Copyright November 2005
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: the Series are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
On Cordelia Chase's twelfth birthday, something important happened, something of such deep and significant meaning to her that she never forgot it:
Her body was starting to change (not visibly, not yet, but she could feel the changes and understood the ramifications); her facial structure, too, had begun the shift to something different, firmer, so that people were no longer saying, "Well, isn't she gorgeous!" and were now more likely to observe, "Good Lord, she's going to be a heartbreaker." She was growing up, and she was going to act grown-up.
So, in the months leading up to it, she hadn't pestered, hadn't handed over gift lists or dropped hints or engaged in any such childish practices. She had simply waited, with conscious maturity, to see what her parents would do for her: what kind of party she would have, who they would invite, which gifts they would shower upon her, which privileges she would suddenly possess. Anticipation was mounting agony, but she showed none of it; to parents, servants, friends and teachers she presented the same impenetrable mask of tranquil self-assurance.
The mask was stressed terribly when the day passed without event, but it held solid, though in the end it was maintained by rage. Privately, as the hours ticked by, she had checked and rechecked the calendar (and finally, secretly, confirmed the date by consulting her birth certificate); externally, however, she showed no flicker of awareness or caring.
They had forgotten. She was the center of their universe, and they had forgotten.
Nor did they ever remember. She went through the first days waiting for their guilty reaction when they realized their appalling oversight. By the time it became clear that the lapse would never occur to them, pride and wrath had forever sealed her against raising the subject.
It wasn't that they were negligent, that they didn't care; they doted on her, she had been their princess since birth. But in the aftermath of bitter disappointment, she understood with searing clarity that it was up to her to keep the spotlight centered where it belonged. She was special, yes, no question about that, but her job was to make certain that everyone remembered it.
She did not suddenly change. She formulated her course of action with ruthless meticulousness, and implemented it inexorably but gradually. She became more of certain things, and less of others. Pity she did not need; power, its acquisition and effective use, was a different matter. Everything was evaluated, and either discarded or honed for use, based on its utility in regard to a deeper purpose.
She would prefer to be loved, though she wouldn't beg for it. She could live with being hated, as long as hate was layered on top of fear and respect. But she would never, ever again, be forgotten.
~ – ~ – ~
The thin, sallow-skinned woman didn't hate Cordelia; but Cordelia hated her, and it had become her dearest goal in life to see her dead.
There was no time where they were, except as marked by periods of sleep, the space between meals, and how long bruises remained before healing; no sunrise or sunset, for they never saw the outdoors. There was only one training room or another, and no life beyond training; nor were names used between the two of them, so Cordelia simply thought of the other woman as Bitch.
Their first meeting had guaranteed that they would never be friendly. Cordelia had been confused, disoriented, her memories still jumbled and fragmentary. This had not prompted any sympathy from Bitch; she had given Cordelia a quick, scornful inspection, and said, "Jesus, this is what I have to work with?" She had brushed away Cordelia's feeble protest: "Can it, Princess. Whatever it is doesn't matter, and if it did I still wouldn't care. I'm supposed to teach you how to fight. I can fight, but damned if I know how to teach. Not that He cares, so let's just get to it."
Then she hit Cordelia in the mouth.
Crying out with surprise and outrage, Cordelia stumbled back, and the other woman followed, speaking conversationally. "Straight punch. Strike with the first two knuckles. Don't lock the elbow, power it with a twist of the hips. After I turn you loose, you'll do a thousand of those, right and left, a hundred at a time. That's the punch. The defense against it — one defense, anyhow — is this." She slid one arm past the other, sweeping across her upper body. "Outside block. You'll do a thousand of those, too. But for now, use it."
And from that point on, she simply followed Cordelia around the room, striking her over and over, always the straight punch she had demonstrated, and instructing her disinterestedly: "Block. Block. No, dumb-ass, block my left with your right, my right with your left." Later, much later, she would show how one could use a right block against a right punch, if prepared to cover the opening it left; for that first session, she just struck at the opening, hammering Cordelia's ribs whenever she blocked with the wrong arm.
In fairness to her (and Cordelia was always fair; when the day came that she tortured the other woman to death, she wanted every offense precisely measured so it could be precisely revenged), she didn't pummel her student simply for the pleasure of it. If she had used her full strength, she would have beaten Cordelia to death within ten minutes. (For that matter, she would eventually have fractured her own knuckles if she had pounded them for so long against Cordelia's facial bones.) No, she just made it hard enough to hurt, and kept it up until Cordelia was too battered to fight back any longer, or even to stand. Then, looking down at where the bleeding, weeping girl lay huddled on the floor, curled into a defensive ball, she said, "We'll do the same thing tomorrow. Be ready."
The quarters Cordelia had been given, though not so luxurious as those in her original home, were adequate for minimum needs. She lay aching in the bathtub for two hours, replenishing the hot water whenever it cooled, before staggering to her bed. Pain and fury kept her from falling asleep immediately; when at last her body began to relax, she was jerked to full wakefulness by the recollection of what awaited her on the morrow.
When Bitch said a thousand repetitions right and left, did that mean a thousand total, or a thousand of each? Cordelia settled the question by doing a thousand of each, slowly, focusing on the motion, feeling her balance and the movement of her muscles, visualizing her enemy. It had not been an especially complex lesson plan, but it had definitely communicated the essential point: she would be shown an attack, then the defense against it, then she would have the holy living hell beaten out of her until she could perform the defense well enough to prevent it.
She returned to the bed with a new set of aches, from the near-endless repetitions of the blocking technique. An hour later she rose again, and did a thousand repetitions of the punch. With each arm. Because already she knew — knew, because she had sworn it — that someday, someday she would be the one doing the hitting.
~ – ~ – ~
The worst of it was that that wasn't the worst of it.
She had been in bad shape when they, whoever "they" might be, had brought her here, wherever "here" might be, and her physical recovery had moved well in advance of the rest of her. Accordingly, she had been set first to physical tasks, i.e., martial arts training with Bitch. After several weeks (best estimate) of that, however, something else was added to the schedule.
Cordelia had learned quickly in that time. She was still taking a beating in every single session, but none like the first. Actually it was worse than the first, because she pushed herself pitilessly, and in the second session she had tried a few punches, and learned painfully that the outer block she had been shown could itself be used as a striking technique, against the inside of her arm. Before, the bruises had come from a nonexistent defense; now, they were an inescapable part of the training itself, avoidable — if at all — only at the cost of never learning how to properly strike back. Every night, after thousands of repetitions, she went to bed black and blue; but none of that carried the emotional impact of the first day, when she had been systematically hammered to the ground with no way of preventing it.
By the third week (if that was what it was), she was working six blocks and five different types of hand-strikes, and going toe-to-toe with Bitch four times a day. Then her routine changed, and the change was not to her liking.
It was the end of their second daily session, and as usual Cordelia hadn't even come close to landing a blow on her teacher/ persecutor. (She had lately begun to scale back, however, going at it with just less than full speed and force, saving that for practice against the heavy bag that had been installed in her room. Why show Bitch everything in her repertoire? better to keep something in reserve, something that could serve as a surprise when the right moment came.) This time, however, rather than the usual brusque instruction to eat, rest, stretch and do repetitions until called on again, Bitch told Cordelia, "Come this way."
Suspicious — harsh as her current regimen was, at least it was something she understood — Cordelia balked. "Why?"
Bitch could become unpleasant when resistance was offered, but on this occasion she only said, "Part of the program He's laid out for you. What do you care, as long as it means we don't have to look at each other as often?"
Good point, Cordelia thought but didn't say, and followed the other woman through doors that had heretofore been sealed to her, along corridors that opened out into other rooms. It was Cordelia's first sight of anything new in longer than she could remember, and she felt something within herself subtly realign at this reminder of a larger world.
It had taken her a frighteningly long time to begin wondering at her cicumstances, even to fully notice; it was as if her brain had been so fogged, it could focus only on a small area directly in front of her. She lived in one set of rooms, trained in another; food appeared rather than being brought to her, and in the same way dishes, wrappers and leftovers were taken away (or disintegrated, for all she knew) whenever she was elsewhere. Everything around her was smooth and bland and generic, like a modest motel or the school in a respectable but not wealthy suburb; but there were no windows, and all doors led to sections of the same interior. Housebound with a vengeance.
Her pleasure at this expansion of her environment, none of which she had allowed to show, ended when they reached their destination. It was an electronics workshop, not large but thoroughly furnished, and the woman at one of the tables stood to greet Cordelia with a smile. "Hello, I'm Mandy," she said. "I hadn't expected you so soon, but I'm glad He thinks you're ready. How do you feel?"
"She's ready," Bitch said curtly. "She's starting to try combinations I haven't taught her, so it looks like she has most of her marbles back. Getting some use out of it, that's up to you."
Mandy looked to Bitch with sparkling eyes. "I'm sure she'll do fine. Won't you, Cordelia?"
Bitch made a faint, disgusted noise from the back of her throat and walked away, leaving Cordelia with this new phenomenon.
Even as she returned Mandy's smile with one carefully noncommittal, Cordelia was cataloguing and calculating. Bitch was about the same height as she herself was: whippet-thin, though all of it firm muscle, with a rough, sallow complexion and eyes of a gray so pale as to almost look like silver contact lenses. Mandy … well, picture Sarah Jessica Parker's bony body, with Amanda Peet's coloring and facial structure: not as hot as she acted like she was, but definitely with enough wattage to get the job done. Her eyes were a vibrant, liquid blue beneath dark, arched brows, her lips full and moist. She wore a light midriff-baring spaghetti-strap top and a denim miniskirt — frayed hem and all — that just screamed Eighties. (The top was a mistake; you never wanted to show that much cleavage when you had so little to show.) "Why am I here?" she asked; not haughtily, she had already learned better, but not giving any ground before she had to.
"I'm supposed to teach you electronics," Mandy told her, still holding the smile that said she was sure they'd be such good friends! (Cordelia had already decided to trust her somewhat less than a diamondback rattler.) "Fuses and detonators, mostly — timed, contact, pressure-switch, proximity, command-detonated — plus some alarms and probably electronic surveillance and detection. But we'll be starting with fuses."
Cordelia let a little tremble of hope creep into her own smile. She hadn't yet fully returned to her old form (most of her marbles back, indeed!), but some memories were too stark ever to be lost. Beneath this woman's ingratiating eagerness were faint currents of two other things she remembered all too well. The first was Natalie French's smug, predatory amusement at the hormonal reactions of the creatures right below her in the food chain. The second was Xander, lazily tracking any passing female with what Cordelia thought of as his "radar vision"; not pursuing any of them, not yet, but maintaining constant awareness in readiness for the day when he decided one was worth moving to follow.
She had always known he would leave her eventually, but hadn't been prepared for how badly it would hurt. She wasn't about to let that happen again — she would kill or die first — but there might, somewhere down the line, be advantage to be drawn from letting someone think she might be so vulnerable …
"Fuses," she said. "Okay, teach me fuses."
~ – ~ – ~
Chicks dig scars, the axiom ran, and that might or might not be so; Cordelia had never given it much thought herself. She would, however, be the first to attest that any such favorable response absolutely did not apply to scars in her own flesh. On a bleak night in April of 1998 she had acquired a second navel, courtesy of a Kuruse demon that had caught her off-guard while Buffy and Faith were occupied hacking its fellows apart, and the truth she had never admitted to anyone was that the impaling wound had hurt her less than the way Xander had so casually discarded her so he could follow new interests with Amy.
After the first surgery, the doctors had run an intestinal endoscopy to make sure they hadn't missed anything, and then gone back in to do minor follow-up repair. Both events were complete blanks in Cordelia's recollection. Not that she would have wanted it otherwise — hello, that's what anesthesia is for! — but in each case it was an unsettling experience. Forget what you see in movies, a misty fade-out with a slow return to wakefulness; nope, both times she had been talking to the staff, following instructions, and then they were asking her if she could take deep breaths for them, and it was over. This wasn't like sleep, or even normal unconsciousness (with which she had far too much experience, thank you!); there was no sense of time lost, she was conscious and alert one moment and equally aware the next moment, only the moments were a couple of hours apart and she had missed all of it. Later she had learned that one of the pre-op medications actually chemically prevented memory from being formed; you could be awake, coherent, understanding what you were told and asking intelligent questions, but none of it stuck to your brain. The cells just wouldn't hold a charge until the drug wore off.
Her current state wasn't really like that, but it reminded her of it. For a long time she hadn't been able to make any of the normal connections, so that she had drifted through the days uncomprehending and unlearning. When she did begin to return to herself, it was gradually and sporadically, and still there were gaps. Her bloody introduction to Bitch was the first memory she had been able to retain since her rescue-slash-kidnapping-slash-enslavement. At that point she had still been too disoriented (and, shortly thereafter, too busy recovering from blunt trauma) to think of asking questions; by the time the possibility occurred to her, she would have been more likely to wear Bermuda shorts from Kmart than to demean herself by seeking information from that bitch, Bitch.
However, though that initial training day was her first memory, it wasn't the earliest. There was another, one so deep-buried that she didn't so much remember it as discover it; one evening in her room, while going through yet another set of repetitions (and after a vague period spent trying to think of some way she might get close enough to her instructor to perhaps drive an elbow through her sternum), Cordelia had idly wondered just what were the circumstances of her arrival in this where-that-was-nowhere. Part of the way through that train of thought, she had realized that she knew something. It didn't even feel like memory, more the "oh, yeah, I knew that" of something she hadn't really forgot, only forgot to remember.
There had been a room, and there had been a man. The room was furnished a great deal more lavishly than the areas Cordelia had seen since; definitely done by a male (and not one with interior designer genes), no imagination or central theme, and the feng shui violations were just horrendous; but everything was expensive, everything was good quality and good taste, a classic baroque along the lines of Captain Nemo's drawing room. The man … he wore robes, honest-to-God robes, and he was medium-framed but very tall, at least six-four, with dark eyes and dark curly hair, and one of those crisp little facial beards that people called goatees even though they really weren't. He might have been thirty, or fifty and not showing his age, his features regular and refined rather than strictly handsome. And, inexplicably (even dazed and barely rational, she had known that this was not in keeping with the natural order of things), he had been paying Cordelia no attention at all.
"I agree, not much to work with," he had been saying, to someone outside either her field of vision or her zone of awareness. "It is a massive overdose, which she will eventually metabolize, but it also appears that her system may have had an atypical reaction to the Orpheus. You will feed her and clean her, and there are some purging rituals that may be of help, but it will be some time before she shall have recovered enough of her capabilities that we can evaluate them. Time, of course, is not a problem. I have learned patience; you would be well advised to do the same."
There were words in the background, and he had looked back to Cordelia with one eyebrow lifting slightly. "Is she? I very much doubt it. But even if she is aware of us, there's little likelihood she can understand any of it, or retain anything she might." He took hold of Cordelia's chin and tilted her face upward. "Listen to me, girl. We pulled you out of a vampire tenement in one of the more blighted sections of the Bronx. No one was looking for you, because no one cared. You were garbage, regarded as such and abandoned as such.
"Every moment of life henceforth is a gift from me, more than you would have had without me and far more than you were owed. It is yet to be seen if you can be of sufficient use to me to provide recompense for that gift. If ever you do, then I may grant you freedom. Until such time, you are property, and property of little value. Keep that in mind, and comport yourself accordingly."
He looked past her. "You see? No reaction, no sign of comprehension. Take her away, wash some of the stink from her. Once we see evidence of sentience, we may begin to judge what can perhaps be made of such poor material."
The memory was not sharp, but there was nothing about it to make her doubt its accuracy. She continued the repetitions, focusing force and body alignment, watching her form in the full-length mirror and satisfying herself that her face showed nothing. She had made note of Mandy's comment about electronic surveillance, and a camera behind the mirror was such a Hollywood staple. Property, was she? She'd show them property. But it wouldn't be done by attitude; attitude could put some extra muscle behind the swing of a battle-axe (die, demon cootie!), but couldn't substitute for one. She needed a lot more mojo before she'd be able to accomplish anything.
Fortunately, it would seem that they intended to provide her with exactly that; not weapons, precisely, but skills and abilities that she could use as weapons. They would regret that. Whatever these people knew, they did not know her, and she meant to educate them in a way they would never forget.