s not a passionate reconciliation. That’s a goodbye.
Jess laid her other hand on the top of his head as his hot tears dripped across her knuckles. Part of her wanted to scream, to lash out and hurt him for having the temerity to do this to her. But the rest loved him still, and his happiness meant more to her than her own did.
“I know you are, hon. I know. It’s a’right.”
“It is?” The words came through muffled by her hand and a sniffle.
“I want you to be happy. Nothin’ else. If it’s with Willow, then it is. I won’t condemn you for it, not after … what I did.”
His head shot up and he gripped her shoulders.
“No. It’s not about that. I don’t blame you for that. Voldemort’s responsible. For all of it.”
“Fine, Grey, whatever …”
“No!” He shook her for emphasis. “That was him. Not you. You had no choice. This is not retribution for that. This is about me and about Willow and … oh, Jess. She’s so amazing. You don’t even know. And as hard and as bad as that must be to hear, it’s important. This is not because of what you did to me. That would be infinitely worse, and I won’t have you thinking it.”
Their eyes locked, and she saw how fiercely he believed this. She wanted to so badly, but she had done so many terrible things …
At that moment, he saw her pain laid bare and knew it would haunt her for the rest of her life.
“Jessica, listen to me. It was not you who did those things, no matter what it felt like. The woman who did them? I talked to her. I danced with her. I fought her. She was not you. She would have killed Willow before admitting I might be in love with her. You’re here to force me to go to her.” He pulled her into a hug, clutching the dark fabric of her robe in his hands as her head rested on his shoulder. “She hated me while she loved me, but she didn’t hate herself or what she did. You do. She just didn’t care – that’s what makes you different. Don’t let this drag you down; if you do, she wins anyway. And she’s very, very dead.”
Jess made no movement except to cry harder.
They sat like that for several long minutes, crying in each other’s arms, making their break with the past. High above, though she wasn’t watching, Willow cried with them.
“Grey,” Jess said finally, “I believe you that you don’t feel that way.”
“Maybe not in my heart,” she admitted, “but in my head, yeah, I do. I talked with Willow a little. I can see that it’d be about her.”
He nodded slowly.
“I’m leavin’ now.”
“Leaving?” Alarmed, he wiped his tears away and stood to block her path.
“Not leaving Hogwarts, you ninny. God, you’re so thick it scares me. I’m leaving here, ‘cos you need to talk to Willow.” His stomach clenched with guilt when he realized how much pain he must have caused Willow. “An’ be with Willow, and tell her what you just told me.” The rest of us need a solid cry, anyways.”
He looked at her with pitying eyes.
“None o’ that, now. We’re still partners an’ friends. Always that. Just not more.”
He nodded, knowing the words were burning her to say. He wanted to add that he’d always be there for her, but he didn’t have to. They both knew it.
“I want this for you, if it’ll make you happy, which I know it will.” She touched his shoulder and leaned in, her final kiss a whisper of grace on his lips. Then she brushed past him, and they were through.
Red hair flashed like a ribbon of fire as the setting sun bathed Willow with radiance. He tried to tread lightly, but the sound of her sniffling made him move too fast. When she heard him behind her, her whole body stiffened.
“Willow,” he said reverently. When he reached out to touch her, she jerked away.
“Don’t. Just … just say it and get out of here.” The face that turned to him looked ghastly, eyes red from crying, hair completely tangled, black robe wrinkled and hanging limply.
Grey felt two feet tall.
“Are you sure?”
She looked away and mumbled, “Yeah.”
“I guess the first thing is, I’m sorry …”
“You’re sorry? Sorry? You … you big jerk-person!” She spun fully around, tears coming again, her waving hands emphasizing each word. “How could you? You know me! You know how … how hard this stuff is for me, and you know how I feel about you, but does it matter? No!” One fist pounded his chest for emphasis. “No, Willow’s just a nice diversion while you’ve got no one else to do, o-o-or maybe it’s that you needed my help. Yeah! You needed my help to get your girlfriend back, and, ooh, what better way than to tempt me with your fake I-don’t-even-know what word I want to use there, but something grossly sexual, and now that she’s back, well, into the discard pile goes the ugly little redhead, a-a-and …”
She trailed off at the look of horror on his face, not even really knowing where her babble had gone.
“You think that little of me?” His voice was tiny. “How? Why?”
“I saw you with her down at the lake.”
“And how did that ever give you any of those ideas? Was it the part where I apologized and told her not to blame herself, or the part where we said goodbye?”
“Yeah. Goodbye.” When she didn’t speak, he continued, “You really think that I could fake any of that? That I thought you were ugly? How could I possibly think that? I’ve spent hours staring at you. I could do it forever. You’re so beautiful it scares me sometimes. And a fucking diversion? I’ve spent almost every waking hour with you for eight months. That’s a hell of a diversion, wouldn’t you say?” Willow turned red and let out a tiny half-gasp, embarrassed by her ranting. “I told you I loved you! Not out loud, sure, but you must have felt what was behind it! You think I could fake that?”
“Damn right!” Anger made his face as red as hers. “You know what she said to me, Willow? She said if I was leaving her, it better be for the great fucking love of Western Civilization. I don’t know if it is.” He grabbed her shoulders and pulled her face so close that his breath tickled her nose. “But it’s the best I ever want to do.”
Then Grey kissed her. Hard.
After the tiniest pause, she kissed him back until they were both gasping for air.
“I love you,” he said. “I haven’t had a single thought about you since you said that to me that didn’t begin with ‘Willow, who I love’. Not one.”
“But you–you ran away,” she said softly, totally overwhelmed by everything he was saying. “When you came back. You avoided me.”
“I wasn’t choosing between you two, though I guess it seemed like that. I’ve been all about Willow for awhile now. I just didn’t want to hurt her; she’s still my closest friend. But you … I love you more than I can say.”
The next kiss was soft, tender, and lingering.
“I love you, too,” she said through a sprinkling of tears. “I’m sorry I conclusion-jumped.”
“I’m sorry I was so stupid about this.”
Her eyes twinkled with mischief, and he knew everything would be just fine.
“It’s okay,” she said, a sly grin forming on her lips. “I’ll find some way for you to make it up to me.”
89: Of Cabbages and Kings
Harry and Ron, sauntering back from Tuesday dinner and anticipating an unfortunate amount of work, ducked behind the nearest corner when they saw the group of five storm into Dumbledore’s office.
“They’re not there, right?” Ron asked.
“In the library, I think,” Harry answered. His brow furrowed into a frown. “But they’ll find them right off.”
“Think anyone’ll get hurt?” They were here for Jess, Ron knew.
“Oh yeah. Those were Royal Guardsmen, couldn’t you tell? We better get help.”
They took off down the hall.
In better days, Dumbledore reflected morosely as he looked around the library, this would have been a staff meeting. Professors Giles and McGonagall sat at one end of a large worktable, flanked by Jess and Buffy. Spike, and Tara had seats in the middle of the table; Snape sat alone at the far end. But not now.
Now it’s a council of war.
As he often did, Dumbledore pushed aside the internal thunderclouds and gave the assembled group a hearty grin.
“Thank you all for coming. I know that putting the school back to some semblance of its usual order is a demanding task, and I apologize for distracting you from it, but I felt it imperative that we discuss where to go from here, both individually and as a collective.”
“Shouldn’t we wait for the others?”
“Others, Giles?” Buffy asked.
“Willow and Grey, perhaps.”
She responded by raising her eyebrows; Jess and Tara restrained a pair of smirks.
“Think they’re a bit busy, Rupert,” Spike said, expelling a small cloud of smoke from his dead lungs.
“Busy? What on Earth could be more important than …” Giles stopped, realizing what they were doing, and cleared his throat. “Oh dear. Yes, busy, of course. Best that we let them … erm … yes. Busy.”
Buffy chuckled and patted his arm.
“It’s okay, Giles. We know these things are hard for someone in your age bracket to understand.”
“Thank you, Buffy,” he said sarcastically.
“Ahem,” Dumbledore interjected, a smile hidden by his flowing beard. “Indeed. Now that we’ve resolved the issue of our absent compatriots, may we continue?” A chorus of nods circled the room. “Excellent.” He looked at Jess, eyes glimmering in the firelight. He chose not to comment on how haggard she appeared or on her red-rimmed eyes. “Let me say again, Jessica, how nice it is to have you back with us. And timely, I might add, at least for my sake.”
“You’re more than welcome, Professor. I’m just glad I had the chance.”
“You, and all of you,” he went on, gesturing to the group, “did magnificent work this weekend. Incomplete though the victory may seem, we have dealt Voldemort a major blow and unraveled a goodly portion of his plans. There is still much work to be done, of course, which is why I called you together.”
“He’ll be back,” Jess said, her voice heavy. “No doubt.”
“Tell me, Miss … Jess,” Giles corrected himself, “did he perhaps intimate to you anything about what his future plans might be? Anything, no matter how trivial it may seem, could be useful in planning our next moves.”
“I’m sorry, Giles. Not a thing. He’s maddeningly careful about security. I know he’s been in contact with some nasty groups in the demon and wizarding worlds, but specifics? Nothing. Truthfully,” she admitted, “I think he kept me out of it because he doubted my condition was stable.”
“You’d think he have the decency to act like any normal Bond villain,” Buffy said.
“Pretty much a guaranteed no there, hon. Not his way. No giant lasers or Russian satellite weapons for him, either.”
“No one has any style anymore. I mean, is one decent revealing monologue too much to ask for?”
The elderly wizard smiled again. “Yes, well, I suppose we’ll just have to wait for his monologue before we make any plans, then?” Buffy chuckled. She liked that Dumbledore never took things too seriously. “I, personally, would rather continue on. Miss Summers?”
“I don’t suppose we can convince you to stay on for the remainder of the term, can we? As an assistant to Professor Giles?”
Buffy shook her head sadly. “I’m sorry, Professor. This place is cool, but the Hellmouth kinda demands constant attention. It’s very needy that way. Plus I’ve left Xander with Dawn for too long already. I’m going back tomorrow night.”
“I figured as much, but I thought I might extend the offer nonetheless.”
“Well, thanks for the invite. But hey – all is not lost. Giles is having me do a little Slayer riff for the kids tomorrow. He’s going to do the ‘One Girl in All the World’ thingy too – he loves that.”
Giles gave her a small frown.
“That should be entertaining; I must come by and watch. Now, Jessica, I think…”
Before he could say more, the door to the library burst open and Cornelius Fudge stormed in. Sir Robert Grey entered a step behind with three more aurors at his heels. All three wore the red and blue of the Royal Guard. Everyone but the headmaster gaped in astonishment. Jess cringed and began reaching out for her magic.
“Good day, Minister, Robert,” Dumbledore looked more closely at the other aurors, “aah, Jaret, how nice to see you again.”
“Professor,” Jaret said, inclining his head.
“Yes, yes, no time for pleasantries, Albus. We’ve come to take them away, and don’t think you’ll be stopping us.”
“The O’Brien girl and the Rosenberg girl, of course! We’ll retrieve them from the dungeon and be done with it.”
Dumbledore looked perplexed. Giles looked shocked. Buffy looked like she might rip his head off and bowl it across the room. None of them moved, waiting for Fudge to react.
Fudge glanced around for the first time and saw Jess sitting at the table. He hopped backward, his fat body landing with an undignified thump on the wooden floor.
“YOU!” His shouting and pointing brought wands out from the three aurors; Jess ignored them. They weren’t the real threat.
Sir Robert Grey’s face was a mask of implacable rage. A sick feeling erupted in her stomach as she realized with absolute certainty that she was about to die.
“I’m sorry, young sir, but they are not to be disturbed,” Sir Cadogan told Harry as he came to the door. Ron had gone after Hermione and the other Gryffindors.
“It’s an emergency,” Harry said brusquely, banging on the door.
“HOW DARE YOU?” Cadogan shouted. “I’ll have your guts on my pike for this! I’ll MMMFFF…” The door swung open, muffling Cadogan’s epithets against the wall. Grey, shirtless and eyes aflame, stood in the doorway.
“What the hell is going on?” His cheeks were flushed and his head gleamed with sweat. “Harry, what are you doing? This,” he paused and leaned down to speak quietly, using the movement to block any view Harry might have of the room, “this is really not a good time.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt,” Harry said, blushing, “but it’s important.” He explained what he had seen. Grey’s icy calm demeanor returned in an instant, and he looked exactly as he had the day he broke Harry free from the Dursley's.
“You’re right. It is important. We’ll sort them out.”
The fury in Grey’s father’s eyes seemed alive, like it might grab Jess and throttle the life from her before his body could even move.
It didn’t, though. Leavin’ it for his body to finish, she thought, watching him draw his wand.
“You should know,” he said in a completely even voice, “that I intend to enjoy this. To make it last.”
Jess remembered the night in Cansbury, when Grey had kicked her ass and driven her to ground. He had loomed over her, a stark image of death in the bright moonlight.
His father had the same look on his face now as Grey had then.
She stumbled to her feet and backed up against the wall, recoiling from his menace.
“Please, I …”
“Don’t think I don’t know that you’re healed. I do.” He smiled evilly, something she had never seen him do before. She had seen it often enough with Grey, though. He was insane with rage. “I just don’t care.”
“That’s enough, Robert,” Dumbledore said, rising to his feet. His wand was out. “Leave her be. You don’t know everything.”
“Albus, this is not your concern,” Fudge broke in. “The Ministry has decided that Robert has the authority to proceed as he sees fit.” The other three aurors raised their wands. Fudge chose his next words carefully. “Do not interfere with the lawful execution of that decision.”
Buffy decided it was her turn to move. Sliding out of her chair, she rested one hand on the table and vaulted over it, interposing herself between the new arrivals and Jess.
“Back off, Tweedledum,” she growled at Fudge. He was very much reminding her of Quentin Travers at that moment; the same sort of mindless arrogance had almost cost her Angel, and the memory made her very, very cranky.
Spike quickly followed suit, standing and stepping in front of Jess as a bulwark against an attack; McGonagall rose, wand outstretched, and nodded to Tara, who hurriedly began preparing a defensive barrier. Giles took several steps in the opposite direction, hoping to discreetly recover the loaded crossbow that he kept hidden atop the stacks.
Robert Grey narrowed his eyes. Their interference made it harder, but so what? “She as good as killed my son, Albus,” he said. “If it takes a war with you to make her pay for it, than it does. As I said before, I’m beyond caring.”
“I-I didn’t. I wouldn’t,” Jess said. She slumped against the wall, assaulted by memories. I wanted to, she thought. I would have. Images of other victims flashed through her mind, some bent, others broken, all destroyed eventually. “Not him. But others,” she said, her voice strangely resigned, “yeah. Sure and I did enough of them. Whatever it is you want to do … I deserve it.”
Disbelief crossed the faces of her allies as she slid down the wall and onto the floor, curling herself into a tiny, teary ball.
“Your son is very much alive,” Dumbledore said quietly, watching Jess’ silent weeping. “Thanks to her, and her alone, I might add. As am I.” He turned his head and met the auror’s gaze. “Order of the Ministry or no, you will not harm that girl. She needs help, not punishment.”
“Help? A monster like that? Are you out of your mind, Dumbledore?”
“Be quiet, Cornelius,” Robert said, his voice thick with pain and power. To everyone’s surprise, Fudge’s open mouth clamped shut. “He’s alive?”
“Very much alive, as advertised, but also very much pissed off,” Grey said from behind him. The entire room turned and saw Grey, now wearing a blue t-shirt and wielding a broadsword, flanked by the rest of their group. Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and Neville all had their wands trained on the three Royal Guardsmen. Willow had her wand with her as well. She looked less than threatening in her pink flannel pajamas, but she was more than ready to cut loose if things got heavy. “You said you wouldn’t go after her.”
“You’re still defending her?”
“She defended us. And saved me.”
“She brought Voldemort and the Death Eaters here.”
“He was coming anyway. We fought them off, with her help. If she hadn’t come, we wouldn’t have been able to prepare at all. We would have been killed.”
“She tortured you.” Unlike his son, Robert was not ready to forgive that. “He … he nearly killed you.”
“It happens.” His steely brown eyes locked on his father. “You need to hear the whole story.”
“No,” Jess said from the wall. The focus of the room swung back around. “No, let them do it. I deserve it.”
Spike slapped her. Hard.
“You stupid nit. We spent a long time savin’ your arse this year. I spent weeks breathin’ that god-awful nancy-boy hair gel Peaches uses just to keep you from getting whacked. You think the Jedi over there’s gonna let us hand you over because you feel guilty? Not bloody likely.” Her eyes were wide above the red mark where Spike’s hand had landed. “Now sit still and let us handle these wankers.”
“Spike?” Grey said quietly. His voice echoed in a room devoid of other sound.
“I appreciate the help, but hit her again and you lose the arm.”
“Right,” he half-turned back to Jess and grumbled, “sorry.”
“This is the most absurd spectacle I have ever been a part of,” Fudge said. “You are all in very, very deep right now, do you hear me?”
No one paid him any attention.
Dumbledore and Robert were facing off, standing directly opposite one another with wands extended. Fudge might have been titularly in command, but their actions would dictate the outcome, and everyone, even Fudge himself, knew it. The tension was thick enough that you could have carved it up and served it for dinner. Jaret and his fellow aurors, who had seen Willow’s power first-hand and had seen the destruction Jess had wreaked at Cansbury, knew they probably couldn’t win.
“We can fight just as easily after you listen to them,” Dumbledore said, “but you won’t want to. I promise you that.”
Robert looked at his son, standing on the far side of the other aurors. He seemed a little disheveled but in good health. Willow, despite the reports they had received, was clearly on his side. He idly and irreverently wondered where they had been if everyone else was already here. Finally, he looked at Dumbledore. He had no illusions about whether his old Transfiguration teacher could best him in a duel. It would be more a matter of how long he could hold out than if he could win. What would be the point?
“I’ve known you for what, thirty years?”
“Closer to forty, sadly. We’re both rather old.”
“We are that.” His wand lowered slowly. “You’ve never lied to me before. I sincerely hope you aren’t now.”
Dumbledore smiled and clapped him on the shoulder. “As your son is standing behind you, you can see that I’m not.”
“This is preposterous!” Fudge shouted.
“Minister,” McGonagall said, “please. If Robert is willing to hear us out, shouldn’t you as well? It is, after all, his son who had supposedly been murdered.”
Fudge glanced around the room. Jaret and the others had holstered their wands, as had Harry and company. If he wanted a fight, it would be him and him alone.
“Very well. Go ahead.”
The explanation took a long time.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione were asked to stay in order to explain their roles. No one made any mention of Sirius, and Ron hedged a lot about why the Death Eaters had brought the kids to Snape. Everyone else explained their own parts in turn, giving way to others when the narrative shifted away from them. It was Spike who finished up.
“Then that bastard Voldemort did his invisibility mojo and Peaches took one in the groin. Not that it should have hurt,” he added under his breath, smirking when Buffy glared at him, “an’ they bolted off into the woods.”
“Oh my,” Fudge said. The message that Voldemort had returned, this time with legions of supporters, had finally sunk in. The tale had aspects of every major attack that Voldemort had ever undertaken, and the tellers obviously had not been bewitched into imagining his presence. As stubborn a blow-hard as Fudge may have been, he was no fool. The truth had humbled him. “I’ve been very wrong, haven’t I,” he said to Dumbledore when they were finished describing the spells that had brought Jess back.
“Yes, Cornelius,” the wizard said frankly, “you have.”
“What happened to you?” Robert asked his son. “Obviously, the Avada Kedavra spell didn’t kill you.”
“Merlin’s Salve,” Jess answered. They were the first words she had spoken in nearly an hour. “I know how to do it.”
“Thank you,” he said gravely. She nodded.
“Yes,” Fudge said to her, “You … you’ve done well. I’m quite sorry for … well, for the lot of it. I treated you rather shabbily, I suppose.” Even that grudging admission surprised Grey.
“You weren’t wrong about me, Minister,” she said. “I am responsible for some gruesome things, don’t you know. Much as some people might disagree,” she glanced at Grey, who watched impassively, “you probably did the right thing. I should be locked up.”
“You think so,” Grey said.
“We don’t. And you won’t be,” Willow added. Grey squeezed her hand.
“I’m afraid I have no choice in that matter,” Fudge said. “She is correct; she cannot be allowed to escape punishment.”
“Try it,” Grey said calmly. His sword came up from the floor in an instant.
“I don’t wish to fight you, Dave. I truly don’t. But the rather unpleasant fact is that she has admitted her role in the Cansbury attack. 400 dead, 22 of them aurors. I can’t turn a blind eye towards that, nor to the fifteen dead children in October. The people expect the Ministry to handle these matters.”
“B-but she was under a sp-spell,” Tara said. “She didn’t act out of her own free will.”
“You’re guilty for stuff you do if you’re mind-controlled here? Yikes. I’ll take the land of the free, thank you very much.”
“What, Giles? I’m just saying…”
“Is it public knowledge that she attacked Cansbury?” Robert asked.
“Not … not officially, no,” Fudge replied.
“And on Halloween, nobody really saw her except for us,” Harry chipped in. “Everybody else was too busy running for the door, and before that, she was in costume. They mostly saw those gnolls bashing people upside the head.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Fudge shook his head indignantly. “I must detain her.”
“Perhaps I might suggest a solution?” Dumbledore broke in, eyes twinkling. He laid out a plan that, as he spoke it aloud, sounded better and better. He so loved the opportunity to be devious. “What do you think?”
“That’s … that’s not possibly believable.”
“Come now, Cornelius, why not?”
“I like it,” Spike announced. “If they don’t buy it, sod ‘em.”
“D-definitely,” Tara agreed.
“I’d buy it,” Willow affirmed.
“The representative from California votes yay,” Buffy declared.
Grey gave Jess a hard look. “Yes.”
“Don’t you order me about, you bastard,” she said. She sounded on the brink of another crying jag. “It’s my life, and I’m tellin’ you that … that I need to pay for the stuff I did.”
“You misunderstand, Miss O’Brien,” Dumbledore responded. “By no means did I suggest that you be allowed to run free. I think something suitably creative might be in order, however.” He turned to Fudge. “You might leave her here, Minister, where I can closely watch her and oversee her rehabilitation. House arrest, if you will, though not publicly announced.”
“It wouldn’t be right,” she said again.
“I-it might be,” Tara said, walking over and laying her hands on the girl’s shoulders. She felt terribly bad for Jess, but also, with her loss of Grey and Tara’s loss of Willow, somehow close to her. “If you stay here and help train s-some other kids, you can make up for what you’ve done. A-and if Voldemort attacks, you can protect them. If they s-send you away, what good can you do?”
“Tara knows what she’s talking about,” Willow said. “Yeah, okay, I never killed people with my magic, and I didn’t do torture or anything either, but I did some pretty bad stuff. A-a-and this,” she waved her hands at Hogwarts in general, “this has totally helped me deal with it and figure out how to make up for it. I … I still don’t feel like I have, really, but I’m trying.” Grey wrapped his arm around her waist, and she leaned back into him with a soft sigh.
Jess looked expectantly at Fudge, hoping he would side with her. He stared at her for a long second, blinked, then spoke to Dumbledore.
“I don’t know, Albus.” He seemed to be searching for something to do with his hands, and settled on twisting the loose fabric of his robe in them. “Politically, this has the makings of a disaster.”
“It could be that, or potentially it could be a beautiful coup. And is the politics so important?”
Fudge raised an eyebrow, as if to say, Are you daft? “I still believe I have given you entirely too much free rein here. In the future, I expect you to follow my guidance. Especially with the crisis at hand.”
“As I have said before, Minister, we are on the same side. I will continue to work towards ending it, as I have done before. Especially with the crisis at hand.”
“Very well.” He turned back to Jess, knowing he would have to deal with Dumbledore at a later time. “Young lady, you will be held here, by my authority, until such time as the Ministry sees fit to release you from house arrest. Should you say anything at any time about your role in the events of the past year, I expect you to adhere to the version we have just discussed. Failure to do so will bring about the most harsh consequences imaginable. Am I clear?”
Uncertainty marred Jess’ face. She knew she shouldn’t get off this easily, but what choice did she really have? And Tara was right. Here she could atone for what she’d done, rather than rot away in Azkaban wallowing in guilt.
“Well, I suppose that settles things, does it not?” Dumbledore asked.
“Hmmph … yes,” Fudge replied. “Though I’m not entirely comfortable with it.” He stood from his chair and motioned to the aurors to do the same. “Albus, can you make your way to the Ministry next Thursday? I believe we should discuss all of this … disturbing information in greater depth.”
“Of course, Minister.”
“I’m going to stay for a bit, Cornelius,” he said, eyeing his son. “Some matters I need to settle.” Grey nodded; he knew a long talk would be in order, though it would thankfully be easier than the last one.
“I see.” Fudge glanced around at the rest of the room. “Good day to you all.” He departed, the aurors following closely.
When they were gone, Buffy broke the silence.
“Well, that was the most fun you can have without really having any.”
The Daily Prophet
June 7, 2003
Ministry of Magic Decries Death Eater Resurgence
Warns Conflict Likely to Widen
(London, UK) – In a startling reversal, Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge revealed today that despite its oft-emphasized public stance to the contrary, the Ministry has been aware of the return of the Death Eaters for more than a year.
“Of course we knew,” Mr. Fudge told Daily Prophet reporters Andrew Stoneleigh and Sarah Rothschild in an exclusive interview. “Did you people honestly believe that we would not? We are doing everything in our power to stop it from becoming worse.”
When the Daily Prophet initially speculated about widespread sightings of the Dark Mark, Ministry officials suggested that such occurrences were misinformation or “fairy tales.” Raids on Ministry institutions, including the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and the Refuge for Unusual Wildlife, were dismissed at the time as isolated incidents.
Mr. Fudge asserted today that both were part of an orchestrated campaign of violence by a group modeled after You Know Who’s Death Eaters.
“We believe that they have taken up the symbols of previous malefactors in order to inspire a greater degree of fear in the populace at large,” Mr. Fudge said. “We would like to stress that the Ministry is very aware of their activities and has taken all appropriate measures to halt them.”
Mr. Fudge further explained that Ministry denial of the issue encouraged these current malefactors to expose themselves rashly. “By denying their existence, the Ministry and its aurors were able to work against them more effectively,” he added. “We instituted a number of deterrents, without which these attacks would have been ghastly in their scope.”
When asked if 400 dead in Cansbury was not ghastly, the Minister had no comment.
While Mr. Fudge would not provide specific details of auror operations against the new Death Eaters, the Daily Prophet has confirmed independently the existence of at least two such operations. According to Daily Prophet sources, Jessica O’Brien, an auror and graduate of Hogwarts (Gryffindor ’98), was placed undercover within the Death Eater ranks. Miss O’Brien had reportedly been relieved of duty more than a year ago, along with her partner, David Grey, after an undisclosed incident between the pair and Mr. Fudge.
Mr. Fudge now claims no such incident occurred. “Nonsense. Though they resigned last year, Jess and Grey remain respected members of the auror community.” He went on to imply that the Daily Prophet misrepresented the facts at the time. “We had a difference of opinion. It was never more serious than that.”
A Daily Prophet source with access to the upper echelons of the Ministry indicated that in fact their departure occurred only as a cover for their true activities. Miss O’Brien, our source claims, went undercover with the Death Eaters after her departure. Ministry gossip suggests that her assignment to flush out Death Eater schemes was a total success and “thousands of lives were saved,” according to another source. Miss O’Brien is currently convalescing from her ordeal under the supervision of Albus Dumbledore.
Mr. Grey, who like Miss O’Brien did not return owls seeking comment, is the son of the esteemed auror Sir Robert Grey. He has spent the past year at Hogwarts as the Deputy Head of Gryffindor house. The Daily Prophet has learned that he was actually employed as additional security for the school, and in fact worked with Miss O’Brien to foil the brunt of the Death Eater assault on Cansbury and each of the assaults on school grounds.
Mr. Fudge had no comment about their activities except to affirm that neither was currently in the employ of the Ministry.
90: Here Endeth the Lesson
Giant crimson canvasses adorned with golden lions swathed the walls and tables of the dining hall. Every plate was full of delicious treats and the air rattled with the sound of joyous laughter and banging cutlery. At the head table, Grey and McGonagall had each donned maroon dress robes trimmed in gold; Willow and Tara followed suit. Near Spike’s chair, Sirius lay in dog form, watching the festivities. A red and gold ribbon had been tied around his leg.
The final banquet of the year was in full swing.
“… Still can’t believe you guys did that,” Ginny said to Harry over the din. “I’ve never seen anybody play like that.”
“Don’t give me credit for it. Your brother came up with it; I just chased the Snitch down.”
“A helluva job, that,” Ron added. “And in the first playoff game ever, too.”
“But it was, ‘Mione. Harry ran the thing down like nobody’s business.”
“’Course,” Harry said, “you hadn’t set that pick on Malfoy, I’d have been beaten for sure.”
“Can you lot just admit you play well together and stop with the goin’ on,” George said from several seats away. “Been hearin’ this for a week.”
“Aw, you’re just bitter ‘cos we’ve got more Quidditch to play and you’re all old an’ done,” Ron retorted.
Fred and George both glared at him with sour faces.
“So,” Willow said, leaning over, her voice slightly anxious, “you still haven’t told me what you’re doing for the summer.”
Grey smiled. He hadn’t meant to keep it secret, but he had been waiting for her to ask. “I hear California’s pretty nice. If only I knew somebody to stay with … Hey! You’re from there, right? I could stay with you!” She punched him on the arm. “What was that for?”
“You didn’t tell me you were coming back to Sunnydale with me.”
“Guess not. Must’ve, I dunno, wanted to surprise you or something. Besides, what else would I do? My grand quest is over. I’m a free man.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Grrr. I was all nervous about what you were doing. You’re gonna pay for that, mister.”
Giles watched as Grey kissed her lightly on the mouth, a small smile on his face.
“I suppose this has worked out for the best, hasn’t it? They go quite well together.”
“I agree, Minerva. I most certainly agree.”
“Tell me Rupert,” she said, having overheard Willow and Grey, “what are your summer plans?”
“Undecided, as of yet. I should think I’ll make at least one trip to Sunnydale, strictly in a visiting capacity, but otherwise I intend to relax a bit. I’ve given some thought to re-reading some literature that I haven’t read in ages. The other day Willow returned my copy of Pride and Prejudice, which seems as good a place to start as any. Yourself?”
“I have an assignment from Albus that I could use some help with. I think it might be something that requires your deft research touch.”
“I do appreciate the compliment, but would you mind telling me what we’d be looking for before I sign my summer away?”
McGonagall offered a pinch smile. “You Know Who has his allies. He’s been recruiting them from all over. Albus thought it might be useful to find some of our own, and I want to know where to look. Interested?”
“H-hey,” Tara said. The evening was warm, and the light breeze ruffled her hair. “N-n-not hungry?”
“Not much, no,” Jess replied. She had her back resting against one of the walls facing the courtyard and her robes tucked under her legs. “You?”
“Finished already. I th-thought you might feel like talking.”
“Not just now. But thanks.”
They waded through a few minutes of awkward silence before it got to be too much and Jess spoke again.
“So you headed back to the States for the holiday?”
“Uh uh. I’m staying here this summer.”
“Really?” Jess canted her head. “God, girl, why are you doin’ that?”
“Remember a few weeks ago? Wh-when my eyes went all white?” Jess nodded. “I want to know why. And maybe more about what happened when we did that spell on the grass? Why it worked so well? Professor Dumbledore said he’d help me figure it out.”
“Huh,” she said thoughtfully. Jess was curious about that as well. “Y’know, with you an’ me an’ Willow, pretty soon it’s not gonna be Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It’ll be the Albus Dumbledore Center for the Rehabilitation of the Magically Bent.”
“Speakin’ of things we can’t believe,” Ron said to Harry and Ginny, “how ‘bout ‘Mione’s O.W.L.’s?” A small round of applause went up from the others.
Hermione blushed as Ron’s hand caressed her back. “Oh come on, it isn’t such a big deal.”
“Not a big deal?” Ron’s voice overflowed with pride. “Are you kidding? I don’t think you could possibly have gotten more.”
“Not in the time she had,” Harry said, tongue-in-cheek. The irony of Ron’s pride in his girlfriend’s know-it-all status never failed to amuse Harry. “Really, Hermione, it’s great.”
“You guys did well, too.”
“We survived. I’ll take that. Even with Snape.”
“I sort of think Tara helped with that, Ron.” The older witch had hinted to Neville that she had held Snape off of failing them all. “But it’s a good thing, sure. Hey, d’you guys have plans for the summer yet?”
“It’s the Dursley's for me.” Harry’s eyes fell.
“Don’t worry, Harry. If you’re not at the train this fall, we’ll come straight away.”
Hermione grimaced, but nodded her agreement, as did Ginny and Neville.
“My mum said you could come stay with us for the last few weeks,” Ginny said through a smile, which Harry then returned. “I think I’ll be getting a talk before it though.” Ron blanched; Ginny smiled innocently at him. “Don’t know why.”
“My parents are taking me to America for a week, right before the start of school. They want us to go to Diagon Alley with your parents again afterwards, though, Ron. Will that be okay?”
Ron nodded, happy to have the subject changed. “Sure. Gotta go anyway. Harry? Neville?”
“If I’m out at your place anyway, why not?”
“Sure, I can do that.”
At the dais, Spike watched the rejoicing throng blankly, his mind adrift with thoughts of Buffy.
“So you’re not riding the Willow express home?” Buffy had asked right before her departure for Sunnydale weeks before. She was unable to keep all of the hope from her voice. “Okay, that sounded bad. But you know what I mean.”
He had looked her over, soaking in the gorgeous sight of her under the waning moonlight. They had been dancing around each other for days, neither asking any serious questions nor wanting any serious answers.
“No, I haven’t changed my mind in the last two days, Slayer.”
“Got some things to take care of, pet.” Smoke from his cigarette curled between them, the haze blurring the sharp lines of her face. He stamped it out, wanting to see her clearly. “Got some things to take care of,” he muttered again.
“So that’s it? You’re just gone, off to who knows where?”
“I’ll be back, Slayer. Jus’ not for a bit is all.”
She hadn’t liked that much, he remembered, but hadn’t stormed off, either. They had just sort of … drifted into a goodbye that wasn’t final or fleeting. It certainly wasn’t satisfying. But he had been right. He had things to take care of.
Good a time as any, he thought, rising from the table.
He stepped off the dais and strode down the center aisle. With his black duster streaming behind, he attracted a fair amount of attention as he passed. He paused next to Neville.
“’Ey, Boy Wonder.”
“Listen, I’m takin’ off. Got things ta do. You all square with what you need to practice?” He nodded. “Right then. You take care.” He turned to go, but Neville’s voice spun him back for a brief second.
“You’re welcome.” Spike whisked himself out of the hall.
Grey and Sirius caught up with him in his dungeon.
“You’re leaving tonight?” Sirius asked.
“Have to. They gotta get the train back for the little kiddies in the morning. Too much sun’s bad for my skin, y’know?”
“Dunno, Jedi. Thinkin’ maybe I’ll start in Cairo. Heard about this guy, demon fella in Africa, supposedly does miracles for the right price. Thought I might hunt him down.”
“If that doesn’t pan out?”
“Guess I’ll find somethin’ else,” Spike replied, thinking of the Don’s offer. “Tryin’ to get the best deal I can.”
“Makes sense.” Grey extended his hand; surprised, Spike shook it. “Good luck.”
“Thanks, mate. ‘Preciate it.” Grey nodded and left, knowing Sirius wanted to speak with Spike alone.
“So you’re off to see the wizard,” Sirius said once Grey had gone.
“Thought you didn’t know about movies?”
“I heard Willow say it to Grey the other day. I don’t know what it means.”
Spike thought about explaining, but didn’t bother. “Yeah. I’m off.”
“You really think you can find a soul?”
“How’d you know?”
“Dumbledore told me, asked me if I had heard of anything that might help.”
“Great man, Dumbledore. Offered to help, but didn’t know much useful.”
“I don’t either. I’m sorry.”
“Are ya, then, Puddles?”
“I’m hoping a soul will make you less annoying.”
“Fat chance o’that.”
“I suppose not.” Sirius reached into the pocket of his robe and clutched something in his fist. “I’ve been thinking about L.A. What the Don said to you, and that Cassandra woman. Prince of Lust?” Spike nodded. “Ups the ante right quick, doesn’t it? That plus Buffy means you’ve got a lot at stake here. No pun intended.”
“What of it?”
“Unfortunately, in spite of the fact that you’re a pillock, I’d rather not see you miss out on that stuff.” His fingers unfurled, revealing a small metal talisman on a short chain. “If you’re dust, I’ve got no one to pub crawl with but Hagrid, and I can’t keep up with him.” He looked the vampire straight in the eye. “You need help, give me a shout. I’ll be around.”
Spike took the talisman; he had no idea what to say.
“You’re welcome,” Sirius said as the door closed behind him.
From the hill next to the Quidditch pitch, Grey and Willow watched Spike board the train. With the station so empty, it looked like a scene from a ghost town in an old western.
“It’s … he looks so lonely,” Willow said. She burrowed deeper into Grey’s arms; he brushed the hair off her neck and kissed it softly.
“He’ll get his happy ending, Will.”
“What if he doesn’t?”
“You care that much?”
“You sound so surprised. I like Spike. He’s not like anybody else I’ve ever met. And he’s … well, he’s one of the gang, now. I worry about them. Plus, Buffy’s really in love with him, I think. I’m gonna haveta get her to spill when we get back to Sunnydale.”
“She’ll tell you. Ply her with ice cream.” Willow giggled, knowing it would work. “I like him, too. If he doesn’t get his happy ending, we’ll get it for him.”
“Good.” She turned her head, looking up into his dark brown eyes. He kissed her forehead.
“Did I mention that I’m really in love with you?”
She feigned shock. “You are?”
“I am.” He kissed her neck again, rocking her back and forth in his arms. “Really a lot.”
“This year was kinda crazy, huh?”
“Very crazy. Worked out though, didn’t it?”
“Well, sure it did, ‘cuz, you know, we stopped the Big Bad and saved your friend, and we fixed things with me and Tara, which was so good. I never thought we’d do it.”
“Plus, I got the girl.”
“Plus, you got the girl.” She kissed him lightly with her smile. “And Spike and Buffy are at least closer to fixing their mess, and I made all those new friends, and we helped the kids get together, and now I can control my magic better so I’m not as afraid of evil Willow appearing, though I kinda still am, but …”
He cut her off with a finger to her lips.
“Oh! Sorry! I hate when …”
“I love it.”
“You do?” She smiled shyly. “What about me? Do you love me?”
“You know I do. Now shut up and kiss me again.”
So she did.
[If you’re wondering, yes, there will be a sequel. It’s called A Dark and Deadly Valley and I’m working on it. Thanks for reading this far! -40]