by SRoni and Aadler
Copyright June 2006 (SRoni)
Revised for collaboration May 2009 (Aadler)
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
Her dreams had always been vivid, but she had never allowed herself to be bothered by them. Even as a child, she had been far too pragmatic for fantasy to get much of a grip on her. By the time she had turned thirteen, in fact, she had developed a series of checks by which she could, while dreaming, ascertain whether or not she was in a dream.
Public nudity was most obvious tip-off. You never simply went out naked; no, you always discovered, to your own mortified bewilderment, that you had somehow neglected to get dressed. Please: in what bizarro universe did Cordelia Chase ever forget about clothes? That would be like forgetting to breathe. So, first check: naked in public, it’s a dream.
Almost as obvious was flying. It was fairly simple to remember that, Oh, right, I can’t really fly when I’m awake. The dream mind had its own dodges, however, always trying to convince her that the little tricks she had developed — compressing the air under her feet so she could walk up invisible steps, extending a jump so that she just never quite came down, holding position two to six inches above the ground while she glided down a slope — weren’t really flying even though they might look like it to the uninitiated. It required time and concentration to remember that these counted, too, but eventually she had it down: gravity doesn’t hold me, it’s a dream.
As her sleeping imagination became more devious, she learned to watch for colors. That never really worked well, though; she dreamed in black-and-white, as most people do, but whenever she tried within a dream to see if it was black-and-white, her mind immediately showed her vibrant colors, gold and sapphire and scarlet. If she was particularly alert, she might notice the shades of gray before her subconscious could leap in to fool her, but this was unreliable.
The trump card, though, the one that never failed: if there’s any doubt, try to read something. She’d seen that on television once, something about the physical structure of the brain making it impossible for a person to read in dreams, and it turned out to be true. She was iron-clad protected, then: any time there was the least question, any time a dream threatened to disturb her, she would haul out her day planner and check the previous week’s entries. Then, the matter settled, she could decide for herself whether to wake up, continue the dream without letting it matter, or turn it into something else. As with all other things in her life — and exactly as it should be — she was impervious, untouchable, exempt from ordinary limits.
And then, guess what? it turned out that Slayer dreams followed a different set of rules.
Yeah. Big shock. Color her surprised.
* * *
She came awake, heart racing, clutching at her bed with a force that threatened to drive her fingers through the mattress ticking. Sweat clung to her in a slick sheen, and there was a nasty taste in her mouth. The dream had been typical of her recent nightly fare: lives she hadn’t been able to save, threats she couldn’t ever come to grips with … same-old same-old, nothing she hadn’t seen many times before. Familiarity provided no protection, however; no matter how often she faced the same scenarios, they always got inside her defenses, and there didn’t seem to be any way she could prevent it.
She swung her feet to the floor, stood. At least she could do something about the foul taste that coated her tongue.
Her purpose was firm, but her attention still wasn’t focused; the door she chose took her to Miss Calendar’s classroom instead of to her bathroom. Cordelia slid into her accustomed seat (mouthwash would have to wait, you didn’t want to be late to one of Miss C’s classes because the lady was a fiend for surprise quizzes), and took a look at the board. Nothing there, which was a good sign, and — another plus — Miss C didn’t seem to be in any kind of hurry; she sat chained in the witness box, staring at the blackboard as if oblivious to her students.
Cordelia wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do in the courtroom — she didn’t even know who was holding the trial, Jenny Calendar had a lot to answer for but none of it had broken any actual laws — but the popcorn was hot and the cappuccino fresh-brewed, so she settled in to watch the proceedings. The lights dimmed, though the courtroom didn’t get any darker, and the test pattern on the blackboard dissolved and did a fade-in to … Giles’ living room?
“Every night,” the shackled Jenny Calendar said in the monotone of one too weary for emotion. “This same scene plays out every single night. It never comes out right, but I can’t change the script. Destiny doesn’t allow rewrites …” Her eyes caught Cordelia’s in a quick, piercing glance. “But sometimes you can edit.”
Cordelia felt a stab of guilt. While she wasn’t, was not, responsible for what had happened to the woman, there was no denying that the consequences had descended from some of her choices. More than that, when Jenny died the state of things between them had still been ugly … which was totally merited, but it hadn’t been supposed to last until death. And what she heard in the woman’s voice — despair, hopelessness, a deadness of the spirit — made her feel cold inside.
In the tableau on the courtroom screen, a different, living, moving, feeling Jenny Calendar was at the computer desk she had installed in Giles’ apartment.
(Hadn’t been any harsh words over that, nuh-uh. Your sweetie gives you a false name and personal history, spies on your Slayer — your sacred trust! — and withholds vital information that only incidentally contributes to turning one of your staunchest allies into a carefree mass murderer? No prob, invite her to move in with you. While you’re going giddy with unwedded bliss, said Slayer will be over here banging her head against a tree until the damn tree breaks. See? no bitterness at all.)
The duplicate Jenny stared, rapt, at the characters that spooled across the computer monitor, nodding now and then while her lips moved soundlessly. Then the monitor settled into a pattern of columns, and the other Jenny leaned forward, her fingers tightening on the computer mouse. “This will work,” she breathed. “This will work. Yes!” She did a celebratory arm-pump, and then, compulsive techno-nerd that she was, saved the file, first to the hard disk and then to a floppy.
She had just ejected the floppy, and was reaching for a disk-storage box, when someone knocked at the door. Jenny got up and started across the room; then, seeing that she was still holding the floppy, she dropped it into a pocket of the open sweater she wore without breaking stride.
Two people were at the door. One, a teenager with a fresh eruption of pimples, began babbling something about a car wreck just down the block, his mother was unconscious, he didn’t have a phone … Cordelia caught the basic theme, but she wasn’t actually listening, her attention riveted on the second person outside the door. Hanging back, staying in the shadows, not speaking … even though Jenny had never seen Drusilla, she’d certainly be alerted by someone speaking in an accent that predated Cockney, but the deadly vampiress kept still and quiet, biding her time with predatory slyness. It may even have been that the not-quite-there quality in her eyes came across as post-accident shock, lending support to the boy’s story.
Cordelia tried to shout a warning. No use. Her throat wouldn’t work, and besides, people in movies never listen no matter how loud you yell. The on-screen Jenny was no novice — she’d carried her weight a few times with the other Slay Friends, she understood life on a Hellmouth — but neither was she truly on her guard. Though she automatically avoided inviting the pair inside, she let herself stand too close while listening to the boy. Dreamily and indifferently, Drusilla unwound the sash that cinched her dress at the waist … and then, without warning, she stepped forward and flipped the sash across the threshold in an open loop. It fell behind Jenny’s neck, a hard yank brought the woman stumbling forward, and cold slender fingers fastened on her wrist before she could draw back again.
“You have designs on my Angel,” Drusilla purred to her captive. “Wish to saddle him again, bring him to heel like a puppy. Horrid presumption, and not to be countenanced.” Her grip turned and tightened, and color drained from Jenny’s face. “It is not proper that we should stand talking on the stoop, like tradesmen,” Drusilla observed with that mad, empty smile. “Invite us in for the festivities, why don’t you?”
Jenny’s mouth worked — the pain in her wrist must have been awful — but when she spoke at last, it was only a whispered, “No.”
Drusilla broke one of Jenny’s fingers as incuriously as if flicking away a buzzing insect. Jenny’s knees almost buckled, but she shook her head. “No,” she said again.
“So tedious,” Drusilla sighed, and tugged at the captured wrist. Jenny tried to resist, but it was like fighting a cable winch; inexorably she was dragged over the threshold, and Drusilla’s pimple-spattered henchman grabbed Jenny from behind, locking her in place.
“Now,” Drusilla mused. “What shall we talk about first?”
Jenny opened her mouth to scream, perhaps hoping for help or at least attention from the neighbors, but the vampire teenager slapped his hand over it. She fought, twisting and writhing, and Drusilla watched with the amused interest of a child. The boy laughed … and then tore his hand away with a yelp, fingers streaming blood where Jenny had done her level best to bite them off. He drew back a fist, then halted as Drusilla raised her hand in a peremptory gesture. “Kittens break if you handle them too roughly,” she cautioned. “And we’re not done with this kitten yet, are we?” The boy lowered his hand, and Drusilla continued to Jenny in a confidential tone: “We need to be invited in, you see. We’ve much to learn from your busy little brain, but we also must be sure you’ve left no naughty messages.” Her eyes locked with Jenny’s, and she raised her other hand to rest it on her victim’s head. “Invite us inside,” she breathed, sing-song. “Step back across the threshold and give the invitation. And then we shall have, oh! such games! —”
Jenny tore her gaze away, and shook her head again, hard. “Go to hell,” she gasped.
The shackled Jenny looked over at Cordelia. “She thought she could hypnotize me. Please. My clan mastered mind games long before Angelus created her.”
“Perhaps I shall,” Drusilla murmured, blood-colored fingernails stark against the smooth skin of Jenny’s neck and wrist. “It waits for me, sometimes it calls so sweetly … or perhaps I shall bring it here, instead.” Briskly she broke three more of Jenny’s fingers, and Jenny’s mouth opened in a soundless cry of pain. “You are shockingly neglectful of your guests. We place ourselves under your hospitality, and you deny it to us.” Her voice became even more soft, caressing, terrible as she trailed her fingernails down Jenny’s face, alongside her eye and down her cheek and across her throat. “Give us an invitation.”
By now, Jenny was herself as pale as the mad vampiress, and probably would have fallen if the other two hadn’t been supporting her. Even so, she hadn’t lost her steel. “Never,” she said. “I’ll never ask you inside.” And then she began to speak quickly, in a tongue Cordelia didn’t recognize; not Latin, Cordelia had heard enough of that to recognize if not understand it, and from the speed and fluency of Jenny’s speech, it must be some Romany dialect.
“None of that,” Drusilla told her sternly, and rocked the other woman’s head back with a slap that probably would have broken her jaw if delivered from a different angle. “This is very awkward,” she observed to her pimply companion. “But a lady knows how to bear up under difficult circumstances. If we cannot enter, as this dreary creature is determined we shan’t, then we shall have to make do as best we can.” While speaking, she had taken Jenny’s other hand and begun snapping those fingers as well. Jenny jerked and moaned, but was still too stunned to scream.
The boy’s demon-face had come out when Jenny bit him, and now he studied her, and the apartment through the open door, with pitiless amber eyes. “We could burn the whole place,” he offered. “Then it wouldn’t matter what she had inside —”
Drusilla froze him with a withering look. “We do not do fire,” she reproached. “Still … that dreadful contrivance, on the desk there —” She pointed. “Be a love, would you?”
The other vampire grinned, looked around, and picked up one of the decorative stones that bordered the sidewalk. He hefted it, tossed it up once and caught it, then whipped his arm forward. Inside the apartment, the CPU of Jenny’s computer cracked open from the force of the missile; another stone, seconds later, shattered the hard disk array. “Think that’ll do it?” he asked, smiling.
Drusilla clapped her hands, delighted. “Crash and bombards! Bang goes the drum, the horses bring fresh loads and charges —” She stopped, looked to Jenny, still locked in her minion’s grip. “Forgot you. Voices jangle, all is confusion, it made me forget you. That won’t do, no, not at all.”
She pulled the sweater from her victim and tossed it away (it landed inside the apartment, Cordelia noted, falling half inside the umbrella stand by the door). Then she drew her thumbnail the length of Jenny’s inner arm, from just above the elbow clear down to the wrist, opening the flesh as cleanly as with a scalpel. Jenny didn’t even seem to feel it, but the minion snarled automatically at the sight of the surging blood. Drusilla ignored him, and shifted to slice open Jenny’s other arm; then, dropping to one knee for better access, she repeated the process on the woman’s inner thighs.
“The Watcher so loves things tidy,” she announced, though it was anybody’s guess whether she was speaking to herself, her flunky, or invisible hummingbirds. “He shan’t be happy with this mess, not one bit.”
“Aw, man,” the boy complained. “Do we have to let all that good stuff go to waste?”
“Drink if you wish,” she answered brusquely. “But bite inside one of the wounds.”
“Huh?” He tilted his head, frowning puzzlement. “Why?”
“Symmetry,” Drusilla said. “Destiny. I know it, even if she doesn’t. Our little secret, shh, shh! A loose tongue is a careless servant. Best hurry,” she added, suddenly matter-of-fact. “She has little blood remaining.”
The minion bent eagerly to his meal, sinking his teeth into the deepest part of the gash on Jenny’s right arm. Drusilla watched with satisfaction as life drained from the semi-conscious woman, hastened by the minion’s feeding. As the blood flow slowed and faded, she bent to take hold of Jenny’s head. “Sleep tight,” she said … then snapped the other woman’s neck with a negligent twist of her hands, adding, “And long.”
The boy detached from Jenny’s arm, stood up. Clearly disgruntled, he said, “I wasn’t finished.”
“Not yet,” Drusilla observed. “But your end has been marked.” He stared at her, uncomprehending, and she went on with serene assurance. “Leave that as it lies. The bookkeeper will be home soon, and we don’t wish to distract him from the welcome we’ve prepared. So much, we have so much to do before the fiddler calls the change —!”
She strolled away, still speaking that mish-mash of Regency platitudes, stark lunacy, and gleeful malice. The minion followed, using his sleeve to wipe blood from his mouth. And the scene faded from the courtroom screen.
I’m sorry, Cordelia tried to say. You hurt me, and I wanted you to pay, but not like that. She still had no voice, but apparently the effort was enough. “Not your fault,” the chained Jenny told her. “I’ve tried a lot of different things, looking for a way out, even gone scrying into alternate realities. So far, every one I’ve seen, I die right after deciphering the spell.” She sighed, shook her head in vexation. “But why does it always have to be the neck?”
Cordelia found her eyes drawn to the ornate pendant cross that Jenny wore on a chain. I thought you were a pagan, she ‘said’. Have a change of heart in the afterlife?
Jenny’s expression clouded. “There have been a lot of changes. Some of them are none of your business.” Her gaze was bleak. “You need to focus on what matters, let the rest go. Remember, curiosity killed the cat.”
Yeah, right, Cordelia answered. People always forget the rest of that saying: Satisfaction brought him back.
“Trust me,” Jenny said. “It takes a lot more than just satisfaction.”
The courtroom walls opened behind the shackled woman, and the witness box — with her still in it — retreated back into the darkness as if on a wheeled track. Unwilling to let her have the exit line, Cordelia called irritably after her: “Next time, try for some cryptic, why don’t you?”
The walls closed. The blackboard held a single word in eight-inch letters: ACUL. The now-empty courtroom echoed with hollow, ghostly laughter —
— except that it wasn’t ghostly, and suddenly there was sunlight streaming through windows that hadn’t been there before. Cordelia sat up straight at her desk; she was in class, Mr Whitmore was staring at her with his mouth open, the other students were still laughing, and Cordelia could feel on her lips that she’d said the last bit aloud.
Great. So now even daytime wasn’t safe.
And she still had that taste in her mouth.
Slayers needed very little sleep (useful, when you had to work nights and act normal by day), but Cordelia was barely sleeping at all now. Part of that derived from guilt and frustration, and part from new purpose, but mostly it was because those heinous dreams kept coming. Every. Single. Night.
Individually, they were no biggie. In the aggregate, they were becoming intolerable. She’d heard Buffy mention Slayer dreams — annoying, sometimes useful, but blessedly infrequent — before Cordelia had succeeded her as Slayer. She’d never had any such, though, not in that entire first year after somehow drawing Buffy’s power into herself. Not, in fact, until Buffy had been claimed by the coma that still held her.
Actually, not until Cordelia’s return from the alternate universe ‘future’ where she’d had to fight alongside (and sometimes against) three other Slayers. One of whom had been a different version of Buffy.
In many ways, that had been a welcome break. Getting away from her own problems for awhile, battling things that were simply enemies, and not former lovers or reminders of past failures … Three things, however, had kept her from enjoying the respite.
First was the nagging question of whether or not she would be able to return home. She had obligations, things she had to do, and she couldn’t meet them or even try to do so if she was stuck in a whole different Star Trek “Mirror, Mirror” universe.
Second, the alternate Buffy … and, even more, the equally alternate Joyce, but they were both part of the same thing. Seeing Buffy (even a different one) walking around again, awake and active but also scarred and cold, had underscored Cordelia’s sense of failure where All Things Buffy were concerned. Likewise, Joyce the Slayer hadn’t been remotely like the grieving woman Cordelia did her best to avoid (while despising herself for her cowardice), but she had visibly been just as shattered as the ‘real’ Joyce by the loss of her daughter, even if she had hammered that bereavement into a killing resolve. It had taken ghastly effort to keep from breaking down in the woman’s presence … or for that matter, to deal with her at all. In reaction, she’d been snarkier to both of them than was truly justified, just to maintain any kind of control.
Even the memory was enough to make her hands itch for a stake and a clear shot at the bastard. It wouldn’t have made any difference, she still would have been faced with the task of dusting the Bleached Wonder of her own reality, but where was the downside in getting to kill him twice? Instead, she’d been forced to let him go … and, if the stuttering blonde witch had been telling the truth about him being one of the ‘good guys’ in that timeline, that only made it more galling somehow. Spike the killer she would happily kill in his turn; Spike the hero (assuming such a thing to be possible) was an obscenity that could never be erased.
No, it hadn’t been a vacation. Now she was back, and that was worse.
Cordelia stood in the yard outside Buffy’s house, looking up at the window to the former Slayer’s room. Buffy had been home from the hospital for weeks now; she needed no special equipment, no ventilator or IV or remote monitors to track her vital signs. She wasn’t even brain-dead, medically speaking, EEG scans had shown activity in excess of what would be considered subnormal. She just wouldn’t wake up. Her body had healed, but the rest of her had gone away somewhere, and apparently wasn’t coming back.
Not by itself, anyhow. Cordelia would find a way. She would. She would.
She was the queen. The queen did not tolerate failure. Especially her own.
Joyce Summers had set up in-home care for her daughter while she struggled to keep the gallery going. Buffy’s father paid for most of it, even though he didn’t visit; he had come only once, and left early. Cordelia knew the Slay Friends (and probably Joyce as well) thought less of him for it, but she herself could readily understand someone not being able to deal with such a dreadful loss. Maybe he cared so much that he simply couldn’t stand to see her that way: there, but gone.
Everyone else, with Joyce’s blessing, visited the comatose girl at least once a week. Not Tucker, he had meant it when he shouted his resignation from active membership, but all the others, with the likely exception of Marcie. Xander, Cordelia knew, went nearly every day. Oz and Willow had shown up together at first, but lately they had been taking separate shifts. Giles was there least frequently; wheelchair-bound, he had to have someone (usually Owen) carry him up the stairs, and while his affection for Buffy was far greater than his pride, Cordelia privately believed that he, too, saw her only as often as he could bear to look at her.
Cordelia hadn’t joined the rotation. Though nobody had said anything, she knew both that they felt she wasn’t entitled to any such privilege, and that they counted it to her discredit that she didn’t make herself part of it. (Well, except for Owen, but even Owen was a little withdrawn from her these days. Not distant, just … cautious, where he hadn’t been before.)
It didn’t matter. What other people thought of her, whether or not she was included, she was long past caring about such things. She hadn’t taken part in their visiting chain because it just wasn’t convenient to try and work around their schedules.
When Cordelia came to see Buffy, she did it at night. Well after Joyce’s bedtime.
Tree to gable was so easy that Cordelia didn’t even have to look for handholds anymore. Moving from there to Buffy’s window was merely a matter of being sure she didn’t make any scratching sounds on the roofing shingles. Buffy had waxed the tracks of the window, back when it had been her needing to get in and out quietly, so it made no sound when it was raised, and there was sufficient play in the turn-latch that Cordelia had no trouble pulling the lower frame out just far enough to slide it past the lock. To someone with Slayer agility, it might as well have not been closed at all.
In the room itself, as always, the hardest part to deal with was the normalcy of it.
Everything was carefully clean, Buffy’s hair regularly brushed and braided, even her nails kept trimmed neat. (Cordelia suspected that was Willow’s doing; she herself contributed the occasional touch-up, but on the whole the job was adequate.) Feeding was done through an NG tube — naso-gastric cannula, through the nose and over the soft palate and down the throat into the stomach, Cordelia had learned the lingo — but that had become so familiar as to not seem at all out of place. The room had been left unchanged, as much as was possible, and Buffy’s body remained stubbornly healthy. She really did look like she was asleep.
Cordelia sat in her accustomed spot on the edge of the bed, and in a voice pitched to carry no farther than the door, began speaking to her predecessor.
“You know, I really want to blame you for this. That would make it a lot easier. There just doesn’t seem to be any way to make that work. We came up with the plan together, we agreed on it, we worked out all the details … I made sure I got my way on everything that mattered, it was Plan Cordy clear down the line, so I can’t put any of that on you.
“And the factory, it sure doesn’t look like you did anything wrong there. I went back later, and counted six separate dust-piles leading to the room where I found you. I figure most of that was you — I don’t know if anybody has more all-out guts than Xander, but he’s not so much with the skill — which is a heckuva tally for someone non-powered in a running fight. You and Willow probably could have done even better, but Angel hosed us both when he switched her out with Xander.
“No, you did your part. You got hit with more than either of us expected — I still get the shakes, remembering how close Drusilla came to taking out all of us — but you dealt, kept going, almost made it.
“Everybody misses you. Everybody cares about you.”
She stopped. There was more, so much more, but she had no idea how to say it.
So she switched to more commonplace subjects. School gossip, celebrity gossip, some world events. She covered all the recent news about the Slay Friends (might as well find another name, none of them could really be called her friends anymore, though they continued to work with her pending some response from Giles’ report to the Council of Watchers), and concluded by noting that she’d seen Buffy’s dad when he came by and he was kind of a hunk, and how old was he exactly?
Buffy did not lurch upright in the bed, spluttering outrage. Ah, well. Worth a try.
She put earphones on Buffy, and turned on the minicassette player she’d brought for the purpose. At least once a week Cordelia brought a mix tape: anything new, anything kicky, anything with life and rhythm and a surging beat, anything that might trigger a glimmer of awareness. It never did. She kept it up anyway. While it played, she watched the girl in front of her, not moving or speaking till the player clicked off.
Cordelia removed the earphones and sat silent for several more minutes before continuing again. “The dreams … they’re not getting worse, but they never stop. I don’t know what it means, but I remember that every time you had one, it was connected to something important. Which makes sense — if you get a warning, it should be a warning about something, right? — but the overload I’m getting makes me wonder if there’s something mondo tremendous about to fall on us. Or maybe Giles is right, I’m not really the Slayer even though I got all your mystical juice, and the dreams are sparking off wrong in my head ’cause I don’t have the proper wiring.
“I’ve been back from my little time-travel trip for ten days. I’ve had one of those freaky dreams for ten nights running. And now it’s not just nights anymore.”
She could hear Buffy’s breathing: even, steady, never varying. There was no other response.
“I never liked you, you know. You and me, oil and water. Or more like, Nehi Grape and Perrier. The cosmic order made us natural competitors, and you just know I was always gonna come out ahead, right? You get snuffed by the Master, I take him out that same night. You get the Inca mummy girl, I get the Viking … total waste of Nordic brawniness, but it counts as a win anyhow. Even with Marcie running all her sabotage plans in the background, I still beat you out for May Queen, and that was before I got the Slayer power-boost. And if it was me in that bed instead of you, I’d look miles better than you do, count on it.
“I … I just …
“I wish it was me instead of you. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I miss you. I want you back. I’d give anything, anything at all, to bring you back.”
Nothing. Again, always, never-ending. Nothing.
It had to change. She had to change it. This was unbearable.
Cordelia left as undetectably as she had entered. Buffy’s house hadn’t been her first stop of the night. It wouldn’t be her last. She had things to do.
* * *
As before, she waited in the dark outside her intended target, watching and assessing. Learned caution was supplemented by a reluctance that was purely personal. This was not a place she had wanted to come, nor had she ever expected that she would need to do so. Though brief, the information from the other-universe witch Tara had been specific: the Kalderash re-ensoulment spell, finally translated by Jenny Calendar and backed up on a floppy disk in the computer lab, undiscovered there until months after Jenny’s death. It had been the work of a moment to ‘suggest’ to Willow that she look carefully through all the stuff Jenny had kept in the lab, in case any of it might be useful, and equally simple for Willow — now teaching the class — to make such an inventory.
Easy, but not fruitful. Willow had found nothing that sounded like Tara’s description, and Cordelia hadn’t been able to press the matter, because she hadn’t told anyone of her involuntary offworld jaunt. (Nor did she intend to; it had been hard enough to believe while she was going through it, she knew how crack-brained it would sound second-hand. Better to offer explanations after she had something to show them.)
Balked in that first attempt, Cordelia had returned to the school very late the following night, and spent four hours going over every inch of the computer lab, removing the drawers from Miss Calendar’s (now Willow’s) desk to look behind and under them, checking to see if there was any loose space behind the blackboard, even — remembering one of the techniques Marcie had used back in her revenge-seeking days — standing on the desk and pushing up one of the insulating tiles in the ceiling so she could peer into the crawl-space above it. There had been absolutely nothing to be found, and Cordelia had reluctantly concluded that, among the many differences between the two realities, in this one Jenny had never made any such disk, perhaps never even discovered the necessary translation.
Now she knew otherwise. Ten nights of sleep that brought no rest, but finally the damn dreams had given her something useful.
When she moved in with Giles, Jenny Calendar had brought some basic comfort items, a few pieces of favorite furniture, clothes and books and whatnot. Most of her possessions, though, she had placed in storage, for such time as she and Giles found more spacious quarters where they could make a common home … or perhaps, Cordelia had thought cattily at the time, keeping her stuff in reserve in case the Watcher had a long-overdue attack of conscience and tossed her out on her two-timing gypsy butt. After her death, an uncle had turned up to claim the stored items, and Giles had turned it all over without protest; none of those things held any meaning for him.
For the few possessions she’d kept in the apartment, different matter entirely. He couldn’t bear to let go of them, equally couldn’t bear to look at them: promises of a new life, devolving into tragedy. In the end, Buffy and Willow and Xander had gone in to pack it all away into a small upstairs room (previously Giles’ study) that now remained unused.
It wouldn’t seem possible that the police could have gone over a murder scene without discovering the floppy disk in the pocket of the dead woman’s sweater. If they had missed it, though — and Cordelia had found that you could do a lot worse than bet on the incompetence of the Sunnydale PD — then it had to be with the rest of Jenny’s things in that closed room.
The best time to look for it would have been during the day, while Giles was at the school. Cordelia’s waking dream had come on Friday afternoon, however, and on Fridays Giles only put in a half-day, going home right after lunch. (One of the few benefits, along with getting to use handicapped parking, of being stuck in a wheelchair.) More than that, Sunnydale High was scheduled for a faculty conference on Monday, classes suspended for that day: usually a good thing, this was precisely the wrong time for it, because Giles didn’t truly count as faculty, so he’d be home then, too. Now that there finally was something Cordelia could do about the massive cesspool that had overflowed into her life, it was impossible for her to wait out the remainder of a four-day weekend until the next opportunity for a daylight foray.
So. Here. Now. Dressed in dark, nondescript clothing that was fortunately as well-suited for burglary at oh-dark-thirty as for Slayer patrolling.
Let the games begin.
An apartment is a trickier target than a house. Closer neighbors, fewer access points, less interior space (usually), so that the occupants are that much more likely to hear the sound of entry or the movements of the intruder. It really would have been better to wait until Monday … but Cordelia was here now, and she didn’t intend to leave until she either had what she’d come for, or satisfied herself that it wasn’t to be found.
Giles was not a naturally reckless man, and now had even more reason to be extra-cautious. She had to assume that he would have some alarms in place, maybe magical as well as electronic. Getting inside meant listening to her instincts, exercising compulsive care, being ready to abandon the whole thing and flee in an instant … and accepting that she wouldn’t be able to hide the fact that someone had broken in. Couldn’t avoid it, so plan around it, make sure all the angles are covered, and keep driving.
Cordelia removed the heavy backpack, and withdrew several items from the main compartment before hiding it in the shrubs next to Giles’ door. She laid out her materials, and set to work.
She pulled the rubber stopper from a glass bottle, and poured some of the contents into a plain glass bowl, then used a turkey baster (also glass, with a rubber bulb) to draw up the liquid. The bowl was necessary because she couldn’t have fit the baster (the only size she could find on short notice) inside the neck of the bottle. The bottle — and then the bowl, and now the baster — held sulfuric acid; she could have gotten the acid from any of several dozen chemical/ industrial supply warehouses (Sunnydale was rotten with them), but it had seemed simpler to just extract it from the battery cells of the four cars she and her mother together owned.
Willow would have been astonished at the knowledge underlying these preparations. Please: high-school royalty, nailing down all the popular arts while scorning the ‘nerd’ subjects? that was an image, crafted for a purpose, and part of the purpose had been to conceal some capabilities while spotlighting others. Once she had chosen to follow Angel into the secret war in Sunnydale (before she had ascended to Slayerhood, and long before he had descended into gleeful soulless serial killing), Cordelia had quietly begun schooling herself in whatever might help her in her new life. She could hot-wire a car, if the occasion demanded; she could pick locks, or set snares, or make some extremely nasty pepper-spray out of kitchen ingredients. She didn’t broadcast these talents, not even to her friends, having learned the value of being underestimated by potential adversaries (and she had seen just how quickly someone could go from trusted confidant to brutal enemy); all the same, it rankled occasionally that she was still widely regarded as a ditz even though she’d left the cheerleader lifestyle well behind her.
Glass and rubber would safely contain sulfuric acid. So would lead. Most anything else, it would eat clear through, sooner or later. Cordelia used the baster to apply the acid to the lower part of Giles’ front door, drawing a line of liquid to form a square across the lower panels.
The door was wood; metal would have taken a lot longer (too long, probably), and necessitated a different approach. Cordelia gave the acid half a minute to begin penetrating, then used a dagger to break the weakened wood fibers and open a deeper channel. She worked her way around the square, then applied more acid, then repeated the process. The dagger would have to be thrown away afterward (probably), but its use augmented the effectiveness of the acid, which in turn worked more quietly than the dagger alone would have done.
Yes, she could have picked the lock, but the door might be alarmed. So, she wouldn’t open the door at all … but that didn’t mean she couldn’t go through it.
She worked patiently, no hurry, holding her breath and using a swimmer’s goggles to protect her eyes from any fumes the process might be emitting. When she felt the dagger-point penetrate to the other side, she didn’t get overeager; she continued going over the remainder of the square until every part of it had been worked through, and then removed the detached square with rubber gloves, setting it behind the shrubs on the side opposite where she had stowed the backpack.
Details. All in the details. She put away her other supplies, pulled a ski mask over her head, replaced the rubber gloves with a thinner surgical pair, and waited, listening. Nothing from inside. From the backpack she pulled out three balls of crumpled paper (also done while wearing gloves, this was not a time for fingerprints), and tossed them through the opening and into the apartment, one at a time, twenty seconds between them, alert for any response from within. Two full minutes after the last one, still nothing. So, apparently no motion detectors.
Okay. Time for the plunge.
A rubber doormat over the acid-permeated lower edge of the opening, a quick crawl (being sure nothing touched the equally saturated sides and top), and Cordelia was inside. She removed the mat and secured it over the open gap in the door, using pre-cut strips of duct tape; now, any passersby would be less likely to notice the breach. Not that many people would be strolling past at this hour, or she wouldn’t have spent so much time on the stoop creating an entryway, but even that minor eventuality was now covered.
Having completed the last small measure of protective concealment, Cordelia stood inside the darkened apartment, attuning herself to the interior, letting the atmosphere settle into her senses. This also left her in a position to dive back outside at any moment … but by now Cordelia was fairly sure that any magical warning systems that might be active hadn’t been set to register the presence of the Slayer.
Two down, one to go. There was still the matter of Giles himself. Cordelia had inferred from overheard comments (and her own common sense) that Giles was no longer using the upstairs bedroom; he could’ve gotten a chair lift installed, she supposed, but even so it made better sense for him to set things up so his major activities took place on the ground floor. She didn’t know if he was a light sleeper, couldn’t know if he was one of those who could just feel an intruder within his personal space, and had no desire to test the limits. Telling herself she had all the time in the world, she began to move. Very, very, very slowly.
She took almost ten minutes to cross the living room, moving in imperceptible shifts of stance rather than steps. Progressive, deliberate relaxation had her almost in a Zen state: no tension, no anxiety, no urgency … and, more to the point, no quick breathing or nervous sweat, either of which could give her away at the worst possible moment. She let herself melt into her surroundings, ease at a glacial pace through the dark interior air, with no more to mark her passage than if she were a ghost.
At the stairs, still at a rate the unaided eye could scarcely have recognized as motion, she went down on hands and knees. Stairs tended to creak, that was just one of the facts of life, but you could minimize it by sticking to the outer part of each step, spreading out your weight, never putting very much into a single area and — of course — moving slowly and cautiously.
She reached the top with no noises that didn’t blend naturally into the settling sounds any structure made at night. Passage took close to half an hour. So far, excellent.
Encouraged, but still focused on the internal serenity that contributed to (she hoped) total unnoticeable-ness, Cordelia stayed prone, traveling along the upstairs hallway at a snail’s pace low-crawl. Upper floors creaked, too, and now was when she could least afford it. All the time in the world, she repeated to herself, and proceeded with the same care that had brought her successfully this far.
Ten further minutes, she was at the door of the unused study. One minute, lubricating the hinges and door knob with a tiny oil can — just in case — and another two to give the oil time to penetrate. Three minutes, turning the knob in precise fractions of an inch, waiting for the sound that might betray her. Two minutes, once the door eased open, to make her way through and noiselessly close it.
A Slayer could see in dim light almost as well as a vampire, perhaps better than some. There was no light in the abandoned study, however, and to attempt a search in the dark would have been to risk dislodging or knocking something over and making the noise she’d so far avoided. From a small hip-pack Cordelia removed a penlight, the operating end masked in five layers of gauze. The light that leaked out was barely enough to allow her to discern shapes in the room, even with a Slayer’s eyes, which should mean it wouldn’t be visible to anyone outside.
She started in the closet: saw immediately that the sweater wasn’t hanging there, and nonetheless inspected every article of clothing with a meticulous thoroughness once reserved for the use of a mascara brush, before moving on to the boxed items in the same closet. The sweater was the topmost item in the third box she opened, even with the multiply-obscured penlight she recognized the pattern instantly. She removed the sweater with steady hands, but her probing fingers found no familiar shape in the pocket her dream had shown her. She went through the rest of the box unhurriedly, one item at a time, then the rest of the boxes, then the rest of the closet.
Nothing. Cordelia carefully inspected the remainder of the room, then returned and went through the boxes in the closet again, taking her time, making sure she had investigated every inch, every space, every possible place the diskette might have slipped. She even inspected the interior of the closet, to see if there were any cracks or openings which might have allowed a small item to slide through, with no results.
There was no disk. In the first moments of finding the sweater with empty pockets, she had known it wouldn’t be there, but still she made absolutely certain. Weeks ago, Cordelia had overlooked a single detail, taken just one thing for granted under the necessity of moving quickly. As a result, Nancy had died, Giles was crippled, and Buffy had lain in deathless sleep ever since. (Not to mention Tucker quitting, Owen gradually drifting away, Xander hating her with searing bitterness, and the rest of the former Slay Friends treating her with stiff, sharply limited tolerance.) She had screwed up, and the cost of her mistake had been awful, and others had borne that cost. She would not, would not, repeat such an error if care and attention might avoid it.
All her emotions under a tight rein, she straightened, still moving with no haste and total control, turned off the penlight, and waited. Not moving, her breath coming relaxed and even, letting the darkness settle into her again. At last, when she judged that her night vision had fully returned, she went to the door, opened it as carefully as she had done on her entry, and eased out into the hall.
With her mission a failure, she allowed herself to move more quickly now. It wasn’t impatience or carelessness or the recklessness of anger and disappointment: the situation was different now, the imperatives had shifted, and she was acting appropriately to the altered circumstances. Before, the overriding need had been to remain undetected until she could find the disk. Now, the goal was to get out without being identified. Undetected would be even better, but the important part was out. She still wore the ski mask, if necessary she could take flight in an instant, smash through the weakened door and outdistance any likely pursuit. Not ideal, but — by this point in the proceedings — eminently acceptable. Even tempting.
She reached the door unchallenged, removed the rubber mat, and prepared to crawl out as she had crawled in. At the edge of departure, some of the heartsickness she had held away finally stabbed through her forceful detachment, and she stopped for a moment to fight back the sob she could feel building. As she regained control, her gaze came to rest on something beside the door, dimly outlined in the light filtering in through the opening she had made, distant street lamps providing barely enough reflected illumination to make out the shape.
The umbrella stand. The place where Jenny’s sweater had landed, when Drusilla tossed it carelessly inside.
Moving with fanatical calm, she reached inside, carefully, being sure to shift nothing that would clack or clatter. Inward, downward, slowly, meticulously, she wouldn’t let herself hope but she had to know …
… and the square shape of the diskette was there, flat against the bottom. So thin, so hidden, it was almost excusable that the investigating police had failed to find it. Cordelia withdrew her prize with fingers that did not tremble, and unhurriedly secured it inside the hip-pack. Then, placing the rubber mat to safeguard her exit as it had done with her entrance, she eased herself outside.
It was done. In, and out, and she had what she sought, after she had relinquished any hope of finding it.
She wasn’t finished yet, though. From the backpack, undisturbed behind the hedge, she took a pair of rain boots, big enough that she had no trouble pulling them on over her running shoes. Thus shod, she stepped deliberately into the moist earth in the newly-turned flower beds that bordered the sidewalk, bearing down to simulate greater weight; then, with the backpack settled firmly into place, she ran out into the darkness, moving at a swift, easy pace. After half a mile, she stopped to remove the rain boots, stowed them away, and continued on. Another three-quarters of a mile, and she reached her car. She locked the backpack into the trunk, slid into the driver’s seat, and pulled away, aiming for a location safely on the other side of Sunnydale.
She had made it. She had made it. Some snags, result not exactly according to plan, but she had made it. Now all that remained was to establish her alibi.
* * *
The graveyard patrol? in all truth, she didn’t really need it. Nobody had any earthly reason to think of her in connection with the burglary, and she’d covered herself thoroughly enough to divert any suspicion that might arise. By this time of night, she could plausibly be in bed, like a sane person.
Except that bed meant sleep. And sleep meant dreams.
So, patrol. Alibi. Being able to truthfully say she’d covered a section of town well distant from Giles’ apartment, and provide corroborating detail if asked, and — who knew? — maybe do some tension-relieving exercises that just happened to include imaginative killing.
Oh, for the days when her world had revolved around social in-fighting.
She didn’t expect to have any trouble finding action, and was quickly proven right. Probably a fifth of Sunnydale’s vampire population had been wiped out in the tri-locale confrontation that had left Buffy comatose and Giles paraplegic, and Spike had killed most of his remaining followers in a blind rage at their having survived when his Dark Princess had gone to dust. Cordelia had added to the reduction while she awaited news from the hospital, scouring every imaginable habitat and destroying all she found (along with various demons unlucky enough to be caught in the same net). In the weeks that followed, however, there had been an upsurge in the undead population: not just killing, but far more turnings than had been the norm even when the Master had been preparing to exit his prison. Somebody was building an army — maybe several someones — and there had been no shortage of tan-free opponents whenever the Slayer was in a mood for mayhem.
She found a group in one of the more recent additions to the cemetery, and attacked the moment she spotted them. Here to roll out the welcome wagon for new-rising recruits? doing the get-acquainted tour? just mellowing out to the whole non-living vibe? It didn’t matter, she was among them before they were fully aware of her presence, and it was on.
She broke the arm of the one nearest, plowing him from her path while she drove for the one most likely to give her trouble: tall, blond, muscled like a pro wrestler, hair hanging shoulder-length. She automatically gave him the mental tag of Thor, ducked below his arms to hook sledgehammer punches into his floating ribs, then propelled herself away from him with a kick that smashed his knee. He went down, letting out a scream way too shrill for a guy that large, Cordelia staked Broken-Arm and felled Scar with an elbow-strike to the temple. She spun to address the remaining two, she’d deal with them and then finish up with the crippled Thor —
— only he must have rolled as he fell, come up on his good leg, because his fist was an inch from her face and this was not going to feel good —
It wasn’t a blow from the mighty Mjölnir, but it was enough to lift her from her feet and drop her tumbling eight feet away. Even through the stunning impact (and the secondary indignity of bouncing off a headstone and landing on her perfectly-toned butt), she couldn’t mistake the sound of cartilage being forcibly separated from bone.
He had broken her nose. He had broken her nose.
She launched herself at him in an instant total rage, striking and tearing and mauling him with complete disregard for the others. In nearly a year as the new Chosen One, she’d taken her share of battle damage (the comment she’d made in that other universe, about being opened up with a crosscut saw? only a little exaggeration, the swipe hadn’t really penetrated her abdominal muscles), but never any visible facial injury that couldn’t be handled by a night of Slayer healing and artful use of cosmetics in the morning. This one, though, this would definitely leave a mark … as she was doing right now, on the offending Thor.
Even in full berserker mode, there was still a tiny part of her trying to sound a warning. She shut it out. Her opponent overtopped her by six inches and outweighed her by a hundred pounds, his strength and ferocity magnified by vampirism, and he never had a chance. His curses gave way to pained gasps, then moved through whimpers and into screams, the last one drowned out by her final shriek of fury as she ripped his head completely from his shoulders.
The sound was still echoing through the cemetery, and Thor’s ashes still sifting groundward, when a new voice broke the white-hot seal of her wrath. She might have missed a yell — or a gunshot — but somehow the very quietness of the words pierced her attention: “Got two. Others are running.”
Cordelia didn’t even look, she just took off, instinct carrying her after the surviving vampires before she had consciously registered the noises of their flight. Stakes, stakes … yes, there were still two in interior sheaths sewn into her jacket liner, which was good because the fugitives were separating, she dusted one with a hard-thrown stake at forty feet and ran down the last vampire. He turned to fight, hopeless but snarling defiance, and after killing him she returned without eagerness to the scene of the initial struggle.
Oz had reloaded the small crossbow, but that was just basic field tactics; he waited with characteristic tensionless imperturbability, and only a flicker of his eyes acknowledged Cordelia’s arrival. “How long were you there?” she asked him.
Shrug. “Showed up just as the big guy tagged you. Angled for a shot, but before I could aim steady you were all over him.” This time his eyebrow lifted an entire eighth of an inch. “Harsh.”
“He pissed me off.” Cordelia pressed her nose back into line, held it in place for a few seconds. Oh, yes, she was totally going to have raccoon eyes tomorrow. “I don’t like it when people mess with my face.”
Nod. “Saw that.”
Had Oz become even more terse, or was she just noticing it more lately? Cordelia didn’t know, and so she shook it away. “Okay, first question. You said you got two of them. Last time I looked, nobody was making double-barreled crossbows. How’d you manage two?”
His expression showed nothing, but she knew he had heard what she was admitting: she’d lost it a few minutes ago, completely lost it, blind to everything but the enemy directly in front of her. “They started setting up to jump you while you were busy with the big guy,” he said. “I only had a clear shot at one of them, so I dropped her. Then I charged the others before they could charge me.” Shrug. “Worked. They ran, must’ve thought I had friends with me.”
Cordelia frowned. “That still doesn’t explain —”
“One of ’em didn’t run,” Oz supplied. “I guess he figured I wasn’t strong enough to give him much of a fight.” Shrug. “He was right, so I didn’t even try to fight. I just staked him.”
There had to be more to it than that, but Cordelia had wearied of digging for details. “Okay, second question. You don’t patrol alone, but you’re here and you’re packing, which means you were looking for me. Why?”
Something lay behind those steady eyes, but there was no way of knowing what it might be. “Got a call. Somebody broke into Giles’ place. They spread the word, I was supposed to pass it to you.”
Cordelia had anticipated something like this, and already determined the appropriate response. “Broke in?” she exclaimed. “Who? Couldn’t have been vampires; demons, human minions, what? And how did Giles fight them off?”
“Not broke in liked kicked-down-the-door,” Oz corrected. “Broke in like quiet and sneaky. Never even woke him up, Giles said it could’ve been hours ago. He wanted to make sure nobody else had been hit. Their homes or, you know, selves.” Another miniscule tilt of an eyebrow. “You didn’t answer your phone, but Willow hacked the cell network to get a general location. I said I’d check.”
“I left my phone in the car,” Cordelia admitted. “I do that sometimes, it’s just so easy for it to get lost or smashed in a fight.” She considered. “So, are we all getting together to see if this is the start of something big?”
“Yeah,” Oz told her. “Not tonight, though. Tomorrow morning, ten-ish. Give us time for some sleep before we start brainstorming.” His gaze rested on her, revealing nothing. “Looks like you could really use it.”
“Oh, definitely,” Cordelia agreed. “I was about to call it a night anyhow. Sure, home and beddy-bye. I’ll get right on that.” Her voice sounded wrong, even to her own ears. Too sharp and brittle. And it wasn’t nerves doing it.
He let it pass, but she could feel his eyes on her as she made her exit. She shook it away. The laconic guitarist was getting more and more unsettling … but, right now, she had more serious problems to deal with.
Like sleep. And what came with it.
Morning found her little improved. The dreams had come, of course, but so chaotic as to leave no solid memory, only an awareness of turmoil and a slumber that brought no relief. Cordelia got up before sunrise — her alarm clock had been irrelevant for almost two weeks now — and stood in the shower for nearly half an hour. Then she emerged, feeling cleaner and more soothed but not really refreshed, and moved to the next phase of her morning routine.
Her hair really needed a good deep-cleansing shampoo (hand-to-hand combat would work in a few split ends), but she wasn’t in the mood to deal with how long it would take to dry, so she had covered it with a shower cap; she cleared a few snarls with a wide-toothed comb, then brushed her hair thoroughly. Her nails were clipped short, a Slayer simply could not maintain a decent French manicure, but she smoothed the edges and massaged rejuvenating lotion into the cuticles and applied a coat of clear sealer. Different lotion for knees, elbows and heels, yet another brand for her hands, another for her face …
Right. Couldn’t put it off any longer. Time to get a look at her face.
No bruises, her nose was in a straight line, and a cautious wiggle of it with her fingers confirmed that her body had at least begun the process of reattaching the nasal cartilage to the facial bones. She couldn’t see any sign of a bump; there was enough swelling to conceal some possible irregularity, but she’d correct that herself if necessary, even if it meant she had to slit the skin with an X-Acto knife and smooth the underlying structure with a nail file and then let Slayer healing take over.
As expected, the raccoon eyes were very much in evidence. Critical inspection assured her that this was beyond the capabilities of any concealer. Good news was, she had the rest of the long weekend for recovery, so she wouldn’t have to go to school looking this way. Bad news was, she still had to attend the meeting at Giles’ apartment. Maybe — after a muting foundation — go for an even more dramatic make-up style, something with enough contrasts that what still showed of matching shiners would be less noticeable …
… but then, why bother? Nobody at the meeting would care, and nobody would think any better of her just for looking good. In fact, in a reversal of her customary chic-itude as armor, she’d probably get more respect (grudging and mostly subconscious, but there nonetheless) by arriving with enough combat-marks to remind them that she was still the major fighter in Sunnydale’s not-so-secret war.
Even that consideration, however, was really just another way of stalling. All of it — hair, nails, moisturizing, make-up — was serious business, to be sure, a continual attention to bedrock necessities. At the same time, none of those things could compare in importance, today, with what she had been so carefully not thinking about.
She was afraid to let herself hope, and afraid to ask herself why hope would be so frightening. And, recognizing it, Cordelia responded as she did to anything that scared her: she went straight at it.
All her stalking clothes (doing double duty last night for B-and-E) had been secured in the back of her closet. Cordelia reached in and pulled out the hip-pack, removed the floppy disk, and went to the personal computer at the small desk across from her bed. It was already on, she kept nothing on it that she would care if anyone saw, so there was no need to log on or go through any start-up. Just insert the disk into the floppy drive, and click to open the appropriate window. Simplest thing in the world. Nothing, nothing to be afraid of.
Except, maybe, for a large bold-text dialogue box demanding that she enter the password in order to be allowed access.
She clenched her fists. Right. No surprise that a computer teacher, especially one who’d been working as a mole for the last however-many-years, would encrypt her data, even on a back-up disk. Besides, Cordelia’s life for the last three months had consisted of one pie in the face after another; why should this be any different?
Shrug it off, get a grip, focus on the problem. She had the disk, but that didn’t necessarily mean she had the spell. Past that, if she had the spell, that was no guarantee that the spell would work; if she knew the spell would work, she still had to find out how to make it work; and, even if she had explicit operating instructions, it was unlikely that she would have the skill or power to carry them out, and basically zero chance that she could do it by herself.
Sooner or later, she would need help. She’d always known that. She just wasn’t ready to confide in anyone yet. Not now, not with so little to show, not when she’d have to explain where she got the disk and how she’d known what was on it, when she would have to convince them of what it meant and how it could be used …
… Not when it meant asking them to trust her. Because none of them had any reason to do that.
Cordelia sat, eyes fixed on the uncompromising demand for a password. Computers meant Willow, simple as that. The Slay Friends had grown over the last year and a half, different individuals bringing different skills, but for serious hacking there had never been any choice but Willow. (Or Jenny Calendar, for some things, but she wasn’t exactly available now, was she? At least, not this side of a séance, and that kind of thing tended to go very bad very fast.)
To get the proof she had to have, she needed Willow’s expertise. To get aid from Willow, she needed the proof. Stalemate. It was a situational paradox as unyielding as the computer itself, and she couldn’t seem to force her brain out of that repeating, fruitless loop. Proof, Willow. Willow, proof.
There had to be a way, but she wouldn’t find it by glaring at the screen. Or by hurling her PC out the window, however appealing that might feel in the immediate moment.
Sitting in her room, facing a closed-logic problem with no seeming solution, Cordelia found herself confronted by a truth more frightening than anything she could have imagined:
I can’t do this alone.
* * *
The gathering at Giles’ apartment was a waste of Cordelia’s time, pointless except for two things. The first was that she couldn’t avoid it, she had to be there to discuss the break-in as part of covering her involvement in same. The second … well, wasted or not, she really didn’t have anything else on her schedule right now. Until she could figure a way to get into the locked disk, she was at an impasse.
Ten-ish, Oz had said. She arrived at a quarter till. Even if the meeting accomplished nothing, at least it was something to do. She catalogued the damage to the door — a section of plywood had been nailed over the hole in the bottom, it would be natural for her to ask — and rang the bell. While waiting, she reviewed everything she’d been told last night … because that, and only that, was what she could admit to knowing.
It was Oz who answered the door, and Cordelia blanked for a second. For him to be standing in front of her, while she’d been focused on her memory of their last conversation, was briefly disconcerting, or perhaps it was something in that unwavering, imperturbable gaze. “I’m here,” she announced unnecessarily. “So, is everybody else?”
“Mostly,” Oz said. “Still waiting for Willow, she should show in a few minutes.” He moved back to give Cordelia room to enter, but didn’t actually invite her to do so. It was a habit they had all fallen into, though no official policy had ever been instituted. As Cordelia stepped inside, he went on, “Willow told me she’d called Owen, but he said he’d pass on this one. He’ll still help with apocalypses, but day-to-day stuff, not so much.”
Cordelia nodded. Owen had been drifting away for some time now. He’d lost heart, rather than nerve, but it was a loss nonetheless. Maybe he’d just been dealt one too many concussions … or, with Nancy Doyle’s death, one too many bereavements.
Giles was waiting in the living room, what he insisted on calling a sitting room. The sight of him was a jolt, one of several. He’d been in the wheelchair for weeks now, but she could never get accustomed to seeing him so. That was followed by recognition that “everybody” now consisted of him and Xander; there was herself, of course, and Oz beside her, and the yet-to-arrive Willow, but it was disturbing to see just how deeply the ranks of the Slay Friends had been reduced. Finally, as her eyes took in the interior of the apartment, she realized that she hadn’t been here in a long, long time: last night’s foray didn’t count, she’d been able to see little more than vague outlines, and even the Slayer dream depicting Jenny’s death hadn’t really impressed any details on her.
They were there now, and impossible to miss. The dead woman had left her stamp on the apartment, a shifting of furnishings with the occasional substitution, small knick-knacks, planters, wall hangings … accents changing the atmosphere in shades of earth browns, dusty greens, slate blues. Even with her personal possessions stowed upstairs, the place showed the imprint of her personality. A casual observer, not knowing the full truth, could be excused for thinking she was still in residence upstairs.
Giles regarded Cordelia with the schooled expression that acknowledged her presence without granting her anything else. The glance Xander gave her brimmed with the usual bleak anger, but not yet at the level that would warn of impending explosion. “Saw the décor on your door,” Cordelia announced without preamble. They might treat her like a leper, but she was damned if she’d act like one. “How’d they manage to saw their way in without waking you up?”
“I don’t believe a saw was used,” Giles said. “Some type of tool — a chisel, perhaps — but the principal penetration was effected by the application of a corrosive substance.”
“Huh.” Cordelia gave the appearance of considering that. “Secretions of some kind? ’cause then you could narrow it down to which demons do stuff like that.”
“I could,” Giles said. “But from the odor, I suspect it was common battery acid. And from the tool marks, and the boot prints found outside, the perpetrator — or perpetrators — would appear to have been human rather than demon.”
“That’s two strikes, and you haven’t been here a whole minute yet.” Xander’s voice held no faint note of humor; it was steady, level, and dead. “Go ahead, show us some more of that keen Slayer insight.”
Cordelia gave him a flat look of her own. “Okay. If it was human, then maybe burglars. Was anything taken?”
“And she’s out, slinking back to the dugout.” His laugh was a mirthless bark. “Oh, yeah, sports fans, yet another disappointing performance by the substitute batter. But then, nobody really held out any hopes —”
“Hey,” Willow called cheerily as she came in. Oz was with her, he must have gone back to wait at the door. “Did I miss anything?”
“No, we just got started.” It was Marcie’s voice, coming from practically over Cordelia’s shoulder, and only long-practiced social poise kept Cordelia from jumping, startled. “Queen Cordy’s being a ditz, as usual. Xander’s being a bastard, as usual. And Oz and Giles are being all soft-spoken and repressed. As usual.”
Oz nodded. “Man’s gotta go with his strengths,” he agreed.
“Cordelia arrived only a few minutes ago,” Giles said to Willow. “At this point, she knows no more than I told you by telephone last night — this morning, actually — so we can proceed from there.”
“I think Xander just said nothing was taken during the break-in.” Cordelia kept her tone even. “Hard to be sure, what with having to dig through all the sarcasm, but that’s how it sounded.”
“Nothing appears to have been taken,” Giles corrected, with a warning look at Xander. “The intrusion was done with such meticulous craft, one must assume that any search or theft might have been equally surreptitious. Still, Marcie and I have done as comprehensive an inventory as possible, with particular attention to mystical artifacts or texts, and been unable to establish that anything is missing.”
“All right.” This time Cordelia really was thinking; she needed to contribute something here, even if only for show. “So, three possibilities. They didn’t find what they wanted. They did find it — and took it or copied it — without leaving anything to tip us off. Or else they had some total different reason for coming here in the first place.” She looked to Giles. “Did they leave anything besides footprints?”
“Scraps of crumpled paper,” Giles said. “Strips of adhesive tape. A rubber doormat. All safely anonymous. We could test them for fingerprints, I suppose, but the types of persons who would concern us would be unlikely to appear in any police database, assuming they left prints at all.”
A chill ran through Cordelia, masked by a measured nod. She’d forgot about the paper-balls she’d used to test for motion detectors. Good thing she’d made sure they carried no traces, in case she’d been forced to make a quick getaway. “What kind of paper?” she asked. “And what was written on them?”
“They were blank,” Giles told her. “And, so far as we could ascertain, they appear to be ordinary paper. I’m afraid I can only speculate as to their purpose.”
“What about the footprints, then?” Cordelia went on. “How many different prints? And could you tell anything from them? like, you know, tribal markings or extra toes or the reverse-stamp of a custom label saying ‘MADE FOR CECIL TALISMAN-STEALER’?”
“One boot-print,” Oz supplied, “and a partial that just showed a heel. Kind of a smooth tread on the bottom, like galoshes or fisherman’s waders. I’d say size twelve, and deep enough to be a fair-sized guy.” He glanced toward Giles and Xander, one eyebrow tilted. “Thing is, it looked like the print went straight down, not sort of rolling the way people actually walk. Not speaking as Daniel Boone here, but I kinda think the prints may have been left on purpose. To throw us off.”
“Yeah?” Marcie’s voice again; she seemed to have moved nearer to Giles’ wheelchair. “Throw us off how? Boots are boots.”
Cordelia shook her head. This was edging too near the truth, she needed to divert it quickly. “We see boot-prints, we think human. A demon might do that, to keep us from checking out the usual suspects.” She looked to Giles. “I could swing by Willy’s tonight, see if he’s heard any rumors.”
“I don’t know,” Willow said. “It just feels wrong.” At a quizzical look from Oz, she went on. “Demons, not really big on subtlety. Even the ones that are smart enough, they’re generally smart in a fiendish-plan way, not a cover-your-tracks way. It’s not … it’s not egotistical enough.”
“She’s got a point,” Xander observed. “When’s the last time we dealt with a modest hell-beast? I’m with Willow: some demons are sneaky, but this is sneaky with a human flavor to it.”
“Which still doesn’t tell us anything about what I asked,” Cordelia pointed out. “Namely, why did they come here? To take something? To leave something? To learn something? We don’t seem to have a clue.” To Giles she said, “Did they leave any hex-marks? Burn any incense? Take … I don’t know, little stuff, fingernail clippings or strands of hair, anything they could use in some kind of personalized spell?”
Giles frowned. “I have some basic charms in effect here, I’m sure I would know if any significant enchantment had been worked within these walls.” His expression stiffened. “Except … the room where we stored Jenny’s things … if someone stole something personal to her —”
Cordelia swore inwardly, though she kept her face blank. All her efforts to lead speculation as far as she could from the facts, and now she’d pointed them straight at the target! While she was still questing for some way to forestall this line of inquiry, Marcie did it for her. “Y’know, I don’t think so, Rupe. The door to that room squeaks like a bitch, and my bed’s like four feet away and a cat doesn’t sleep any lighter than I do. All those weeks in the loft got me permanently set on alert mode, if you know what I mean. No way anybody could’ve gone in there without me knowing.”
Multiple astonishments cascaded over one another behind the mask Cordelia already had in place. Marcie lived here? And Cordelia had passed so close to the invisible girl without either of them being aware of the other’s presence? And the ‘squeaky’ door … Cordelia had felt faintly ridiculous, bringing in and using the two-ounce oil can, persevering only because bitter experience had taught her that huge issues could depend on the tiniest details. One slip, one moment’s carelessness, even the faintest whisper of bad luck, and she would have been caught in the act, Slayer toast …
“You’re positive?” Giles was asking. “Please don’t think I’m doubting you, but this, this is a matter of utmost importance to me —”
Marcie interrupted him, her tone brisk. “When’s the last time you tried to get up, any time of the night, and I wasn’t there to help you within twenty seconds?”
Giles nodded reluctantly. “Point taken. Yes, you’ve been quite vigilant. Still …”
“Besides,” Marcie went on, “you had Xan and Willow check through there as soon as they got here, right? because it was mostly them who’d put everything away, so they’d know if anything was different. How ’bout it, guys? Anything look off to either of you?”
“Not that I could tell,” Xander said. “Wil?”
“I didn’t see anything out of place,” Willow said. “And I think we can trust Marcie on this one. She sneaks up on people, they don’t sneak up on her. Even the ones who know she exists, half the time they forget it. Or forget to remember. Whatever, it’s part of the whole ghost-girl thing she does.”
“Very well.” Some of the tension went out of Giles, and he settled back into his chair. “I’ll, um, I’ll do some further detection spells, to be sure no one attempted to invoke Jenny’s spirit at the place of her death, but I suppose I can accept your assurances that her, her mementoes weren’t disturbed.” His eyes found Cordelia’s. “You are asking … incisive questions. It’s good to see that you don’t take this matter lightly.”
“Just trying to be sure we haven’t missed anything.” Cordelia held her voice absolutely level. “I’ve learned how important it is to check all the angles.”
A flicker in Giles’ eyes showed understanding, but then Xander’s voice broke the moment. “And is anybody else here thinking, ‘A day late and a dollar short’?”
It wasn’t even bitter: only bleak, empty, as if the facts weren’t in dispute but he could no longer summon the effort to care. From nowhere the thought came to Cordelia, baseless and irrational: Xander is dying.
For all their recent animosity, it frightened her. They had been close once, had supported and depended on one another … heck, they’d been a couple, even if only in mutual sublimation of what they couldn’t have with the actual objects of their affection. She’d been facing him down for the last several weeks now, refusing to dodge or give ground, but now she looked at him in study rather than defiance.
He had lost weight, and the circles under his eyes would be a close runner-up to what she’d seen in the mirror this morning. Deep creases had sunk into his face, stress lines, and his mouth no longer held the familiar wry twist that she would have thought was stamped into his DNA. Not dying, no, that notion really was irrational, but he definitely didn’t look good. Giles looked better than Xander did right now, and that was saying something.
Was Xander gradually recognizing what Cordelia had sworn never to hint at, that Buffy had fallen in combat while rescuing him, because she’d had to carry the brunt of the fight at the factory? Or had he begun to understand that the former Slayer could linger forever in unending slumber, body functioning but vacant, her soul slipped away and never to return?
Cordelia had refused to accept that. Refusal did nothing to change it.
The stab of realization had forestalled what otherwise would have been an automatic retort to Xander’s gibe, and he didn’t follow it up. The conversation turned to questions as to whether this might be some new initiative from Angel or Spike (or perhaps from both, though most indications were that Drusilla’s death had permanently ended that alliance), but none of them could see how that might be so. Neither vampire had ever used human agents, nor could Giles’ home have been entered by one of the undead. It was speculation that led nowhere, and eventually they ran out of anything to say. It was agreed that they would gather again in the event of new information or meaningful developments, and the meeting — as such — ended.
Cordelia wasted no time in taking her leave, but unexpectedly found Oz beside her in the courtyard of the apartment complex. Surprised, she asked, “Aren’t you and Willow —?”
He shook his head. “Not every minute. And I already knew she’d be going with Xander after this. To visit Buffy.” His expression was unruffled as always. “We do that together sometimes, but I can see it’s not the same for me as for her. So I give her room.” A millimeter’s shrug. “Everybody needs their space.”
They were walking together, not by design but simply because that was the way to the parking lot. “As far as space goes, is Marcie staying with Giles full-time now?”
“Hmm? Yeah.” Oz flicked a quick glance at her. “Has been for awhile. Since he got out of the hospital, about. You didn’t know?”
“Nobody mentioned it,” she pointed out. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I don’t sit at the popular table these days.”
“I noticed, yeah.” Soft as it was, his tone held no sympathy. “Call it negative feedback. Nobody likes what you did. Nobody meaning not me, either. Far as I’m concerned, you got off way easy.” A frown detectible only by someone thoroughly familiar with his minimalist changes of expression. “We should keep you up on the news, though. Dumb not to. I’ll say something to Giles.”
“Fine,” Cordelia said. “Meanwhile, Marcie. How’d that happen? I mean, I’m independent, but she brings new meaning to the word. Plus, I always figured she kind of tolerated Giles. For them to wind up sharing living space, well, I never would’ve thought to watch for that one.”
“We asked,” Oz said simply. “Told Marcie that Giles needed help, but he’d never accept it. Told Giles that Marcie needed a home, but she’d never admit it. Which was true, for both of them. Neither one would ask, but they were both okay with giving.”
“Ah.” Cordelia smiled. “Sneaky.”
Those eyes were suddenly veiled. “Tactful, maybe. Sneaky would be if we were saying something that wasn’t true. Or hiding something we knew they’d want to know about.”
Cordelia’s step faltered, and Oz stopped when she did. She turned to face him. “All right,” she said. “I messed up. I know I messed up. I’ve been beating myself up over it, and I won’t stop anytime soon. You want to blame me, fine. I’m to blame. We both know it, and I’m admitting it. Just tell me what I can do about it.”
Oz took it without reaction, except to glance away as if gathering his thoughts. At last he said, “Don’t know if there’s anything you can do. But if there is, it won’t be fast. We trusted you, and it went bad. Trust … you lose it quick, earn it back slow. Or maybe not at all.” His eyes met hers. “Main thing, though: don’t use us again. Ever.”
“I won’t,” Cordelia said. “I swear I won’t.”
Oz gave her a flick of an eyebrow. “Easy to say.” He began walking again, and Cordelia fell in beside him. “But you did it once. Moved us around like backgammon pieces. Like you were in charge of who got to know the truth and who didn’t.”
Cordelia nodded. “I know. And I’m sorry.”
“If anything had happened to Willow, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” Beat. “Or any conversation.” Another beat. “If Xander had killed you over how it went down with Buffy, I’d have helped cover for him.”
For Oz, this had become a speech of extraordinary length, and the very steadiness of his words conveyed greater impact than any screaming tirade could have done. Unable to speak, Cordelia simply nodded.
“Remember that,” Oz said as they reached the parking lot. “If you do … well, maybe we can manage something from there. Maybe.”
Then he went his way, leaving Cordelia more stricken than ever.
The problem of the locked disk still resisted any form of resolution, and Cordelia couldn’t even think of where she might begin. She didn’t know, nor could she ever learn, enough computer craft to crack the password herself. Asking Willow … the scene at the apartment, and the exchange with Oz, had made it more clear than ever that she couldn’t look to Willow on this. And, even if she could get access to the kind of funds she would need to hire expert hackership, she wasn’t willing to let the disk out of her hands, or to deal with the curiosity of whatever mercenary she might find.
It was unsettling to realize just how isolated she had become, more so to recognize that her recent quasi-ostracism, far from being a plummet from the heights, actually constituted something of a return to ‘normal’. Cordelia had already been nearing the peak of the social summit when Buffy Summers had arrived in Sunnydale … and what had that amounted to, really? Endless jockeying for position. Spending her life onstage, every moment a performance. A rotating retinue of hangers-on, but no friends, because those closest were always the most dangerous. This was a society where every step up was made on the back (or head) of someone else, so that any moment of weakness could sink you for good.
Given those circumstances, her involvement with the Slayer’s circle had been a fantastic risk, and one she had taken only because it was an unavoidable part of her growing involvement with Angel. She would never have anticipated — and for a long time hadn’t realized — just how much having actual friends, as opposed to nominal ones, would come to mean to her. In fact, she hadn’t truly understood how thoroughly her priorities had shifted, how deeply the respect and trust of her new associates mattered to her, until those things had been lost.
She had been alone her whole life, a showpiece for parents who prized her poise and achievements but showed no particular interest in the person putting on the show. She had carried the same expectations into junior high and then high school, and clawed her way to prominence without ever losing that essential solitude. The interlude with the Slay Friends had been just that, a break in the routine. Now the routine was back in full force, and she was alone again at a time when more than just status depended on her having allies.
Weekend, and nothing to do. Daytime, which (mostly) meant nothing to kill. That didn’t mean she had to sit around and brood on her helplessness. When all else failed, it was time to get back to fundamentals, to the basics that never failed.
For Cordelia, that meant the Mall.
At one time, going to the Sunnydale Mall had been more a social safari than anything else; the shopping was decent, but for really important stuff she usually mounted an L.A. expedition anyhow. Lately, though, outings to the Mall soothed her in a way that little else seemed to do. People but no crowds, music inferior but soft and muted to the background, geography familiar to the last inch but always featuring something new, some change since the last visit. Relaxation and stimulation together, along with the eternal challenge of finding (or creating) something stylish in such an unpromising hunting-ground.
Even if she no longer had any status to preserve, Cordelia still took pride in looking good.
So, makeup base to provide partial concealment for the shiners she had scorned to hide this morning, other cosmetics to alter and blur the bruises that still showed through, designer sunglasses (tinted lightly enough that she could get away with wearing them indoors) as the final level of protection, and a bright patterned scarf to draw the eye elsewhere. Thus armed and armored, she set off, grimly determined to enjoy herself … or, at the least, to break her current mood to the point where she might be able to plan her next move.
She arrived to find, as expected, that the basic layout hadn’t changed. There were a few new kiosks, one for the production of personalized temporary tattoos (tacky but likely to be popular), and one selling gaudy jewelry of the type favored by low-riders and gang-bangers (not that Sunnydale had large numbers of either, so the odds were that a new vendor would be doing business in that spot by the time of her next visit). The main stores and smaller shops she remembered were still in place, though the displays and specials on some had been altered. Cordelia sat on a bench beside the tiered indoor fountain, letting herself absorb the soothing tinkle of falling water while she considered the specific strategies of this one-girl expedition.
That was the plan, at any rate. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been sitting when a voice broke into her reverie. “Hey, Slayer, how’s it hanging? ’S’matter, no eager sailors waiting ’round the docks?”
Cordelia used the turn of her body to take her backward as she came to her feet. All her senses were screaming vampire! How had she let one get so close without noticing? Simultaneous with the movement, her laggard brain began to process its subconscious recognition of the familiar voice, so that by the time her eyes registered the newcomer, she knew who she was facing.
“Sheila.” The word was flat, revealing none of her surprise that the former grunge-girl had actually brought herself within staking distance. For all her low-class origins and scornful disdain for education, Sheila had demonstrated quite a bit more intelligence than many vampires of greater longevity: she zealously avoided the Slayer and any situations where they were likely to meet. In fact, she seemed to avoid other vampires as well, so that she had never become a target of any real priority. “Let me guess,” Cordelia went on. “This is the only place you can restock your supply of Tan-in-a-Can?”
“Har de har har.” Sheila seated herself at the next bench — another shock, putting herself in a vulnerable position in front of a roused Slayer — and Cordelia noted that the vampire girl had gone platinum blonde since the last time they had (fleetingly) crossed paths. “This isn’t about me, Queenie,” Sheila continued breezily. “Not about me and you, either. Nah, this one is all you.”
“Really?” Only her awareness of the throngs of shoppers kept Cordelia from drawing the stake discreetly sheathed at the small of her back, beneath a light jacket-top; even so, her fingers were within a quarter-inch of it. “And here I was thinking it’s about me and the big pile of dust on the bench.”
“Puh-leeze.” Sheila flicked away the thought. “I wouldn’t be here if there was any way you could touch me, so settle down and listen. Runnin’ short of daylight here.”
Somehow Cordelia was sitting again. “Like you have any use for daylight. But, hey, if you want to get in a little sun-bathing, don’t let me slow you down.”
“Okay, we’ve got the insult-a-thon out of the way,” Sheila replied, clearly unconcerned. “Now we can start working toward the Big Reveal.” She studied Cordelia, mouth set in a wide, insolent grin. “What’s that line you used to use, that you could be alone even when you were surrounded by people?”
“And also by non-people, apparently,” Cordelia shot back.
Sheila shook her head. “Fine, be that way. Point is, you are alone, and this isn’t the time for it. You’re doing a solo number when what you need is some backup singers.”
“Backup is for wimps,” Cordelia said firmly. “You know me: only room for one in the spotlight, and center-stage is my natural habitat.”
“Center-stage, five and goal, standing at the podium, none of that matters.” The other girl leaned toward her. “What counts is this: the river’s rising fast, and ‘alone by yourself’ isn’t gonna cut it.”
“Right,” Cordelia said. “Is this where we hug? Or have they switched scripts again?”
“Sorry, that’s all for now.” Sheila stood. “No rest for the wicked. Just remember, the band’s tuning up, and you don’t want your dance card to be blank when they get started.”
She strode away, and Cordelia settled back in her seat. “Sure, I’ll jump right on that.” Then she sighed, and added to herself, “Oh, yeah, back on the wheel. Always a bridesmaid …”
A sharp burst of laughter jolted her to attention, and Cordelia looked to see a group of kids, junior-high age, heading in the direction of the food court. She was hearing the sounds of the fountain again, absent during the ‘conversation’ just past, and — bingo! — she noted that a band of sun from the skylight lay across the bench where she remembered Sheila sitting.
So, another dream. It had the overall feel of a Slayer dream, rather than just random neurons firing, but didn’t actually make much more sense. What kind of warp in destiny would send her Sheila as a mystical messenger? No doubt about it, she needed to start lobbying for better representation.
At any rate, that was enough rest for awhile. Cordelia rose and resumed her retail reconnaissance. She needed to get her mind in order, recover some of the balance that the world didn’t seem to want her to have. Soft lights and new fashion and Muzak? just what the doctor ordered.
Then, as she was passing an electronics store — without a glance, what did she care about any gadgets besides cell-phones? — she heard a familiar voice and she changed directions with an instant body-pivot before she was even aware of having made a decision.
Yes, it was him, arguing with one of the clerks about bus speeds (which made no sense at all, he lived close enough to SHS that he didn’t need to take the bus, but nerds just operated in a different reality), and he trailed off as he saw Cordelia approaching. “Jonathan,” she said without preamble. “Walk with me. I need to ask you a favor.”
“Uh … sure.” He deserted the clerk without a backward glance, and followed Cordelia out into the central thoroughfare. “Wh-what do you need?”
She didn’t reply immediately, still busy sorting out her thoughts. She had acted on impulse, on instinct, and was now coming to grips with the implications. ‘Backup’, the dream-Sheila had said, which — despite her dream-denials — tied straight in with her earlier recognition that she needed help with her current situation. She had a locked disk in her possession, and background conversation in the mirror-Sunnydale had made it clear that the other-universe Jonathan had been cyber-literate and then some. “You know a lot about computers, right?”
Jonathan looked simultaneously eager and uneasy. “Well, not a lot lot. I’m no Willow Rosenberg, but I know my way around a circuit board.” His face fell. “Except, you’ve got Willow if you need to know anything about computers. Look, I’d love to help any way I can, but I’ve gotta tell you, if you have a problem that she can’t handle, I guarantee it’s beyond me.”
It was amazing. According to other-Jonathan and the witch Tara, the alternate Sunnydale she’d been yanked into had just turned over to the year 2002, and in that reality Jonathan had been a sort of hero himself … but, four years older and demon-fighting cool points notwithstanding, he had still looked and talked exactly like the Jonathan now beside her. Apparently circumstances and capabilities might change, but dweebiness was forever.
“You’re probably right,” she said. “But I haven’t asked Willow about this. I can’t, it’s supposed to be a surprise for her.” Which was true. “I have a disk, it was something Miss Calendar was doing, before … well, you know. I found it the other day, and I was hoping I could finish it as a present for Willow; you know how much she liked Miss Calendar. Only, I can’t get the file to open, it’s password-protected. I don’t know what kind of passwords Miss C used, or anything about getting past that kind of lock. You think you might be able to manage something like that?”
Jonathan considered it, biting his lip while his eyes focused somewhere in the elsewhere. “Maybe,” he said. “If Miss Calendar seriously didn’t want anybody getting in, it’ll be totally out of my league. It may have just been habit, though; in her classes, she really stressed protecting sensitive stuff, said it should be as automatic as periodic saves and backups. If it was like that, something she did without thinking about it … well, I know the basic kinds of passwords she taught us to use, plus I’ve got a few digital lockpicks that might help.” He looked to Cordelia. “Sure, I can give it a try. When do you need it?”
Day before yesterday, Cordelia thought. Aloud she said, “As soon as you can make it happen. As in, if you decided to pull an all-nighter and cracked it at three in the morning, I’d want you to call me right then.”
“All-nighter?” Jonathan blinked, then recovered. “Yeah, I could do that, it’s the weekend. I, I can get started right away if you want.”
That would have been good, but she had secreted the diskette inside one of a pair of boots in the back of her closet; too many ways something valuable could get damaged or go missing during the type of events that regularly came flying at her, even (sometimes) in the middle of the day. “Sorry, I don’t have it with me right now. It’s a good idea, though. Could you maybe meet me at the Espresso Pump in an hour? I can pass it over to you then.”
“Sure, yeah, sure thing.” Jonathan was practically hyperventilating. No surprise there, he was rightly stunned at being approached and engaged by someone at the top of the social food chain. (Which she wasn’t anymore, she’d blown off that whole scene the moment Angel had returned to the dark side, but nerds tended to be behind the curve when it came to popularity rankings.) “I’ll see you there, then. An hour. So, you’re not gonna do any more shopping here?”
“Nope.” She gave him a brilliant smile, pouring on the wattage. “I already found what I needed.”
Poor guy, she thought as she pulled out of the Mall parking lot and started back home. Wriggling with eagerness at the least show of attention from the exalted Queen C … It was a shame, really, she knew from her trip to the other universe that Jonathan could be something to reckon with in only a few years, and even now he was far from bad-looking. (In fact, if you came right down to facts, he had the most beautiful eyes she’d ever seen on a guy.) If only he were, like, two feet taller …
Never mind. She’d be nice to him, but that was a sideline to the main issue. She had a path now, an avenue of advance, and characteristicaly she was about to go at it full-throttle.
* * *
Retrieving the disk and carrying it to the Espresso Pump required less than the allotted hour — she had built in a cushion in case of unexpected complications — and Jonathan was likewise early at their agreed meeting spot. Cordelia passed on the disk, taking the time to stress and restress that 1) it was not to be lost or damaged under any circumstances, and 2) this project was totally private, tip-top-secret from absolutely everybody, but especially Willow. Bolstered by Jonathan’s repeated reassurances, she thanked him again and went on her way. This phase of the mission was complete, so now …
… well, what, exactly? Finding a purpose had blunted her interest in shopping and whetted her appetite for action, but it was still early afternoon and she knew of no daytime targets, not even possibilities that she might check out. No point in touching base with any of the others, they’d call her if anything came up and their company was awkward whenever things weren’t all blood and mayhem and gloomy prophecies. Nor was there anyone she could call on for companionship; her former followers — people who didn’t matter — had turned their backs on her for reasons that didn’t matter while the group of outsiders she had amazingly come to count as friends no longer trusted her fully, or in some cases at all.
She had made her own bed … but someone else was lying in it, and might continue to do so until age and death claimed the senseless body.
Cordelia shook her head and pressed her foot down on the accelerator. She wouldn’t wallow in self-recrimination, not because she didn’t deserve it but because it didn’t help accomplish anything. If she had to fill time, she’d do it with something useful.
At home, she made a quick change in her bedroom, then she went down to the workout room she had set up in the basement.
That had required some adroitness on her part. Exercise equipment wouldn’t have been remarked on, but the kind of equipment capable of building a burn in Slayer muscle wasn’t stocked by Cybex or Nautilus, and Cordelia had been afraid her parents might balk at combative arts, or at least require a harder sell than she had felt like delivering. So, she had presented it as part of her campaign to become captain of the cheer squad, which justified the tumbling mats; likewise, she had claimed that the heavy bag was for modified boxers’ routines to combine aerobics with upper body strengthening. She’d had the squad members over a few times, and the room had actually gotten their approval. Once the novelty wore off and the other cheerleaders were caught up in more interesting pursuits, however, Cordelia had begun quietly bringing in other equipment: a wing chun wooden dummy, weapons, pommel horse and balance beam and hanging rings, anything she could use to increase her flexibility, hone her reaction speed, polish her familiarity with various forms of combat. Giles had managed a decent program in the library for Buffy … but both space and (guaranteed) privacy were limited there, and if Cordelia Chase was going to do something, she meant to excel at it.
The original idea had been to set up a place where all the Slay Friends could train if they wished, though of course primarily for the benefit of the Slayer. Somehow it hadn’t happened that way. Unfavorable scheduling, the unfolding of events, the reluctance of some people (read: Marcie, Nancy, Tucker) to gather at Cordelia’s home, even for an unarguably worthwhile purpose … Different things kept the plan from being realized, and then Cordelia had been shunted to outsider status by the debacle of her and Buffy’s private plan to rescue the kidnaped Xander and Willow. End of all possibilities.
She had trained here a few times with Angel, back before her life had hung a sharp left into horror and melodrama. Now, it was for her alone, and by this time she preferred it so.
The plain fact was that no one else could challenge her. (Well, sure, Kendra, but the Caribbean Slayer was always off dealing with this or that dark evil rising somewhere in the back of beyond.) She operated in a gear that practically no one else could reach, and any sparring with others automatically meant either holding herself back or breaking her training partners. She could do more, go farther, by setting her own program and driving herself through it.
As she did now. Kicks and punches into the heavy bag, gymnastics moves to evade imaginary attacks and launch counterstrikes. Shifting, twisting, tumbling, using the handsprings and flips as a springboard to new attacks, sometimes incorporating strikes into the moves themselves. One kata after another, those she had been taught and those she had taught herself and those she had invented, chaining them together or breaking off without preparation to throw herself into something entirely dissimilar. Weapons, classical and improvised (she’d developed some routines with a claw hammer and a linoleum knife that would’ve made Steven Seagal gulp and back off quick). Attack and defense against an endless array of imaginary opponents, situations culled from memory or launched on the fly …
Kendra had once called her sloppy, unfocused. Doubtful that the girl would render any such judgment now.
Angel had given Cordelia a measure of competition, back when she had just begun to get truly serious about her self-driven training regimen. Even if he didn’t have her speed or power, he was close, and he could draw on a few centuries’ worth of accumulated sneakiness. He hadn’t quite pushed her to her full limits, but every workout with him had brought new lessons she was eager to learn. He fought the way a vampire fought, and he was one of the best, and becoming familiar with that approach, that style, that basic set of moves and attitudes, meant that she could hold her own against any heartbeat-challenged yahoo in existence …
Maybe he thought he had learned as much from her as she had from him. Maybe he had overestimated his ability to play on her feelings. Or, maybe, the pleasure of hurting her as deeply as possible had been just too tempting to resist. The night she had killed her vampiricized father, the night grief and need had driven her to make love with Angel for the first (only) time … that night had given way to a cold dawn, she waking alone in a house decorated by broken furniture and scattered piles of ashes, with no understanding of where her lover had gone or what his absence meant. She had gone seeking him, looking in all the spots where they had hunted or patrolled or even just hung out together. (There had been no way for her to check where he lived — or rested, or slept, or whatever — because she didn’t know where it was, he had always come to her.) Most of those were locales he couldn’t visit during the day, so of course most of her search had been, by necessity, postponed until dark.
She found him, at last, at the Bronze. Though the site (more or less) of their first meeting, it wasn’t one of their favorite meeting spots: too public, for a relationship that had been growing increasingly more private. He had been standing at the upper level, leaning on the railing and watching the crowd below. Even in the shadows, he stood out somehow. His eyes were hungry, speculative, and they held a dancing amusement she had never seen before. He didn’t look her way as she rushed to him, even though she knew somehow that, music and clamor notwithstanding, he was fully aware of her approach.
She halted, hand just short of touching him. Confusion fought a growing sense of something wrong: she was hesitating, and there was absolutely nothing hesitant about Cordelia Chase! “Angel,” she said at last, forcing the word out, and at last he turned his head to look at her. His smile set off fresh alarms — it wasn’t right, it didn’t go with who he was, with how they felt about one another — but she forged ahead. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you, I didn’t know where you’d gone, I thought … I thought something was wrong, I was afraid that —”
“Wrong?” he said, and his voice carried the same hint of mockery she had seen in that smile. “What could possibly be wrong?”
An ugly feeling was growing in the pit of her stomach, but she didn’t have a name for it. “You left,” she said, and even she could hear the harsh note of reproach.
“Left, yeah.” He gave her an easy shrug. “Just needed to clear my head a little. You know how it is.” He turned to look again at the throngs milling and dancing below him, but the next words were pitched to carry clearly to her. “Like I was gonna want to hang around after that.”
The shock was like a physical blow, and she seized him by the shoulder, spinning him around to face her. “What? What did you say?”
“Hey, hey.” His hands came up defensively, palms out, and his tone was placating, but the false concern he tried to put on his face was worse than a leer. “You had to be expecting something like this, right? I mean, you’ve got the look down cold, and I’ll give you style points, but let’s be serious: all those years, all that teasing with never any delivery … when would you ever learn the first thing about how to please a man?”
And she hit him. It was meant to be a slap, but arrived as a fist, with a force that blasted straight through the block he tried to throw up. He was slammed back against the railing, and for an instant his assurance seemed to waver, but he was already forming a mock-regretful response. “Whoa, temper! I know the truth hurts —” and then he threw himself off the balcony, the only move that would carry him clear of the stake she had tried to drive through his chest.
She knew. The ball of cold dread in her belly had coalesced into an awful lump of certainty, and she knew. This wasn’t Angel. This wasn’t the man she loved. She had memorized every shift of expression, every nuance of his voice, and the two of them had let one another through barriers that locked out the rest of the world. She knew Angel, and Angel was gone … and a demon wearing her lover’s face was an obscenity to be instantly expunged.
Anyone else would have smashed through one of the tables below, and perhaps triggered the kind of panic-stampede that so regularly ended evenings at the Bronze. He was cat-agile, however, twisting in the air to land in clear space, brushing a table without upsetting it, and the people around him startled but recovered when he made no aggressive move toward them. He simply stood where he was, looking up at her, and she looked back at him, and the new state of things between them was set.
He could try to play whatever games he wanted. (And he would, again and again in the weeks and months that followed.) She wouldn’t. Every time she saw him, from this moment forward, she would be doing her utmost to kill him on the spot.
The other members of the former Slay Friends had begun referring to him as Angelus, to distinguish him from the man who had been their ally. Cordelia wouldn’t do that. She called him Angel, still, wrath and pride refusing any compromise. She wouldn’t forget, wouldn’t allow herself to forget, what she had lost or who had taken it from her, stabbing herself with a fresh reminder every time she spoke his name. And, on the day she killed him, she would do it with her eyes wide open, looking straight at that face when it crumbled into ash …
She lurched forward as the heavy bag flew away from her to crash into the far wall, the unexpected lack of resistance pitching her from the steady stance that had anchored her while she unleashed a flurry of punches. She recovered her balance, and saw that the chain suspending the bag from the ceiling had broken under her ownslaught. She swore to herself. She had repeatedly reinforced the cover of the bag, had mounted it from a wide bracket secured by three-quarter-inch bolts, but she hadn’t guarded against shoddy metallurgy in the chain itself.
Unacceptable, totally unacceptable. She was in control, always in control, and now poor workmanship was making it appear that the control had faltered. That simply wouldn’t do.
A glance at the wall clock reassured her. She had met her main objective, using up the day in productive energy. It was early evening; within an hour the sun would have set far enough for Sunnydale’s creepy-crawlies to begin emerging.
At which time, maybe, she could pummel some things she wanted to break.
By all reports, Buffy had done her patrolling solely on foot. Cordelia preferred to split the town into sections: drive to a general area, leave her car to do a sweep of that area, check out any possibilities, and then move on. It might be no more efficient — or not much more, at any rate — but it suited her better.
At first, Cordelia had wanted to prove she was a better Slayer than Buffy. Not grimly determined (bringing Buffy back to life, becoming the Slayer in her stead, and snagging Angel in the bargain had cemented her position pretty solidly), but all the same, she had wanted to make certain that she didn’t suffer by comparison. Lately, however, it had come to seem, as evidenced by their patrol habits, that a lot of things were differences in personal style rather than clear-cut superiority.
By the time she had scouted five major sections of Sunnydale in-depth, the ones that experience had taught her topped the list when it came to mystical activity, and found nothing stirring in any of them, she was willing to admit this was probably one of those nights. Treacherous, contrarian, blowing up into major trauma when you wanted to call it off early, hitting you with phlegm-spraying snarfblatts the day after a classic perfect style-and-perm, tossing out a secondary crisis to distract or mislead you from the really important issues … or giving you nothing, dead absolute nothing, just when your deepest heart’s desire was several straight hours of rending and killing.
Cordelia went to Buffy’s house. Earlier than her normal habit, but she was growing desperate, and on some occasions — and a quick reconnoiter confirmed that this was one such — Joyce Summers felt the need to fortify herself with a variety of flavored liqueurs in the evening, making a visit to an upstairs bedroom reasonably safe as long as the visitor kept her voice down and her ears open and stayed ready to slide out the window on a second’s notice. The latter proved to be unnecessary, but still Cordelia didn’t stay long. There was little she could say that she hadn’t said already, many times. There was nothing she could do to change a situation that seemed to be slowly destroying most of the people who mattered to her. Nothing had changed (a bright, cheerful Band-Aid at the crook of Buffy’s elbow, doubtless following one of the periodic blood-draws for testing, was the only detail different in the room), nothing would ever change, she was helpless and couldn’t bear it and so she left.
Cordelia remembered the ferocious, driven woman who had fought next to her in the tunnels of the hive-rats, and then later fallen in wordlessly beside her in their mutual attempts to kill the man — the thing — that they both hated above all else. That same woman, following a different life-path, was now quietly drinking herself unconscious on the ground floor of the Revello Drive house. Only one of multiple tragedies that could be traced back to a single person’s carelessness, arrogance, and incompetence.
God, Cordelia thought. If I don’t find something to kill soon, and I mean soon, I may just kill myself instead.
Predictably, when she finally found something, it did nothing to improve her situation.
The absence of any promising opposition had reduced Cordelia to checking out less and less likely prospects. She wasn’t scraping the bottom of the barrel, not just yet, but she was now doing a search through the Slayer equivalent of off-off-off-Broadway. The old science building, burned out by the conclusion of Chris’ and Eric’s little game of mix-and-match-with-the-body-parts, was far from being prime hunting territory, but various nasties did occasionally try to nest in the wreckage.
Just not tonight. She was emerging from the smoke-blackened hulk, cursing the sourness of her luck and wondering now what, when a familiar, loathsome chuckle drifted to her from the darkness. She spun, already moving toward the sound, and Angel’s voice prompted, “This way, Princess.” A trap, it had to be a trap, she knew good and damn well this was a trap, even as she went for that voice with the smoothly deceptive speed that could have paced a varsity sprinter.
She checked as a high chain-link fence loomed in front of her, and in the instant she spent calculating the probable source of his voice, Angel stepped from behind a tree on the other side. “I know you’re just panting to jump straight into the action,” he said easily, smiling, “but throttle back for a second. I’m here to talk.”
“Talk away,” she said, and threw her stake simultaneous with the words, threading it between the links of the fence with preternatural accuracy. She was quicker than he was and they both knew it, but he was quick enough; he swatted the stake aside inches from his chest, then raised a double-edged broadsword.
“I’m here to talk,” he repeated. “No, the fence won’t stop you, you can come right over it if you’re determined … and I can stand here and cut you in half before you land. I’d rather not, because much as I’d love to kill you —” He broke off to favor her with the characteristic smirk. “Well, you know how much I’d love to kill you, and how long I’d want to make it last. But at the moment, we really, really need to talk.”
“Talk away,” Cordelia repeated. She was holding another stake — and had two more situated within easy reach — but she waited, listening for any minions he might have sent to flank her and watching for any slip in his alertness. It would come, he loved too much to listen to himself, sooner or later it would come.
“Right,” Angel said, still holding the smirk. “Keep on hoping; I’m not about to drop my guard. Now, tell me, have you ever heard of a defining moment?”
Cordelia snorted. “You mean like the moment I define you as carpet sweepings?”
“Myself, I’m more inclined to art than philosophy,” he went on as if she hadn’t spoken. “But I have given the matter some thought. After all, I’ve been hit with two major defining moments, and — wouldn’t you know it — both of them were about sex, and both of them set me free.” His smile broadened into sardonic pleasure. “Difference is, Darla changed me and then came sex; you, you brought me back to my true self with sex. You must just hate yourself.”
“The difference,” Cordelia corrected, “is that what you got from me literally blew your mind, and what I got from you had me thinking, ‘Was that it? I thought there was supposed to be more to it than that.’ ”
It didn’t touch him in the slightest; he shook his head slowly, still smiling. “Tell yourself that if you want, but don’t waste your time trying to convince me. If there’s anything I know, it’s the sound and the feel and the smell of a woman in rapture. The thing about defining moments,” he continued with airy confidence, “is that you almost never know when they’re coming. Sometimes you don’t even know when they’ve arrived.”
“For someone who loves the spotlight,” Cordelia observed, “you truly have no idea how boring you are, do you?”
Angel laughed. “You want excitement? Fine, I’ll pick up the tempo. You changed my world, just like I told you … and a few weeks ago, you changed Spike’s. More than mine, in some ways.”
“Spike,” Cordelia said. “Another leading candidate for carpet sweepings.”
“Which is exactly what you should have done,” Angel said with abrupt, unexpected venom. “Killed him, not Drusilla. Or him and then Drusilla. Or Drusilla, and then him before he could stop screaming.”
“All wonderful ideas,” Cordelia agreed. “Except you always leave out the part where I give you open-heart surgery with a pointy stick.”
“Because it’s never going to happen. But you’re trying to change the subject. Spike —” Angel shook his head without ever taking his eyes from Cordelia. “That boy has always been a marvel. Maybe the best all-out brawler I’ve ever known. He doesn’t just love the kill, he doesn’t even get off mainly on hurting people; he loves it when somebody hurts him in the middle of a fight, because it gives him something more to beat. And at the same time, just the most pathetic little bottle-baby where Drusilla was concerned.”
“Too boo-hoo bad,” Cordelia said. “She’s not in the picture anymore.”
“I know,” Angel returned. “You killed her, and left him out there, and now you’re going to be sorry you didn’t do it the other way around.” A dramatic pause, and then he added, “In fact, the whole world is going to be sorry. Just not for very long, because then it’ll be gone.”
“Nice delivery on the punch line,” Cordelia said. “And yet I remain unconvinced. I don’t know why that might be, unless it’s the lying bastard behind the mouth.”
“You don’t want to believe me?” Angel challenged her, the smile gone. “Then don’t. It won’t be the first time you screwed up, but it’ll definitely be the last. I’m just sorry you won’t have a good, long time to regret it.”
“Okay,” Cordelia said, exasperated. “You keep telling me Spike is out to end the world. Why should I believe that about a guy who’s always been more into playing with his food? Why should I believe a ‘brawler’ could suddenly come up with the juice to set off his own apocalypse? Most of all, why should I believe you wouldn’t be sitting up in the bleachers with a bag of blood and a tub of popcorn, blowing a little party horn?”
“I do love a good spectacle,” Angel admitted. “Just not the kind that rules out any other spectacles, ever. I’m basically a ‘the world is my canvas’ type of fella. No more world, no more place for me to refine my art.”
Cordelia let out a bark of laughter. “Sure, and I sell Mary Kay. If Spike really is on track to end the world, and you really are trying to stop him — both of which I doubt — it would only because you couldn’t stand to see him beat you at anything.” She made as if to turn away. “Not that it matters, because there’s no way I’d ever believe you were telling the truth about anything.”
“Aww,” he said, affecting a hurt tone. “Just because I faked you out by switching Xander and Willow in our little game of ‘heads, he dies, tails, she dies’? That was all in fun. This is serious.” His voice went suddenly cold. “It’s absolutely true, I’d rather see you dead than Spike. But if I can get you to help me kill him, it just means all that much more time I can spend working up a proper send-off for you.”
“There you go,” Cordelia said, nodding. “Promise a girl a bloody, agonizing death, that’s the way to win her confidence and trust.”
He laughed. “At least you know I’m telling the truth when I talk about killing you. And, just to help make my point, I’ll toss out something else you can believe.” His eyes cut to one side, and a sly smile stretched his mouth. “Watch your left.”
She would have disregarded it as a trick, except her own senses had already begun swinging her around to face the new threat; she morphed her turn into a diving roll of evasion, in case Angel tried something while her back was to him — fence or no — and came up to the side of the main rush. Demons, five no six of them, wide squat bodies and bat-ears, amphibian-smooth skin patterned in bright whorls of gaudy pigment, and triple-jointed arms reaching for her from several directions at once.
She staked one in the throat, smashed another away from her with a driving knee-piston that snapped wrongly-placed ribs, and then two more grabbed her from either side. She propelled herself into the air, twisting in their grip to strike at their faces with booted feet, but she missed one and only grazed the other, tearing one ear from the side of his head. He shrieked and let go to clutch at the ragged remnant, she staggered sideways in the grasp of the first one and more were coming —
A sword schink!ed into the ground beside her, point-first, and she snatched it up and slashed outward, spilling ghastly intestines and triggering cacophanous howls of agony. That settled the newcomers, and she struck backward at the one holding her, then half-turned to decapitate the one whose ribs she had broken, followed seconds later by the still-wailing One-Ear.
There were no others. She looked around to be sure, then at where Angel had stood (gone, of course), and finally at the sword in her hand.
As she had suspected, it was the one Angel had been holding. Had he lofted it over the fence in hopes of impaling her while she was distracted, or had he simply wanted to oppress her with the galling knowledge that he had saved her?
Or — and the thought seemed incredible, but no longer entirely impossible — might his claim, that he wanted her to help him stop Spike from ending the world, be actually true?
Against her will, Cordelia found herself scouting the Bronze. After her first encounter there with unsouled-Angel, plus other but much less important developments, it had disappeared entirely from her Favorite Places list. (Once she had all but lived there. So many changes, so little chance to adjust.) Furthermore, a long campaign even before then had impressed upon the local vampires and other assorted low-lifes that the vicinity of the Bronze was a seriously unhealthy locale for them. Every now and then, though, some newbie would start sniffing around the edges of forbidden territory, so an occasional swing-through was still called for.
She arrived about half an hour before closing. That was prime-time for this area now: when the unwary lambs started straggling out, too separated to watch out for each other but too numerous for a single guardian (or a single small group, but Cordelia was operating more and more on her own these days) to fully protect. She established a perimeter and began circling inward, sometimes surveilling from rooftops but more frequently close-in on the streets. She couldn’t watch everywhere, she couldn’t safeguard everybody, but this place — the pre-eminent hangout of those she passed daily in the school hallways — should be a haven, and she meant to see that it stayed that way.
She spotted one vampire, loitering hesitantly three blocks from the club itself, watching one of the main streets leading away from it but visibly nervous about venturing into a known danger zone. Cordelia considered simply scaring him away, since a vamp spreading the word that the Slayer was still mounting grim watch here might be worth more than one who just failed ever to return … but around the distant corner she heard footfalls and giggling, potential targets for the numbwit waiting below, and that settled it.
Though still unable to nerve himself to move forward, he was so intent on the approaching snacklets that Cordelia was almost on him before he jerked around at some noise she hadn’t made, and saw her. He took off with the lightning reflex of a panicked rabbit, zero to all-out dash in less than a second, but the same panic took him into a dead-end alley with the Slayer on his heels. He ran straight into the wall at the end, so blind was his flight, and it threw off Cordelia’s timing, she’d thought to intercept him as he reversed course, but he bounced back to fall in front of her while she was still moving and she tripped over him in an ignominious flailing roll.
Okay, embarrassing much? She was up again in the moment of landing — he was back on his feet, too, he’d started rising while she was still falling — but he ran into her again, his forehead smashing into her cheek in an involuntary but potent strike that blinded her for a fraction of a second as the impact reverberated through the bruising still around her nose and eyes. She struck out by instinct, three fast, hard blows directed by an internal proximity sense rather than by thought and aim, connected glancingly with one and solidly with two. He dropped in his tracks with a choked gurgle, and this time when he came up, it was directly into her stake.
She leaned against the wall of the alley, still dizzy for a few moments, before shaking her head and starting on her way. Dumb, clumsy and inept, and he’d done more damage than the half-dozen demons earlier. It was mortifying.
Nor was that the end of it: as she emerged from the alley, Cordelia came face to face with Harmony Kendall. They were equally surprised, but Harmony recovered more quickly, and the two girls with her (Carlie Nochs, Cordelia saw, and one of the ever-hopeful hangers-on, an Asian girl with some forgettable name) tittered appreciatively as their ringleader gave her former rival a scathing head-to-toe lookover. “Well,” Harmony said, eyeing Cordelia’s black denim slacks and black pullover, somewhat the worse for wear from tonight’s scuffles. “I’d think that might be the latest in gangster chic, only I don’t know any gangsters with such trashy taste. Plus, no chic.”
For her own part, Cordelia could only regard the other girl with a muted annoyance: this was what she had just put herself to such inconvenience to save. Could it really be that she had once cared about the opinions, or at least the social damage they could do, of such a brainless lump of shallowtude? “Go home, Harmony. It’s late, and there are things out here so low, they’d even go after you.”
The Asian girl drew a sharp breath, her eyes widening (why, Cordelia wondered, did she always wear a scarf around her neck? a one-note attempt at style if ever there was), and Harmony flushed. “You should know from low,” she shot back, gesturing at the alley. “What, did you just finish earning this week’s crack money on your knees?”
It was actually a decently crafted rejoinder, and Cordelia could almost regret the unfair immunity that her indifference gave her. “Why do you bother, Harmony?” she asked, and there was no acid in her tone, only a kind of distant impatience. “Why does it matter to you? You got what you wanted. You’re on top now. You rule the school, and that’s always been your dream, so why do you even waste the effort it takes to toss out insults?” Cordelia tilted her head to study her bristling adversary. “Are you scared? Is that it? Is this insecurity? Do you ever admit to yourself that you didn’t really beat me? That you won because I just stopped caring enough to fight?”
“Like it would have been any kind of fight,” Harmony scoffed weakly. “And I am just SO past caring what you think!”
“Go home,” Cordelia said again. “If you got yourself killed, I’d have to find some way to feel sorry.” She turned to leave, adding over her shoulder, “And I don’t want to have to dig that deep.”
She left Harmony spluttering behind her on the sidewalk, and headed for where she had parked her car. Burning bridges? No, those embers had cooled long ago, and the ashes washed away.
Her life was elsewhere now.
She found nothing else to fight that night. When she finally went to bed, only a few hours before dawn, Buffy came to her in a dream, holding one of those glass snow-globes which, Cordelia could see, contained a miniature version of Sunnydale. Staring into the globe as if it were a crystal ball, Buffy kept saying, “I’m lost. You lost me. I can’t find my way back. You let me get lost.”
The sound of her telephone awakened her, and Cordelia was astonished to see that it was past noon. She had slept for almost nine hours, which hadn’t happened in months except for when she was sufficiently injured that her Slayer energies were channeled into healing. So why was she still exhausted? Not tired, not achy, physically she was fine, but her head had that oddly hollow buzzing sensation that kept insisting, Girl, you need rest.
Noise. Annoying. Focus. Oh, right: phone. She picked it up, flipped it open. “Yes? What?”
The reply was several seconds of silence, then an uncertain, “Um, Cordelia? I, uh … this is Jonathan. You, you said to call as soon as I had anything —”
It still took her a moment to connect, and then her concentration crystallized. “Jonathan? Yes, right, great. So you managed to open the disk?”
“Yeah, yeah I did. It was tricky, but I kept going over the things Miss Calendar taught us while she was explaining the levels of password protection, and I managed to figure it out.” Another pause. “Uh, I think maybe we need to talk.”
Cordelia took a sharp breath, but her grip didn’t tighten enough to shatter the phone; she was in control. “Really? About what?”
“Well, if this is what I think it might be, is it something you want to go into on the telephone?”
No, definitely not. First of all, she needed to get the disk back into her hands; second, vampires tended to be seriously conservative where technology was concerned, but there was nothing to keep Spike — or Angel — from turning some Radio Shack nerd and getting him to monitor her line. “No, you’re right, I don’t. Meet at the same place as before?”
It was agreed, and Cordelia hung up the phone and stared at herself in the mirror. The bruising from night before last was almost completely gone, she noted with approval, but already she could tell she was in for one of those days.
She took the time for a shower — she’d skipped shampooing yesterday, but some acts of neglect were not to be repeated — and dressed with the expensive simplicity that had once consumed much of her waking attention. (Her mother was beginning to express worry over their financial situation, but Cordelia had other priorities just now. Yes, Daddy was gone now — and there was a problem with the life insurance because, staked and fallen to dust, he hadn’t left a body — but he’d spent years pulling in the big bucks. They had to be okay, right?) Style was one weapon among many, and it was the right selection for this situation.
Jonathan was waiting in a back booth at the Espresso Pump, and his expression combined excitement, uncertainty, and furtive alarm. Cordelia slid into the seat opposite him and began briskly, “Okay, I’m here. So what’s your major issue?”
He looked around to be sure nobody was nearby to overhear, then leaned over the table toward her and spoke in a low voice. “Working through the kind of protection Miss Calendar set up, even when she wasn’t going all-out, isn’t like finding a locker combination,” he explained. “I mean, you don’t listen to the tumblers until they go spung! and then it’s open. No, this is like peeling an onion combined with dismantling a bomb. I had to work my way in, checking alternate pathways to be sure there were no triplines, testing every step and then mapping out where I’d been —”
“It wasn’t easy,” Cordelia interrupted. “I got that. So?”
“Well, I had to look at the file extensions,” Jonathan went on defensively. “To make sure they weren’t part of a defense I didn’t understand. And some of them I didn’t recognize, so I had to do an echo-extract-and-peek on the contents, and they weren’t code traps but they weren’t files you’d have the right programs to open. So then I had to work up a way to display them, because getting into the disk wouldn’t help if you had no way to work with what was there, and …” He gave her a sidelong, anxious look. “Well, I wound up seeing more than maybe you were wanting me to see.”
“Mm-hmm,” Cordelia said. Then, “So, do you have the disk with you?”
“Huh? Oh, sure.” Jonathan passed over the item in question with guileless eagerness, which settled one of Cordelia’s worries. “And I installed a couple of text programs, tandem-linked, that let you get a clear look at the main file stored there. It’s just …” He trailed off, studying Cordelia doubtfully.
“Yes, Jonathan?” she asked, the image of irreproachable patience. (She was so totally qualified for sainthood!) “What is it?”
“Well,” he said, “I’ve read enough different stuff to know Latin when I see it, and to know what some of the words mean, and to recognize patterns even when it’s Latin mixed with other languages and then translated with a linguistic comparison analysis. Some of those patterns were familiar — you pick up things when you attend Sunnydale High, or at least you do if you want to live till graduation — and the stuff I recognized …”
He trailed off again, and again she prompted, “Yes, Jonathan?”
Gathering his courage, he took the plunge. “Is Willow studying to be a witch?” he asked. “Was Miss Calendar teaching her witchcraft?”
It would have been child’s play to laugh it off, or just cut him cold, but Cordelia found herself considering. As Dream-Sheila had pointed out, she needed backup, and as things now stood, she might not be able to count on the cooperation of her former friends. (Would they think she was just trying to bring back her boyfriend? reject any plan that didn’t involve killing him, regardless of the tactical reality?) Maybe it was time for her to develop an alternative approach — at the very least, a fallback plan — and the Jonathan of the future/ mirror universe had seemed to have decent chops as a magic user. The company he’d kept, though … “Do you know a guy named Warren?” she demanded.
“Huh? No.” Jonathan frowned. “I mean, there’s somebody who transferred in after Christmas, but he’s a senior, all into advanced engineering classes, pre-college stuff. I heard he was a D&D gamer, and I’d thought of seeing if he was part of any group here, but we haven’t actually met —”
“Stay away from him,” Cordelia ordered. “And the same goes for —” (The other one, what was his name?) “— for Tucker Wells’ little brother.”
Jonathan looked puzzled. “I thought you were friends with Tucker.”
“Only sort of,” Cordelia said. “And former. Just do it, all right? Steer clear of this Warren character and … the other one. Both of them. Got it?”
“Okay,” Jonathan agreed, still clearly a little bewildered. “It’s just … what do they have to do with —?”
“I was about to fill you in on that,” Cordelia said. And proceeded to do so.
During the telling, with the inevitable questions and interruptions, Cordelia watched Jonathan go from doubt to excitement and into fear. Before she was done, he had repeated the cycle several times. At the end, when she’d said it all, she simply sat in silence and let him digest this new view of the world.
“So,” he said at last. “Vampires.”
“All kinds of things with a major yuck index,” Cordelia clarified. “But yes, we mostly deal with vampires.”
“So when Miss Calendar was killed —?”
“Yep.” She nodded. “Vampires.”
“Vampires,” Cordelia confirmed.
“And the reason the librarian is in a wheelchair, and Buffy is in a coma …?”
“Is me,” she said flatly. “I messed up, and they paid for it. But as for what actually did it to them, yeah, you guessed it. Vampires.”
“Oh.” Jonathan looked relieved. “I was afraid you’d done some kind of Rogue thing on Buffy.”
“I’m sorry,” Cordelia said. “Some kind of what?”
“She’s, like, a comic-book character,” Jonathan explained. “She can absorb somebody’s powers through any kind of skin-on-skin contact, only she can’t control it. The first guy she kissed, she took all his memories and consciousness without meaning to, he was in a coma for years and then he died.”
“Okay. Look,” Cordelia explained, more than faintly repulsed, “first of all, I didn’t kiss Buffy.”
“Well, you did, kind of,” Jonathan pointed out. “When you did CPR on her, to get her heart going again? They used to call mouth-to-mouth resuscitation ‘the kiss of life’.”
Cordelia shook her head. “That was last year,” she said. “I didn’t put Buffy in a coma, I brought her back from being dead. The coma was caused by blood loss.”
“Right,” Jonathan said. “Sorry.” He thought some more. “And you killed the lady vampire who did it.”
“Dustier than Milli Vanilli’s last music award,” Cordelia agreed.
“And now her boyfriend wants to destroy the whole world ’cause he’s PO-ed.”
“I don’t know if he can pull it off,” Cordelia said. “World-endage, not as easy as it sounds. But he really was a head-case where Drusilla was concerned, so I’m thinking yeah, if he can, he will.”
“And you want to stop that,” Jonathan said. “To save the world.” Blink. “With my help.”
“In a nutshell.”
He shook his head, sighed. “We are so far beyond screwed.”
Cordelia had begun by laying out the basic history — the Cliff Notes version — and the current crisis. Explaining the re-ensoulment spell, the reason and the need for it, was going to take more time, and she wasn’t about to trust the privacy of the back booth in a coffee shop. She drove Jonathan to Weatherly Park (he was nearly hyperventilating at being in the same car with her, and once again Cordelia felt a pang that someone so needy and so basically decent should also be so regrettably undesirable), and at an open picnic table where she could confirm by Slayer sight and hearing that no one was nearby, she sketched out a fuller picture.
When she had finished, Jonathan said, “I can’t do it.”
“I believe in you, Jonathan.” Cordelia wet her lips and leaned toward him. (Forget sainthood, she was definitely hell-bound.) “I told you Slayers get these psychic flashes, right? Well, I’ve seen … like a future version of you. I know what you’re capable of.”
“Someday, maybe.” Jonathan shook his head. “See, for you it all came at once, zap! and you were the Slayer and you just needed to get better at it. It doesn’t work that way for other people. I don’t know anything about magic, but I know I can’t just jump in and do it. We’re talking training, study, learning my limits and working my way in slow. If you’re right and I have a natural feel for magic, then it’s telling me I can’t do what you want. Not right now, not for weeks. Months would be better.” He sighed. “What you need is somebody who’s been doing it for years.”
“I only know one person like that,” Cordelia said, thinking of the crippled Giles. “And, confidentially? not my biggest fan just now.”
“What about Amy?” Jonathan said suddenly.
“What?” Cordelia said. “Who?”
“Amy Madison,” he prompted. “You know her, she was on the cheerleading team for, like, five seconds? I heard stuff about her mother, and Amy —”
Oh, right. Except it had been Catherine Madison, wearing her daughter’s body, who had become a cheerleader, in part by temporarily blinding Cordelia in her pre-SlayFriend days; she’d finally learned the full truth on becoming an active part of the group. “Amy won’t be able to help us,” Cordelia said. “I know how it may have looked, but she isn’t what we need right now.”
“Oh.” Jonathan’s face fell, then he frowned. “So how did she hypnotize Ms Beakman? Was that, like, an actual mutant power instead of magic?”
What? “What?” Cordelia said.
“Uh, it was what made me suggest her. A while back, couple of weeks ago maybe, I saw Ms Beakman take a handful of nothing from Amy, and act like it was a major paper. She wasn’t pretending, either, she looked blank for a second and then her face went kind of goofy. And the way Amy was smiling … well, I just thought —”
“Jonathan,” Cordelia said, standing, “why don’t we go have a talk with Amy?”
The girl lived with her father now, in a house more like Buffy’s than the baroque gloominess Buffy had described as Catherine Madison’s witchy abode. Amy opened the door when Jonathan rang the bell, and when she saw who was standing outside, Cordelia watched a series of lightning calculations race behind the other girl’s eyes. “Somewhere else,” Amy said. “My father doesn’t know. Okay?”
“I’ll drive you,” Cordelia agreed. And it was back to the park.
Amy required less explanation than had been necessary for Jonathan. She already knew the basics, both from her prior experience and from the things she had learned once she began exploring her birthright; mostly it was a matter of bringing her up to date on events and personalities. About Angel, she said, “For real? I knew he was a vampire — he kind of stands out, for somebody who’s supposed to survive by not drawing attention to himself — and I knew he was serious bad news, but I didn’t know he was your ex. And the business where he used to have a soul … you’re sure about that?”
“Trust me,” Cordelia said. “If you ever saw Angel with a soul, you’d know the difference. And you will, if you help me put it back into him. Which is basically what we want you for.”
Cordelia explained the history of Angel’s curse, including the escape clause, and Amy nodded understanding. “Chaining the demon to a human soul,” she said approvingly. “Now that’s punishment. Tough luck for the human involved, but pretty good as revenge goes. I can’t really figure turning the demon loose again if the human side ever knows any happiness, though. No kind of logic there — oh.”
“What?” Jonathan asked, before Cordelia could.
“They had to leave an out,” Amy said. “Like a pressure valve, sort of. Sentencing a demon to eternal torment is one thing, but you can’t bind a human soul like that. Not this side of heaven or hell, anyway. The only way they could use the soul at all was to include conditions where it could someday attain freedom. They just talked themselves into believing it was their idea. A face-saving thing, kind of.”
“So Angel … is free now?” Cordelia said wonderingly.
“Free as any other soul.” Amy studied Cordelia appraisingly. “I’m not sure he’d thank you for tying him back to the murderous fiend you’ve been trying to kill.”
It was a new thought, and not at all appealing, but Jonathan said, “Is it better to leave the vampire out there, killing whenever he gets an appetite or gets bored?”
“It’s a weapon,” Cordelia said, shoving back her qualms. “A way to stop … to stop Angelus, if we can’t find any other way.”
“So why him?” Amy asked. “Why do you need a secret weapon against him if he’s trying to help you stop Armaggedon?”
“Because I don’t trust him,” Cordelia said. “Because he’s a liar from way back. Because it would be just like him to use me to take a world-ending Whatever away from Spike, and then activate it himself and laugh at the look on my face while the sky catches fire.”
“Okay,” Amy said. “I’m all for not burning up with the rest of the world. The spell you’re describing, though … I’d have to look at it, but I’m not sure I could pull it off. Gypsy magic, that’s wild stuff: plenty of passion, and when they need discipline to hold it together, they just pour in more passion. It may not be the most powerful stuff out there, but it’s plenty volatile. I’m not sure I could handle it, not jumping in cold.”
“Damn it,” Cordelia said, vexed. “Everybody I talk to says they can’t do it. Is it too much to ask if magic-users will actually use magic?”
“Lighten up, queen bee,” Amy shot back while Jonathan goggled. “Look, there’s not just different kinds of magic, there are different ways to go about it. Mess up the combinations, it’s like mixing the wrong chemicals.”
“What do you mean, different ways?” Jonathan wanted to know.
Amy turned to him, intrigued. “You’re interested?” she asked.
“Well …” Jonathan shot an involuntary glance at Cordelia. “There are some things that make me think I might have an aptitude.”
Amy laughed. “That’s part of it, all right. The way I look at it — and understand, I’m self-taught here — magic comes to you by three paths. There’s power, and there’s knowledge, and there’s talent. Most practitioners, the ones that can actually do anything, start off calling on their own power. That’s simplest, and easiest to control, and you can get some solid results if you have decent power to start with.” She smiled. “Like I do. After awhile, though, they usually want to push past their own limits. That’s where knowledge comes in, either shaping your own power more effectively or calling up power from elsewhere. Or both. I like to invoke power from the entities represented in the Graeco-Roman pantheon: they’re better known, and easier to understand, and more likely to honor a fair bargain. Even so, you want to be sure you don’t contract for more than you’re willing to repay.
“That leaves the last part: talent. Somebody who has a true feel for it can tap into all types of power that surround us on all sides. That’s where you really begin to get some bang for your buck, with that kind of control, and that’s what I’ve only just started investigating.”
“Right,” Jonathan said, nodding eagerly. “Like the Flash.”
This time Cordelia and Amy said, “Huh?” together.
Jonathan colored, but forged ahead. “In the comic books, they were always arguing whether Superman’s super-speed was equal to the Flash’s. They’d have races sometimes, only the writers always set it up so the race would get interrupted or something would force a tie. Finally the writers said, Yeah, Superman has as much innate speed, but the Flash can channel an extradimensional power-source called the Speed Force. Because of that, the Flash can theoretically achieve infinite acceleration. Superman uses his own speed, but the Flash is a conduit for Speed itself.”
Cordelia and Amy exchanged looks, and Amy said, “Would you believe that makes sense? A conduit, yes. I never thought of it that way, but he’s right: someone with the right kind of aptitude could be a conduit for far more power than she could ever contain. That’s what I’d like to do, what I’ve started working on.” She shook her head. “I’m not there yet, though.”
“We’ll see,” Cordelia said, glad that the conversation had returned to ground she could control. “We’ll print out the spell Miss Calendar found, and we’ll study it, and we’ll see.”
* * *
An hour later, Amy dropped the printout onto the table in front of her and said, “I can’t do it.”
“Too hard?” Jonathan asked sympathetically.
“Too tricky,” Amy corrected. “The internal control you’d need … I have enough power, but nowhere near enough discipline. This thing is like handling nitro; you’ve got to have absolutely steady hands, and even then you’re cooked if you so much as hiccup.” She shook her head. “Where something like this is concerned, I’m nowhere near steady enough. Won’t be for years.”
“We may not have years,” Cordelia said. “I’m not inclined to take Angel’s word on anything, but I can’t see him crediting Spike with what it would take to bring on an apocalypse, not unless he knew Spike was already there and just filling in the details.” She looked to Amy. “We may not have a choice here. If we had to take a shot, what would be the odds?”
“No better than one in twenty,” Amy said. “Even then it might kill me. I told you, this stuff is beyond me; even giving it all I’ve got, we’d basically be praying for luck. More likely, I’d explode and take out everything in a four-block radius around me. You can forget it, I won’t take that kind of chance.” She gestured at the pages. “Besides, this really calls for at least three people — four would be better — and I don’t think you could be one of them, so that would leave us short.”
“Three people?” Cordelia asked. “What for?”
“Anchors, it looks like,” Jonathan said, peering at the spell printout. “Yes, right here: one leader and caster, and two or more to balance the energies. And you’re right, four total is better than three, having only two anchors makes the caster too much of a pivot. That wouldn’t be good, too easy to veer out of line.”
Amy’s eyebrows went up. “You can see that?”
Jonathan nodded, as if the answer were obvious. “You can’t?”
“Now, yes,” Amy said. “But you just got dropped into this, what, today? Looks like you really do have an aptitude.”
“So that makes two,” Cordelia said. “And why can’t I be part of it?” Not that she really wanted to be, she was more for fighting hands-on, but she hated to be excluded.
“It’s like polarity,” Amy explained. “Magic comes out of me, but magic was put into you. Totally wrong resonance for something like this. We’re aiming for balance, and you’d tilt it clear into the next county. Better to have a magic-null than someone like you. And don’t forget, that’d still leave us one short. Two, without you.”
“We’re going to need a bigger boat,” Jonathan intoned … then, at the uncomprehending looks they turned on him, he clarified. “More people. We can’t do this by ourselves. It’s a team effort, and we’re not a big enough team.”
Cordelia thought about that. Two more people. Two who would know enough to understand the stakes, and still be willing to commit themselves to the effort. In Sunnydale, the candidate pool was small; adding Jonathan and Amy had been a fluke in itself. “I’m just guessing here,” she said, feeling her way as she spoke. “You’ll have to tell me if it makes any sense. But you said something about years of discipline, and you said something about a magic-null. What if I knew somebody who’s done a few spells here and there, but doesn’t have any power of his own? Somebody who manages it all by things he’s learned, like over twenty-five or thirty years?”
“That might help,” Amy said. “In fact, for some things it would help a lot. But you’d definitely need the fourth person then, someone with at least a touch of magical ability, or at least potential.”
“I heard Willow try some kind of healing or bolstering spell, a few weeks back,” Cordelia said. “I think. If that’s true, then she’s at least inclined in that direction.”
“Willow,” Jonathan repeated, then looked to Cordelia with sudden understanding. “And the non-magical one with all the knowledge —?”
“Giles,” Cordelia confirmed. “My … the Watcher. That would make four.”
“I thought they didn’t like you very much these days,” Amy said, one eyebrow cocked. “Or trust you, for that matter.”
“They don’t,” Cordelia agreed. “But I’m betting they’ll like the whole end-of-the-world business even less.”
For awhile she had thought that, cut off from the support of her former friends, she might build a new group around her. She should have known it couldn’t be as simple as that.
“I can see it,” Amy said. “A power center — me — balanced by an adept null who controls the spell mechanics while I focus on controlling the energies, and stabilized on either side by magical beginners … It could work. At least, it’s something I might be willing to try, because this way I don’t, you know, detonate.” A wide smile spread across her face. “Guys, I think we might actually have a plan here.”
Jonathan regarded her with some interest. “You’re enjoying this.”
Amy shrugged. “This morning I was working on a glamour to make my jacket look like real leather, and seeing if I could get the fish in my aquarium to change color in time to the music on the radio. Suddenly I’m a major player. What’s not to like?”
“All of it,” Jonathan said. “I’d rather I didn’t even know about it.” A pause. “No: I’d rather not know, and it not be true.”
“Really?” Cordelia regarded him with some curiosity. “At the first, it seemed like you were excited by the whole thing.”
“I didn’t know how much was at stake,” Jonathan said. “Having the fate of the world resting on you, knowing it all ends if you mess up … How do you deal with that?”
Cordelia sighed. “Believe it or not, after awhile it starts to seem normal.”
* * *
Broaching the subject to Giles could have been a delicate issue; Cordelia had, after all, burgled his home to find the diskette that held the re-ensoulment spell. (And why exactly had she done that? It had seemed necessary at the time, but now her reasoning eluded her.) Having taken that step, her possession of the spell became a problem in itself. Once she had decided on a course of action, however, the Slayer tended to favor the direct approach. Facing Giles in his apartment, she said, “I had one of those dreams. You know, one of those dreams. A voice in my head told me Jenny had found the spell to restore Angel’s soul. It told me to look for a diskette in her computer lab. I looked. I found the diskette.”
(Every word true. Every word pointing away from the truth. When — why — had she gotten so good at lying?)
At the mention of Jenny’s name, Giles’ face had set into the mask that concealed his thoughts. “Understandable,” he said. “Less so is your decision to involve Amy and —?” He paused, lifting an inquiring eyebrow.
“Jonathan,” she reminded. “You don’t know him, he’s only been by the library for totally routine stuff. He actually came first, the same thing that told me where to look for the diskette made me think he could be a help. He was the one who pointed me to Amy.”
“And you took this step without consulting me. Kept it a secret from all of us, as a matter of fact.”
His voice, and the eyes behind those glasses, were completely steady. There was nothing to indicate anger or warning, but both were there, and Cordelia knew that the scholar in the wheelchair, appearances notwithstanding, could be the Slayer’s deadliest enemy if he so chose. “I also didn’t report what brand of body-wash I used in the shower this morning,” she answered sharply. “You don’t own every detail of my life. I saw some possibilities and I checked them out, and as soon as I knew I had something worth telling, I came here.”
Nothing changed in Giles’ face. “Yet you’re asking me to keep this secret from the others,” he said.
Cordelia shook her head. “Not all of them. Not even most of them. Just the ones we wouldn’t actually need for this … which is only coincidentally the same ones who hate me.”
“Marcie doesn’t hate you,” Giles corrected. (Which meant he agreed that Xander did.) “And I doubt anyone will be pleased at the thought of bringing in outsiders while excluding several of our own.”
“Well, I can’t make you keep this one private,” Cordelia conceded. “I can only ask. They’ll argue, Giles. Xander and Marcie will both make a big deal out of this just because it’s me suggesting it. I have a feeling we’re getting close to the wire here. I was hoping we could skip the hassle and the wasted time.”
“The ‘hassle’, as you put it,” Giles said, “comes with belonging to a group of persons who have independent minds. Attempt to avoid the disadvantages, and you risk denying yourself the benefits as well.” His gaze was even, pitiless. “You had a recent lesson in that principle. You claim to have learned from it. The evidence argues against that.”
The calm, precise words were like a slap in the face. Cordelia took it without allowing her own expression to change. “I brought this to you,” she said. “As soon as I had something solid, I came here. So are we going to do this, or not?”
At last Giles’ eyes flickered, from resignation or acknowledgment of a point or perhaps simply from weariness. “I shall call the others here, and present the matter to them. We needn’t yet include Jonathan and Amy at this point … and it might be best if you absent yourself as well.”
“Fine.” Cordelia stood to leave. “If you have any trouble convincing them how important this is, just use two words: Slayer dream.” And with that final statement, she made a quick departure.
Leaving it to his judgment had been the best she could do. She needed him to work the spell, and Willow as well, and Willow’s involvement meant there was no way she could keep it from Oz. Even apart from the warning he had given her, there just weren’t any secrets Willow and Oz kept from each other. Sweet, and more than a little envy-making, and deeply inconvenient in the here-and-now.
The late-afternoon sunlight bored into her eyes and her brain, and Cordelia shook it away. So much she had to handle right now, so many balls she had to keep in the air … because even now, presenting the matter to Giles, she’d left out the heads-up Angel had given her about Spike. She wasn’t quite sure why, maybe her subconscious was nudging her toward something her waking brain was too sluggish to recognize. Better to take as few chances as possible, commit herself to nothing till she was completely sure.
She’d been tempted to try and skip over Giles entirely. She still had the cell number Ethan Rayne had given her; she’d burned the card right in front of him to emphasize the HELL, no! of her refusal, but not before she’d noted and memorized the number just in case. He probably would have served just as well in this particular situation … but no, they still needed Willow for a fourth, there wasn’t any ready substitute for her. Besides, there was really no guarantee Ethan wouldn’t trigger an apocalypse himself, just from sheer love of creative calamity.
She’d told Giles. That was all there was to it. Now she just had to find something to keep her occupied till he and the others had argued their way to a decision.
It was mid-afternoon. The weekend had been long and uneventful (the last weekend the world would ever see? no, she wouldn’t let that happen), and normally it would be time for Cordelia to catch up on such homework as she hadn’t already completed. She might not be a Willow-level intellect, but association with the other girl had taught her some useful study techniques, and her pride wouldn’t allow her to fail even in classes that didn’t really matter to her.
The scheduled faculty conference, however, took away any urgency that might have been there. She put in about an hour of homework and study; she probably could have slid by just on that, but she would have all of Monday to polish any rough edges and finish any needed class prep. For now, she was just counting the hours till dark, when she could go seeking Angel — Angelus — and either kill him or get further information from him.
There was also the matter of awaiting news from Giles on the results of whatever vote they would hold after endless and mostly pointless debate. Once she had word, she would need to contact Amy and Jonathan: to tell them the plan was a go, to tell them it had been nixed by the in-group, maybe to tell them that they (and she) would need to find a way to make it work even without Giles and Willow. Till then, there wasn’t much she could do … except maybe rest her eyes, just for a second …
“A binary key,” Buffy said. She was standing by the window next to Cordelia’s bed, pulling back the curtain to let the sunlight stream in while she looked out. “Can you believe I actually remember what binary means? Like the launch keys in those underground missile silos.” Her eyes met Cordelia’s, but they were focused somewhere else at the same time. “Put in both keys, and turn, and the world starts to end. I couldn’t help myself — hey, comatose here — but you should know better.”
“I’m doing the best I can,” Cordelia protested. “Everything stopped working when our plan — yes, that’s right, our plan — went down the tubes. I’m trying to gather it all back together, but everyone else is pulling in different directions.”
“Bringing down the curtain,” Buffy agreed. “Hickory snickory snock, the answer’s in the dock.” She held up the Sunnydale snow-globe. “But you’re looking at it backward,” she went on, turning the object one way and then another so the Slayer could view it from different angles. In her hands, it began to glow with an orange-gold light. “See?”
Cordelia shook her head. “I don’t understand what that has to do with —”
Buffy screamed, high and wordless, and hurled the globe at Cordelia’s face with all her strength.
Cordelia was on her feet, swaying as she gripped the door frame. No Buffy. No snow-globe, nor wreckage of one. The curtain was undrawn, and the light outside had a subtly different quality.
Another one. God, was this going to happen every single time she closed her eyes?
She shook it away. Grip, get a grip, she couldn’t afford to lose it now! ‘Bringing down the curtain,’ vision-Buffy had said. Even in Slayer dreams, some things were ambiguous, indecipherable, or even truly random, but this one had seemed to carry actual meaning. Enough, at least, that she couldn’t afford to risk ignoring it. Besides, there was still the matter of time to kill before nightfall.
Cordelia pulled together a few just-in-case supplies, checked the fading raccoon-eyes one more time, and went to see Buffy.
It was the first time since Black Tuesday that Cordelia had been to the Revello Drive house during the day. As she pulled up out front, she could see Joyce Summers’ Jeep in the driveway … but this was a Sunday, so she had already known that Buffy’s mother would be here. It didn’t matter. She’d been dodging this long enough. She schooled her expression, set herself inwardly, walked to the door without faltering and rang the bell.
She had thought she was ready, but it was still a shock when Joyce answered the door. Cordelia’s dealings with the other Joyce, the other-universe Slayer, were still less than two weeks behind her. That woman had been every bit as marked by grief at the loss of her daughter … but her daughter had died, and she had an enemy to fight, and vengeful determination had brought a purpose to her life even if the purpose held no meaning for her. The woman before Cordelia now could have been fifteen years older than Slayer-Joyce. Her face sagged, her shoulders slumped, lines of weariness radiated outward from her eyes and mouth. Even without the memory of other-Joyce’s tigerish vitality, the change would have been startling; with it, the contrast was horribly emphasized.
“Hello,” she said, with a smile that clearly required effort. “Cordelia, isn’t it? You’re one of Buffy’s friends.”
“Not much of a friend,” Cordelia said. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Summers. I should have come by a long time ago.”
“You’re here now,” Joyce said. “That’s what counts. Why don’t you come in?”
Never give an invitation like that except in the daytime, Cordelia wanted to say, but the warning would have raised questions she couldn’t afford to answer. She stepped inside, saying, “I hope I’m not bothering you. It’s just, it’s been weeks now and I feel so guilty —”
“I understand that you were with Buffy,” Joyce said. “The day she was … attacked.”
“Yes,” Cordelia admitted. “I wasn’t there when she got hurt, I showed up a few minutes later. But I was the one who drove her to the hospital.”
Joyce nodded, the polite smile of greeting somehow softer now, more genuine. “Then you don’t have any reason to feel guilty,” she told Cordelia. “You saved Buffy’s life. If she had any chance at all, it’s because of you.”
It was as if all the air was being sucked out of the room. “I should have gotten there sooner,” Cordelia heard herself saying. “I should have been with her, if I had only been there with her —!”
“We can spend our entire lives chasing one ‘if only’ after another,” Joyce reproved. “I’ve done too much of that myself. Don’t you start. You did the best you could, and that’s all anyone can ask of themselves.”
Again Cordelia held back the words: They can ask for better results. Aloud she said, “Well, I kept thinking of coming by, and finally I did it. You’re still keeping her here, right?”
Joyce nodded. “Buffy’s father pays for someone to stay with her during the day, Monday through Friday: usually a home care attendant, but an actual nurse once a week. She doesn’t need any more than that, she’s really very healthy except for …” She visibly stopped herself, forced the smile back into place. “Her room is upstairs. I can show you the way, if you want to visit with her.”
The funny part was, Cordelia did need Buffy’s room pointed out to her. For all the times she’d been there, she’d never before approached it from the interior of the house. Joyce led her to the bedroom door and opened it, then stood next to her looking in. “I can stay with you if you like,” she told Cordelia. “It unnerves some people … the silence, I mean, Xander never comes here without Willow to keep him company. Or I can go back downstairs if you’d prefer to visit privately.”
“I appreciate it,” Cordelia said. “I think I’ll be okay by myself. Silence doesn’t bother me.”
Joyce nodded and moved away, and seconds later Cordelia could hear her descending the stairs. She closed the door, pulled out the chair from the little writing desk, and sat next to Buffy’s bed.
“So,” she observed. “A lot has happened since the last time I was here. Sorry I didn’t have much to say last night, I guess I just run out of conversation now and then. And it’s not like you hold up your end … at least, not while I’m awake.
“Look, if you keep trespassing in my dreams, could you at least give me a clear message? I appreciate your little news-flash about the world starting to end, but hey, got that memo already. Why tell me something I knew? And if you had more to tell me, why not say it plain? ‘Bringing down the curtain,’ yeah, that doesn’t take much interpretation but what’s a binary key? Answer’s in the dock — which answer, and which dock? And shouldn’t it be AT the docks, not IN? If you think I’m going to cruise the whole waterfront without even knowing what I’m looking for … well, I might, I guess, but right now I’ve got more pressing business.
“So, Angel tells me Spike’s gearing up to destroy the world, and he’s spooked enough — Angel, I mean — to want me to help him stop it. ’Cause, right, he’s all big on the altruism. Now, you don’t have to tell me I can’t trust him, I’d sooner trust Harmony … but the thing is, I think it’s really true about him hating Spike and wanting to mess him up any way he can. Some kind of alpha male rivalry deal, I guess testosterone keeps on pumping in a guy even when his heart stops. And, little as I like the thought of working with Angel — he’s escaped his destiny as the world’s biggest dust-bunny for way too long already — I have to say, helping him kill Spike just means one less enemy to deal with, right? …
“… even if he’s probably thinking exactly the same about me.”
Cordelia paused. Buffy made no reply, of course, no sound beyond her own breathing.
“Now, I finally got Jenny’s spell translated, and I turned it over to Giles. And I brought in Amy Madison — following in her mother’s footsteps, if you can believe it, only with a lot less of the crazy — and Jonathan Levinson, they’re supposed to help Giles with the spell if he agrees to it. First, though, he’s got to put it in front of the others, see if they’ll okay the idea, and that’s what worries me.
“They don’t … I don’t think they’re seeing things straight. I mean, they look at all the pieces but the only ones they can see are Angel and me and you. He and I were together, and us being together turned him into something else, and then he did this to you. Me, him, you: cause, action, effect. And that’s true, I know it’s true, but it’s like they’re stuck on that point. They didn’t like me having a vampire boyfriend, and then my vampire boyfriend turned evil, and when I give them a spell to cram a soul back into the monster, I just know they’re going to think it’s all Cordy & Angel 2gethr 4evr. Never mind that we could nail Angelus long-distance, not even have to find him first; no, it couldn’t be anything but self-centered Cordelia trying to get her hooks back into that broody hunk o’ man-flesh.
“Amy said maybe his soul is free now. That I’d be punishing him if I brought him back. I don’t like to think about that … but I’ll do it, if it’s a way to win.
“… They’ll come around. No matter how much they blame me, they can’t ignore how big a deal it would be to take Angelus off the field. Yeah, they’ll go for it; I just don’t know if they’ll decide fast enough to beat out Spike’s Acme Home Apocalypse Kit. And if I tell them about that — if I even mention that Angel suggested we work together — they’ll shut out everything else I have to say.
“If he was telling the truth, he’ll hunt me out again tonight. If he was lying, if it’s a set-up, he’ll find me just to see if I bought his pitch. Either way, I’ll be seeing him. Maybe I’ll kill him. Maybe we’ll kill each other. Or maybe … Just the thought makes me gag, even if it is to save the world, but maybe I’ll actually wind up going in with him against Spike.
“If you have anything you need to tell me, now’s the time. Now, or before I go out on patrol, I’ll take a nap just before sundown in case there’s some urgent message you need to deliver. Because there may not be much time left. If Spike is close enough to zero hour that Angel is coming to me for help, we may only be a day or so from Good Night, Earth.”
Heartbeat, breathing. A living presence in the room, but no sign of awareness. Not that Cordelia had expected anything else, but she’d had to come see.
She went out of the room, closing the bedroom door quietly behind her. Joyce Summers met her at the bottom of the stairs. “I’m glad you stopped by,” she told Cordelia. “I’m glad that Buffy still has friends who care for her.”
“We do,” Cordelia said. “We always will.” She wasn’t a hugger, but she found herself wishing she could comfort the older woman. “I’ll come back when I can,” she said at last, and left.
* * *
The pre-patrol nap did indeed bring another dream, but Buffy wasn’t featured. “You are trespassing,” Drusilla told Cordelia primly. She was sitting at a tea-table, china dolls in old-fashioned dress occupying the other three chairs. “Reading the leaves, that’s my estate. You haven’t the proper license.”
“Don’t go whistling up your barristers yet,” Cordelia shot back. “Slayers were doing that vision thing long before you chewed your first clump of locoweed. You’re the one wearing last year’s shoes.”
“Shoes and gloves must match,” Drusilla said in reply. She drew a massive metal gauntlet onto her right hand. “And a lady must wear gloves to a formal tea.”
Another voice came from behind Cordelia: “Whom the gods would destroy, and then some.” Cordelia turned to look; it was Amy, lounging back on a low couch and studying a bunch of grapes she held by the main stem. She wore a sleeveless white dress, belted at the waist, with sandals on her feet and a garland in her hair. “Not that any of the crowd from Olympus dropped that on her. And don’t bother calling on merciful Zeus.” She plucked a grape and popped it into her mouth. “It won’t be him tossing thunderbolts.”
Cordelia tried to ask, Who, then?, but a discordant jangling drowned out the words. She wheeled, looking to find and smash the source of the noise and it was her phone, she was in her bedroom and her cell phone was ringing. She snatched it up, flipped it open. “What?” she said. “I mean, it’s me, yes, what?”
After several seconds of silence, Giles’ voice came over the line. “Cordelia, are you quite all right?”
Cordelia shook her head. “Sorry, disoriented, you just woke me up. So what’s the word?”
“I have presented your proposal to the others,” Giles said to her. “We have discussed the matter in its various aspects, but would like to clarify certain points — with you — before making a decision.”
Cordelia thought for a moment. “Everybody’s at your place right now?”
“Yes, we are.” It had been a reasonable guess; though some meetings still took place at the SHS Library, the focus seemed to have shifted over this weekend to his apartment. “If you could —?”
“On my way,” Cordelia said, and was heading out the door even as she flipped her cell phone shut.
‘Before making a decision’ meant they hadn’t made one yet. During the drive, Cordelia marshaled her arguments even as she considered the elements of her most recent dream. It had seemed more arbitrary and meaningless than most — along with being more brief — but Drusilla’s presence definitely hinted at psychic forewarning, and Amy’s comment about thunderbolts certainly caught the attention. The big problem was that further dreams weren’t really giving her further information; more, yes, but it all remained unconnected, nothing tying to anything else. Like someone reaching into your closet without looking and tossing you clothes at random, one garment after another without you ever getting two pieces that could be made to match …
It was hard to concentrate. The buzzing in her head was stronger: not the Slayer tingle, the kind of background static that came when she’d been pushing too hard for too long. The dreams, the dreams, they wouldn’t let her rest while she slept and they kept her uncentered when she was awake. She was jittery and out of focus at a time when control was more important than ever. If she didn’t pull herself together quick, she’d totally drop the ball, and the ball was the world and the world was a big damn egg with a cement floor waiting underneath.
Yeah. That was exactly the kind of cheery thought she needed to keep her going.
She reached the apartment complex where Giles lived; parked, went to his door, and entered without knocking. “I hear you all have some questions for me,” she announced to the assembled group. “Here I am. Quest away.”
Willow, Giles, Xander, Oz. Marcie somewhere in the background, no doubt. (Or maybe not, it was easy to forget her or to not notice her even if you remembered, and how exactly could you know if she wasn’t there?) They regarded her with familiar expressions: Oz imperturbable, Willow slightly nervous — she did fine in a physical battle, but the prospect of personal conflict always unnerved her — Xander with the tamped-down rage that might erupt at any moment or just simmer indefinitely, and Giles with rigorous self-possession. He was the one who spoke. “We have studied the spell printouts you left with me,” he said. “The diskette you say they came on: do you have it with you?”
Cordelia frowned. What did the diskette have to do with anything? “It’s in my car, I think,” she said. “Yes, that’s right, I got it back from Jonathan once he broke the password, and after we had the printout to look over, the diskette itself didn’t seem that important. Why?”
“I’d like Willow to inspect it,” Giles said. “She knows Jenny’s formatting and coding style better than anyone else, so she can best judge if it’s genuine or some kind of —”
“Trick?” Cordelia interrupted grimly. “Something I faked up to manipulate people, since that’s all I ever do?”
Xander gave her a thin smile. “If the Prada knockoff fits …”
“Trap, I was going to say,” Giles continued evenly. “Planted, perhaps, to precipitate action that could be used against us. How certain are you, for instance, that the diskette is genuine?”
Cordelia reined in her emotions. This wasn’t the time to be touchy. “As sure as you can be with a Slayer dream,” she said. “She was there, Giles. Jenny was in the dream. She was talking directly to me: showing me how she found the spell, showing me where to look to retrieve it.”
He nodded, showing no flicker of reaction at the mention of his dead love’s name. “It could still be a ruse — there are various means by which one may send dreams to a receptive mind — so we shall have to investigate the possibility, but at present we should proceed on the assumption that it may be legitimate. What else did it tell you?”
They were watching Cordelia — by turns — expectantly, warily, and doubtfully, and it took her no more than an instant to decide that Giles did not need a play-by-play of Jenny’s death. “Well, different stuff,” she said. “I picked out the part that mattered most and zeroed on that, but you know how it is with Prophetic Dreams For Slayers: lots of weirdness, very stream-of-consciousness, full of metaphors and symbolism and things that don’t make any sense. Besides …” She hesitated, went on. “It wasn’t the only one. There have been others. Quite a few others.”
“Yeah?” Marcie’s voice, so she was indeed in attendance. “How many, and what kind?”
“It’s been going on for nearly two weeks,” Cordelia said. “At the start, it was the same three dreams, taking turns a night at a time. In the first, I had this enormous fishing rig, like they use to catch marlin, and I kept casting the line up into the sky, trying to hook a star. Every now and then the hook would catch, and I’d start reeling in the line, and the star I’d snagged would get bigger and glow brighter as I pulled it close, but it would always slip the hook before I finished. And the whole time, Giles and Willow would be standing beside me saying, This isn’t your job. You shouldn’t be doing this.
“The second was shorter but, I don’t know, scarier somehow. There was a whirlwind, and vampires were just turning to dust — they were chained to something, I think — and streaks of lightning slamming out everywhere, with this huge deep horrible grinding in the background, like there was an earthquake about to split the planet in half.
“The last one …” She shook her head. “Usually, if somebody speaks to me in one of these dreams, it’s a person I know. Not always talking as themselves, or acting like themselves, but you get the idea. In the last dream, though, I’m trying to find my way through this big old dark house, and the rooms keep changing and I can’t get my bearings, and then I’m standing in front of these two doors, and there’s a guy I’ve never seen before. Thin, pale, bad clothes, but he’s got these really really blue eyes, and he says to me: Normally, now, it’d be th’ lady or th’ tiger … but seein’ as you’re a lady already, you got t’choose between a tiger an’ a lion. You just hafta decide which has th’ worse teeth —”
“A moment,” Giles said. “Were you attempting to reproduce an Irish accent?”
Cordelia shrugged. “Beats me. I just tried to repeat it the way it sounded. Anyway, I ask him, Who are you?, and he says, Road not taken. Or, maybe, th’ road you woulda taken if another road hadn’t opened out first. And I say, So what do I do now?, and he says, You choose, ’cause nobody else will choose for ya. Then he looks at me real close, and he says, You can throw a knife, or stab with an arrow. It’s th’ use matters, not th’ weapon.”
There was a reflective silence after she finished, then Oz broke it. “When you said lots of weirdness … yeah.”
“Very much so,” Giles agreed. “And elusive in meaning, as such things tend to be.” To Cordelia he said, “Are you certain they were in fact prophetic, and not simply ordinary dreams with no deeper import?”
“Pretty sure,” Cordelia said. “There’s a particular feel to a Slayer dream, I can’t explain it but it’s there. Besides, like I said, they kept repeating. Dream One the first night, Dream Two the next, Dream Three the night after, and then the cycle would start over. Definitely not how my nights normally go.”
“You said it was the same three dreams ‘at first’,” Willow prompted. “Does that mean different ones after that?”
“Oh, yeah,” Cordelia confirmed. “The one with Jenny showing me where to look for the spell disk. Then one where Vampire Sheila had a nice long chat with me at the Mall. One with Drusilla throwing a Mad Tea Party for her dolls; Amy was there, too, making no more sense than everybody’s favorite dead nutjob. And, oh yeah, a couple that had Buffy playing with a snow-globe and saying she’s lost.”
“Lost,” Xander repeated flatly, his expression strained and harsh. “Gee. Wonder how that ever could’ve happened.”
“That is a distraction from the main point,” Giles said, intervening firmly. “Presuming the disk proves to be genuine, presuming the spell proves to be efficacious, presuming that we establish to our satisfaction that the approach you suggested — bringing in Amy and, er, Jonathan, to work with us in doing the casting — is one that appears practicable, that still leaves us with the central question. To wit, do we attempt the re-ensoulment ritual on Angelus?”
“Bet we know which way Queen C’s vote will go,” Xander scoffed.
“Damn skippy you do,” Cordelia said, disregarding everyone else to speak directly to Xander. “Buffy’s where she is right now because Angel felt like playing one of his games. You blame me for that, and I won’t waste time arguing … but what if we’d bitch-slapped him with a soul the day before he got bored and decided to screw with us some more? What if he gets the idea next week to hijack a cruise missile and steer it into the middle of the school quad?” She turned to survey the others. “I know none of you ever really liked Angel that much even when he had a soul, but at least back then he wasn’t trying to kill us all … us and the people who go to school with us. If there’s a way to stop him, I’m all for it.”
“Which only just happens to give you your sweetie back,” Xander sneered. “I’m not buying. He deserves to die.”
“He deserves to fry in hell for several consecutive eternities,” Cordelia shot back. “But re-souling him? that’s something we can DO.”
“She’s got a point,” Oz observed. “We’ve lost, what, six people just from Sunnydale High since Angelus came out to play? Even if he didn’t get ’em all, taking him off the roster means he turns into a non-threat.”
“My question didn’t pertain to the strategic value of performing the re-ensoulment,” Giles said. “I was thinking more of the attendant risks.” He gestured toward a stack of papers on the table next to his chair, doubtless the spell printout. “These are extremely potent magics: volatile, unstable. Even if we can make the spell work, there’s no guarantee we can fully control it.” His gaze rested on Cordelia. “There will be some danger for those doing the casting. Perhaps serious danger.”
“You’ll have to talk that over with Jonathan and Amy,” Cordelia said. “They understand that part of it better than I do. Maybe better than you, but I’m thinking you and them together should have all the bases covered.”
“Right.” Xander’s voice and face were still hostile. “Because you say so.”
“Xander.” Giles raised a hand to punctuate the interruption. “She won’t be making the decision … nor will you, nor ultimately the group itself. I’ve included you all because it concerns us all, but she’s correct: in the end, the choice will be made by the four who will have the responsibility of carrying it out.” He looked to Cordelia. “We will confer with Amy and Jonathan tomorrow. Binding Angelus again with a soul would, indeed, be a good tactical move, so long as the ritual can be carried out with reasonable safety for the participants.” He paused, then concluded, “On reflection, I would say you did well to bring this matter to our attention.”
“Good. Thanks.” Cordelia turned to leave, then looked back. “I know you want to be careful, but … we may not have a whole lot of time here, so don’t dawdle if you can help it.”
“Hunch?” Marcie’s voice again. “Or do you have info you haven’t given us?”
Cordelia glanced toward the space that seemed to hold the invisible girl. “In one of the dreams, Buffy said something about bringing down the curtain. In another one, Sheila said the river was rising fast. And, that one with the whirlwind and the lightning definitely had that end-of-the-world flavor to it.”
“Huh,” Oz said. “An apocalypse? We usually get those in December and May.”
“Just a feeling?” Giles asked. “Nothing more definite than that?”
“More than a feeling,” Cordelia said. “But definite, no. All the same, I think we’d better not waste any time.”
“That might be inadvisable in any case,” Giles noted. Cordelia wasn’t the only one surprised at that, and he elaborated, “I received word this afternoon that representatives from the Council of Watchers will be arriving within the next several days, responding to the report I sent them following the … events, at the library and factory. They will be here to assess our situation with their own eyes, to determine whether it will be desirable or even possible for me to continue in my current role, given my condition.” His eyes met Cordelia’s. “They may decide to make recommendations in regard to you, as well. However I might feel about the matter at another time, this seems the wrong moment to attempt … I believe the American expression is, ‘switching horses in mid-stream’.”
Great. Another deadline. At least, this one was a few days in the future; something told Cordelia that the crisis now looming might not wait for the arrival of the Snobby Brigade. She nodded to Giles, and left.
She was halfway down the sidewalk to the parking lot (the sun was nearly down, time to start planning her patrol) when a voice halted her: “Hey.” She stopped, turned, it was Oz, approaching her without hurry. He halted outside the normal ‘personal space’ boundary, and regarded her with that habitual even gaze. “The disk, they remembered it just as you were out the door.”
“Oh,” Cordelia said. “Right. Sure. Come on out to my car, I’ll give it to you.”
She started off again, but his voice halted her. “You doing okay?”
Small shock, and she couldn’t keep the surprise from showing. “What? Do I look like I’m having a major problem?”
“Yeah,” he said, still without changing expression. While she was trying to recover, he went on steadily. “I hit you with some pretty heavy stuff the other day. Meant it, but still. And there’s enough on you right now that what I’m seeing might be strain.”
Cordelia shook her head. “Fluff up a girl’s ego, why don’t you? Angel and Spike and world’s-end prophecies aren’t enough, now I have to deal with the prospect of worry lines.” Oz didn’t respond, except for what might have been a microscopic lift of one eyebrow, and she sighed. “Probably it’s just lack of sleep.”
A nod. “I hear the cure for that is … you know … sleep.”
“I am sleeping,” she protested. “It just isn’t doing me any good. Every day I feel like I’m being dragged down a little more. My body rests, but …” She made a little helpless gesture.
“Huh.” An actual frown, for those trained to recognize it. “You said the dreams had been coming for, what, two weeks? Is that right?”
“Big time,” Cordelia said. “And now they’re popping in during the day, too.”
That was rewarded by a full quarter-inch tilt of the head. “Really? ’Cause I hear you don’t get all the benefits of sleep without a full REM cycle. And REM is when people do their dreaming.” Cordelia gave him a blank look, and he went on, “If Slayer dreams are on, like, a different frequency, then having them non-stop could maybe jam up your rhythm. You sleep, yeah, but it’s like more flavor, less filling.”
Oz had always played straight with her, so Cordelia didn’t give him her usual impermeable social mask. “Really?” she said. “That could explain why I feel so frayed lately.” She shook her head. “But what am I supposed to do about it?”
“Don’t know,” he replied. “Could be serious, though. Sleep deprivation …” He shrugged. “That’s big.”
“Right,” Cordelia said. “Of course, it’s only a problem if the world doesn’t end first.”
“There’s always that,” Oz agreed. Together they started toward the parking lot where Cordelia’s convertible waited. Neither spoke again. There was nothing to say.
She had showed up for the conference already dressed for the evening’s activities, so there was no need for her to return home to change. Cordelia began her standard evening sweep, dismissing the initial thought of checking the burned-out science building first; Angel never had any trouble finding her when he wanted, and she wasn’t about to let him dictate her movements. She started at one of Sunnydale’s many cemeteries, and left the car carrying her standard complement of concealed stakes and the sword Angel had tossed at her last night.
Her usual wariness was fuzzed, and she knew it. Straight ahead was clear, sharp, but the periphery continued to shrink. She thought of what Oz had said. Sleep deprivation, she remembered, was one of the means used by some intelligence agencies (those too sophisticated to go for simple torture, along with the ones who just liked to vary their routine or who couldn’t afford to leave marks) to break down prisoners for questioning. Even for flat-out brainwashing. If something like that was happening to her now, how long could she continue to trust her judgment?
Because she’d made such good decisions before the cycle of dreams started …
“Ready to play nice yet, princess?” The voice floated on the night breeze, soft and directionless, and Cordelia spun with the sword in her hand, looking for the source. Motion caught her attention, a hand waving briskly — yes, there, Angel, standing half-concealed by a tree — and as her eyes found him, he stepped out with that eternal self-satisfied smirk on his face. “I mean, fair is fair; I found the apocalypse, I’ve even offered to help you fight it. Can’t we all just … you know … get along?”
The sight of that face triggered the familiar murderous rage. Cordelia quelled it. “Spare me,” she said. “I’m supposed to trust you now because you threw a sword at me the last time you stopped by to chat?”
“Not at you,” he corrected. “In your general direction. And that worked out pretty well for you, didn’t it?”
She gave him the scornful pfft! that had featured in so many conversations. “So now you’re going to try and tell me it was deliberate? That you meant for it to hit where it did?”
He shrugged. “It’s not like I was taking much of a chance. It could hit you, and kill you. It could land too far away, and they’d kill you. Or it could end up right next to you, and you’d owe me.” A smile, eyes dancing. “Whichever way it came out, I’d be a winner. And here we are.”
“Here we are,” Cordelia repeated. “And the whole dusting-you-where-you-stand deal? Still looking like a good idea.”
Angel chuckled and shook his head. “No. If that’s what you were going to do, you’d be trying to do it, not talking about it. So, you’re really going to work with me against Spike.”
Cordelia’s mouth twisted into a bitter sneer. “I wouldn’t go that far. Let’s say I’ll put off killing you until we’ve killed him. Or until I’ve caught you in a lie or a double-cross, which could be any second now.” Fury was growing again inside her, and she shook it away. “We got interrupted last night. You hadn’t told me yet how Spike was going to light the fuse on the End of Days, or where I could find him. Ready to fill me in on what’s the what?”
“I can tell you that our Bloody William has gone completely off the reservation,” Angel said. “First he killed everybody who’d been at the factory when you dusted Drusilla, maybe because they let it happen or maybe because he couldn’t stand it that they survived when she didn’t. Then he came after me with half a dozen of the dumber minions: my fault his psychotic sweetheart managed to get herself dusted, even though he was all over the plan when we were mapping it out.” He made a what can you do? gesture. “His little ambush didn’t work out too well. He lost four of the six, and I’d have been only too happy to take him out, too, if I hadn’t been so busy —”
“— Running?” Cordelia finished for him. “That’s what you do, right? Concoct these big schemes, make a few bwah-ha-ha speeches, then cut and run while your undead playmates are getting chopped up?”
Angel gave her another of those smug smiles. “Well, when it comes to plans, you aren’t in much of a position to throw stones, are you now? That’s one thing we have in common. Things go wrong for us and suddenly we’re persona non grata among our own people.” He regarded her with sardonic amusement. “The difference is, I always knew mine were tools to be used. You let yourself believe yours were actually friends.”
“The difference,” Cordelia corrected, “is that you’re changing the subject, while I’m running out of patience on this so-called alliance.” She lifted the point of her sword toward him. “I’ll ask one more time: what’s Spike doing, and where is he?”
“He moves,” Angel said, clear annoyance freighting his tone. “Not dodging me, even though I’ve been thinning out his organization from the edges in. No, for the past few weeks he’s flitted from one spot to another, following any rumor that might take him closer to what he wants.”
“Which is …?” Cordelia prompted.
“Let’s put it this way,” Angel said. “I wasn’t the only one who thought Spike had gone ’round the bend. I ran into one of his lieutenants a few days back; used to be one of mine, except now he’s cut all ties and is talking about relocating to Cleveland. I didn’t have time to give him the kind of sendoff he deserved, and it would have been tedious to stake him without any preliminaries. When he saw I wasn’t going to kill him, he was so relieved, it made him talkative.”
“Must have rubbed off,” Cordelia said. “Could we skip ahead to something that actually matters?”
“Spike’s on a doom-hunt,” Angel explained. “You know how it is in Sunnydale, all that Hellmouth energy makes it a magnet for malcontents and mystical artifacts and secret cults. According to Conradt, Spike declared there was no point to a world that didn’t have Drusilla in it, and set out to rectify that mistake. Even here, it takes some real oomph! to pull off an apocalypse, but it looks like Spike’s planning to string together three or four somethings, see if that’ll do the job.”
Cordelia nodded. “Uh-huh. And once again, where do I find him?”
“I don’t know.” Angel shrugged, gave her a smirking grin. “We don’t move in the same circles anymore. In fact, these days he’s not much more popular with other vampires than I am. Something to do with killing them whenever he’s in a bad mood, which seems to be most of the time. Word is that he’s been recruiting other demons to fill out his crew.”
Cordelia considered that bit of information, and gave her surroundings a quick, suspicious once-over. “Like the ones that jumped me?” she asked.
“Maybe,” Angel acknowledged cheerfully. “Good thing I was there, hmm?” He chuckled at Cordelia’s expression, then went on. “I’ve been chasing rumors and chatting up the few people in this town who’ll still talk to me, and I may have a line on where to go hunting Spike. Not where he is, but where he’ll be setting up his little talent show once he has all the pieces.”
“That’ll do,” Cordelia said. She looked around again; something was making her uneasy, she wasn’t sure what. “Let’s get to it.”
Angel waggled a finger at her. “I said I may have a line. I told Conradt that if he could find that out for me, I’d make a point to NOT make a point of hunting him down and skinning him slowly, with a little holy water basting here and there to spice things up.” He sighed with satisfaction. “You know, I should consider a career as a motivational speaker. At least, Conradt seemed really motivated. I gave him till tonight to get the information to me, and I kinda think he’ll come through.” One eyebrow went up. “Something bothering you?”
There was, and Cordelia almost groaned as she suddenly realized what. “I just want to get this taken care of,” she said, shifting nervously. “If you have a snitch that has the news we need, that’s the guy we should see.” She indicated direction with a sideways nod. “After you.”
He shook his head. “Sorry, Sweet Sixteen, no can do. Our boy is seriously paranoid, and with good reason, he survived because he could sniff the air and make it out the door ahead of one of Spike’s mood-swings. If he gets any hint you’re remotely nearby, he’ll split town and take his chances on staying ahead of me.” He paused, watching with interest as Cordelia fidgeted. “My, you are antsy tonight, aren’t you? What’s got you all stirred up?”
“I don’t like apocalypses,” Cordelia told him flatly. “There’s this part of me that keeps saying, ‘Hey, bad thing. We should be stopping that.’ So when do you meet this guy, and when do we learn where to go to root out Spike?”
“All a-quiver for the kill,” Angel mused. “I like that in a woman. If you weren’t quite so uptight, we really could have made a pair.”
“We did,” Cordelia said. “Except that wasn’t you. You’re what’s left after a dumb-assed spell erased all the parts that mattered.”
“You keep saying that,” Angel said, eyeing her with growing smugness. “But you can hardly hold still, can you? All that passion … You tell yourself it’s rage, that everything you feel is hate. Only, you’re standing here and you can’t try to kill me, and the passion is still there, eating you alive.” He grinned hugely. “I knew I left my mark on you, that’s just how it is with women, but this … this is wonderful.”
“I’ll tell you how it is.” Cordelia took a step toward him. “How it is, is, I’m trying to control myself, to remember there’s something I hate even more than you.” She shook her head. “No, strike that, ’cause there’s no such thing. But there is something more important. So what I keep telling myself is, Don’t kill this sick, slimy bastard till you’ve dealt with the bigger problem first.” She hefted the sword. “Every time you move your mouth, that makes it harder. You’re right, I’m on the edge, so don’t push me over. Or do, because I’d love the excuse.”
“Hate and loathing,” Angel said, smiling. “How I’ve missed that, especially when it’s sweetened with desire and helplessness.” He moved back, restoring the full distance between them. “If Spike hadn’t come up with this doomsday plan of his, I might have tossed him a few hints in that direction, just for the pleasure of watching you shake in such delicious agony.” His face hardened suddenly, freezing that demon’s smile in place. “I have big plans for you, once we’ve settled our account with Spikey.”
“I’m all for the showdown,” Cordelia replied. “We’d have had it already, except for your big, spectacular running-away trick.” She lowered the sword. “I’ll go along with the part about killing Spike first, as long as you hold up your end.”
“I’ll find Conradt,” Angel agreed. “And once we run Spike to ground, there should be enough killing to satisfy us both for awhile.” His eyes assessed Cordelia with naked greed. “A really short while.”
“Big talk, poor performance,” Cordelia said. “As usual. Go do something useful.”
He gave her a jaunty little wave, seemingly untouched by either her disdain or her warnings, but she noted with a glint of satisfaction that he kept his eyes on her as he faded back behind the tree from which he had made his entrance. Cordelia stood, watching and listening and monitoring her subtlest senses, until she was sure he had gone. Then she let out a vexed sigh and observed tartly, “Do you have any idea how hard I had to work to keep his attention on me, so that he didn’t hear you or smell you?”
There was a moment’s continued silence, then Marcie’s voice, pitched to a murmur as she always did: “I was careful to stay downwind of him.”
“I know,” Cordelia said. “That’s how I spotted you. Hugging up against the weeping willow, that was a good move, it meant he wasn’t going to try and walk through any ‘empty’ space that had you in it. Except, your breath moved the little leaves against the wind. He didn’t have the angle to see it, but he might have heard.”
“Well, he didn’t,” Marcie said. “So now what?”
“You mean, now that you know?” Cordelia answered. “And I know you know?”
“That thing, yeah.”
“I have no earthly idea,” Cordelia said. She sat down on a nearby headstone, massaging her temples with one hand. “I’ve been trying to juggle, God, everything at once, and any time I feel like I’m getting a handle on it, the powers that be decide to toss in a few more tiki torches.” She looked to where Marcie (presumably still) stood. “So, okay, I’m meeting secretly with Angel because he says Spike may be close to destroying the world, which is a total buzz-kill if I ever heard of one. And you know about it, which, hey, no more secret. I guess that means I should be asking you what happens next, because right now you’re the one with the power.”
“Yeah,” Marcie agreed. “I go tell the others, they’ll completely freak. And probably they should. You making plans, keeping us in the dark, running your own agenda …” Long pause. “They might not just freak. They might try to kill you.”
“I know,” Cordelia said. “I know.” She propped her forearms on her thighs, let her chin drop to her chest. “I’m so … so tired.”
Another long silence. The trailing branches of the weeping willow continued to stir in the evening breeze. “I can’t stand you,” Marcie said at last. “Never could. You know that, right?”
“I got the bulletin,” Cordelia acknowledged. “And?”
A huff of disgust. “And I don’t know, either. Damn it!” Grass rustled as Marcie apparently began to pace. “You screwed us before, and what you’re doing now is the same damn thing all over again. The problem …” A sigh. “The problem is, I can’t know for sure you’re wrong here. Damn it!”
“Yeah,” Cordelia said. “Welcome to my world.” She shook her head, stood up again. “How’d you get onto this? Or have you just been following me around at random?”
“Right, ’cause you’re so interesting and everything.” The barb in Marcie’s tone was automatic, but there was less acid in the follow-up. “I was doing my own private visit with Buffy when you stopped by this afternoon. I heard the things you said to her.”
“Oh,” Cordelia said; and then, as the implications set in, “Oh.”
“Uh-huh. And you’re all What do I do now?, and the reasons you give for keeping some of this to yourself just seem to make sense, and I don’t want to be on your side but I can see that you really are trying and you really do care, and it was so much easier when I could just write you off as the self-centered Queen Bitch!”
“You were asking questions,” Cordelia said, remembering. “Back at Giles’ apartment, you weren’t sniping at me as usual, you were actually trying to find out what was going on with me. Find out more, I guess, once eavesdropping gave you a tip-off.” She frowned. “Did you ask Oz to check up on me? Because he’s an okay guy, but we haven’t exactly been chummy, and he really seemed concerned.”
“Oh, did he?” Now her voice held amusement and speculation. “Well, if he was, it was all him, I just asked him to slow you down so I could get to your car ahead of you. Thanks for leaving the top down, by the way, shadowing you would have been a total pain without that.”
“That’s me,” Cordelia said. “Thoughtful. So, you got Oz to help you. Did you tell him why?”
“No,” Marcie answered. “Didn’t have time. And I only asked him, the others don’t know unless he told them. Which he probably didn’t, Oz isn’t a blabber. That still leaves it with us.”
Cordelia nodded. “Right. Look, I know you’re here, but it still feels like I’m talking to myself in the middle of a graveyard, which is just creepy. Can we go back to my car?”
“Fine by me,” Marcie said. “I’m not much of an outdoors person anyhow.”
“You said it’s back with us,” Cordelia observed as they started out of the cemetery. “Does that mean it’s on us to tell the others, or to decide not to tell them?”
At her ear was a soft snarl of frustration. “I don’t like what you did. I hate what you did. It was wrong, and every bad thing that happened came straight out of that.”
“And now you’re about to help me do it all over again,” Cordelia said back. They had come into sight of her car, and she paused and turned toward Marcie’s voice. “That, or gamble that the world won’t end if you’re wrong.”
“The same thing could happen if I do let you keep your secret,” Marcie pointed out.
Cordelia nodded. “Yep. That’s one thing that never changes: whichever way we choose, it could still all go to hell. And if it does, it will be our fault.”
A scornful laugh. “So you’re still trying to claim you weren’t wrong, before?”
“Not even.” Cordelia started for her car again. “I know I was wrong. I know that better than anything else on this earth. I just don’t see how I can play it any differently, this time through.”
“It shouldn’t be this way,” Marcie insisted. “We’re supposed to be a team, damn it. You blew that all to hell: Nancy dead, Giles crippled, Buffy in a coma, Tucker and Owen just plain gone. You did that, playing your ego games, and now we’re back in the same kind of situation and it’s like nothing’s different.”
“One thing is,” Cordelia said. She took out her car keys, reached for the door handle. “You’re in the decision loop now. You’ve got responsibility. Either one of us can tell … but it takes both of us to keep it a secret, if that’s what you decide to do.”
“You’re acting like you don’t care what I decide,” Marcie said peevishly.
“Honestly?” Cordelia answered. “It’s kind a relief. I don’t have to carry the whole damn thing by myself, not anymore.” She got into her car, settled herself into the driver’s seat, waited as she felt Marcie’s weight join her in the front. “You all set?” she inquired.
Marcie’s reply was clipped and sullen. “Just drive, okay?” Cordelia started the engine and pulled onto the street … and, after a ten-second pause, the invisible girl added, “You still suck.”
“You know,” Cordelia observed, “that’s almost the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
The reply was a snort. Cordelia disregarded it, already casting her mind ahead. Whether or not Marcie spilled the beans to the others, it would still be necessary to deal with the Spike situation. Angel might be lying — almost certainly was twisting the truth about something, that was just what he did — but the weight of her dreams did seem to be warning of yet another apocalypse. Getting ready for that, locating it and thwarting it, remained her overriding priority. Plenty of other things she’d have to face, sooner or later, but all of that would have to be shelved until a more opportune time. Essentials, she told herself as she guided her convertible down the darkened street. Have to focus on the essentials —
A bright latticework sprang up in front of them, glowing chem-light green, and the car plowed into it before Cordelia could brake or swerve. She and Marcie were thrown forward, but not with the abrupt, lethal shock of collision; the green web stretched and gave before them like the net it resembled, which was good for Marcie because the invisible girl hadn’t belted in, one of the many things she automatically avoided lest they reveal her presence. The convertible was wrenched to a shuddering stop, and Cordelia rolled over the door frame even as the glowing lattice soaked up the last erg of momentum. She’d snatched the sword from the back seat, and she kept her head low to avoid the fluttering tendrils of light, every ambush had its follow-up, she was out and ready, sword up, before the last echoes of the sudden halt had faded.
A rush of feet, she whipped around to meet the charge but the luminous net detached itself from the car and flowed around her. Cordelia dodged, swearing, the mystic lattice folded in on her and there was nowhere to go. She thrust between the ‘strands’ of the net closing around her, knowing with instant intuition that trying to cut through them would be useless. One of the charging demons spitted itself on the extended blade (same kind as last night’s attack, even the scream was familiar), and then the net had shrunk too tightly, hard-nailed hands seized her and flung her to the asphalt surface of the street, and no amount of heaving and cursing could free her from their grip.
“Gently, gently.” The reproving voice was calm and mildly amused, and Cordelia twisted within the ensnaring net and the hands of her captors, trying to get a look. She still had hold of the sword, and as one of her attackers attempted to pull it away from her, she retaliated with a forceful yank that severed fingers; that elicited a fresh shriek of pain and fury, and the remaining demons clutched her even tighter, drawing blood as the thick nails pierced her clothes and gouged into her skin. “Gently,” the newcomer repeated, not so softly this time. “She must be alive, if you will recall.” He squatted next to Cordelia. “Not necessarily unharmed, of course, but there’s no need to be more crude than the task requires.”
So close, and vaguely lit by the glow of the streetlights that began at the next block, he appeared to be a thin, elderly man, with gray-white hair and a prim little suit. All the same, Slayer instinct set Cordelia’s flesh crawling as he reached into the net to take hold of her arm. “Ah, ah,” he remonstrated mildly, smiling. “You can’t change the outcome here, you can only make things harder for yourself. You two —” He addressed the demons to either side of himself. “— hold her very still, we don’t want any mistakes here.” He produced a hypodermic syringe, and Cordelia bucked and fought desperately. She wouldn’t be taken doped and helpless, that just opened up so many worlds of probable badness …!
No use. They had her solid. The needle slid into her arm, a barely noticeable sting against the various indignities being committed against her elsewhere; rather than depress the plunger, however, the man carefully pulled it out, and Cordelia realized that he was filling the barrel of the hypodermic with her blood. What? What?
“There we are,” the man said happily, withdrawing the needle. “That wasn’t so bad, was it? That should do nicely, I think.”
“C’mon, Doc,” a high, nervous voice broke in. Cordelia couldn’t see him, beyond a vague sense of motion at the edge of her vision, but a subtle distortion of the words told her they were being spoken through vamp-face. “We got her cold here. I know we can’t kill her, but can’t we … well, like, hamstring her or something? It can’t be good to turn this bitch loose with a full mad-on worked up.”
“I agreed to help your endeavor, with conditions I made very clear,” the one who had been called ‘Doc’ replied with some asperity. “I don’t believe you want to change the terms of the agreement now. That would be … extremely uncomfortable for you, and would prove unprofitable for your master as well.” He leaned over Cordelia again. “There you are, my dear. We’ll be gone in a moment, and just to show that some of us can behave with decent restraint —” To Cordelia’s astonishment and mortification, he peeled the paper cover from a small Band-Aid, and applied the latter to the small puncture he had made at the crook of her arm. “See? All better now.” He smiled benignly down at her. “Perhaps we’ll meet again, if this turn of events should indeed facilitate the advent of the Glorious One. If not, I assure you that it has been a pleasure to deal with one of your stature.”
He spoke a few words in some thick, liquid language; the demons holding Cordelia released her and withdrew, and by the time she had struggled upright, fighting against the entangling net, they were gone from her view. Even as her eyes searched the darkness next to the street, the glowing cords faded and slithered away from her, and in moments they had vanished, leaving her bewildered and unencumbered.
Marcie’s characteristic murmur came from the front seat of the QUEEN C: “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Cordelia said. “In fact, I was just about to ask you the same thing.” She opened the door and settled in behind the steering wheel. The engine had died, but started up again easily when she turned the key. She sat for a minute, running her mind over the events of her attack and captivity. “That was very weird,” she said at last.
“No joke.” There was (of course) no expression to be seen on Marcie’s face, but her voice was puzzled. “The D.O.M. and the vamp both said you had to be kept alive —”
“D.O.M.?” Cordelia queried.
“Dirty Old Man,” Marcie clarified. “But neither one of them said why. And what was it he did to you? He was between us, I couldn’t really see.”
“He took some of my blood,” Cordelia said. “With a syringe. And he was actually kind of polite about it. Not like he was too nice to hurt me — I don’t think he was nice at all, any more than I think he was human — but more like he felt it would be … unrefined, to not show the basic courtesies.” She shook her head. “Not the strangest character I’ve run into the last couple of years, but strange enough to notice.”
“Blood,” Marcie repeated. “What would they want with your blood?”
“I am SO much of the not knowing.” Cordelia pressed down the accelerator, moving them away from the scene of the attack. “I guess you weren’t in a position to follow them, see if you might overhear something?”
“I didn’t try,” Marcie returned. “Wasn’t gonna chance it with a vamp in the bunch, not after you warned me about how Angel could’ve heard me.” A moment of silence, then: “You think the blood would be for … I don’t know, some kind of voodoo curse? I mean, if you can do it with hair or fingernails, think how powerful it would be with blood.”
“Big time,” Cordelia agreed. “I don’t see it, though. They had me. What could they do to me with voodoo that they couldn’t do worse with me trussed up in front of them?”
Marcie made no answer to that. After an even longer pause, however, she said abruptly, “I would’ve helped.”
“I know,” Cordelia said.
“I heard the old guy say they couldn’t kill you,” Marcie went on. “So I waited and I watched. If they’d tried anything, though —”
“I know,” Cordelia told her again. “You’re no Miss Congeniality, but nobody’s ever accused you of running from a fight.” If anything, the invisible girl had always wanted a more active role, and chafed against keeping herself unseen and unknown, acquiescing only because that was her greatest value to the group. No coward, she seemed always to bristle at the possibility that her perpetual concealment might make her appear to be one. “You had my back and I didn’t forget it,” Cordelia concluded. “I only wish I had any idea just what the hell that was all about.”
“Maybe the others can come up with something,” Marcie offered. “You gotta figure, if anybody’s gonna know what Slayer’s blood could be used for, it’ll be Giles. And Willow still has the links to all of Miss Calendar’s web sites, she could maybe come up with something nobody else ever heard of.”
“Even Amy might have some ideas,” Cordelia agreed. “Her mom seriously knew her way around a curse. You’re right, we need to take this to the others.”
A long sigh. “Uh-huh. So, exactly how much do we tell them?”
Cordelia automatically darted a glance toward the ‘empty’ passenger seat. “If you’re asking what I think, I still think we should leave out anything that has to do with Angel.”
“Yeah.” Angry, annoyed. “Secrets and lies. Just what got us here in the first place. How long do we keep doing the same stupid damn thing before we get a clue?”
Not lies, Cordelia wanted to correct her. The first catastrophe had involved secrets, yes (and a hellish dose of bad luck), but she hadn’t actually lied to anyone.
“At any rate, we’ve got a new player on the scene,” she observed. “With him, the dreams, and what we know about Spike and his plans, we should be able to pull everybody else up to speed without having to bring Angel into the story.” Another pointless glance toward where Marcie sat unseen. “If you’re willing to play it that way, that is.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Marcie replied sourly. “Go ahead, drop it all on me.” She was silent for perhaps twenty seconds, then added, “I never liked you, and I don’t see that changing. I’ll give you this, though: you’ve always hung in there, no matter what lumps you took. If I’m cutting you any slack at all, it’s because of that.”
Cordelia shrugged. “Lumps come with the job, and I always made sure to hit back twice as hard.”
“Not what I meant.” Her tone was terse, almost angry, as if she resented what she was saying. “We all unloaded on you after that balls-up at the library and the mansion and the factory … and we damn well should have, seeing as how it damn well was your fault. But you took all of it, didn’t hit back or even try to defend yourself.” A mulling pause. “No, not even that. You argued some stuff: scramming from the mansion so you could get to the factory faster instead of killing Angelus when you had the chance, hauling Buffy to the emergency room instead of trying to do CPR onsite. You defended those things, but not the other stuff … which says to me, you were admitting you were wrong on the other. Taking the blame where you’d earned it.” Cordelia could almost hear the invisible girl shaking her head. “You’ve got an attitude that should get you bitch-slapped twice a day, and your tactical decisions suck like a Hoover. You don’t wimp out, though, and you don’t try to dodge the blame when you’ve got it coming. I’ll respect that.”
Wow. “Okay, that officially IS the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.” Cordelia concentrated on keeping any hint of snarkiness from her voice; Marcie’s statement was more than she had ever dreamed might be possible. “You’re right, I always knew I’d earned everything that’s been aimed at me, except the things I wouldn’t take because I hadn’t been wrong there. I just … never expected to get credit for it, not from you.” From Willow, probably, given time. Giles, maybe on his death-bed, and Xander shortly after hell froze over … or make that long afterward, because Hell cut up all kinds of hijinx in Sunnydale. Grudging credit from Marcie, though, hadn’t even occurred to her.
“Don’t go thinking I’ll make it a habit,” Marcie told her. Then, a minute later, she groused, “I don’t know what to do, damn it. No way do I want to pull what you did, but I’m scared of screwing everything up by trying not to be you. It just … it makes me crazy!”
Cordelia nodded. “Sucks to be us, doesn’t it?”
Marcie didn’t reply. It wasn’t until they pulled into the parking lot of Giles’ apartment complex that she spoke again. “I’ll go along with you for now,” she told Cordelia. “Not because I think you’re right, I’m nowhere near convinced on that. I’ll do it because I can change my mind about keeping quiet, but I can’t take it back if I tell. So just remember, I’m holding my options open.”
Cordelia got out of the convertible, closed the door. “Good enough for now.”
Since she lived with Giles, Marcie didn’t bother to knock. She went straight in, Cordelia following, and found Oz in the living room with the crippled Watcher. “We’re back,” she announced. “I did a ride-along with Queen C, and she ran into something we thought you’d want to hear about.”
Giles sat up in the wheelchair, adjusting his glasses. “Indeed? I hope you, erm, exercised suitable caution.”
“She was definitely sneaky enough,” Cordelia confirmed, and took a seat in one of the armchairs. “I didn’t know she was there myself, not till near the end. And at the end, let me tell you, I was glad to have her around, even though it turned out I didn’t need her.”
“Very well,” Giles said. “You have my full attention.”
Cordelia quickly reported the encounter with the mysterious Doc and the attendant demons. She included the presence of the vampire she had never seen, and shaped her narrative so as to imply that she had overheard, in the byplay between him and Doc — both on the scene and as they were leaving — the specifics of the information that Angel had provided to her.
She could feel Marcie standing just behind her as she told the last: disapproving, but silent.
Giles had one eyebrow up when she finished, though he wasn’t looking directly at her. “This ‘Doc’ individual drew your blood, you say?”
“Just as persnickety as if he was a real doctor,” Cordelia agreed. “I got some creepy vibes off him, though. Count on it, the guy’s at least part demon.”
“Yes, yes,” Giles said. “And the ones that held you while he did this, describe them.”
Again Cordelia supplied the relevant facts, noting at the end, “I don’t think they were working for him, though. I mean, for sure he was in charge on the spot, but from what he and the vamp were saying, I’d say everybody else was on Team Spike and Doc was brought in as outside talent for this particular job.”
“Points worth noting,” Giles acknowledged. “I had another thought in mind, however. The cuts those demons inflicted on you while holding you immobile: we’d best treat those immediately with a strong antibiotic.”
“These?” Cordelia glanced down at the bloodied tears in the sleeves of her blouse. “The scratches are closing already. I mean, dramatic much? I’ve had Slayer healing handle a lot worse than that.”
“The demons you described are Groeltisch,” Giles explained. “Some sources claim they steep their claws in their own manure, much as the Viet Cong are said to have done with punji sticks. Not technically a poison, but there’s a risk of serious inflection, even for one of your remarkable physiology.”
“Eww!” Cordelia said. “Okay, first of all, they were nails, not claws. Thick, sharp nails, but still nails. Second, ewww!” She had to fight the urge to strip off her blouse where she stood. “Damn it — fifteen hundred known demon species, eighty of them in Sunnydale, and I have to run into a kind that plays patty-cake with its own poop!”
“I’ll get the kit,” Oz said, rising from his chair. He left the room, returned in seconds. “We’ll scrub those cuts and bandage ’em, but it might be a good idea to get you a tetanus booster.” He stopped, tilting his head quizzically. “Huh. Looks like somebody got started already.”
Cordelia knew what he meant. “Yeah, Doc slapped a Band-Aid on the spot where he stuck the needle to pull my blood.” She glanced down at the bandage, felt but not seen before now, and continued, “Considerate little monster, I’ll have to be sure and thank him properly —”
Then her eyes registered the pattern, and a roaring black wall swept through her brain. As she fell she heard Marcie’s shout, and then nothing.
* * *
Rings. Bold, basic colors: blue, green, yellow, red. They streaked through the air between Buffy and the other woman in an endless brilliant stream, hue and motion, bobble and twist and whirl. Buffy’s hands flashed with Slayer speed and grace, while the second woman seemed barely to move at all, but the flow circling between them never abated. “Think you’re all alone in this?” Buffy asked; her eyes were on her work, but Cordelia knew the words were aimed at her. “Get real. We’ve been carrying you the whole time. You truly need to get with the picture.”
“Take it easy on her,” the other woman said, and Cordelia did a double-take. The small, blue-lensed glasses, the whitened hair, the crimson lipstick (and she’d done something with foundation, Cordelia now saw, to suggest a different plane to her cheekbones) … the total effect had successfully misled, but the woman hadn’t bothered to alter her voice: this was Jenny, Jenny Calendar, her hands matching Buffy’s in quickness and timing, with an effortless smoothness that masked the underlying virtuosity. “She’s doing the best she can, and the same misdirection we use to trick destiny, it keeps her in the dark.”
“It’s all hanging on a bubble here,” Buffy shot back, “and excuses deliver squat. This is on her, she’s not coming through, and now you’re defending her. What are you, her sister?”
“Maybe,” Jenny said evenly. The stream of bright rings between them continued unfaltering. “Look at her complexion, her bone structure. You think there isn’t a touch of gypsy somewhere in her ancestry, alongside the other strands? Not Kalderash, perhaps, but I’d bet on Rom.”
“So she is your favorite,” Buffy scoffed. “Big twigging surprise. Doesn’t buy her a free pass at crunch-time.”
“She operates under handicaps,” Jenny replied. “So do we. We have to syncopate ours with hers.”
“Do tell,” Buffy said, and suddenly she was collecting rings instead of speeding them along in relay, while Jenny did the same. Buffy turned to Cordelia. “Look. Listen. Learn.” She held up one hand, opened it, and the rings fell to the floor in a cataract of jangling color. “They don’t hold together.”
Jenny raised her hand; those rings, too, fell, but in a chain of connected links, and she held the end above the floor. “But they can,” she told Cordelia. “They can.”
The sky opened and fell around them like a collapsing tent, cerulean replacing midnight, and Cordelia saw that they were standing in a meadow. “Pastoral, right?” Buffy prompted. “Supposed to calm your karma and everything. No matter where you go, though, you’re still there in your way.” She pointed past Cordelia. “See?”
Cordelia looked. A mirror, full-length in its frame, was set in the center of a clump of grass. She studied it, frowning and tilting her head … and her reflection did the opposite, cocking her head to Cordelia’s right, where the Slayer had gone left. “Whoa,” Cordelia said. “So is she evil? Should she have a goatee?”
“It’s not that simple,” Jenny said. “And you’re looking at it the wrong way around.” She spun the mirror in its frame, so that the far side was now toward Cordelia. “Better?”
It wasn’t. Her reflection faced away from her now, so that she was looking at the back of her own head. When she raised her hand, however, the reflection raised the same hand on the same side, so at least that much was straight. “I don’t think this is helping,” she said. “Weird, and even kind of cool, but informative? Not so much.”
“Same old Queen C,” Buffy observed. “All forest, no trees. We can’t make sense of this for you, okay? Wrong lenses. Sorting it out, that’s your job.”
“But I’m getting nowhere,” Cordelia protested. “I try for answers, and I only wind up with more questions.”
“Same thing,” Jenny said. “You just have to see it perpendicular. Is the world in the window, or does the window open out to the world? Answer: yes. Both. Either. More besides. You’ll see when you need to, but you’d better be ready to pay.”
“I’ll pay anything,” Cordelia said.
Buffy shook her head, and suddenly she and Jenny were looking at Cordelia with the same eyes. “You’ll do a lot more than that.”
The light faded as if from a dimmer switch. Cordelia the Slayer was alone in the dark … but it was warm and snug, somehow, and it felt right, so she settled into it, into herself, and let that self fade out as well.
* * *
Transition was slow and indefinite. There had been voices for some time, and movement in front of her eyes, but none if it had seemed to pertain to her. Gradually, however, some intonation of urgency had penetrated to her, and at last Cordelia blinked and looked around. “What?”
“Thank heavens,” Giles said. “You understand me? You’re aware of us? Tell me, how do you feel?”
Cordelia opened her mouth to answer, and what came out was, “Looney Tunes.”
“Ah,” Giles said, and (of course) took off his glasses and began to clean them with a handkerchief. “I assume, by that, you mean you feel disoriented? not entirely connected to reality?”
“No,” Cordelia said. “Well, yes, that’s all true, with a chaser of whuuh? on top. But when I said Looney Tunes, I meant exactly that.”
Giles sighed. “As always, I must ask you to explain the underlying arcana of your thoughts.”
“No mystery,” Cordelia said, and stood up. The room did not spin; in fact, she felt better than she had in … frankly, forever. “That bastard Doc stuck a Band-Aid on my elbow after pulling blood from me.” She pointed to the crook of her arm, then looked again. The Band-Aid was an ordinary skin-tone shade, no design whatsoever. “What? What? God, am I hallucinating now?”
“No, no,” Giles assured her. “You collapsed the moment you indicated the bandage, so naturally we removed it to test for toxins or spell materials, and replaced it with one from my cabinet.” He replaced his glasses. “You will of course be relieved to learn that there was nothing remarkable about it. It was what it appeared to be, no more.”
“Oh, it was more, all right,” Cordelia said. “It was Taz, the Road Runner, Yosemite Sam.”
Giles blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“Looney Tunes. Warner Brothers cartoon characters.” Cordelia held up her hand as she saw Giles’ mouth set itself to express some kind of exasperated puzzlement. “And the last time I was at Buffy’s, I saw the same kind of Band-Aid on her arm. Hers was Bugs and Daffy and Tweety, but same brand. Trust me on this … or, if you need an expert, ask Xander.”
Giles didn’t challenge her statement; he was thinking, hard and quickly. “Blood from the current Slayer — or whatever you are — and from her predecessor as well. A combination so rare must have deep potency, even if we don’t yet know its meaning.” He looked around, and announced, “We must call the others.”
“On it,” Marcie’s voice came back, followed immediately by the electronic beeps of a touch-tone phone being dialed.
Cordelia had already sensed the difference in the apartment: Oz was gone, and the air, too, had a different feel to it. “What time is it?” she asked. “How long was I out?”
“You were in an extremely precarious slumber for nearly seven hours,” Giles told her. “It’s …” He glanced at his watch. “It’s twenty minutes till sunrise. Tell me, do you have any notion as to just what it was that overcame you so abruptly?”
“Slayer dream,” Cordelia answered. “The IMAX version, it hit me like an avalanche the second I saw the design on the Band-Aid. And, judging by how much better I feel now, I think exhaustion must’ve figured in there, too. I was edging into serious zombie territory.”
Giles was nodding. “Then Oz was correct.” At Cordelia’s look, he explained, “He told us his theory of REM deprivation, and we treated you accordingly. Neither I nor Amy — nor Jonathan or Willow, for that matter — could detect any other spell-forces operating upon you, so that was the only avenue we could safely attempt. I’m glad it was the proper one.”
Amy, Jonathan … “You brought them in on this?” Cordelia asked. “No objection, I just got the impression you still weren’t completely sure about having them on board.”
“I’m not,” Giles admitted. “We were in crisis, however, and their talents offered us options we’d not have had otherwise. If we proceed with your plan, we’ll be entrusting them with far more; it seemed illogical to stickle at this lesser step.”
“Again, not arguing here.” Cordelia shrugged, marveling at the clearness of her head; compared to this, she’d been walking in fog for days. “So what’d you have them do?”
“Combined therapy,” Giles told her. “Amy drew out the … well, she called it the psychic-energy equivalent of sludge, and let it dissipate into the common ether. Then she and Jonathan worked together to align the harmonics of your dreaming mind to those of a compatible psyche, to set up a sympathetic sub-rhythm that your unconscious would gradually adjust to match.”
“Compatible?” Cordelia couldn’t imagine who would qualify on that point. Then, remembering Amy’s and Jonathan’s discussion about alternative anchors for the re-ensoulment spell, she guessed, “Willow?”
Giles shook his head. “We couldn’t reach Willow at that point, or Xander. We learned later that they were making one of their joint visits with Buffy.” His voice betrayed no grief at the allusion to Buffy’s condition, but Cordelia saw it in the flicker of tightness around his eyes. “No, Oz was the donor. Primarily because he was the best of few available, but when Amy had more leisure to test the auras of others, she determined that he indeed had the best overall internal affinity with you.”
Oz. And Amy and Jonathan. Even Marcie, reserving judgment but giving Cordelia a chance while she made up her mind. The separate, disparate chunks of Cordelia’s life, that she had tried to handle individually, juggling them with the same frantic, useless dexterity of Buffy and Jenny with the colored rings …
… that had tumbled aimlessly from Buffy’s hand, but in Jenny’s had hung in an interlinked chain. They could hold together, if anyone bothered to make the connections.
“Calling the gang together is a good thing,” she told Giles. “I think … I think, when they get here, I have something to tell them. To tell everybody.”
Giles nodded, accepting it without comment. After a moment, Marcie’s characteristic murmur came next to Cordelia’s ear. “Is this what I think?”
Cordelia nodded. “Yes.”
The invisible girl sounded doubtful. “You’re sure about this?”
“It’s time,” Cordelia said to her. “No — it’s past time.”
* * *
The gathering was complete in astonishingly short order. Amy was easiest; she had been crashed out in Marcie’s upstairs room, staying close in case Cordelia needed further intervention. Willow and Jonathan — as pre-arranged — were alerted by the “you’ve got mail” chimes on their respective laptops, and Willow swung by to tap on Xander’s window, so that the two of them arrived together. Only Oz was notified by telephone, but his quasi-independence from parents, and the variable hours he (still, occasionally) kept with his band, made such an early call not especially remarkable.
“I have a lot of information to drop on you at once,” Cordelia said to them when they were all clustered at Giles’ apartment. “Some of it’s new, some you’ve already heard but we’ll be working it into a new context. There’s one piece that’s going to be a stunner, though, so that’s where I’ll lead.” She took a deep breath. “Everything I said about the dreams I’ve been having was true … but most of what I know about our latest apocalypse-in-the-making, I got from Angel.” Jonathan, Amy and Marcie already knew, of course, but the collective shock from the others gave her time to finish. “For now we both want to kill Spike more than we want to kill each other, so for now we’re working together to stop him.”
And then, it was just a matter of sitting back and waiting out the expected wave of furious objection, recrimination, accusation, and outrage.
After about thirty extremely loud seconds, Giles regained control of the group by calling on all the force of long-established authority. When he had the necessary moment of relative calm, he looked to Cordelia. “How long?” he demanded. “How long has this, this conspiracy, been in operation?”
Cordelia considered. “He told me the first part last night — well, I guess night before last, now — but we got interrupted. He didn’t get back to me with details until last night.”
Giles’ face was hard as flint. “And, once again, you chose to hide vital facts from the rest of us.”
“No,” Marcie said. “I knew.” All eyes swung toward the clear air from which her words had emanated, and Marcie went on. “I was there last night when Angelus talked to her, and she and I had a long, serious discussion once he was gone. She had her reasons for not telling anybody then, and they made sense to me … at least, enough sense that I said I’d think about it before I told anybody else. Bringing it out now, that’s her idea. So this one wasn’t a one-girl show, I was in on it, too.”
Xander began an outburst, but Giles quelled it with a raised hand. “You have never spoken in Cordelia’s defense before now,” he said, apparently to Marcie. “As such, you can hardly be considered partisan. While I don’t understand your taking part in this concealment of vital information, you’ve earned the right to explain your actions.”
“Let her explain it,” Marcie replied. “I’m with her on this, like I said, but this is her deal, and she can lay it out for you better than I could.”
“Very well.” Giles turned back to the others. “I’m willing to listen to Cordelia’s account. My advice is that we all do so, but I won’t attempt to compel you. This must be an individual decision for each of you.”
“I’m, uh …” Jonathan cleared his throat before continuing. “I’m interested in hearing what she has to say.”
“He wasn’t talking to you,” Xander said. He stood and looked to where Jonathan and Amy sat together. “We let you guys in on Cordy’s say-so, and now we find out she’s been doing her standard mix-and-match with the truth. No offense, but you’ve got no vote here.” He swung back to face Cordelia. “You and Angel. You working with Angel. Everything we’ve been through, everything he’s done, and you still think you can trust him?”
“I know I can.” Cordelia kept her seat; rising, putting herself on a level with Xander, might trigger an attack response from him. “He’ll needle me every chance he gets, let me do most of the fighting, and watch for the worst possible moment to betray me. When he spots the moment, that’s when he’ll make his move. He’s a sick, evil, twisted bastard, and I trust him to keep being exactly that.” She had held her voice steady, and she regarded Xander now with a calm, even gaze. “Meanwhile, he wants to use me to stick it to Spike. With an apocalypse on the marquee, I’ll let myself be used. As for trusting him for anything else, why do you think I brought in Amy and Jonathan to help with the re-souling spell?”
“I think …” Willow’s voice was so soft and hesitant, it somehow seized notice, people gave her their full attention to be sure they didn’t miss anything. “I think what Cordelia has done is the second most important thing. I think we should maybe concentrate on saving the world, and any showdown with her can wait till after that.”
“Yeah,” Oz agreed. “ ’Cause the other stuff? That only matters if we’re still alive to argue about it.” To Cordelia he said, “You kept all this to yourself. Seems like I remember saying something to you about doing that. But you’re telling us now. Why?”
“Dreams,” Cordelia said. “The last dream kind of pushed my face into where I was going off the rails.” She looked to them in turn: Oz, Xander, Willow, Giles. “I didn’t trust you. This big, terrible thing was about to happen, and I figured anybody who heard Angel’s name, their brain would shut off and they’d just start yelling. And I was wrong. I have to trust you. I can’t …” The words fought her, but she forced them out. “I can’t do this by myself.”
“Really?” The scorn in Xander’s voice was thick and acid. “I thought the Queen didn’t need anybody for anything.”
“So did I,” Cordelia said simply. “Now I know better.”
He wanted to slap her down, she could see it, but while he was still gathering the words, Oz broke in. “One way or another, guys, we’re gonna need to hear everything she knows.”
“Yeah, we do,” Marcie agreed. “I’ve probably got most of it, and I’m telling you, this is something you can’t afford to miss.”
“Very well,” Giles said. “We seem to have a consensus: a full report from Cordelia, with any decisions made once we have all the facts.” He turned cool eyes toward Cordelia. “If you are serious in this, there can be no more secrets. Anything withheld, anything whatsoever, will erase whatever small tolerance we may still be willing to grant you.”
“Don’t worry,” Cordelia said. “We’re going back to the beginning, clear back to that first dream. I just gave you the highlights before, but there’s so much coming at us now, I’m not even going to try and decide what’s important and what isn’t.” She looked to Amy. “If you know any spells to help memory, call ’em up, because I plan to wring me out like a sponge.”
* * *
That’s what they did. Her information on Angel was fairly straightforward: she’d met him only twice, the first time brief and interrupted, the second with Marcie there to confirm the details. Her most urgent concern, however, regarded the dreams. She had been visited with so many — and each of them had been so cryptic — that by now there were dozens of potentially interlocking factors to be considered, catalogued and evaluated. With an impending doomsday to be averted, Cordelia didn’t want to risk missing any clues. The resulting process was long, tedious, and exhausting.
(Despite Giles’ warning, she didn’t bring in the issue of her short visit to the other-universe Sunnydale, or her burglary of his apartment. Honesty was one thing, suicide a different matter altogether.)
The mass of disconnected detail brought out by Cordelia’s memory-dump initially resisted being sorted into any meaningful pattern. As the various dreams were comprehensively deconstructed, though, linkages began to appear, and guesses as to meaning became more confident. Xander was an obstacle at first, opposing and questioning everything; really, his dedication to blaming Cordelia for all ills, however justified in the beginning, was turning him into a one-dimensional character. Jonathan and Amy were more or less on her side, however (and Marcie, too, which was still a surprise), and Giles and Willow and Oz were more interested in making sense of the puzzle than in assigning guilt. At length, even Xander was caught up in concentration on the task at hand, at which point the whole business proceeded far more smoothly.
The connections and conclusions were tentative and faltering at first. “Trying to hook a star and reel it in, could that be a metaphor for getting Angel’s soul back?” “And us saying it wasn’t Cordelia’s job, I guess that’s why she got the idea to round up a team to work the spell, but I don’t see how we can be sure that was what it really meant.” As the dreams were assessed in depth, the linking of elements accumulated more quickly:
“Chaining vampires to a central locus, there’s something familiar about that; the Prophecies of Aberjian, I think, the original scroll was lost long ago but I believe there are some commentaries that might shed some light.” — “Wow. Miss Calendar in the witness box in a courtroom? Chained there, like the vampires in the second dream? No, you’re right, I guess the chains are just a coincidence, and we know she was never vamped …” — “Huh. Sheila told you to bring in me and Amy? ’Cause I’ll help any way I can, but from what she said, it might just as well have been her saying you needed to come clean with the others here. Which, hey, you’ve done that now, I’m just saying.” “Don’t forget, Jonathan, I’m in the very next dream, and I’m warning about somebody throwing lightning. Remember the lightning bolts in the one with the chained vampires? Count on it, we’re supposed to be involved.” “Hmm, lightning … I saw a woodcut once, can’t quite remember the details … Wait, you said that in the same dream, Drusilla donned a large metal gauntlet? Describe it, please. — Yes, yes, I believe I do know what we’re seeking, just give me a moment …” — “Hold on, guys, I think we skipped one. Hmm? Okay, two, one short and one longer, like an intro. Snow globe, huh. Don’t get that part. Binary key, though — sounds like the deal with getting blood from Slayer Past and Slayer Present. — Yeah, and that goes with world-endage? Not good, what with them having both keys already.” — “Juggling? They’re juggling? Sure, right, Slayer dreams as promos for Renn Faire. Okay, okay, I know. So that’s the one that decided you that we should start hearing the facts? Three cheers for late news. — Wait a sec. They told you you’re ‘looking at it the wrong way’? Didn’t Buffy say something about that, in the snow-globe dream …?” “Yeah, along with the answer’s in the dock. Another dose of cryptic, probably, the kind of thing that only makes sense after the show’s over. Unless she means Doc, the creep who did a little free-lance acupuncture?” “I’m sorry, did you say ‘dock’? ‘The answer’s in the dock’? It mightn’t mean anything, but the dock is that portion of a courtroom where the accused sits. — Yes, that’s British usage, but I’m sure it was once American as well. And I believe you said Jenny was in a courtroom, in the first dream that featured her —?”
“Acul,” Cordelia said, and the free flow of ideas stopped as the assembled group gave her their attention. She had been reporting dream details but not actually participating in the analysis, so that her sudden declaration was almost an interruption. “A, C, U, L,” she went on. “Spelled out on the blackboard at the end of the Jenny-courtroom dream. I forgot all about it till now.”
“A-C-U-L?” Giles repeated, frowning.
Cordelia nodded. “Like right out of the middle of Dracula. Except all-caps. Dracula is a myth, right? Because if that was supposed to be symbolic, we already know we’re dealing with vampires. I forgot about it till now, but if we’re following out every little hint and smidgin —”
“The legend of Dracula was very loosely based on an actual historical person,” Giles said primly, “but I hardly think we need concern ourselves, not with four letters extracted from the middle of the word. I’m sure it was something else. Was there any other part of the message? No? Well, then, anything unusual about the lettering, perhaps? Font, or style, to suggest a clue to a source language?”
Cordelia thought about it. “I wasn’t paying a lot of attention right then, the dream was starting to wind down, but … huh. You’re right, I think it was Greek lettering or something.”
“Indeed?” Giles asked. “How so?”
“Well, you know when you see Greek letters on the front of fraternity houses? Some of them look normal, and some of them are turned funny. This was like that … oh, my God.”
Giles sat forward in the wheelchair. “Yes? You’ve remembered something important?”
Cordelia stared at him, eyes wide. “I was looking at it the wrong way. Oh, my God, it’s just like they kept telling me, I was looking at it the wrong way!” The others were regarding her with puzzlement and perhaps some wariness, and she quickly recovered herself. “It wasn’t Greek letters,” she said. “And it wasn’t ACUL. I was looking at it the wrong way.” She grabbed up a sketch pad, scribbled on it for a few seconds, and then held it up for Giles and the others to see:
“Reversed,” Giles said. “Mirror image, as perhaps implied in the final dream.” He nodded understanding. “Not ACUL. LUCA.”
“Does that mean anything to you?” Cordelia asked.
“Yes!” It was a high yelp, from Willow, and she reddened at the sudden attention the exclamation had attracted. “Brother Luca,” she explained. “He was one of Miss Calendar’s online contacts, it’s in the bookmarks I copied from her classroom computer —”
“Of course,” Giles said. “I remember now, he was the one who sent the warning J-Jenny gave me about the Anointed One being a child. Not very helpful, in retrospect; still, all the same …”
“Got you,” Willow replied. “Logging on now. Luca, Luca —”
Oz lifted an eyebrow in Cordelia’s direction. “Looks like you picked a good time to come clean,” he observed. “Even if, you know, earlier mighta been better.”
“I’m sorry,” Cordelia said. “I think maybe I was a little crazy the last few days. I felt it, I knew I was going downhill, but I had no idea how bad it had got till I woke up and it was gone.”
Amy snorted. “Tell me about it!” The scornful tone drew startled glances, and she said, “What? Didn’t anybody pay attention to what I said when I was working on her? People die from the accumulated gunk I was draining off. She may be hell on wheels when it comes to slugging it out with the undead, but your girl was running on fumes. I’m surprised she made it this far.” She shot Giles an inquiring look. “So I’m guessing this isn’t exactly normal for Slayers?”
Giles cleared his throat. “Cordelia is … a unique case.”
“Uh-oh,” Jonathan said.
“What?” Xander challenged him. “What is it from you now?”
“She, uh …” Jonathan indicated Willow. “She just went stiff, and she’s staring at the screen like … well, like something not good.”
“Wil?” Xander was at her side in an eye-blink. “Is it the screen? Are you mesmerized, paralyzed —? Answer or I’m shutting your laptop right this instant!”
Willow shook herself free of whatever had gripped her. “No, no, I’m okay. It’s no kind of Internet magic, I just …” She turned haunted eyes to Xander. “All of a sudden I’m wishing I’d kept an eye on the chat page about Brother Luca.”
“Bad news?” Oz ventured.
Willow nodded. “He’s gone. He’s been sending end-of-the-world warnings to everybody on his mailing list, starting maybe ten days ago, and then late Friday he stopped posting at all. Everybody’s really worried about him, some have tried tracking spells and they say it’s like he dropped off the face of the earth.”
“Friday,” Giles repeated. “The same night as the break-in here.”
“Whoa,” Marcie said. “You’re thinking they’re connected?”
“Only in the sense of various factors beginning to come into line at roughly the same time,” Giles replied. Then, to Willow: “Warnings, you said. Is there a record of what he was warning against?”
“Oh, totally,” Willow said. “It’s what everybody on the page is discussing. Hold on —” She hit a few keys, drew her finger along the touch-pad, and then began to read aloud: “ ‘When the unliving heart beats with the living blood of Sineya’s daughters of this day and the day gone, then will the steel fist be raised on the hand of the soulless mind.’ ”
Several seconds of silence greeted the end of the recitation. Then, “Rather cumbersome,” Giles said. “Prophecies tend to be intricate and obscure, and the wording can be … grandiose, but there’s a gaudy flavor to this one.”
“I don’t know if it exactly qualifies as a prophecy,” Willow said. “I mean, the way Miss Calendar talked, Brother Luca follows threads from all over the world, and uses them to make … forecasts, I guess you’d call them. Like he can spot storm clouds that other people miss. And from the discussion threads, he always gets a little flamboyant with his language; nobody seems to see anything unusual in the wording, they’re talking more about how they’ve never seen him this scared.”
“Scared,” Cordelia said. “Flamboyant. Storm warnings. Got it. So, is it too much to hope somebody knows what the damn thing actually means?”
“Possibly.” Giles glanced at the book he held, then looked back to Cordelia. “Sineya is reputedly the name of the First Slayer; her ‘daughters’ would be all who follow in her line. The ‘steel fist’ … I believe, from clues in several of your dreams, that the term may pertain to the Glove of Mynhegon, a mystical artifact which is supposed to confer supernatural power on whomever wears it.” He adjusted his glasses, looked again to the book in his lap. “Unfortunately, the Glove was formed for human users, of varying magical potential; the ‘hand of the soulless mind’ would seem to indicate a vampire — Spike, presumably — and there simply is no way to predict how the power would manifest through such a vessel.”
“Forget predicting,” Xander said. “How about an old-fashioned guess? Can we still do that?”
“The situation is unprecedented,” Giles returned. “Given the supporting text, however, and hints from Cordelia’s dreams and various commentaries on the Prophecies of Aberjian, the strongest likelihoods would be —” He counted them off. “Power so intense as to shatter mountains. The ability to resurrect demons. Or, finally, a capacity to open a localized Hellmouth at any place of the wielder’s choosing.”
Oz looked from Giles to Willow, and his voice when he spoke, though steady, was gravely soft. “You know, list like that? I’ve got no idea which one would be worst.”
Cordelia stood up. “So is anybody else thinking, no matter how evil Angel is now, me working with him is still better than letting Spike follow out his plans?”
“Do Amy and I get to vote on this one?” Jonathan asked. “Because you can definitely mark me down for a YES.”
“Same here,” from Marcie’s corner. “Talking about the end of the world is one thing, but this business is starting to feel real. I don’t like that, and I’m all for anything that’ll jam a broom-handle into the spokes.”
No one else vocalized an explicit answer, but nods and grunts of assent showed a seeming unanimity. “We shall continue to research,” Giles announced. “And those of us who would do the re-ensoulment ritual must prepare ourselves to carry it out as required. But, yes, Cordelia: while watching always for treachery from him, there seems little choice but that you continue your … partnership, with Angelus.”
Xander let out a little laugh, and said, “Sorry to sound a sour note in Queen C’s grand plan — except no, I’m not — but is this whole bring-back-puppy-Angel deal really the way we want to be going here?”
Cordelia groaned inwardly, but kept her tone level. “I’ve been over that. It’s a weapon, an attack he won’t see coming and can’t dodge. Like calling in an air strike.”
“Believe it or not, I’m actually on board for that part. I mean, sure, I’d rather see him strapped down over an active volcano, but ya does what ya can with what ya gots.” He gave her the familiar ironic eyebrow-lift, but there was no smile beneath it. “What I want to know is, how do you time it?”
Huh? “Huh?” Cordelia said.
“You’ve got this ritual,” Xander explained. “Gypsy-tested, Jenny-approved, and Giles and Willow and Amy and Jonathan are all over it. Way to zap Angelus long-distance, got it. But the two of you are partners right now — you know, the way people are when they really want to kill each other but they’ve got to deal with something a leetle more pressing at the moment — and I don’t think you want to whack him in the middle of the two of you fighting your way through Spike’s brute squad. So, sure, you say you want it handy for when he pulls the double-cross that we all know is coming … but it’s a long ritual, I don’t think they can spin it up in twenty seconds. How do you go about having it hit exactly when you want it to?”
Amy and Jonathan traded startled looks, and Giles said, “Ah. Yes, indeed.”
“We have to do it,” Cordelia insisted. “We have to have it ready. Don’t ask me how I know, I just know.”
“He’s got a point, though,” Amy said. “This thing has a lot of volatile elements, we have to keep it all in balance. Timing it to hit at a specific moment … I don’t see how.”
“What about a bridge?” Oz suggested.
Amy looked at him. “Hmm?”
“I don’t know magic,” Ox said, “but timing, yeah, I deal with that a lot. When you’re doing a number and you have to stretch it to the end of a set, well, there are ways. Repeat some of the themes, do some frills, bridge in and out of other stuff for filler, things like that. What I’m hearing, it sounds like you’re talking about that kinda balance.”
Giles frowned, pursed his lips. “I really don’t think —”
“No, no, he’s right,” Amy broke in. “Sorry, Mr. Giles, you may have the book-learning, but I don’t just do this stuff, I feel it. And it feels right.” She smiled, just as she had when assessing Jonathan’s “conduit” concept. “Yes, I can see it. Lay the foundations, get the big stuff warmed up and ready to move, then start layering it with other things. Invocations, stresses and elaborations … butter up the Spirits of the Interregnum, sanctify by the blood of the people we’ve lost … Yes.” She looked to Cordelia. “The funny part is, do it that way and you make the spell even stronger and more precise. Meanwhile, though, we’re holding it back for just the right moment. You’ll still have your air strike, but we’ll be keeping the planes in a holding pattern until then.”
Giles cleared his throat. “You said yourself that we’ll be dealing with volatile forces in a delicate arrangement. Do you really believe you can hold such things in balance by means of a … free-style jam session?”
Amy gave him an arch eyebrow. “Don’t groove to the musical vibe, hmm? Okay, look at it this way: if you don’t know anything about cooking, you follow the recipe exactly. If it comes naturally to you, though, you know you can, oh, sauté the onions while you’re chopping up other ingredients, keep water boiling in the background till you actually need it, add a little corn starch for extra body … You’re still going by the recipe, but you’re working with it instead of being tied down by it.” She made a wide gesture that took in Giles, Willow and Jonathan. “If you guys had to try this by yourselves, you’d absolutely follow the directions on the box. To the letter. Me, though, I’m a natural cook, and on my way to being a chef. Magic is in my blood, and I’m telling you: I can do this.”
Giles cleared his throat. “I actually do have some understanding of music, and the ‘bridge’ analogy was in fact far more reassuring. I take your point, however.” He looked to the others. “It would seem, then, that we’ve come to an agreement. There is still the matter, of course, of assembling the proper ingredients for our … recipe.”
“Most of that shouldn’t be a problem,” Jonathan said. “I mean, me and Amy talked some with Willow, and she said the supplies we need are mainly basic stuff. There was one thing, though, the orb-something …?” He looked to Amy.
“Orb of Thesuleh,” she supplied. “Spirit vault for the retrieval of souls. That’s a new one for me. I can see how it works — kind of a way station between being called back from the Great Beyond and being restored to the proper vessel — but I know it wasn’t mentioned in any of my mother’s materials, so I have no idea how rare the things are.”
“Quite rare,” Giles told her. “But not especially valuable; the simple fact that the Kalderash rituals were lost meant that there was, effectively, no real use for a properly prepared Orb. I’ve had one myself for several years now: kept it as a curiosity, used it as a paperweight. It might take us weeks to acquire one otherwise, but as it stands, we now possess all the necessary materials, and need only make proper preparations.”
“Really? Good.” Amy looked around. “So how about we pull everything together and do a walk-through? I mean, don’t turn on the current, obviously, but get a feel for where the parts go and our rhythm for carrying it out. I’m thinking, with something as tricky as this, a few rehearsals might be a pretty good idea.”
“Very well.” Giles glanced toward Xander. “I believe the conclusions we’ve reached serve to suitably address the concerns you raised. Do you concur?”
Xander shrugged. “I’m good. Sure, I’d like it better if you could set him on fire at a distance, but this is good enough for government work.” To Cordelia he added, hard-lipped, “This is just for now, got it? We’re not settled, you and me. Not even close.”
“Right,” Cordelia said. “I figure if we can keep the world from exploding, that’s all the miracle I can ask for.”
Oz nodded. “See? Sunny side of the street.”
Giles gave instructions, and Cordelia withdrew to think her own thoughts. This was far from being an ideal situation, but it did seem that various components were starting to come together. In fact, there was a haunting sense of familiarity to the situation, and took her several moments to follow this elusive sense to recognition: even with the awful changes of the past several months, even with all the people they had lost to death or desertion or soullessness or paralysis/ coma, even with the near-universal hostility directed toward her now, this was the nearest thing in a long, long time to normal function for the Slay Friends.
Funny how much you could accomplish with just one little apocalypse …
Behind her she heard Marcie say to Giles, “There you go. Orb of Thesuleh, right where you said it was.”
“Thank you,” Giles told her. “That should be everything. Now, placing ourselves at four equidistant points around the table should help to reinforce the balance we are attempting to achieve via our respective roles —”
“Oh!” Willow exclaimed, and everyone looked at her as she continued, “That’s an Orb of Thesuleh? But, but yes, that makes sense.” She turned to Giles. “It’s so weird, it’s like destiny has been pointing this way the whole time.”
“I’m sorry,” Giles said, with practiced patience. “I’m afraid I don’t follow.”
“Well, you said you’d been using it as a paperweight, and sure, I can see where you attached it to that little base so it’d sit flat … but Jenny had one, too. Which completely makes sense, she would have gotten hold of one if she wanted to recreate the ritual that souled Angel in the first place.” She gave them the hesitant smile that said, Am I starting to babble? I’m babbling, aren’t I? “You remember, Xander — when we were putting away her stuff, the thing you said was too small for a crystal ball? So, so you had one, Giles, and Jenny had one, as if you were both moving in the same direction without you even knowing.”
“Well, that’s cool,” Jonathan offered. “Always good to have a spare, in case something goes wrong.”
Giles held up the Orb that Marcie had brought him, studying it from different angles. “A spare,” he said, his voice level and controlled, expression schooled to reveal nothing. “That could indeed prove useful … though not, of course, in the immediate moment.”
“No?” Amy asked. “Why not?” At the slightly frosty glance she got from Giles, she went on, “Look, not challenging, I just want to know. We’re breaking out the big guns here, and I want to understand it as well as I can. So why wouldn’t a second Orb be much use right now?”
Mollified, Giles explained, “Even if every part of the Kalderash ritual is done properly, even if each of us carries out his or her portion perfectly, an undertaking of this magnitude exacts a toll. We will all experience a … psychic deadness, perhaps even a backlash; in either instance, even under perfect conditions it would be impossible for us to attempt a second ritual until we had completed a long, careful period of recuperation. We still have the second Orb in case we discover some flaw in one of them, but I’m afraid we must accept that, here and now, we will have only the one chance.”
“Okay,” Amy said. “Just so I know.”
“Certainly. Now, Xander, if you recall where, where Jenny’s Orb was packed, could you retrieve it in case —? Yes, thank you.” He had continued to hold up his own Orb as he spoke, the light from the windows playing through it; now he set it down and turned his chair slightly so that he was facing Cordelia. “And, while we do our … rehearsals here, you can perhaps be making your own preparations for this evening’s rendezvous with Angelus. Always keeping in mind — … Cordelia?”
“What?” Cordelia startled. “I mean sure, yeah, right, what?”
Giles peered at her. “Are you quite all right? Amy, we must be certain her recovery is complete, too much depends on tonight’s events.”
“No, no, I’m fine,” Cordelia insisted. “Just had my head somewhere else for a second. You were saying?”
“Simply that you must always remember that Angelus, as well as Spike, will be a direct threat to you. You might wish to select weaponry, as well as the proper mindset, on that basis.”
“Way ahead of you,” Cordelia told him. “Don’t worry, I’m not about to forget that.”
She left while Amy, Giles, Jonathan and Willow were sorting out bone fetishes, candles, colored chalks, an incense bowl, and various herbs on the expanse of the dining table. Oz watched her with the non-expression that showed he had thoughts he wasn’t voicing, but he didn’t move to follow. They would have words, Cordelia knew; his advice to her about keeping secrets had been direct and pointed, and he would have some comments about how well she had (or hadn’t) followed it. Just not now.
Which was good, because there was going to be one more secret. It went against everything she had learned over the last several days, might well sabotage all she had accomplished, but she was clear now. Dreams, prophecies, clues and blind alleys and symbolism and guilt and determination and regret and a frigging parallel timeline … Against every likelihood, it had all suddenly shaken out into a complete picture, clear and solid and shot through with the weight of destiny.
She knew now. The road ahead of her … she might not be alive at the end of it, but at least she knew where it led.
There were things she had to do, arrangements she had to make, and — depending on the mood they were in when they learned of it — what the remnants of the original Slay Friends might feel was one last betrayal.
However anything else turned out, though, they were now, undeniably, moving to a conclusion.
* * *
In her room, Cordelia laid out clothes for the evening. Patrol wear had added another dimension to her wardrobe, one she didn’t advertise but that she nonetheless refined and implemented with the same ruthless discrimination she had once devoted to cutting-edge fashion. The purpose might be different, but the process — putting together the specific ensemble that was exactly right for a particular situation — was so familiar as to be near-automatic by now.
Dark colors. A vampire’s night vision was almost as good as a cat’s, and more sensitive to motion than to color … but vampires weren’t the only things out there, and besides, why make it any easier for them than she had to? Durability rather than style: she had been using work boots for months, and debating whether to go even further into some with steel toes, or make a lateral move to Doc Martens. In tops, knits fit closer but didn’t last as long, and she’d progressed into cheaper and cheaper fabrics, going for ease of replacement over considerations of appearance. For pants, she alternated depending on conditions: black denim was tougher but more confining, whereas sweat pants (sweat pants!) gave her much greater ease of movement but minimal protection.
For tonight’s work, she was likely to need ruggedness and utility, and she chose accordingly. Jacket with sewn-in slots for carrying extra stakes, stone-washed black jeans so she could carry additional weapons on a belt. The sword Angel had tossed at her the other night had a good balance and fit her hands perfectly, so she installed it in the kind of back-slung sheath she thought she had heard Giles call a baldric. She attached twin daggers to the belt, in case she had to do close-in work — all too possible if she was facing a mixture of demon types — and installed holy-water flasks in handy pockets. This went beyond patrol, she was headed for battle, and she intended to be suitably kitted out.
It wasn’t until she looked over the final selection, laid out on her bed, that the realization struck her. This was the same kind of outfit she had chosen the day she and Buffy had set out to assault separate targets simultaneously. In fact, the jacket and baldric were the exact same ones she had worn then.
In one frame of mind, you could see that as fitting, symbolic. In another, you could take it as a bad omen. Cordelia shook away the question; she had picked out what she needed for what she had to do, and that was the only thing that mattered.
She had made the necessary call to Amy, and in private conversation with the young witch she had established that the new contingency she requested was indeed possible (somehow Cordelia had known it would be), and arranged the signal that would trigger it if needed. She had put together and set aside a few extras — seriously unwelcome surprises, she hoped — and put them into a backpack that, tightly cinched, she could wear without it slowing her down or compromising her flexibility. She had re-examined her dreams, and the conclusions she had drawn from them, and found nothing to alter the path on which she was set. She had written a brief letter to Giles and left it on a table in the hall to go out with the morning mail, and she would put another on his desk in the SHS library, dual paths for leaving him a last message if she should prove unable to do so by any other avenue.
She might die tonight. Always there in the background, it hovered over the only outcomes possible for the coming storm: she would live, and win; she would die, and win; she would die, and fail. She did not intend to fail.
Some things could never be made right. Some costs, once incurred, could only be borne. But sometimes, sometimes … sometimes, there was a shot at redemption.
The last several months had provided ample evidence as to how the world could change completely from one breath to the next, but even so, she found herself slightly shaken by the shift. She had been frozen for weeks in a situation she couldn’t bear but didn’t know how to change, all her determination rendered impotent by the fact that she had already lost before she began … Intolerable as it was, it had become the norm of her existence; and then, over the space of a three-day weekend, a new universe of possibility had opened out. Not without risk, and not without a price, but still, an avenue of escape had been revealed. There was simply no way she could allow this chance to pass unseized.
In a moment of bad judgment — awful, catastrophic bad judgment — she had lost, alienated or isolated herself from all the people who mattered to her. (Not the disastrous lovemaking that had loosed Angelus; that had spun from ignorance, with Jenny Calendar as its author. No, her crime had been to lock the others out of a decision cycle that affected them … and, worse, in the process to cause them casualties they couldn’t forgive her.) She had continued among them as a pariah, unwelcome but not quite dispensable, until need and inspiration had driven her to recruit an alternative set of Slay Friends; now, those had been integrated with the originals and, if the necessity arose and Amy followed through, would help her to effect a lesser betrayal. That could well be the last straw to a group who hadn’t been willing to cut her much slack to begin with. It didn’t matter. The dreams had finally come together to form a meaningful picture, and she knew her path now.
However this ended, it would end tonight.
* * *
She slipped out of her home fifteen minutes before sunset, left the letter for Giles in his office at the library, and began her patrol the moment the sun dropped below the horizon. Even though she was itching for action, there was no avoiding the delay; Angel would find her when he was ready, and following what passed for a normal routine was the way she would be found. If she was lucky, it wouldn’t be long before he got around to it. If she was just a little lucky, she might get to kill something while she awaited contact.
Nope. There was a stillness to the growing dusk, an absence of any of the vaguely felt supernatural activity that usually formed a kind of subliminal background hum. It was as if that other world had withdrawn, was watching and holding its breath. If true, that might at least mean no distractions tonight. At the same time, the atmosphere of hushed anticipation lent added tension at a time when she was already keyed up for violence.
At the outer edges of a mini-golf course (human activity even after dark, meaning an opportunity for a predator to thin the herd without drawing immediate notice), she stopped, listened, waited, and at last announced, “Okay, here I am. Are you ready to play, or would you rather just stay out there and play with yourself?”
“Ooh, language.” Angel emerged from the shadows, favoring her with one of his trademark smirks. “You’re really developing a mouth lately. Makes a fella wonder —” He stopped, surveying her with his head tilted to the side, then met her eyes again. “Interesting outfit,” he observed. “Familiar, even. Are you really wanting to repeat that experience?”
“Are you?” Cordelia challenged. “It wasn’t your finest hour, either. I killed every last one of your soldiers and burned your house down around your ears, and you … Oh, that’s right, you ran away, never even took a swing at me.” She shook her head. “Reminding me of that? not smart, unless you’re eager for me to finish the job. Now, do you have Spike’s location? or do I have to think of something else to do with you?”
He chuckled. “I’ll admit, you were in high form that night. If you’re anywhere near as wound-up now, we’ll deliver a fine slaughter.” The reminiscent amusement fell away, leaving his face a cold mask of malice. “Yes, I have the location. Conradt was really insistent on the accuracy of his information. Frantic that I should believe him.” A thin smile. “At least, while he could still form words.”
And there was Angel in a nutshell. It didn’t bother him in the slightest to point out how worthless were his promises, because he already knew she already knew. Cordelia shrugged. “Fine. So, where? I’m ready to get down to business.”
Angel snorted. “Where else? Spike’s world-class when it comes to stubborn, but nobody ever accused him of being big on imagination. Whatever he’s running tonight, he set it up back in the factory where Drusilla sliced up your little miss Slayer-No-More before you sent her swooshing down the big vacuum-cleaner hose to Hell. Boy definitely has a one-track mind.”
Cordelia lifted an eyebrow. “And aren’t you going to swear dire vengeance on me for perforating everybody’s favorite Nutso Queen?”
“Drusilla?” He shook it away. “Bad riddance. I kept her around in the beginning because it was fun to watch Darla have to put up with her. Once Dru brought Spike in, though, I had to put up with him. Much more interesting, but much less fun.”
“All right, then.” Cordelia started toward the parking lot. “I’ll meet you there. I won’t go in without you, because you’re right, we have a better chance tackling Spike and his crew together. But I won’t trust you in my car.”
“Riding to a showdown?” Angel said, and the smirk had returned. “A man might think you were going soft.”
“A ‘man’ might,” Cordelia returned, “but I don’t give a french-fried damn what you think. And any time you want to test me for soft? I’m right here, with a stake in either hand.”
He shook his head. “We’ll see, come the day … and the day will come, never fear. Okay, Princess, have it your way, we’ll meet at the scene. Don’t rush, though.” He gave her a grin that promised nothing good. “Wouldn’t want you getting edgy and reckless, waiting for me, or you might screw everything up. Again.”
Cordelia had already done all the verbal sparring that her mood just now would allow, so she made no reply. She backed away, not willing to turn her back on him, and he likewise kept his eyes on her as he faded into the night shadows. Once she was sure he was gone, she proceeded to her car. She waited until she was in motion, however, before pulling out her cell phone and making the call.
“Amy? Tell them it’s going down at the factory. …… Oh, they’ll know which one. Listen, for now it looks like Angel is playing it straight, so I’ll stay with the plan as it stands. If anything goes wrong, though, the rest of you need to be ready to follow up. …… With what? Well, my personal preference would be to crash gasoline tanker trucks into the place from every side, open the valves, and toss a match. But that’s just me. They’ll come up with something. …… Too soon to tell. I’ll let you know when it’s time. On that one, too, though, you’d better be set to move quick.”
She closed the phone, ending the call. The last answer had been to Amy’s murmured, And the other little thing we talked about —? Cordelia had covered every angle she could think of. Now it all came down to the doing.
While she didn’t hurry, neither did she dawdle. She parked two blocks from the factory, tucking her convertible back into an alley to reduce the likelihood that any latecomers would carry the word to Spike’s shindig that the Slayer was in the neighborhood, and went the rest of the way on foot. She installed herself at a good vantage point, and settled herself to await Angel’s arrival.
He ghosted out of the darkness, as usual, though she had known he was there through a combination of intuition and sounds too slight and meaningless to convey a warning to anyone with lesser hearing and experience. “Well,” he said, smiling expansively. “There she is, obedient as ever I could desire: I give you a spot, and you go there on command. Did it never occur to you that I might have set up this whole scenario as a trap?”
“Then spring it,” Cordelia told him levelly. “One way or another, I’m here to fight. A trap would just mean I get to kill you now instead of later.”
“So bloodthirsty,” he sighed, still smiling. “Maybe we should reconsider getting back together. All that fire, I know I could put it to good use.”
“You already have,” she retorted. “At least, you will if we ever get inside to start the action. Or would you rather stand out here thumping your chest till I run out of what little patience I have, leave you as ashes in the street, and go in alone?”
He shook his head. “Don’t be trying to rush the climax, now. When I take you, I want your blood to be hot, and there’s foreplay enough behind those walls to get you in a fine fever.”
“Perfect.” Cordelia drew her sword. “Ready when you are. You did bring something to fight with?”
“Always prepared,” Angel agreed. He opened the long black coat and withdrew a double-bladed battle axe. “Don’t want you to have all the fun to yourself, and I do appreciate a good massacre to whet the appetite.” He glanced at the sword she held, and his smile broadened. “That’s the one I gave you the other night, isn’t it? I knew you were the sentimental type.”
“Sentiment, schmentiment,” she snorted. “It has an edge and a point, so I’ll use it for as long as it’s useful. I’d gladly give it back to you, though.” She leveled the blade toward him. “In fact, I’m looking forward to it.”
He laughed, and turned toward the factory. After a second, she followed.
Unlike her last time here, stealth was definitely recommended for initial entry; Spike might have posted sentries (though Angel, before his disastrous de-souling, had commented more than once on Spike’s sloppiness in such matters), or there might just be outliers to shout an alarm at the wrong moment if stumbled over. Following this thought, she and Angel slid through the darkness together with oiled smoothness, an effortless coordination that triggered sickening memories of other teamed prowls.
She didn’t bother to push such thoughts away. They fed a long-simmering rage, and she could (and would) use that to good measure. Now, or very soon.
Their caution proved justified: a pair of vampires had been set on guard, not at the entrance but further in. Angel caught her attention by a near-imperceptible hiss of warning, but Cordelia had already seen them, and she took both with thrown stakes, the second sentry pierced through the heart before the first had finished collapsing into dust. (Upside, downside: with a quick stab-and-withdraw, the vampire dusted while the stake remained for more such work, while a thrown stake was consumed by the same accelerated dissolution as its victim. Cordelia had several spares, but her supply wasn’t unlimited; still, right now a distance kill was more important than conserving the tools of her trade.) She and Angel moved on past the faint outlines on the concrete floor, she being careful to keep him in the corner of her eye, and continued noiselessly into the inner recesses of the derelict structure.
As they had done in the scouting raid that prevented the assembly of the Judge — and hadn’t that been a total fizzle after so much advance billing! — she and Angel took to the catwalks as soon as they had penetrated far enough to gain access. They had to be more cautious, as the aging ironwork had a tendency to creak without warning, but they could move more swiftly, and as they drew near the apparent site of Spike’s gathering, the noise ahead masked any they might have made inadvertently.
Whereas unsouled-Angel gravitated to lowbrow melodrama in his stage-settings, Spike seemed to want no more than to be seen and heard. He had set up stage lighting on the scaffolding that ran around the walls of the big central assembly area, the harsh illumination flooding him from every angle. The hubbub of the throng around him blurred his words at first, but as she drew closer, Cordelia could begin to make them out. “— not so much slack in the chains, you bloody tossers. We don’t want this lot getting tangled with each other, might muck up the ritual. Now you, Dalton, think you can read the scrolls without throwing in anything about beef bloody canoes —?”
Okay. Good news, they were here in time to take forceful action to prevent whatever Spike might be looking to spin up. Bad news, there were a lot more of the enemy than Cordelia had counted on facing. She could see at least a dozen of the bright-patterned demons she had fought twice now (no sign of Doc, though, which was a shame, even if it was unlikely she’d have time to repay him properly). Past that, there had to be forty or more vampires clustered around the space in the center of the room; despite Angel’s comments about him having become unpopular with other vampires, Spike had clearly engaged in some aggressive recruiting/ conversion. Spike stood in the central space itself, and a few yards from him was a large wooden box, with — just as in her dream — five confused, desperate vampires chained to it at roughly equidistant points.
Next to her, Angel let out a low chuckle. “Doesn’t look good for those boys, does it?” he murmured. “Wonder how they managed to piss off Spike, to get themselves included in the ritual?” He shook his head. “No, I’ll bet he had five new ones turned, just for this. That’s what I’d do if I had a big spell that called for a vampire sacrifice.”
Cordelia could have cared less about the details, she was still unhappily assessing the odds. She was used to fighting against numbers, she’d killed nearly a dozen in less than a minute the last time she went against Angel himself, and this time he would be fighting alongside her … but there was no escaping that one lucky punch from somebody in the opposition, one instant of accident or mistiming, would give them all the opening they needed to tear her to pieces. She was willing to face the prospect of dying, but dying without achieving her goal … No. She refused to allow the possibility.
“We can’t get to Spike from here without going through the others,” she whispered to Angel. (God, if someone offered to sell her a compound bow right now, she’d pass over the keys and title to the QUEEN C and call it a bargain!) “And even if we can fight through them all, they might slow us down enough for him to finish whatever he’s about to kick off. We need to thin them out.”
“Easiest thing in the world,” Angel told her breezily. “All you need is an M-16 and a couple of magazines packed with tracers.” At her startled look, he explained smugly, “Little thing I learned in the ’Nam. Vampires hate tracers, they burn like Lucifer’s own fire, and hit one of us just right — or hit him enough times — and he’ll go up like a torch. Fun times, if you like that kind of thing.” He regarded her with sardonic challenge. “Oopsie, I’ll bet you forgot to bring along an M-16.”
“I’m adaptable,” Cordelia said. She unslung the backpack, opened it, and withdrew four glass quart bottles, then four strips of cloth. “I thought these might be useful for a distraction. Didn’t expect to need them as mass antipersonnel weapons.” She lined up the bottles on the square metal railing in front of her, then handed two of the cloth strips to Angel and began to pull the top from the first bottle. “I’m sure you know how these work. Hell, you invented ’em for all I know. Get busy.”
“Well, aren’t you the Girl Scout,” Angel mused, but he was already inserting a cloth wick into the bottle in front of him. “You must have been quite a scandal at summer camp.”
I summered at Cannes and Cozumel, buttwipe, Cordelia thought but didn’t bother to say. “Please: everybody knows about Molotov cocktails.” (Not everyone, though, knew to mix a bit of powdered Tide detergent with the gasoline to make it behave more like napalm. Cordelia wasn’t about to reveal the source of that nugget of knowledge.) “Aim for that side of the room, loft them high so they’ll seem to drop out of nowhere, and space them for maximum dispersal. Even if we don’t kill as many as I hope, Spike’s boys should turn their attention that way just as we attack this side.”
“You have the most wonderful heart for slaughter,” Angel said to her in an acid mockery of teasing banter. “One of the most attractive things about you, really.” He held up a makeshift gasoline bomb in either hand. “If you’d do the honors?”
Cordelia returned the backpack to her shoulders, and with a BIC lighter she lit the wick of her own bottles, then his. The two of them were directly above one of the stage floods, the glare of the artificial lighting concealing the smaller flames. “There and there,” Cordelia indicated with an elbow. “I’ll take the next two spots in the line. One after another, fast … Now.”
She threw her bottles, arcing them high, then went over the railing just as they began to drop. In the background she heard Dalton’s thin voice interladen with the rougher, growling timbre of Spike’s, they’d already begun the ritual! Then she landed a half-second after the first explosions and screams, Angel at her side, and as the crowd ahead of her turned toward the far commotion, the two of them launched into the vampires’ ranks in an abrupt cataclysmic thunderbolt of steel and death and fury.
She killed five before the besieged throng were fully aware of the assault, and then panic set in as they suddenly realized they were beset seemingly from two sides. She pressed forward in a whirlwind of slashing ferocity, this was like the attack on the hive-rat warren in that other world but infinitely more satisfying, and Angel laughed and hacked beside her with the exultant joy of killing, even if they were of his own kind. For a moment it seemed that the entire group would break before them and flee in terror … then Spike bellowed, “Turn and fight, turn and fight! There’s only two of ’em — bury them in numbers, you gutless bastards!” Then his voice went back to the chant, and the crowd began to turn to face its attackers.
The momentum of the attack was fading, and much too soon. “Cover me!” Cordelia snapped to Angel, dropping back a step even before she saw if he would move to comply. He did, pressing the assault as she used precious instants to drop the backpack, rip open the zipper, and pull out a bulky silver cylinder. “Stand clear!” she snapped again, and again he obeyed without hesitation, and she yanked out the safety ring and squeezed the trigger handle. A jet of water sprayed across the vampire ranks ahead of her, they shrieked and fell back as their flesh sizzled and smoked, and she renewed her attack with Angel at her side.
Cordelia had a firm “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with Father Nolan at St. John of the Cross … but he had owed her a solid, and blessing a water-charged fire extinguisher seemed to render its contents roughly as effective as holy water. Furthermore, she had cut away the hose a few inches from the valve, so that someone with Slayer grip-strength could operate it one-handed as if it were a giant spray-can. After the first seconds, she switched the cylinder to her left hand and wielded the sword with her right, loosing the blessed water in brief aimed spurts instead of a continuous stream. Even so, the tank only held just so much, tactical necessities had dictated that she carry one of the smaller models. The spray faltered and died out, and she cast away the empty cylinder and waded in with redoubled fury.
Again the two of them gained ground, again began to slow in their advance as the sheer mass of their opposition, and the courage they drew from their numbers, tilted the balance back. “Cute trick,” Angel snarled beside her. “Got any more?”
“One,” Cordelia answered, and drew the 9mm Glock from the holster she had clipped to the inside of her belt, behind her back and concealed by the jacket. She put the first shot through the face of one of Doc’s minion-demons — finally joining the fight — and dropped another two with three more shots as she continued to thrust and cut with the sword. This was the handgun Willow had secreted under the seat of Cordelia’s car, and used during the last raid on this same factory. Cordelia had no experience with firearms, but she was deadly accurate with the pistol-grip crossbow, and the basic principles of marksmanship seemed to apply to both weapons. Again their advance quickened slightly, the demons appeared to be too brainless to feel fear but they couldn’t stand against sword and axe and pistol; and the vampires, for all their savagery and all their fear of Spike, were mostly weaponless and beginning to waver in their resistance —
A sizzling, blue-white bolt of electricity lanced through the factory ceiling, and struck somewhere at the edge of Cordelia’s vision. She turned, staring: a moment’s inattention that could have killed her, but just now her enemies were equally transfixed. This time she saw the living lightning strike, saw it roar through the convulsing body of Spike, outlining him in an insane corona and showering sparks from the metal gauntlet on his uplifted arm.
When the unliving heart beats with the living blood of Sineya’s daughters of this day and the day gone, then will the steel fist be raised on the hand of the soulless mind. In that instant Cordelia knew, with total unthought comprehension: Spike had injected himself with her blood and Buffy’s, and the lightning he called down had restarted his heart like some demonic electroshock, so that, however temporarily, it now beat with the blood of Slayers. Brother Luca’s prophecy (or weather forecast, or whatever) had been fulfilled, the Glove of Finnegan was now active, and things were bad, very bad, almost as bad as they could get —
“NOW!” Spike roared to Dalton. “Start the summoning now!” He raised his gauntleted hand and shouted out three syllables that Cordelia didn’t catch, and again the lightning speared into the room and crackled through Spike.
“I’m no authority on the occult,” Angel said to her, almost conversationally, “but something tells me this means we’re fucked.”
Almost on cue, the vampires and few remaining demons swung back toward them. Cordelia slashed with the sword and fired with the pistol, felt the slide lock back on the latter as the magazine emptied, and let it drop, there was no time for a reload. She and Angel had inflicted terrible casualties, but nearly a third of the opposition still remained, and they might well hold until Spike finished ending the world. “Cover me,” she said again to Angel, and as he charged with the axe whirling before him, Cordelia pulled out her cell phone.
She had the number on speed-dial (and two spare cells prepaid, tucked into inner pockets of her jacket, just in case), but it seemed to take an eternity for the connection to be made and the voice to answer at the other end. “Amy?” Cordelia said. “Plan B. Now, now, right now!” Then she dropped the phone and leaped to Angel’s side, laying about her with her every remaining ounce of skill and resolve and fury and desperation.
Before meeting him tonight, Cordelia had expected Angel to hold back a bit, let her carry the brunt of the fighting. He seemed determined to match her for dedication and body count, however, working bloody havoc with the axe, and as their foes surged around them in the counterattack that should have been launched in those first moments, she and Angel went back-to-back, not in trust but in mutual reliance, weaving patterns in steel and blood and dust and ichor, chewing through the throng around them like some lunatic Weedwhacker. It was working, they were going to cut through —
“Taa-rheem!” Spike shouted, and Cordelia was at an angle to see the lightning slam forth again: not into Spike from outside, but out of him, bursting from the metal gauntlet he wore. It seemed to strike the big wooden box, Cordelia wasn’t sure, and then Spike shouted the trigger-words again, and yes he was pouring all that awful power into the box beside him. A wind sprang up, gathering force, and Cordelia felt her teeth begin to vibrate with the deep bedrock rumble she had heard in the prophetic dream that warned of lightning.
“Try to hold them here!” she shouted to Angel. “I’ll get to Spike —!”
“Finish it!” Spike screamed, to Dalton perhaps, and the gale around the box resolved into a whirlwind. The vampires chained there wailed in the last extremity of despair, and then dissolved into streamers of dust that were swept along in that torrent of air. Spike called forth the lightning once more, thrusting it into the heart of the whirlwind, and as a light began to grow in the unseen center, he started to laugh …
… and then, just as everything seemed to be lost, something blazed up in Spike’s eyes, a flash of orange-amber. He stiffened with a huge gasp of pain or shock or astonishment, face drawn taut, mouth open; tremors coursed through his body, shaking him so violently that he staggered, and as Cordelia cut down the last of the enemies in front of her, she saw a line of curved hooks on the gauntlet withdraw, bloody, from Spike’s arm in a quasi-mechanical sequence, and the metal glove dropped to the concrete floor a second before Spike collapsed beside it.
The dreadful underground rumble died away. Dalton’s voice continued for a few more moments, then likewise trailed off and stopped. The whirlwind reared up, reaching almost to the factory ceiling, then imploded downward into the wooden box with the speed of a missile arrowing to earth.
In the new silence around them, Cordelia could hear the wheezes and gasps of dying demons. There was no other sound. Cordelia automatically stepped away from Angel, and he from her, and a quick glance around her confirmed it: unless some had fled at the last, the two of them had killed every last one of the enemies they faced.
Beside the wooden box, chains now hanging empty from it, Spike sobbed faintly. The words carried clearly. “Oh, God … oh, God …”
Angel looked to his former companion, then to Cordelia. His face was a mask. “I know that sound,” he said flatly. “Remember it all too well. So, been studying up on your Romany, have you?”
Cordelia didn’t bother to answer. He had seen, and he knew. They had the re-ensoulment spell now, a threat he couldn’t escape and couldn’t tolerate; his only recourse was to kill everyone who knew of it before they could invoke it against him. The truce was over, it was battle to the death between them. The only wonder was that he had paused even to speak, instead of going for her on the spot.
So she did it instead, driving at him in instant total attack. He darted away, using the blade of the axe to turn one far-reaching thrust but relying in distance for defense. “I’m mortified,” he observed, backpedaling outside the reach of the sword. “You double-crossed me before I could do it to you. That’s a terrible embarrassment for any self-respecting black-hearted villain. I really don’t know how to deal with the shame …” He stopped, smiled. “Oh, wait. I do.”
She knew it was coming, but she didn’t know what, so when he spoke the incantation in quick, throaty Gaelic, her attention was in the wrong place. The sword twisted in her hands, turning toward her with a sudden energy that outraced her power to resist it, and as she tried to wrench herself from its path, it drove through her body, piercing her from front to back.
The pain was awful, all-encompassing, the sword had to have gone through a kidney. She heard Angel laugh, and the surge of hate and rage gave her the strength to yank the weapon free, and before he could repeat the incantation she slammed the sword against the concrete floor with a force that shattered the blade.
He could have had her then, if he had attacked in earnest, but he was enjoying himself too much. “You truly are a babe in the woods,” he said happily. “Hell of a fighter, but … accepting a weapon from an enemy? There’s no way I could ever respect anyone that stupid.” He circled her, moving with a languid confidence, noting and smiling at the obvious exertion it cost her to keep standing. “It’s been a merry dance, but there was never but one way this could end.”
Cordelia drew a stake from one of the jacket’s inner sheaths. “You’re right. So here I am. Come and get me.”
“Brave words,” he replied. “But from here it looks like you can barely stay on your feet. I’ll take you soon enough; let me draw pleasure from the moment.”
She turned to keep facing him as he continued to circle. It was true, she was in dismal shape; every second he wasted in gloating allowed her to snatch back another fragment of her strength, but she was badly stricken. “You’re beaten already,” she told him. “You know it. The moment you saw Spike go down, you knew.”
“And I’ll be addressing that danger directly,” he assured her. “Don’t want them having time to hunt up another of those gypsy orbs, so I’ll have to make it fast and bloody instead of giving them each the attention such an undertaking merits. Maybe I’ll take my time on the last one, to make up for rushing on the rest. Xander, I think; he’s the least danger to me, and you always did have a soft spot for him.”
“Dream on,” Cordelia snarled. The effort wrenched at her guts, but she made it happen. “To get at them, you have to make it out of this room alive.”
He laughed at that. “If I turned and ran now, you’d never be able to catch me. But no fear, I’ll not leave you alive here.” The affected brogue was getting stronger. “You value your friends a lot more than they value you. Pitiful, really. Allying yourself with weaklings, caring for people who won’t shed a tear when you’re dead …” He looked her over, triumph and contempt etched into his face. “They don’t care for you, not a one of them. You wasted your loyalty for nothing. You’re alone here now, and you’ll die alone … here, now.”
Cordelia saw what would come next, and she let her foot land on the hilt of the broken sword, grating it across the floor with a loud, harsh sound as she seemed to slip and stumble. Angel laughed and started for her —
Marcie had already gotten close, and then used the covering noise from Cordelia’s feigned clumsiness to close the remaining distance. The rusting steel bar she carried crashed down on Angel’s head from behind with no warning and unexpected power. The invisible girl was strong, not vampire-strong but much stronger than she should have been; Angel reeled at the impact, started a turn to meet this new enemy and then had to check to swat aside the stake as Cordelia lunged at him, and with Marcie’s next swing the bar slammed into the hand that held the axe. The weapon fell with a clang … and Angel struck backward, using the injured arm as a club, and Cordelia heard an agonized expulsion of breath over the snapping of ribs as the instinctive strike went home on something neither of them could see.
He twisted away from Cordelia’s next lunge with the stake, and staggered her with a short, brutal hook to the jaw, then turned toward the sound of running footsteps: Oz, Oz holding another fire extinguisher, he must have snatched it from one of the factory walls on the way in, it was larger than the one Cordelia had used, painted red, and from the aiming hose a blinding wash of foam sprayed directly into Angel’s face. Oz slipped to the side as Angel tried to swing at his remembered position, and spun like an Olympic hammer-thrower to slam the fire extinguisher against the vampire’s head, reversing direction to hit him again before Angel connected with a second blind swing.
It was a glancing blow, but Oz tumbled away to land on the concrete. Angel wiped foam from his eyes, started for the fallen boy, and stopped to face Cordelia as she moved toward him. Still too debilitated to be fully confident in herself, she played for time. “Looks like somebody does care,” she told him defiantly.
Angel sneered. “Just more dead to lay at your door.”
Oz had come to his feet. “You okay?” she asked him.
“Never better.” He picked up the axe Angel had lost, and started forward.
“No,” Cordelia said. “Get Marcie out of here. She’s hurt, maybe bad hurt.”
Oz paused. “You sure —?”
“I’ve got it,” Cordelia said to him. “Thanks for the save. Now find Marcie — over there, I think — and get her to Giles for help.”
Angel watched, eyebrows knit, as Oz probed with his foot at empty air until he seemed to encounter an invisible obstacle. Looking back to Cordelia (though he had been careful to keep her at the edge of his vision), he said, “Well, how about that? I can’t believe I forgot about her. I’ll have to make a special note to myself to put her on my To-Do list.”
“I wouldn’t worry about any lists,” Cordelia said flatly. “You just ran out of time.”
“I should be concerned?” he mocked her. “You’re a heartbeat away from collapsing.”
It wasn’t that bad, but it wasn’t good. The wound was severe, the pain a constant scream that claimed most of her awareness. She could fight it, fight through it, fight despite it, but her strength and mobility were significantly hampered. Angel was weaponless now — Oz, she saw, kept hold of the axe as he carried Marcie from the room — and the bludgeoned arm, not to mention multiple full-power blows to the head, must have reduced him to some extent, but Cordelia had taken substantially more damage.
She still held the stake; with her other hand, she drew one of the daggers from her belt. “You wanted to dance?” she said to him. “All right, you bastard — it’s time to dance.”
* * *
She emerged from the factory, dust sifting from her hair and splashed across her chest and shoulders. The numbness inside her was greater than the pain from the sword wound, and with the last dregs of her strength she supported an incoherently weeping Spike.
The striped van Oz drove was waiting outside, and he emerged from it as he saw her. His eyes went to Spike and then back to her, and his voice was dry and even. “I gotta think you know what you’re doing here, but me? Not so much.”
“He’s souled now,” Cordelia explained, hearing herself as if from a great distance. “A contingency plan I worked out with Amy, last-resort kind of thing. He’s not the same person now. We know that from experience.” She shook her head, trying to hang on to some of the focus that was fading from her. “You and Marcie … what were the two of you doing here?”
“Back-up,” he replied. “You told Amy we might need to have some people here, in case of whatever. Most everybody else had to be there for the spell, and Xander wouldn’t leave them ’cause, you know, last time didn’t work out so well. Marce and me, we decided to come check things out.”
“Right,” Cordelia said. “Thanks, I guess.” With immense effort she looked toward the van, and asked. “Marcie, is she —?”
“She’s okay,” Oz told her. “Says breathing hurts, but she’ll live. Said we should wait for you.” His mouth quirked. “Pretty much insisted on it.”
“Good,” Cordelia said vaguely. “That’s good.”
His eyes were gentle on hers, but neither his expression nor tone of voice revealed anything. “Angel?” he asked quietly.
Her throat hurt. Her eyes were so dry they burned. “I’m wearing him,” she said.
Oz nodded reflectively. “Didn’t have to be that way,” he observed, grave and soft. “You could have had us use the second Orb. Brought him back.”
A fine mist was settling over the world, but Cordelia forced the words that had to be said. “No. The second Orb was for Buffy. It was always for Buffy.” She saw his eyes go blank, from either confusion or sudden understanding, and she forged doggedly onward. “The ritual calls back a soul that’s been lost. That’s Buffy. This was never about Angel. It was always for Buffy.”
She had said it. She had delivered the message, righted the irreparable, found the unattainable redemption. She had vowed it, she had done it, and now — at last, at long last — she could allow herself to fall.
Allow herself to be caught.
* * *
Deep in the interior of the factory, in the smoke-blackened, dust-strewn central assembly room, a pale hand emerged hesitantly from the tiny, barred window set in the side of the lightning-blasted wooden box. Slender fingers quested aimlessly in the outside air, and a faint voice quavered plaintively:
“…… Miss Edith …?”