Part VI

There was no way of knowing how this would go, but she steadied herself as thoroughly as she could before stepping into Giles' hospital room. The others were all there: Xander, Willow, Oz, Owen … there was no obvious evidence of an invisible person in the vicinity, but somehow Cordelia didn't think Marcie would skip this one. "All right, here I am," she said. Face calm, voice firm, the picture of control. "I understand you have some questions."

Giles nodded toward an empty chair. "You'd best take a seat, Cordelia."

She had expected to be shocked by his appearance. She wasn't. He looked thoroughly beat-up, but she'd seen that before, nor was there any sign of the wrenching grief he had shown after Miss Calendar's death. He had the hospital bed cranked up to a sitting position, so she didn't even have to deal with the sight of him in a wheelchair. Even so, there was something disturbing about him, a subtle, spooky absence of emotion, and his voice held a detachment several steps beyond his normal reserve.

Cordelia didn't let her new uneasiness show. She sat in the indicated chair, and asked, "So, how do we kick off this little soirée?"

"From the first, there has been a certain confusion," Giles began. "Events overtook us before we truly realized that they were in motion, and I now understand that these events transpired at no less than three separate locations. I was at the library, of course, so by comparing accounts with Willow and Xander — and to a lesser extent, with our fellows — I have reconstructed a partial timeline." His eyes fixed on Cordelia. "It cannot be more than partial, because certain facts are known only to you … and this, in turn, is because you concealed them from us."

Okay, going pretty much as she had thought it might, and she was about to respond when Willow said earnestly, "This is serious, Cordelia. We're not here to blame you, nobody's looking to pass judgment. We're on your side … mostly. But we have some serious problems with, with the way you did things."

Not passing judgment? Really? Cordelia was getting an entirely different sense from the room. Fine, she'd never been one to go begging for pity. "There actually is an explanation," she told them.

"Well, that's a relief." Xander, he was showing some of the haggardness she had half-expected to see in Giles, and frozen pizza was no colder or flatter than his voice. "Because here I was thinking you set us up to die just for the novelty of it."

The temptation to strike back was hideously compelling — never been one to take abuse without protest, not Cordelia Chase! — but she suppressed it, and was about to answer when Willow broke in, addressing the others. "Remember the rules we talked about," she told them. "Keep things reasonable, stick to 'I' statements. 'I feel confused.' 'I feel disappointed.' "

"Look," Cordelia began, "I know intervention language when I hear it, and this is not —"

"I've got some." Marcie's voice; yep, she was here. "I feel mad as hell. I feel like kicking some May Queen ass. Anybody see one of those around anywhere?"

Again Cordelia had to rein in her temper. "You've got questions," she said. "I understand that, I'm here to answer them. But if you want to turn this into an inquisition, bring it on."

"It could be arranged, you know." Contrasted with Xander's seething sarcasm and Marcie's open anger, Giles simply sounded … bleak, and suddenly far more scary than she had ever suspected he could be. "You are quite correct, you have much to answer for. It would be to your advantage to recognize that we are attempting to be … civilized … in our inquiries." Owen shot him a sidelong look; Cordelia was perhaps not the only one disquieted by this new side to Giles. Unconcerned, Giles continued. "There was a systematic offensive being mounted against our group. It is clear that you knew of this, and chose to hide that information from us. We would be very much interested in hearing your reasons — such as they may be — for behaving in such a … an arrogant fashion."

Arrogant, right. Now she was back on familiar ground, that was what people always said when you didn't think their opinion was better than yours. "It was a judgment call," she said. "Things went wrong, and yeah, I'd do it different if I had it to do again. But you know how these things go: you're in a situation, and you're the one who has to make the choice —"

"We were all in the 'situation'," Xander interrupted. He was leaning so far forward in his chair, it looked like he was about to jump at her. "It wasn't just you, we were all lined up in the same shooting gallery. So how was it your decision?"

Cordelia heard her voice go up an octave: "This wasn't …" She caught herself, made a little gesture of frustration. "Okay, first of all, you and Willow weren't in the loop at all. There was no way to share information with you, unless you suddenly figured out how to do the Vulcan mind-meld from a distance … which, okay, I wouldn't put that kind of thing past Willow, but still. This whole business was about you, rescuing the two of you, that's what Buffy and I were —"

"See, now, there's something I never really understood," Owen said, un-aggressively as ever but still insistent. "How exactly did Buffy figure into this?"

"We were working it together," Cordelia explained. "They had Xander and Willow at two different locations, so we split it between the two of us —"

Invisible or not, the sneer was there in Marcie's voice. "And it was just coincidence that you took the place where your vampire ex was waiting."

"That's not why I went there," Cordelia protested. (Oh, God, she was sounding defensive now. That would not do.) "I went because … well, who else would you want to send against Angel?"

"Let me give that some thought," Xander said. "Wait, here's a suggestion: how about, for instance, anybody who wouldn't run off and leave him alive, just when she had him cornered?"

She had been getting flustered — they kept interrupting, coming at her from all sides, they wouldn't let her tell her story! — but these words were like a hard slap in the face. So Willow had told them … and either hadn't fully explained the urgency of the circumstances, or hadn't truly understood it herself. "It wasn't like that," she said, struggling for composure. "I had him, you're right, but then he said something that made me realize there was a third group ready to attack the library, or maybe they'd done it already —"

"Yeah," Oz said. "The library. Where we were waiting, 'cause you'd had Buffy ask us to wait. Only we didn't know why. And we didn't know about any attack. We didn't really know anything … and that's back on you."

Just like the last time, only a few days ago, it was Oz who brought her up short. He had spoken quietly, softly, his eyes never wavering from hers … Funny that she'd never really noticed those eyes before. She'd seen the same look on a lioness at some cheesy safari park when she was twelve: totally relaxed, totally calm, almost bored, and you knew that you'd be bloody brunch if you stepped three feet from the Land Rover. She floundered, unable to find any words that made sense, and Willow moved into the gap.

"Cordelia," she said, as if reading from a class paper, "I'm sure you thought you were doing the right thing. But, when it comes to Angelus — to Angel — well, your judgment hasn't always been the best. We need to talk about what that means, and what we should do about it."

"This isn't about Angel," Cordelia insisted. "It wasn't that way, I swear! Look, yes, he was trying to run one of his games on me. But I knew that, I was totally in control, Buffy and I were going to turn it around on him. I knew what I was doing!"

Xander stood up suddenly, his face working. "Did she know? Did you fill Buffy in on your plans? Did she have any idea she'd be stuck in that crummy factory, waiting for a rescue party that didn't even know they were supposed to be rescuing anybody?" The raw loathing in his voice was shocking, obscene. "You couldn't even let her fight as herself. It wasn't enough to send her out alone, no, you had to try to make her over into you. That's all you've ever wanted, to be the center of attention, to have everybody worshipping you and wanting to imitate you … So there she is, done up like a cheap copy of you, when you're the imitation, you're the substitute Slayer! Is that what you wanted? Was that your plan?"

And Cordelia saw it, as if it were written out in huge type: he would never forgive her for this. He couldn't. Buffy had gone into the factory to save him, and now she was in a coma because he hadn't been able to protect her, and without someone else to fix it on, he would have to turn all that searing blame in on himself. He needed to hate her.

"That's enough," Giles said. "Everyone. We're here for a purpose, and we've yet to see to it." He looked to Cordelia. "You made decisions that affected all of us, without allowing us a voice in the matter. More than that, you deliberately concealed vital information from us, with results that …" He faltered, wavering for the barest instant; then his jaw firmed, and he went on as steadily as before. "Even had events concluded without injury to any of us, that would still have been a highly irresponsible act. As it is, we have suffered grievously from the effects of your … unconscionable presumption, and there must be an accounting."

It had been only a fraction of a second's lapse, but in it Cordelia had seen a glimpse of the pain that lay underneath, and knew without asking that it was due far more to Buffy's condition than to his own prospects. She was horrified to feel tears beginning to well up; she forced them back with savage will, and said, "There was more to it than that, you haven't let me tell how it was. We had a plan, and sure, I should have brought you in on it sooner, but I couldn't have told you they'd come after you at the library because I didn't know about it." She looked around at the others, seeking some sign of understanding. "We couldn't take any of you with us. Angel had said I had to choose between Xander and Willow, pick which one I'd try to save, and he said they'd both be killed if anybody but me showed up. We were trying to save both of them, Buffy and me together. You have to believe me, it was never supposed to turn out this way."

Even as she said the last words, she could see they left her open for a devastating retort. It didn't come; instead, Giles glanced over, said, "Owen?", and held out his hand. Owen reached over and picked up a small spiral notebook from the bedside table, handed it to Giles. Giles opened the cover, turned a couple of pages, adjusted his glasses, and began to speak again.

"The patient records show that we reached this hospital at 4:42 PM. You arrived with Buffy only three minutes later; in fact, they thought at first that we were the emergency for which they had been alerted. Given that Spike's sudden departure from the library seems to have been prompted by an awareness of Drusilla's final demise — perhaps she sent out a psychic cry to him at the moment of her dissolution — it's obvious that we at the library, and you at the factory, were fighting at the same moment."

"That makes sense," Cordelia admitted, not sure where this was going.

"The facts, then, are that you launched a personal raid on the mansion, killed the vampires resident — except for Angelus, of course — retrieved Willow, and drove to the factory, where you engaged Drusilla at essentially the same time Spike began the attack at the library." Giles removed his glasses, and looked to Cordelia with unnerving directness. "Taking into account the time you spent fighting Angelus and his lackeys, and the further time required to drive to the factory, there was a period of something like twenty minutes between your entry into the mansion and the time we were set upon."

That long? Cordelia hadn't really thought about it, she'd assumed Angel must have called orders for the third team to strike as soon as he knew she was in the mansion. But, "Why were you still there, then? I sent my message to you before I went into the mansion, I made sure of it. And there was the other message before that, telling you what to get ready for, you should have all been on your way to the factory by the time I found Willow."

Giles' gaze never flickered. "We received no such message. There had been no communication from either of you since Buffy called to tell us that you wanted us to gather, and to await further word. We were, in fact, beginning to worry when Spike's band broke in; school had been dismissed for an hour by then."

Cordelia realized that her mouth was hanging open. "But … I did, Giles, I swear I did! I sent one message when I left Buffy at the factory — that was the one explaining what was going on, telling you all to get ready, you'd need to go in after her — and another one at the mansion, saying where to go. Buffy and I worked it out together, I sent it as a text, I watched it go through."

"Text?" Giles tilted his head slightly. "The library phone isn't configured to receive text messages."

"I know. That's why we sent it to Nancy's phone. And even if something stopped my call, Buffy was supposed to send the same message —"

She saw startlement on Owen's face, but Marcie was the one who spoke: "Nancy said something about her phone, didn't she?"

Owen nodded slowly. "Yeah. She forgot to turn off the ringer, she got a call during third period and Ms Frank confiscated it. Nancy was supposed to pick it up at the office after school, but she forgot. I remember, she was complaining about that to Tucker …" He stopped.

"And now the picture comes into focus," Xander said. "You sent your battle orders, all right; you just sent them to the second drawer of Snyder's desk." His mouth twisted in what couldn't remotely be called a smile. "Oh, yeah, you had all the angles covered, all right."

Cordelia looked about her, stunned and helpless, finding no pity in the room. Owen looked embarrassed, Willow reproachful, and from there it went downhill fast. "I … I didn't …" She swallowed. "I'm sorry. I didn't know. Oh, my God …"

"Yes," Giles said; quietly, softly, remorselessly. "You took it upon yourself to make all the decisions, and robbed us of the ability to do the same, or even to know that decisions were needed. To hinge your plans on a single, less-than-reliable avenue of communication was an appalling tactical error, one I'd have been only too happy to point out, had I been given the opportunity. I wasn't. None of us were. You treated us as subordinates, as … as spear-carriers in your personal drama, and it was we who paid the price for your overweening hubris."

His next words were even more shocking. "You are not a Slayer." She stared, and he went on. "We call you by that name, for want of a better, but we have seen that the mantle went to Kendra upon …" He paused, took a deep breath. "… upon Buffy's brief death. Though the heritage passed you by, however, you somehow acquired the physical attributes of a Slayer; and, because the Hellmouth remained an active threat, I attempted to school you in the responsibilities of a role that was not rightfully yours.

"This approach must be reconsidered." He closed the spiral notebook and laid it flat on his lap. "I shall report the particulars of this incident to the Council of Watchers, with my recommendation that they send someone to assess the situation here and make recommendations of his own. They may wish, upon hearing the facts, to dismiss me from my position; if that is the case, I will accept their decision.

"What is to be done with you is a different matter." He spoke as coolly as if he had asked her to pass the salt. "If they determine that you still are to be accorded Slayer status, you will be under their authority. If not, your power places you well within their purview, and thus answerable to them. In either case, you will be held responsible for your actions … which sanction, by all the evidence, you have never placed upon yourself.

"You may consider yourself duly notified. And, that done, you may leave now."

She was too shaken to argue, too aghast at the realization of how horribly she had blundered. She walked out of the room, numb, and down the hall without really registering her surroundings.

Bad as it had been when she knew they blamed her, this was far worse. They were right to blame her. It truly was her fault. Giles crippled, Nancy dead, Buffy … Buffy …

Someone was behind her, she whirled in readiness to strike and it was Owen. "Hey," he said, watching as she lowered the hand she had been ready to spear through his chest. "That was kind of rough in there. Thought I'd see how you were doing."

She was ashamed of how pathetically grateful she felt, and it sharpened her tone. "You don't want to take your turn knocking me down and walking on me with big cleat-y shoes?"

Owen shook his head. "You messed this one up, Cordy. Messed it up bad. They've got a right to be mad at you." He sighed. "But I won't freeze you out. That wouldn't help anything, it'd just be mean. You need to talk, I'm here."

Cordelia leaned back against the wall, closed her eyes. "I can't," she said. "I mean, thanks, I appreciate the offer, and maybe I'll take it once I get my feet back under me, but right now I'm totaled."

"Any time," Owen said. "I guess I'll see you at school, then."

She didn't say anything as he walked away. After a minute, she continued down the hall, still trying to come to grips with that sense of awful unreality.

Her feet took her toward the area where Buffy was being kept, and she realized that she hadn't actually seen Buffy since delivering her to the ER doors. What would she look like? Sleeping Beauty? Snow White in that glass coffin? She tried to imagine, and once again her mind wouldn't take hold.

Across from the nurses' desk for this section, Joyce Summers passed through Cordelia's field of vision. She looked older than Cordelia remembered, and carried — of all things — a plush stuffed pig. Cordelia watched, noted which room the woman entered, took a hesitant step forward …

She couldn't. She couldn't bear the thought of facing Joyce's condemnation … or, worse, having it not be there when she knew it was deserved. She had done this, she had brought them to this point: her actions, her decisions, and nowhere else to put the blame.

Against one wall was a row of four chairs, presumably for visitors. Cordelia went to them, and sat in one, and waited for she knew not what.

~ – ~ – ~

People were always saying that real life wasn't like stories. They were only half-right. Show a girl that monsters were real, and then give her superpowers, and then hit her with plot twists that would flabbergast O. Henry … well, it was understandable if she started wondering whether fiction might give her some pointers on how to deal with an existence that was so-much-stranger-than.

The problem was, there were no storybook heroines (or film, or TV, or even comics) whose example pointed to anything productive. Their stories were their own, and they might be fun and even uplifting, but they didn't draw much of a map for deciding what to do next. This wasn't a matter of surviving (got that one down already) or even of overcoming formidable enemies (again, there ahead of you); this was about putting things straight, of correcting a terrible mistake, and for this there were no ready role models.

No, she was on her own. Whatever path she was going to follow, she'd have to chart it herself.

She would fix this. She would make it right, make it be right.

She would.

She had to.

She was the queen.

end


Special acknowledgment: Yes, the 'intervention' scene in this chapter was patterned after the one in the Buffy Season 3 episode "Revelations", written by Doug Petrie. Though I didn't directly use his words, I freely followed the pacing and general flavor of the scene, on the theory that a parallel timeline will contain some events that parallel the original.
— Aadler