She had been shaped and tempered for almost a year, as much by the path she had chosen as by the circumstances imposed upon her. More than weapons, or schematics, more than her body or even her mind: she had mastered herself, learned to control impulse and anger and desire and impatience. So when she set herself to find and overcome the creature now impersonating her, she moved deliberately and without haste.
The artifact's line had taken her to Chicago. Good enough. After the Big Apple, major cities did not intimidate Cordelia, though finding herself once again among great masses of people had required some adjustment. Lynn bade her cheerful farewell within minutes of their arrival, and Cordelia voiced no objection to her departure; after nearly a year of near-constant contact, they were, without any resentment, thoroughly sick of one another. That left Cordelia alone in her quest, and she was by now serenely comfortable relying on none but herself.
She did not go to Sunnydale. She did not contact anyone from her former life. Though she was only a year older, almost five years had gone by here since she had turned her back on the small-town scene. There was no telling what had happened, what had changed, which alliances had shifted and which new ones formed during that time. She would do nothing to give premature warning.
She needed information. She went to a public library. Google had evolved remarkably in four years and change. "Cordelia Chase" yielded multiple results. The ones that mattered pointed to Los Angeles.
She needed money. She had no driver's license, no Social Security card, no identification of any kind, and no inclination to labor for pennies while she built up a bankroll. So she mugged drug dealers, one of whom — to her brief surprise — proved to be a vampire, himself surprised when he attempted to turn the tables on her. His 'life' energy tasted utterly horrible, and as Cordelia staggered away from the settling ashes, fighting nausea, she resolved to do that again sometime shortly after never. Aside from the single bobble, her acquisition of funds proceeded without undue incident, and money in turn solved the ID problem.
She needed transportation. She was neither too proud nor in too great a hurry to take a relay of buses to L.A. Once there, she did a brief reconnaissance (more cash, more battered, semiconscious men, this time mostly pimps) and rented a motel room, slightly overpriced but acceptably clean and private, to serve as a base of operation.
No hurry, but neither had she unnecessarily wasted time. She had reached Los Angeles eight days after touching down in Chicago. Working quietly and carefully, limiting herself primarily to public information sources and supplementing those with precision forays into no-trace burglary, she devoted another eleven days to locating the Cordelia-who-wasn't.
A clinic. A private clinic, with low-profile but comprehensive funding from a number of no-doubt-prestigious companies, not that she cared. Security was respectable but not remotely adequate to cause her the slightest inconvenience. She strolled in during shift-change, needing only a fraction of her attention to avoid notice or challenge, and found the room that held her quarry.
The woman in the bed was not in good condition. She had received quality care, that much was easy to see, but the human body was not designed to lie passive for months. Her limbs were flaccid with disuse, her fingers settling into a permanent curl; her face was slightly puffed from fluid retention, and the angle of her head on the pillow allowed a line of saliva to run from the corner of her mouth to her ear.
Cordelia looked down with faint disgust but no pity. This was the thing that had banished her to hell, stolen her life, and then wasted it. For months she had anticipated the time when she found it, fought it, vanquished it, reclaimed what was hers; but there would be no more satisfaction in this than in stepping on a cockroach.
It didn't matter. Checkout time, bitch, she thought venomously, and bent to place a kiss on the dry, cracked lips.
The contact hurled her back with unexpected, stunning force, and Cordelia gasped as a scorching series of images slammed through her brain, she couldn't stop it she wasn't ready and and and and and and and
— symbols painted on a door —
— again, the same symbols, no, tattoo not paint —
— a man, doubling over in pain, his face his face she knew that face —
Then the rest of it flowed into her mind, and she knew instantly that she had made a ghastly mistake.
~ – ~ – ~
In the first awful moments of realization Cordelia wildly thought she had gotten it totally backward, she was the demon brainwashed to replace the real Cordelia and oh God Xander had made her watch a Deep Space Nine episode with exactly this plot twist —
No. No, it wasn't that. But it was almost that terrible.
This wasn't her world. She had come to the wrong reality. Roxeim had needed Cordelia, this Cordelia, so he had reached across time to take a different Cordelia and shape her into a willing agent to capture the one he couldn't touch. It wasn't just that the woman in the bed believed, knew she was Cordelia Chase; that could be delusion, imprinted memories just like the replicated Miles O'Brien, but no, those memories matched this world and it was the wrong world. Angel, this woman loved Angel, he was a champion here (but Buffy killed him at the Crawford Street mansion); Amy somehow trapped in rat form (no, she deserted the Slayerettes to throw in her lot with the Mayor) and oh! giant snake at graduation! Harmony, vamped but never souled, just as stupid and petty as ever but — here — blithely, incompetently evil; herself impaled by a length of rebar instead of a demon, and what was she doing at the factory? (Buffy, it was Buffy who caught Willow and Xander in THE ACT, and ran away from Sunnydale two months later, with Oz following her.) Would-be actress in L.A. instead of failed model in New York, and a hollow-cheeked man with bright blue eyes and, yes, power that was passed through a kiss —
More, years more of it, and all wrong.
No. This wasn't the wrong world. She herself was the wrong Cordelia.
And, because she had come to where she didn't belong, struck at the wrong target, the 'real' one was dying.
She felt the memories settle into her (not her memories, no, not hers), and the life slowly but inexorably oozing out of the woman in the bed; and more than that, felt the warning her other self had so desperately struggled to voice (Angel, help Angel, save Angel!), and the prophetic power that had brought the message …
That power wasn't hers, either. She didn't deserve it, and she couldn't keep it. But she could pass along at least part of it, and she could work to save the man the dying woman loved.
It wasn't enough. But it was all she could do.
She went out into the hall and dialed a number (the Hyperion, she had never been there but it was vivid in her looted memories), heard it transfer twice before anyone answered. She spoke a few terse words, and hung up.
Then she shut herself into the bathroom and wept.
~ – ~ – ~
They arrived more quickly than she would have believed, she had just shed her clothes and gotten into the hospital gown when she heard Angel speak her name (no, not hers), his voice shaky with hope and disbelief. She had wiped away her tears minutes before, so she answered quickly and stepped out of the bathroom, face composed and unlined over the black lie it covered. They were too close to the bed, Angel and Wesley — she could remember kissing Wesley, wouldn't Harmony just die! — so she stepped up to pull the privacy curtain closed, observing, "This chick's in rough shape." (Worse than rough, she wouldn't last out the day.) She was still talking, falling into character, assuming the role that was the only thing she could give them.
Angel hugged her, and Wesley, and she smiled at them and spoke glibly, sick with shame at what she had become. She steered them away from the bed, steeling herself to see this through to the end. She would convey the final message, and carry out the final mission, and deliver the final gift of the woman she had killed. Then she would vanish; and perhaps, someday, when she had come to terms with the anguish and guilt, she might manage to find herself again.
There was no link between them (nothing left to link to, she had taken it all), but still she sent her thoughts back to the still figure she was leaving, hoping that some part of her murdered other self, somewhere, would understand:
I'll take care of him, I promise.