Part III

"Starting to rain out there," Lorne observed, and set a cup of tea in front of Faith. "What is it with you champions? In a climate that gets maybe twenty days of precipitation a year, there's always rain at just the right dramatic moment."

It was an uncomfortable subject — Faith could remember exactly such a scene of rainswept drama — so rather than answer, she pulled the knitted afghan tighter around herself and reached for the tea. "This your idea of comfort food?" she asked. "Don't get me wrong, hot and wet is good, but everything's better with a shot of Yukon Jack."

Lorne shook his head. "Sorry, sweet knees, my larder is very much below standard these days. Comes from striking out on my own without raiding the corporate coffers for a bankroll to get me started. But, it's good to see that you're recovering from your little descent into mayhem."

Faith had already decided he must have brought her back to where he was living these days, though she'd been out during the actual trip. This place had something of the same style as his sitting-room back at the club — baroque, flamboyant, and at the same time somehow comfortable and reassuring — but an entirely different feel. She took a sip of the tea: burned her tongue, just a bit, but the honey he'd stirred in felt good as it slid down her throat. "That was what you saw, wasn't it?" she asked him.

"Your own personal death-match, out on the mean streets?" He smiled at her. "Trust me on this, buttercup, impending doom does tend to get in the way of anything else I might be trying to see. You caught the attention of one very nasty customer out there."

"Story of my life." Faith blew on the surface of the tea, took another swallow. "I came out okay, thanks to your cryptic little hints … and next time, could you maybe tell me you're givin' me a warning?" She set down the cup. "Anyhow, I'm here, I got through. Does that mean the boards are clear now? that you can give me another lookover?"

Lorne settled back into his own chair. "Not so quick, peach blossom. I've been doing this kind of thing for awhile now. Past experience, and a whiff of what I couldn't quite see before, tell me you need to talk about this for a bit before I go kicking around in your karma."

"Talk?" Faith shook her head. "Why?"

"It's the shape of things," Lorne told her. "Just like I could see, before, that your fight with Stalker Boy came ahead of what you were here for, I can tell now that there are issues we need to cover first, so that you can get the reading you want … no, so that it will give you the meaning you're trying to find."

And, again, it came down to Don't argue with the seer. Faith lowered her eyes, attempted to gather her thoughts. To speak of these things, now, was a horrible vulnerability, and ultimately unavoidable. She had always known that she couldn't get the necessary answers by hiding; now it was time to put up or shut up. "How well did you know Cordelia?" she asked Lorne.

Shadows appeared behind his eyes. "Not as well as I wish. She was an original, equal parts silk and pepper. Not everybody loved her, but everyone responded to her." He sighed. "There just wasn't time. I got pulled into Angel's crew a bit at a time, and they were always running around for this or that, seemed like there was never any real chance to just sit around and dish and get acquainted." He looked to Faith again. "I heard her sing, but it's the way I told you: people like her, there was so much destiny crammed in there, I never could see much past the big stuff up front."

"Do you know …" Faith hesitated. "Do you know if she used to have a horse? A palomino?"

A tilted eyebrow from Lorne. "Hmm. She never said. Maybe, I just don't know. Why?"

"Because I remember," Faith said. "I remember her telling me about him. I remember laughing at her when she told me she'd named him Keanu."

Lorne nodded. "Mm-hmm. So?"

"It's like I said before, it doesn't make sense." She picked up the teacup again, staring at the liquid surface. "I remember … things. Lots of things. And the things I remember, don't fit with each other." She looked up at him. "I remember Lilah Morgan picking me up in that nightclub, and talking me into getting into the limousine when I'd just been planning to rough her up and rob her." She drew a hard breath. "Only, I also remember Cordelia interrupting us before I got in the limo, and me leaving with her instead of Lilah."

"Well, now," Lorne said. "You and Cordy chumming it up? I never heard about that."

"I don't see how it ever coulda happened," Faith returned. "I remember us spending the whole night together, and the next day, too, 'cept just as clear is the memory of dropping her with an elbow-smash to the face and kidnapping Wes from her place, and it was the same day. She was scared of me, trying to reason with me, talk me down … and this is the same gal that bitched at me for callin' her Cor, only she let me get away with it 'cause this was something that was just for us."

Lorne nodded. "Deeper and more curious."

She had broken through that initial wall of resistance, and now she couldn't stop. "Know why I went with her insteada Lilah? It's 'cause we were close already, clear back to our time in Sunnydale." She set the cup down again, slopping tea over the edge. "That's where she told me about her horse, how much it hurt to lose him and everything else to the IRS. That's where I started callin' her Cor. That's where we were together practically every day, talkin' about everything, sharing everything —"

There was so much more she could have said, so much more she remembered. The shape of Cordelia's nipples, the kind of panties she wore, the taste of her tongue, the pattern of the sheets on that canopy bed. Whispers and laughter and moans, the sensation of the other girl's hands on her breasts, the shivery tracery of lips and fingers moving across her belly and down … Instead she looked to Lorne and said, "And that's where I was workin' with the Mayor every single day to kill the whole SHS graduating class. Including Cordelia."

Lorne sat, gaze lowered as he considered what he had heard. "I remember the story about the IRS," he said at last. "Even four years later, our little Cordy was still not pleased with Uncle Sammy about that."

"Exactly," Faith said. "Exactly. The whole thing is batshit crazy. I loved her at the same time I was tryin' to kill her? I went back to the office with Lilah at the same time I was leavin' with Cordelia to spend the night at her place? It don't track, it don't match, what I remember with her can't be true. But if it's none of it true, how do I know things I couldn't know any other way?"

Lorne nodded slowly. "Sounds like it means a lot to you."

"Part of me would rather die than let go of it," she told him flatly. "But I won't hang on if it's all a lie."

"And don't I know the feeling." Lorne straightened his lapels, settled himself more suitably in his chair. "All right, then, honey bunch, I'd say it's time for your solo."

Faith closed her eyes, reached within herself for control, and began to sing. "Everybody's searching for a hero. / People need someone to look up to. / I never found anyone who fulfilled my need …"

There was silence when she was done. She welcomed it, using the opportunity to pull back into herself, restore balance. One way or another, it was done. She'd put herself out there, raw, no defenses. Whatever came now, she could deal.

When he still hadn't spoken after several more minutes, however, she shifted in her chair and ventured, "That bad, huh?"

Lorne flicked his hand in a negative. "Not bad, no. Puzzling. Believe it or not, that tapped into some issues I've been having." He looked up. "These conflicting memories of yours, that's pretty recent, isn't it? When did it start?"

"Month or so back." She shrugged. "I'd just finished an assignment … a hit, if you wanna call a spade a shovel. She really did have it comin', but the only way to get close enough for the job … well, let's say we got closer than I was expecting. An' it didn't end well." She could still see those eyes, as the girl registered the damage from the axe-blade sunk into her back: shock, and betrayal, and the recognition that she was dying. "Like I said, she had it coming, but at the last I didn't want to do it. And I didn't, exactly, at least not on purpose. But it hit hard." A shrug and a sigh. "Wasn't long after that. I started gettin' the stuff about me 'n' Cordelia. Impossible stuff, like I said, but real as anything I ever lived."

Lorne chuckled. "One of life's little ironies. I had a problem exactly the reverse of yours, and now it appears they're connected." At Faith's nonplussed expression, he explained, "You have memories that don't fit, I'm missing memories that should be there. I've known about it for nearly two years now, I just don't know what caused it."

Faith frowned. "Blank spots in your memory? You're thinkin' somebody pulled crap outta your head and stuck it in mine?"

"No, not like that." Lorne tapped his fingertips together, gaze elsewhere as he looked inward. "In my case, it's like someone airbrushed out things they didn't want me to see, then laid edited swatches over the missing spots to cover the gaps. Only, some time later something pulled away all the patches, and I can see the gaps but not what used to be there, and I've got no idea what's gone missing."

"Okay," Faith said. "And that's connected to me how?"

"It starts in the same place, or close to it, in both our memories." Lorne waggled a finger at her. "You can't tell, but looking in from the outside I can track the links. Your extra memories were grafted in the last time you were at the Hyperion. My blank spots start well before that, but the biggest clusters appear about the same time."

So it was true. The memories of Cordelia, of the two of them together, were bogus. She had known that was probably the case, but prior knowledge was no shield against the stabbing pain of loss. Face hard to mask the roiling anguish within, Faith asked, "Any idea who did it? 'cause I'd really like a chance to show my appreciation. With a cattle prod, maybe. And a coupla broken bottles. And a nail gun."

"I can offer theories," Lorne said. "But sorry, duckling, I suspect the likely perpetrators are out of our reach, unless you're planning any safaris to the Great Beyond."

Faith shrugged. "Ya never know. All right, go ahead: how'd this happen?"

"Right after you left with the redoubtable Miss Rosenberg," Lorne said, "a very remarkable person arrived in Los Angeles. A woman named Jasmine. Heard of her?"

"Coupla news reports, maybe, things were pretty busy once I hit Sunnyburg." She frowned. "Some kinda New Age find-your-bliss type, wasn't she?"

"More than that," Lorne corrected. "Oh so very much more. She was, for want of a better label, evil. And, particular to our point, she was somehow born out of Cordelia." He held up his hand, palm-out. "Don't ask me how, because that's one of the fuzzy spots in my noggin. The best I can tell you is that sometime over the summer before, our Cordy got infected with some kind of demon essence. It grew very slowly, very subtly. We had no idea till the very end. I'm not sure how much of it she really understood. After the fact, though, we could see that Cordy — or the person we called by that name — had been evil herself for those last several weeks."

"Oh," Faith said. Cordelia, evil … what was she supposed to say to that?

"She's the one who tricked us into extracting Angel's soul," Lorne went on, "and it was her who stole it so Angelus could hang around for play-time. Then Angelus double-crossed her and killed her favorite minion — you met him, you were there when it happened, big cloven-hoofed galoot covered with slag — which meant Angelus was all she had left to work with. Only you trapped Angelus, and your witchy pal from Sunnydale showed up to help us get Angel's soul back —"

"Not pals," Faith interrupted. "Not me 'n' Willow. We're okay now, we sorted some things out, but it's nothin' to joke about. Especially not with her."

Lorne nodded. "Duly noted. Anyhow, while the Orpheus had you in Angel's dream-state, slugging it out with Angelus, and Willow was playing tug-of-war with Angel's soul … I think, when our possessed Cordelia saw she was about to lose, she planted those memories in you while the Orpheus had your mind open."

"Huh?" Faith said. "Why?"

"So she could use you," Lorne answered. "Once the demon came out, it was hard to resist her … impossible, unless you were really lucky. While she was still hiding in Cordy, though, she was big on using people. She manipulated us all, in one way or another." He looked to Faith. "She'd lost her minion. She'd lost Angelus. We knew something was going on — 'the Beast has a boss' is how we put it — but we didn't know yet just what we were facing. So if you had come out of the Orpheus with shiny, happy memories of all the wonderful frolics you'd shared with your old snuggle-buddy Cordelia, and there she was, all glad to see you and jump right back into old times? You'd have been her next patsy."

It made Faith's skin crawl to think of being used, especially of being manipulated by her feelings for a false lover. "So why didn't she?" she demanded. "I was there, I was open, and it wouldn't have been the first time I got played for a sucker."

"Maybe the trance broke before she'd put in enough," Lorne said. "Maybe she got scared that she'd tip her hand to Willow; I don't think anyone expected that little thing to be as talented as it turned out she was." He shrugged. "I don't know. It's clear she didn't finish, that the first layer of memories was buried and left, and came out when they were tripped by a key event, but I couldn't tell you why. I'm just, no offense intended, glad we didn't have to deal with you on top of everything else."

Faith thought about what she had heard. "Jasmine, huh?"

"Jasmine," Lorne confirmed.

"And you say she's dead?"

"Very dead," he agreed. "Most emphatically dead, even though we're still dealing with the wounds she left."

"Cordelia …" Faith shook her head. "I never heard how she died. Didn't care, till all the fake history started bobbing up." She looked to the green demon. "This bitch kill her?"

"I … don't know." Lorne sighed. "She was in a coma for close to a year, she came back for a day — and saved the day, just like the Cordy we all knew! — and then she was gone." He sighed again. "I think it was a side-effect, sort of. Collateral damage. Not that it's any comfort."

They sat in gathering silence, the tea going cold on the table. Every part of her body hurt, but that was the least of the pain she felt. At last she looked abruptly to Lorne and asked, "Can you take it out?"

"What do you mean?" He frowned at her. "Because if it's what I think —"

"All this cheap memory crap," she said. "Can you take it out, or steer me to anybody who can?"

"No dice, sugar boots." Lorne studied her with some wariness. "Not my skill-set at all. And the only guy I know who did specialize in it, rumor has it that his head exploded." He paused. "Just like Jasmine's, now that I think about it. Coincidence, probably, but a nicely symmetrical one."

"Doesn't matter." Faith stood suddenly. "I'll find somebody. Hell, I'll go to Willow if I have to."

"Why?" Lorne asked. "Why is it so important?"

"Because it's not real." Her fists opened and closed, again and again. "It's all a fuckin' lie."

"And you know that now," Lorne insisted, gentle but uncompromising. "When you came out looking for me, you already knew the whole thing was probably false. Now you have your answer. Why not just stick it in a little box, like some movie that you once saw but has nothing to do with you?"

"I can't," Faith said. "I can't."

He wouldn't relent. "Why not?"

"It's not true," she said. "It's not mine. I was never there, I didn't do any of that, I …" She stopped, let out a shuddering breath, and whispered, "I don't deserve to remember her that way."

"And there's the nub." He had been watching her in her agitation, poised to move if he had to, but now he let himself settle back in the overstuffed chair. "Little message for you on the QT, lamb chop: maybe it's not about deserving." Again he held up a hand to forestall her. "Maybe it's not even about you. Maybe all this has been for her."

Faith shook her head, shaken and uncomprehending. "I don't get it."

"You remember her," Lorne said. "You remember being with her, seeing just how special she was. That's not something to throw away. To remember her like that, remember the way you loved her …" Once again he looked suddenly old. "There aren't enough of us left who do."

~ – ~ – ~

He had told her where to look for the stone, but she had no prior experience at locating a single burial plot in a cemetery this size, especially not in daylight. It took time, but she was in no hurry. The previous night's rain still lay on the grass, and even though she knew this place was miles inland, it seemed that the breeze carried a hint of the sea. This was where Wolfram & Hart had kept a whole slew of reservations for their favored VIPs, and they might have been a bunch of evil scumbags but they'd had damn fine taste.

The stone, when she found it, was smaller and much simpler than the ornate statuary surrounding it; apparently, though they'd used Evil, Incorporated's clout to snag a prime spot, Angel and his people had drawn the line at pulling company funds for the memorial marker itself. Good choice there, Cordelia didn't need to be represented by such fancy crap. From the simplicity of the design and inscription, Faith suspected Lorne himself had made the selection.

That was good. Cor would've liked that. 'Course, she would have loved the swanky ones, too, she'd always had an eye for whatever was most expensive.

Nice crib, Faith said soundlessly to the vanished woman. Not really my kinda digs, but it suits you. Sorry I haven't been by before; places to go, people to kill, you know how that is.

… Well, okay, not people. I don't do that any more. Except for that last one, and she was an accident, honest.

God, if you could've seen that tub of hers, you'd have squealed like a puppy.

It really was a good spot. Tasteful, shady, relaxing. Even a little murmuring brook in the background. Nice.

Remember prom? Xander's face when we showed up together? Jeez, the way we laughed! He was with that Anya chick by then, but he still looked like he'd been smacked with a cinder-block. And Buffy, she got in a little jaw-drop herself when she saw us dancing, before she went back to makin' goopy-eyes at Angel.

A bird began singing in the background. No idea what kind, what did she know from birds? But it fit. Like the stone and the trees and the brook and that soft wind from the ocean, it went to making a proper place to rest after a long, good fight.

… I used to love listening to you sing. I never told you how terrible you were, but I'd give just about anything to hear it again.

I miss you. I miss you so much. And I'll never stop, I swear I won't.

Tears sliding down her face, the dark Slayer knelt at the grave of the lover she had never known, and talked to her, and wept, and sang.

end