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Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt

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In three moments, her entire life changed.

In the space of less than three seconds - three fractions of one second per moment - everything Cordelia Chase knew to be right and whole in the universe disappeared. One blink of her eyes was all it took. One blink and one teenage girl walking into the Hyperion’s lobby.

Moment one: she was not even conscious of it but up to that point she would have said with complete certainty that Buffy Summers was an only child with the spoiled attitude to prove it.

Moment two: the girl - the shifting axis - the certain knowledge that the only thing she was certain about was that nothing in her life was certain anymore.

Moment three: Dawn. Buffy’s little sister, with the radiant smile and annoying crush on Xander. Part of Cordelia felt silly for not recognising her at first.

But most of her was chasing down the first moment, that tingle of knowledge fleeing from her consciousness like the remnants of a fuzzy doze-dream.

“Dawn?” Wesley’s voice cut through Cordelia’s trance, snapping her back into the present. He stepped out of his office to meet Dawn in the lobby. Cordelia rose to her feet, at a rare loss for words. “What are you doing here? Is everything alright?”

“Is Angel here?” Dawn’s eyes wandered past Wesley to meet Cordelia’s. She remembered how Dawn had always looked up to her for being popular and sarcastic, though envious of the whole Xander Harris-related momentary lapse in sanity. Jealousy aside, though, Dawn would naturally look to Cordy over the ex-Watcher against whom she still held a shadow of a grudge. “I was hoping to talk to him.”

“He’s not here,” Cordelia told her, stepping around the front counter to stand next to Wesley. “He’s on a spiritual journey or...something. He wasn’t exactly forthcoming.”

Dawn’s shoulders slumped visibly. “When is he supposed to get back?”

“Don’t know,” Cordelia said. “He’s been gone ever since-”

“For a few weeks now,” Wes interrupted with a meaningful glance at Dawn that even a toddler could have interpreted correctly.

“Since Buffy died, you mean,” Dawn said, staring Wesley down. Cordelia had to hand it to her - she certainly had the typical Summers tolerance for bullshit.

“Way to go, Captain Subtle,” Cordelia murmured.

Wesley flushed and opened his mouth, but whatever he was about to say was interrupted by Gunn clattering down the stairs. “Man, I swear that girl gets wei- oh, hey,” he said as he caught sight of Dawn. “We got a case?”

“I’ll say,” Cordelia answered, not taking her eyes off of Dawn and crossing her arms over her chest. “A case of ‘how did a fifteen-year-old girl get to L.A. from Sunnydale all on her own?’”

Cordelia could practically see the wheels turning in Dawn’s mind as she worked out which lie - if any - Cordy would believe. “I drove here with a close friend or relative who is at least 18 years old and has had their driver’s license for over a year?”

“Uh huh. Friend got a name? And a car?”

“Matt. He’s a Senior and...he’s got a cousin in L.A. He said he’d drop me off for a couple of hours while they hang out,” Dawn said quickly. Cordelia was impressed with how authentic it sounded, and how quickly she’d been able to make it up off the top of her head. Probably wasn’t entirely a lie, even - she’d bet Dawn knew a Senior named Matt with a cousin in L.A. “He drives a pickup truck.”

“So if I go outside right now,” Cordelia said, “I won’t find Xander’s piece of shit car parked down the block?”

“Go check if you don’t believe me,” Dawn said hotly, and for a moment Cordelia caught a glimpse of what she herself must have been like at that age - and god did she want to slap her.

“Fine,” Cordelia said, heading for the door.

“Okay, okay...okay, wait,” Dawn said, grabbing Cordelia’s arm to stop her before she could take more than a few steps. “I borrowed Xander’s car. Without his permission. But I had to see Angel.”

Wesley frowned. “Why? Is something the matter?”

Cordelia barely managed to keep from rolling her eyes. What a stupid question - Buffy was dead. Of course everything was the matter.

Dawn flung herself onto one of the lobby’s circular couches. “You wouldn’t understand.”

Wesley sat down next to her, the very picture of an understanding and trustworthy uncle figure of the “tattle on you as soon as you turn your back” variety. “But Angel would? I’m sure if you tell me what is troubling you, we can -”

“Oh no,” Cordelia interrupted, grabbing Wesley and hauling him back to his feet. “We are not doing this. You are driving Xander’s car back to Sunnydale, and I’m following in Angel’s car so I can drive you back.” Her eyes settled back on Dawn. “You’re with me.”

“I have to drive all the way to Sunnydale by myself?” Wesley spluttered. “Anyway, don’t you think it would be more of a punishment to make Dawn ride with you in Xander’s car and I take Angel’s?”

“No,” Cordelia said in a tone that brooked no argument. She wanted to get Dawn alone, talk to her without the boys’ prying eyes - and maybe hopefully lose that nagging feeling of the not-memory that hovered just out of reach. “If you’re afraid you’ll get lonely, take Gunn.”

Gunn came closer, a frown creasing his brow. “What about Fred? We can’t just leave her on her own.”

Cordelia could feel a headache brewing in her temple - luckily just a run-of-the-mill headache, not anything of mystical origin. “Figure it out or don’t, I don’t give a f-.” Stopped; took a calming breath. “See if I care if Xander never gets his car back. In the meantime, I’ll be taking the delinquent back to Sunnydale.” She gestured for Dawn to follow her.

“No,” Dawn said, sinking further into the couch and crossing her arms. “Not until I see Angel. I don’t believe that he’s not here.”

“Quite frankly, I don’t care what you believe,” Cordelia said. A soft sound on the staircase told her that the ruckus had drawn Fred out of her room. “Do you really think you can out-stubborn me?” Without looking away from Dawn, Cordelia raised her voice. “Fred, get some shoes on. We’re going on a road trip.”

“Oh, I...I don’t know. Maybe I should, um, stay here and hold down the fort,” Fred started to say, edging her way back upstairs.

Cordelia just barely managed to suppress a sigh. Used to be she could get dozens of people vying to do her will - hell, not even a month ago she’d been in charge of an entire realm. Now, she had four people arguing with her at every turn and all she wanted to do was return Dawn to where she belonged and get everything in its proper order. “Fred, shoes. Dawn, keys. Wesley, if I have to go back to Sunnydale for the first time in two years, then you better believe I’m dragging you down with me. Gunn -” Well, actually, Gunn was the only person who didn’t need ordering around right now, but if she didn’t treat him the same way, she would only encounter more resistance. “Make sure they do as I say. I’ll be waiting out in Angel’s car.” She headed out the back way, where the Chevy was parked not far away. “You’ve got five minutes,” she called out behind her.

Precisely six minutes later, a very surly Dawn jerked open the passenger side door and climbed in. “Can we put the top down, at least?”

Cordelia’s only answer was to start the engine. Let Dawn assume no top down was just part of her punishment if she wanted, but the truth was once they got up to highway speeds, Cordelia wanted to be able to talk, and that was rather difficult when the wind was well over 70 miles per hour and drowning out your voice.

They rode in silence as Cordelia made her way towards the northbound highway. Dawn could not have picked a worse time - it was the height of rush hour (more like hours, really, since it lasted from 4 PM to 7 PM if not longer), and they would be lucky to make it to Sunnydale by 8. Of course, maybe that had been part of her plan - whatever plan it was she had in mind. Cordelia flipped on the radio.

Out of the hotel and into the bright evening sun, Cordelia felt more steady, more sure of herself. The momentary glitch with Dawn had been just a symptom of some aberration. Maybe she wasn’t getting enough vitamin D. She’d read that people who lived where there wasn’t a lot of sun tended to be a little bonkers. Maybe that explained some of Angel’s...tendencies. She could try mixing some vitamin D pills into his blood, once he got back from whatever spiritual mumbo jumbo he was currently immersing himself in. Did vampires absorb vitamins from their victims’ blood? Did pig blood have any vitamin D in it in the first place?

A little way outside the city limits, traffic gradually began to lighten until Cordelia at last was able to push the speedometer up to the speed limit - and then just a little bit past. Not enough to make herself an obvious cop-target, but just enough that she did not feel confined by the rest of traffic. Beside her, Dawn let out an almost-inaudible sigh.

Cordelia wasn’t sure she was quite ready for this - this moment of parental responsibility or whatever the hell she was supposed to be doing. But if not her, then who? She turned down the music - not all the way off, but enough that it became background noise. “You know, if I weren’t so pissed off, I’d be impressed. At your age, I wouldn’t dream of stealing a car and driving to L.A.” Buffy probably would, though, she did not say. Hell, at Dawn’s age, Buffy had been burning down school gymnasiums and learning about her “true destiny” or something. What good was a true destiny if all it meant was a lonely life and an early death?

“Why are you angry?” Dawn asked, trying out a cheeky smile. Cordelia had forgotten how quickly the kid could go from surly to sunny without a break in between. “Why not just be impressed?”

“Because now you’ve gone and made me have to pretend to be responsible.” Cordelia tsked mockingly. “So, since you are wasting precious minutes of my youth and dragging me to a place I swore I would never set foot in again, you’re gonna tell me what the hell you were thinking.”

Cordelia spared a glance at Dawn’s face. Surly again, but this time mixed with wistfulness and relief. Like she was glad someone was forcing her to talk, but resentful of herself and Cordelia at the same time. “I guess I wasn’t.”

“Nuh uh. Not gonna buy that. It’s bullshit and you know it.” Cordelia adjusted her hands on the steering wheel. “Why did you want to see Angel?”

Dawn fiddled with something Cordelia could not see. “I wanted to talk to someone who would listen to me. And not patronize me,” she added with a pointed glare at Cordelia.

“Honey, if you think this is patronizing you, you definitely don’t know me.”

“No,” Dawn conceded. “But you are treating me like a child.”

“Because you’re acting like one,” and holy shit did those words actually come out of her mouth? She literally was her own mother right now. She tried to shake it off. “Now Wesley has to drive a car for three hours that may have been reported as stolen, and how do you think Xander and the others are going to feel when they realise you’ve gone missing too?”

Dawn looked sharply out the window.

“Oh? What was that?” Cordelia asked, taking her eyes off the road as long as she dared. “Is that what the is about? You’re not getting enough attention, so you’re gonna make sure all the focus is on you?”

“Shut up,” Dawn snapped. “You don’t understand ‘cause you’re not there. You don’t know what it’s like to be, like, always surrounded by people but completely alone. They might as well not be there.”

Cordelia’s mind flashed to Angel last year and then further back to high school. She knew the feeling exactly, she wanted to say, but that wasn’t the point. “You mean the Scoobies?”

“Yeah. Willow and Tara live at the house now, and Anya and Xander are over, like, all the time, but they’re so absorbed in whatever they’re doing. I think they’re up to something, but I can’t find out what. I think WIllow is using some spells to hide it from me.” Dawn’s scowl deepened. “And every week or so we have this mandatory movie night bullshit -” she faltered slightly as though expecting Cordelia to tell her off for swearing, but when Cordy said nothing, she plunged on “- and god forbid any of us try to skip out on it, because it’s all for me and pretending we’re one big happy family and that we all don’t miss Buffy but she’s never coming back because she’s dead!” Dawn’s voice broke with a sob.

Cordelia did not reply. Dawn wasn’t finished, not by a long shot.

“But they smile and laugh and I have to pretend I don’t see the pain and resentment in their eyes, wishing they could be normal 20-year-olds, just like you said. Hating me because I make them have to be more mature and responsible.”

They don’t hate you, Cordelia thought. They hate Buffy for leaving you - all of you.

“I wish they’d all just go away, but they won’t, so I did.”

Cordelia was silent for a moment longer, just in case there was more, but nothing was forthcoming. “What about Giles?” Warm, paternal, caring - if a bit distant and, well, British - Giles…. Where did he fit in with this?

“He can’t stand to be in the United States anymore, not without her. He’s going back to England as soon as he can. He can barely look me in the eye.”

Cordelia wasn’t sure what to say to that. It made sense - almost too much sense. “Well -”

“On movie night, the only person who doesn’t want to obvious be somewhere else is Spike,” Dawn burst out.

“Spike?” Cordelia’s foot slipped off the accelerator and she nearly swerved in surprise. “Spike?? As in - as in Spike? What the fu- what the hell is he doing coming around for movie night and how - oh my god, does he come into your house?”

Dawn’s mouth contorted as she silently berated herself. “I didn’t mean to tell you about that,” she said. “You made me talk about it. Please don’t tell Angel about Spike. He’s good now. Well, sort of. He’s good to me, at least. He only comes around for movie night because they won’t let him hang out any other time. I wish they would, though,” she added in a quieter tone. “He’s the only one who gives a crap about me.”

“That’s not true,” Cordelia said automatically. Dawn snorted in disbelief. Okay, that was fair - Cordelia didn’t know the whole situation. Hell, she didn’t even know Tara except for what limited information Willow had given her when they talked on the phone. But she knew Willow and she knew Xander - had known them for almost as long as she could remember. “Willow is one of the most genuine people I’ve ever known. She’s grieving. They’re all grieving - including you. So, yeah, things suck right now but it’s only temporary.”

“That’s your advice? That ‘it’s gonna get better but I just have to give it time’ crap?” Dawn demanded.

Cordelia huffed. “And, what - you thought Angel would be able to do better?”

Dawn turned her face away, staring out the passenger side window. “Angel wouldn’t have made me talk about it at all.”

“Hm. That’s true; avoidism is his favourite pastime.”

Dawn smiled but did not turn back to face her. The silence grew, but it was not uncomfortable. After a few minutes, Cordelia turned the volume back up on the radio. If they were lucky, this station would follow them all the way to Sunnydale. There was more she ought to say to Dawn, but the conversation had run its course. At least she had been able to provide a place for Dawn to vent about her so-called guardians or whatever they were supposed to be. Maybe next time Dawn felt the need to lash out against them, she would pick up the phone instead of Xander’s spare car key.

And not force Cordelia to drive over 100 miles to a place she had hoped never to see again.

Well, no - -that wasn’t precisely true. She had vague dreams about when she became rich and famous she would go back and be so kind to all her loving, adoring fans - posing for photos, kissing babies, donating money to local charities. And rubbing it all in the former Scoobies’ collective face that she had become Someone while they still piddled away in a Nothing town like Sunnydale. Of course, she’d be really nice about rubbing it in so that they would still adore her with a huge dash of jealousy mixed in for taste.

But even when the fame and glory hadn’t kicked in right away, she had a vague notion of going back someday. One thing after another happened, though, and eventually it just seemed easier to tell herself she never wanted to go back. She didn’t have any friends left in Sunnydale, not since Harmony had gotten all bumpyface. Plus there was the added joy of the visions. The last thing she needed was for anyone from back home witnessing her having one.

Going back to Sunnydale now - even just for the half hour it would take to drive to the Summers house, wait for the others to show up, and leave - brought out a mess of emotions that were difficult to sort through. Add on top of that the weirdness vibe Cordelia had gotten off of Dawn earlier, and the strange novelty of being an adult giving advice to a wayward was all too bizarre and Cordelia was happy to ignore everything in a wave of pop music.

After a few minutes, Cordelia began humming along. Beside her, Dawn mouthed the words. Soon they were belting out the lyrics at the top of their voices, heedless of how good or bad they sounded. Cordelia struggled to remember the last time she had done something like this. Warbling “We Are the Champions” with Gunn and Wes didn’t count - they’d been completely blitzed at the time, and upset about Angel. This...this was almost normal enough that she could pretend they were just two girls on a road trip, adventure just ahead or maybe just behind.

It didn’t last - the feeling. It never did, these days. By the time they hit the Sunnydale exit off the freeway, Cordelia and Dawn were both silent again, absorbed in their own thoughts. Getting to 1630 Revello Drive was more instinct - muscle memory she thought had been forgotten long ago - than conscious thought. Nothing had changed. Cordelia wanted to see a landscape crying out in her absence, but there was just this: patchy green lawns, abandoned toys, more stop signs than streetlights, the heavy weight of summer pressing down on its residents.

The idea of dropping Dawn a block away from her house and waiting for the others without going inside was tempting, but beside her, Cordelia could feel Dawn’s misery growing until it practically radiated from her skin. If this was what being a responsible adult felt like, Cordelia didn’t want it. By the time she pulled up in front of the Summers’ residence - if it could even be called that anymore with just one Summers still living there - her heart was beating too fast, like she had just come face to face with a Lei-Ach demon. “Ready to face them?” she asked, half hoping Dawn would say no so that Cordy could push her own uncertainty aside in favour of playing the heartless enforcer.

“Let’s get this over with,” Dawn muttered, snapping open the passenger door. Well, of course a blatant challenge of nerves worked too. Cordelia pulled the keys out of the ignition, automatically checking her side mirror for any passing traffic before opening the door, though this time of night in Suburbia was unlikely to see a whole lot of cars, even in summer. Dawn had a head start but she was dawdling while trying to look like she wasn’t; Cordelia had the advantage of a longer stride and fiercer determination. They hit the porch at the same time.

The door flew open before they even reached it. Out came a fluttery mess of dark blonde hair and flowy clothes, which immediately attached itself to Dawn. Cordelia stepped back, barely avoiding an arm to her side. “Where have you been?” the girl-tornado demanded, hugging Dawn close. “We were so worried about you. Where did you go?”

For the first time all night, Dawn looked ashamed of her actions. “I needed to get out of here for a while.”

The young woman - Tara, Cordelia assumed - pulled Dawn back to arm’s length. “You’re too young to go running off on your own like that. Especially since you only just got your learner’s permit. You’re really lucky you didn’t get a ticket or crash or -” Tara seemed to notice Cordelia for the first time, and then the Impala sitting out on the street. “Wh-where is X-Xander’s car?” she asked, not sure who to direct her question towards.

“It’s on its way,” Cordelia assured her. “My friend Wesley is bringing it along. They should be here soon. I brought the Impala so we’d have a way of getting home again after we dropped Dawn off.”

Tara frowned. “Th-thank you. Um…?” Her voice died away, the question unasked, unneeded.

“Oh! I’m Cordelia. Cordelia Chase.”

“Cor-Cordelia?” Tara’s eyes flashed with recognition and then anger as she rounded on Dawn again. “L.A? You went to L.A.? In Xander’s car? Were you trying to get stranded in the middle of nowhere?”

“No,” Dawn exclaimed. “I made sure I had enough gas, and his car does okay at highway speeds. Usually.” She put on her most helpless puppy look. “I’m sorry. I really am, but I just…” she looked at Cordelia, silently pleading for support.

Cordelia was almost ready to take pity on her. “Maybe we should take this inside. I’ve busted her ass pretty well already.”

Tara led the way into the house. It was exactly like Cordelia remembered, yet nothing was the same. Family photos hung on the wall, furniture arranged in the same patterns, the soft buzz of electronics. But the feel was completely alien. Cordelia breathed in and it was like breathing molasses: heavy and overpowering. She wondered when was the last time someone had laughed genuinely and spontaneously within these walls.

“I’ll c-call the others,” Tara said. “They’re out l-looking for you. Inc-including Giles, but we didn’t tell him you’d st-stolen the car. F-figured it was b-best not to worry him too m-mu-much.”

Dawn blushed and glared at her. “Stop trying to make me feel guilty.”

Tara picked up the phone, a small smile playing on her lips. “Why? Is it working?”

Dawn flung herself onto the couch as dramatically as she could. Admittedly, there was a lot more of her to fling around these days, and that definitely added to the dramatic factor. “I’m gonna get chewed out so badly,” she muttered to Cordelia.

It was probably true. The Scooby Gang was a bunch of mother hens - provided you were one of them, of course. Dawn would probably be hearing about this stunt for a long time to come. Cordelia decided not to press the issue, opting instead to focus on something else. “Did you guys finally join the 21st century and get cell phones?”

“Nope. We’re still firmly rooted in 20th century pagers,” Dawn said. Tara had wandered away from the living room as she dialled. Cordelia, unsure if she would be staying longer, opted not to sit down next to Dawn on the couch. Sitting in the car for three hours had made her legs stiffen up.

“Figures. Not that cells do us much good half the time we use them,” Cordelia said. The number of times somebody had missed an important message because Angel couldn’t operate his voicemail or Wesley was out of service range or Gunn didn’t have reception in the bowels of some abandoned building was ludicrous. She was pretty sure Angel hadn’t even bothered taking his mobile with him on his trip. “Still, it’s not entirely about how useful they are. More like the idea that we are always reachable within a moment’s notice. It’s good for business.”

That piqued Dawn’s interest enough that she forgot she was supposed to be moping. “What’s it like being a private investigator?”

“Truthfully? It’s a lot of waiting around for a client to walk in, or doing research, or pursuing dead ends. But when the pieces fall together or you kick a serious baddie’s ass or you help someone who thought they were beyond help, it’s the most amazing feeling in the world,” Cordelia said. Realising how corny (how Angel-esque) that sounded, she added, “Other than getting a nice big paycheque, that is.”

“And then going on a massive shopping spree?” Dawn asked, a glint in her eyes.

Cordelia looked down at her clothes. “Actually, Angel bought these for me.” She had forgotten she was wearing one of the nicest outfits he had picked out, but now - remembering that - she couldn’t help the smile that crept over her lips. She only wore this particular outfit when she was certain there would be no chance of demon goo ruining it.

“Angel did?” Dawn repeated.

“Long story. It doesn’t…” Her voice trailed off as Tara came back into the room. “Did you get ahold of them?”

Tara nodded, replacing the phone in its cradle. “They’re c-coming back now. They’re glad you’re safe and made it home okay.”

Cordelia glanced out the window. If Wesley didn’t show up before the Scoobies, they would want to know why Cordelia was there and not Xander’s car. Dusk had settled in the sky, which was rapidly becoming darker. Wesley couldn’t be that much further behind her, could he? Even if he did drive like an old lady….

She could leave. It wouldn’t be that difficult to wait for her friends down the street a bit or at Sunnydale’s only diner. If Tara planned on keeping quiet about Dawn’s excursion this afternoon, then Cordelia’s presence would ruin that. She could call Gunn’s mobile, pray that he had reception, have them meet her somewhere else, and leave the car for Xander to pick up in the morning.

There was just one problem with that idea: Cordelia Chase did not back down from a challenge. And that was exactly what this was: a challenge against her own insecurity, against the others’ indifference towards her after she and Xander broke up, against the memory of Buffy that was suffocating this house.

Dawn looked up at her, as if she knew what she was thinking. “Please don’t leave,” she whispered.

Cordelia raised an eyebrow. “If you think I’m gonna be on your side, you are so wrong. Personally, I don’t think you’re too old for a spanking.”

Dawn looked away. “Fine. Whatever. Go away and see if I care.”

Cordelia mentally kicked herself. After that talk in the car, here she was doing exactly what the other Scoobies had been doing all summer: looking for the first opportunity to run away. She nudged Dawn’s leg to get her to scoot over, then sat down beside her on the couch. She could do this - for Dawn and for herself, she would do this. “Don’t even think it. I am not going to miss out on the chance to see Xander turn all purple and huffy. It’s one of the things I’ve really missed about home.”

“D-do you want something to drink?” Tara asked. “Or eat? W-we usually order pizza or Ch-Chinese food on Thursdays.”

“No, I’m fine. Dawn told me you guys do a movie night on Thursdays?”

Tara nodded, ducking her head. “It w-was my id-d-dea. It’s n-nice to get everyone together and be normal one n-night a week.”

Normal. What was that like? “It sounds... nice.”

Dawn rolled her eyes. “You went to L.A. to become an actress? No wonder you ended up as a private investigator.”

A car rolled past, its headlights flashing through the window. Cordelia craned her neck to look outside, but the car did not stop or slow down. Some other person on their way to Elsewhere. Down the street, however, the lights illuminated several recognisable figures, among them…

“The hell?” Cordelia leaped to her feet, unable to help herself. She knelt on the couch, peering out the window, certain that her eyes were playing tricks on her. “What the hell is going on here?”

Dawn scrambled up beside her. “Tara, they’ve got it with them.”

Behind them, Tara was stammering out something that was nearly incoherent; from what little Cordelia could understand, Tara had forgotten they took it - whatever it was supposed to be - with them, and that it had wanted to help when it heard that Dawn had gone missing.

“It’s Buffy,” Cordelia said, cutting her off.

“It’s a robot Buffy,” Dawn said. “Long story. But it’s really helpful as long as, you know, nobody who knows Buffy is actually dead finds out about it.”

Cordelia stared at her. Even with everything Dawn had told her, she would never have expected anything of this magnitude. A robotic Buffy what, exactly? She was suddenly fervently, glad Angel was not here to see this. It would break him. “You maybe couldn’t have warned me that you have some - some MechaBuffy running around town?” she snapped over her shoulder.

“Don’t yell at Tara,” Dawn said fiercely.

Cordelia was about to say exactly what she thought of Tara and the whole Scooby Gang right at that moment, but before she got the chance (and probably thereby ruining any fragile trust she had built with Dawn over the course of the evening), Tara darted outside to meet the others as they came up the walk. They could not hear what was said, but Tara was gesturing towards the house, and the others were squinting through the glare coming through the living room window to search out Cordelia. Xander made several exaggerated movements at the street - probably inquiring as to the whereabouts of his car. A disinterested Spike pushed past Tara to enter the house as Tara made a few more placating gestures.

“Nibblet! You gave us a bit of a fright, didn’t you?” In spite of his words, he was grinning as though this was the best joke he’d heard in a long time. “Stealing the ape’s car was a bloody brilliant touch.”

“Don’t encourage her,” Willow said. Apparently the conversation on the sidewalk had broken up and now the others came filing in. Cordelia caught a glimpse of Giles ushering the not-Buffy around the corner and out of sight. Thank the PTB - she wasn’t sure she could have handled seeing it up close. “Cordelia! Wow, you look great.” Which was a remarkable observation, given that her eyes were focused a good two feet to Cordelia’s right.

That was okay, though. Cordy could do fake with the best of them. “Thanks! You do too. Congratulations on finally picking up a fashion magazine for the first time in your life.”

It was like slipping into an old and familiar dress, or sinking into a hot bath at the end of a rough day. Her old high school persona was an old friend - one more piece of nostalgia on this trip down memory lane. Willow’s smile slipped; Cordelia ignored the twinge of guilt that plucked at her heart.

“And here we were all scared that L.A. would change you,” Xander said, rolling his eyes. The living room was full of people now, too many. Xander, Willow, Anya, Dawn, Giles, and Tara where Oz once might have stood - just like high school. And Spike (not so much like high school but there nonetheless and just as nerve-grating as she remembered). All talking at once, jostling and admonishing - mostly at Dawn, but also at each other. And then there was her, Cordelia. Not exactly unwanted, but not terribly wanted either. Never quite belonging.

But that was okay because she did belong somewhere now. The sound of a car engine on its last legs cut through everyone’s chatter, and they all looked at the open door. Xander practically leapt over Willow to get outside to his precious baby. “If you really wanted to do us a favour, you would have driven it into the ocean so we could report it stolen and collected the insurance money,” Anya told Dawn.

Dawn giggled.

“I was being serious,” Anya said.

Cordelia did not point out that no sane insurance company would give them more than $100 for Xander’s car, especially not in Sunnydale. She edged past Dawn to stand in the foyer, hoping that Wesley wouldn’t feel the need to stick around all that long. Pop in, say hello, maybe exchange a few pleasantries, and then out again.

“-thing I said in highschool about you. You took good care of my baby. I won’t forget that,” Xander was saying as he ushered Wesley inside. Wesley had a vaguely bewildered expression on his face.

“And Dawn?” Wesley asked.

“What about her?” Xander said.

“I helped protect her as well.” Wesley raised an eyebrow. Behind them, Gunn seemed to be having a hard time not busting out laughing.

“Oh. Well, yeah, of course. But Dawn can take care of herself, and my-”

“She cannot,” Willow cried.

“I can too,” Dawn said.

And with that everyone was talking again. Cordelia edged over to Fred, who was standing miserable off to the side, fingers in her ears. Cordelia tried to get Wesley’s attention, but he was saying something to Giles now, and god that was always a bad idea, the two of them saying pretty much anything in each other’s general vicinity. Even Gunn was getting caught up, arguing about how he had been able to take care of himself at a way earlier age than Dawn currently was. Now wasn’t that just a shining example of a well-adjusted adult?

Fred took a finger out of one of her ears. “I’m sorry,” she murmured.

“Don’t apologise,” Cordelia said. “These idiots can be overwhelming even to those of us who haven’t lived in a cave the last five years. You might wanna cover your ears again.” Fred obeyed. “Hey,” Cordelia yelled at the room. “Shut up!”

Everybody turned to stare at her. Cordelia yelling was hardly a novel experience; nor was her telling them to shut up. But her standing partially between everyone and a frightened young woman as if shielding her...well, that was definitely not something they were used to seeing.

“Look, you guys have your issues to deal with. Nothing new there. But they don’t concern us, so we’re just gonna…” She jerked her thumb towards the door. Behind her, Fred flinched slightly.

Wesley’s face softened when he saw that. “Ah, yes, of course. You’re absolutely right.” He turned back to Giles. “Mr. Giles, always a...pleasure.”

“Indeed,” Giles said. It was hard to say if the twist in his expression was amusement or scorn.

There was a general rustling, beneath which Cordelia could hear Gunn’s horrified “Oh my god, there’s actually someone just as English as Wes.”

“Aren’t you guys gonna stay for the movie, though?” Dawn asked, her eyes hopeful.

“If you think we’re still going to have movie night after the stunt you pulled, you have another think coming, missy,” Willow said.

“We’re cancelling the movie?” Xander asked, crestfallen. “But I already picked up Charlie’s Angels from Blockbuster. This morning, know, Dawn stole my car and everything.” He wagged his finger at Willow. “A creative crime needs a more creative punishment, like...she can watch the movie but only the scenes with Bill Murray. Or she can watch it but sitting facing the window so everything is backwards.”

There was a slight hush as everyone processed these words. “Well, I’m very glad to see that Dawn has landed in a stable and nurturing household, but it’s getting late. We’d better go,” Cordelia said.

“They promised me In-n-Out burgers if I came along,” Fred said, fingers still stuffed in her ears.

“And you dragged the crazy girl along why?” Anya asked in a voice that she probably meant to be a whisper but was loud and clear to everyone in the room, possibly including Fred, though she showed no outward sign of having heard.

Cordelia flashed her best I-don’t-have-time-for-this-stupidity grin. “Long story, doesn’t matter. Wes-”

“Wait,” Dawn said, pushing past Gunn to grab Cordelia’s arm. “It would mean a lot to me if you stayed.”

Cordelia pulled Dawn slightly into the dining room so that they were shielded from the others slightly. “I know this whole thing sucks,” she said in an undertone. “You have to make nice and pretend like you don’t hate everyone here’s guts. I know the feeling, believe me. But my first responsibility is to my coworkers right now.”

“But what if -”

“Ooooooh,” Fred cried, dodging nimbly into the living room. She had finally lowered her fingers from her ears and was holding the rental VHS case in her hands. “Charlie’s Angels? Like as in the television show? When did they make it into a movie?”

“Uh, last year?” Xander said, frowning at her. “Kind of a big deal and everything? It just came out on tape not that long ago. Have you been living under a rock?”

“No, a cave,” Fred said as if it were the most natural thing in the world. She looked up at Cordelia, who had come to see what the fuss was about. “Can we watch it with them? I want to see the movie.”

Cordelia hesitated. This was a massive step for Fred, and if it worked, that would be amazing. But if it backfired, it could lead to weeks of her not leaving her room anymore. “But what about burgers?”

Fred frowned, thinking it over. “I don’t suppose they’ve started delivering in the last five years?”

“No, they haven’t, but the pizzeria still does,” Xander informed her. “Pizza trumps burgers any day.”

“Careful, she’s from Texas,” Gunn said. “They tend to be serious about their beef down there.”

“I don’t think pizza trumps burgers,” Fred said very gravely. “But I’m willing to settle for it.”

Cordelia shot a look at Wesley. “Your call,” he mouthed at her. Great, of course it was. This whole adventure had been her call from the start. She wasn’t supposed to be the leader here.

“Hey, what’s with all the - the assuming we’re still watching the movie?” Willow asked.

“I think we should,” Tara said quietly. “We’re not going to forget about it, a-and there will definitely be some punishment, but not that.”

Willow frowned, like she wanted to say something but was holding back. “Fine. How many pizzas are we gonna need?”

Cordelia sighed. “I guess we’re staying then. But I’ll warn you - Fred can eat a lot. Better err on the side of caution.”

Everyone looked at Gunn. “What’re y’all looking at me for?”

“Oh! Goodness, I forgot. Everyone, this is Charles Gunn,” Wesley said. He pointed at Fred. “And that is Winifred Burkle - Fred. Guys, these are Giles, Xander, Willow, Dawn, and, um… I’m terribly sorry, I don’t seem to recall your name,” he said to Anya.

“Anya,” Xander supplied. “And that’s Tara. Everyone is pleased to meet everyone else. Now let’s order us some pizza.”

“I’ll g-get some chairs from the dining room,” Tara said.

“Would you all like something to drink?” Giles asked.

Everyone began moving around, getting movie supplies and rearranging furniture. Gunn raised an eyebrow when Giles brought him a glass of soda. “This is pretty cush,” he muttered to Cordelia. “Why’d you leave this place again?”

Cordelia glared at him. “It’s not all pizza and movies, you know. There’s also the imminent danger and terrifying monsters and rebars through abdomens.”

“Yeah but you get all that in L.A. too.”

“But L.A. has better shops,” Cordelia said.

Gunn laughed and went over to make sure Fred was doing okay. The woman was still standing in the middle of the room while everyone moved around her. He led her to the loveseat and gently pried the VHS out of her hands.

Cordelia sat down on the larger couch. Dawn plopped down next to her. “Thank you soooo much,” she said. “I’m so glad you decided to stay.”

“It’s not going to fix anything,” Cordelia said. “You still have to talk to them.”

“I will,” Dawn said, her eyes wide with false honesty. “I promise.”

Everyone gradually filed back into the living room, taking seats wherever there was room. Wesley somehow managed to squish himself into the love seat with Gunn and Fred, while Willow and Tara joined Cordelia and Dawn on the couch. Giles took the armchair, leaving Spike, Anya, and Xander to make do with a couple of chairs from the dining room. The pizza was on its way. It almost felt like a normal night amongst friends, getting ready to watch a cheesy movie and pig out on greasy food.

For a while, Cordelia lost herself in the normalcy of it all. The pizza arrived at last, and she welcomed it with a grumbly stomach. The movie was hilarious, though partly because the action was ridiculous compared to what they all experienced on a near-nightly basis. Even Cordelia could have laid out the baddie quicker than these three so-called angels.

After a while, Cordelia noticed there was more wiggle room on the couch, and had been for a few minutes. She also realised Fred had passed in front of the screen to go to the bathroom a while ago and not come back. She glanced around, but everyone else was absorbed in the movie. Easing herself up out of the couch, Cordelia made like she was heading for the bathroom. It was wide open and dark. She tried the kitchen next, but there was no sign of Fred there either. Cordelia felt a jolt of adrenaline. She didn’t think Fred would run out into the night or anything, but this was Sunnydale. It tended to make everyone a little loopy...and someone who was already loopy might do something really stupid.

A noise from the dining room attracted her attention. “That better be Fred, so help me,” Cordelia whispered to no one in particular as she headed for the door connecting the two rooms.

It was. Fred had crawled under the dining room table and was talking animatedly - though quietly - to Tara, who was crouched in front of her. Both women looked up at her approach. Fred smiled ruefully. “Hey, Cordelia. Guess I wasn’t as ready as I thought.”

“Movie not as good as you hoped?” Cordelia asked.

“Somethin’ like that.”

“Fred w-was just telling m-me how you guys s-s-saved her from - what was it called?”

“Pylea.” Fred frowned. “You weren’t stuttering a minute ago when you were talkin’ just to me. You shouldn’t be scared of Cordy, she’s not gonna hurt you or anythin’.”

Tara turned bright red, though she smiled reassuringly. “I kn-now she won’t.”

Cordelia wondered exactly what sort of stories Tara had heard about her from the Scoobies. She was certain they wouldn’t be intentionally malicious, but there was the small fact that Cordelia had bullied and teased Willow for the first ten years they’d known each other. Two years of semi-friendship didn’t negate all that time. “Want me to stick around?” Cordelia asked Fred. “There are only so many gratuitous ass-shots I can take in two hours.”

“If you want, but you don’t gotta sit on the floor,” Fred told her. “Though I don’t think I want to talk about Pylea anymore.”

“That’s too bad,” Cordelia said with mock regret. “That place had a pretty good ruler from what I hear.”

Seeing Tara’s quizzical look, Fred said, “They made Cordy their princess.”

“Oh.” Tara’s eyes went wide. “Sh-should I call you Y-your Highness?”

It took Cordelia a moment before she realised Tara was joking. She laughed. “No, I only make my underlings call me that. Everyone else can just call me Princess Cordelia.”

“I’ll k-keep that in mind,” Tara said, smiling.

Cordelia stretched. “If you’re okay, I think I’m going to go back to the movie. I think I’m having withdrawals from not seeing Lucy Liu’s ass for the last five minutes.”

“Okay, Cordy,” Fred chirped. Fred bonding with a person who didn’t work for Angel Investigations was huge. Cordelia didn’t want to interrupt it, and she definitely felt that Tara would be more than equal to navigating the tricky waters that were Fred’s mind.

Before she left them, though, she leaned down and whispered in Tara’s ear, “I don’t know what you guys are up to, but Dawnie is suspicious. It’s why she wanted to talk to Angel tonight. I hope you know what you’re doing. And for the love of everything, talk to her.” She left without waiting for or expecting a reply.

The movie ended, the credits rolled. Empty pizza boxes were tossed unceremoniously into the recycle bin, and popcorn bags stuffed into the trash. Glasses sat everywhere, with varying amounts of liquid still in them. Wesley had a little bit of drool crusted to his chin from when he had fallen asleep shortly after Fred’s disappearing act. Handshakes and hugs were exchanged - some more genuine than others. Dawn squeezed Cordelia tight, whispering, “You’ll come back, right? Next week you’ll come watch the movie again so I don’t have to be alone? And the others too if they want?”

“We’ll see,” Cordelia said, leery of making any promise she wasn’t sure she would keep.

But the strange thing was, as they drove into the warm summer night, it didn’t feel like an ending. It felt like a beginning.