For the first time since he began in his capacity as Buffy’s watcher Giles was giving his slayer only half of his attention. As she talked about studying for tests and the new band at the Bronze tonight (a not so subtle hint on her part in the hopes that he would release her from her duties early), his thoughts were more and more on the young cheerleader who had yet to grace them with her presence.
Although he appreciated her calling him last night and letting him know that she was safe and the current state of the amulet, he had to admit that he had been left sleepless by an endless array of questions, starting with what the purpose of the amulet might be, and ending with why Cordelia was still alive.
Not that Giles would wish for any other outcome than one that ended with the girl’s safety, but the fact that Angelus would let her live was as confusing as it was relieving. If only she would hurry along so that he could put these nagging uncertainties to rest.
As if by magic, which on the Hellmouth was always a possibility, Cordelia made her way into the library. Dressed in a pair of faded yet obviously expensive jeans and a copper hued turtle neck with sneakers of a matching color, her casual look was completed by a dark clip which gathered her thick, lustrous hair, pulling it away from her face and holding it securely at the back of her neck. The young women looked strikingly lovely, and yet oddly overdressed for the unseasonably warm day.
Seeing Cordelia garbed in a manner less then her usual sophisticated apparel made her seem more vulnerable, as if her fashion choices functioned almost as a form of armor. It reminded Giles not just how truly young all of these children were, but that this particular child had spent the last night in the midst of a trauma the likes of which most people could never conceive.
Never did a day go by that Giles didn’t feel the tremendous weight of his crushing guilt for what these students were giving up. Buffy thought that he didn’t understand her desire to be a normal girl. Of course he did. If he could take her destiny on his own shoulders and give her the life that she deserved he would do so in an instant. But he knew that was an impossibility.
Many were the days when he wanted to relieve her of her duties and tell her to go, leave this place and pursue her dreams of normalcy. Yet how longs would that idyllic life last without a slayer to stem the rising tides of darkness. It was unquestionably cruel that such a heavy burden fell on such slim shoulders, and yet he knew that it must remain so. For if the slayer were to falter, truly the world would fall.
As a watcher, Giles had been able to learn over time to accept the role this girl must play in the supernatural theater. He didn’t pretend to like it, but its necessity could not be denied. In that he was a complete and utter realist. What he had never prepared himself for was the sacrifice that those around his slayer would make.
Slayers were, by design, loners. Indeed, all watchers new that the slayer was she who stands alone against the forces of darkness”. And yet Buffy defied this convention at every turn. In her quest for a life separate, greater than that of her role as slayer, she had made commitments, forged relationships, garnered loyalties. And those loyalties had certainly proven fierce. Time after time those close to the slayer had stood shoulder to shoulder against the evil inherent to the Hellmouth with nothing more than their bravery and their endless confidence in their friend to protect them. Giles knew an entire council full of people who understood the dangers of this mystical convergence of evil and yet none stood here ready to fight. These children put them to shame.
But as the days passed and his knowledge of each of his charges grew, so did his guilt. Buffy had little choice but to be the slayer. Until her death and the calling of the next, she was the champion of the light. Abandoning her post would do nothing but hasten the demise of the world, herself included. But the others had no such constrictions. They could leave at any time, and while he had serious reservations about the future of Xander Harris, he could definitely see bright prospects for the others. They could live happy and fulfilling lives far away from this place of evil, but still he let them stay, let them fight. And while the sorrow at that decision increased daily, so did his understanding that these young people did more than just fight with the slayer; they made her better.
For generations slayers stood alone, however Giles was finding that having them do so may have been a mistake. What drives one to fight unendingly when one had nothing for which to fight? Buffy had friends and family that gave her a connection to the world and, in doing so, made it a place worthy of the battle she constantly waged. And so he let this children’s crusade continue.
But for all of that insight, seeing Cordelia standing there looking all of her tender years, he found himself once again questioning his decisions.
Setting aside his doubts he called to the girl still hovering close to the doorway. The uncertainty was at odds with her usual overwhelming self-confidence, and it only increased his uneasiness as to the events of last night.
“Cordelia, do come and sit down. You’re looking well, considering. Our conversation last night was rather brief and I have some questions that I hope you can answer.”
As his girlfriend made her way into the seat next to his Xander grabbed her hand and gave it a comforting squeeze. He too had spoken briefly on the phone with her last night, and although assured of her physical safety, he knew that she must have been scared out of her mind.
When the group had realized that they had greatly underestimated the resistance they would meet with last night, Xander’s first thoughts had been for his best friend’s safety. Sure that Willow would have the amulet, he was terrified at thoughts of what Angelus might do to her to get it back.
When the had finally dispatched the last of Angelus’ hired guns and made their way to where the redhead lay, shaking on the ground, Xander had been unbelievably relieved.
That relief was soon to give way to heart-stopping terror as he listened to Willow explain that it was Cordelia, and not she who had the amulet. Realizing that Angelus had taken off in pursuit of his girlfriend, Xander wildly asked which way Cordelia went and took off running in that general direction.
An hour of searching, first for the cheerleader, and then just for her body had stretched Xander to the breaking point. It’s true that you don’t know what you have until you loose it. He had never realized that the love/hate relationship that had developed between him and Cordelia was fast becoming one in which love far outweighed the hate.
Walking back to the library last night after the fruitless search, Xander was surprised at the continuous flow of tears down his cheeks as he contemplated never seeing Cordelia alive again, never tasting her lips. He even felt a loss at the thought of never hearing her cutting remarks belittling him in front of whoever happened to be present at the time.
The others thought that Cordelia was nothing but a bitch, but he knew better. Her life wasn’t something that they’d understand. They saw the money, the popularity, the designer clothes and they thought that was the whole picture. But Xander had learned in the past few months that there were more layers to his girlfriend than he could probably discover in a lifetime.
Cordelia’s life may look like a bed of roses, but it was more like a thicket of thorns. Although she would never do anything publicly other than present the picture of familial perfection, her parents often had less to do with her than his and Willow’s put together. When they did deign to be around it was only to crush her with wildly unrealistic expectations of perfection. Cordelia’s entire persona was built on satisfying these expectations. More to the point, it was about staving off the scathing disappointment that her parent were all to willing to heap upon her at the slightest deviation from their master plan for her life.
Hadn’t he seen this very thing when Cordelia had taken him home to meet her parents; a term he would use loosely? While the Chases had politely excused themselves to the adjacent room to speak with their daughter, the mahogany doors did little to muffle their ever escalating voices.
With the attitude Xander had witnessed from Cordelia in the rest of her life, he had assumed that he had front row seating for the battle of the century. But not once did he hear her raised voice escape the room. Instead, her parents had railed at her, heaping on a never-ending litany of abuse. Although Xander expected the conversation to concern his deficiencies as boyfriend material, it had centered rather on what a disappointment Cordelia was as a daughter. When they reentered the room, Xander expected to be told to go home. He expected Cordelia to tell him that she wanted nothing more to do with him. No words could ever express his shock and his pride when Cordelia informed him that the two of them would be eating out that night.
Leaving her fuming parents behind, he and Cordelia had endeavored to enjoy their evening. However, when Xander tried to broach the subject of her parents, Cordelia coldly informed him that particular topic was not up for discussion, refusing to break in front of anyone, even him.
The others might mistake Cordelia’s attempts at self-protection as shallowness on her part, but not him, never again. She’d given up more than they knew to be with him, her friends, her status, her parent’s approval and in a way he felt deeply ashamed that he hadn’t realized how much that meant to him until last night.
Determined to make up for any shortcomings on his part in their relationship, Xander had spent the day attempting to be the perfect boyfriend. Unfortunately, he had no idea what that entailed. About halfway through lunch after Cordelia nailed him in the chest with her half eaten apple and the demand that he “stop hovering”, he gave up his efforts to be perfect and just tried to be supportive. He knew he must be better at that by the way that Cordelia was now grasping his hand like a lifeline and smiling thankfully up at him.
As she took her seat Giles adjusted his glasses both to see better and to allow him a moment to gather his thoughts and decide on the right way to approach what, surely for the girl, was a delicate topic.
As both Buffy and Willow took their seats, Giles began the interrogation.
“If you could, Cordelia, go over last nights events it would be very helpful with any attempts we make to retrieve the amulet.”
This was the part of the day Cordelia had dreaded since closing her front door last night. This confrontation, which had her dragging her feet from her last class to the library in the hopes of forestalling the inevitable seemed, almost as if it was going to be worse that the evening she’d spent with Angelus. At least she’d gotten out of that alive. After giving away the amulet she wondered if she’d be so lucky today.
Still, Cordelia was a survivor and last night she’d certainly survived, which is more that most people could do while being uncooperative with a master vampire. Straightening her spine and strengthening her resolve she readied herself for the questions coming her way. She was Cordelia Chase, she did not break, she did not bend. Okay, maybe she bent a little, but that was only in the face of an extreme tortuous death, not because her school librarian might be upset with her.
After all, what could Giles really do? Raise her library fines? Beat her with a crumpet? Have his ultimate killing machine, Buffy rip her heart out? Okay, so not the good thoughts.
Actually, as she looked at him now she was surprised to see nothing but compassion and an underlying curiosity on his face. Maybe she was so used to the disappointment of her parents that she just naturally expected it from Giles.
At that thought Cordelia recognized that she was being unfair. Giles had never been anything other than kind to her, even in the most difficult of circumstances. The man seemed to have the patience of Job and she would do nothing but give him the benefit of the doubt.
“Well, Willow and I found the necklace right where it was, unfortunately supposed to be – on a dead guy. After a brief discussion about who should get the honor of stealing the dead guys valuables, which, by the way, is probably a curse worthy act here on the Hellmouth I just grabbed the damn thing so we could get out of there.”
At this point Willow, a look of guilt spreading across her face, interrupted. “I’m sorry, Cordelia. I should have gone ahead and taken it.”
Cordelia, who was not one to be overly generous to the redhead, smiled reassuringly at her. “Not an issue, Willow. One of us had to grab it, and there’s no way anyone could have known what would happen, so don’t beat yourself up.”
As Willow sat in shock of a reply from the brunette that carried no trace of her usual cattiness, the rest of the gang wondered what other effects the near death experience had on the girl.
For her part, Cordelia was extremely grateful the she and not Willow had taken the amulet last night. Although she was undeniably brilliant, Willow tended to crack under pressure. So while she probably would have been able to devise a much better escape plan than getting herself bitten by evil incarnate, she probably would not have been able to execute her plan in any reasonable manner. Worse, she probably would have spilled the whole thing to Angelus at the first glare he threw her way. Willow did have a tendency to babble.
At the clearing of Giles’ throat, Cordelia realized that the brief lull had become an uncomfortable silence filled with the anticipation of most of the room’s occupants.
“When we were finally able to reach the car the sun had set and the embodiment of evil was leaning against it. I wonder if that’ll damage the paint.”
“Willow ran one way and I ran the other, ’cause that whole safety in numbers thing has really turned out to be a bunch of crap.”
Now came the difficult part of her story. Reminding herself that she trusted Giles, she plowed ahead.
“As I was running through the rows of headstones I saw one that looked kind of new. It had some flowers in a little vase, so I hid the amulet inside. Then I took off running again because I figured that by than Angelus would have figured out that Willow didn’t have it. By the way, glad to see he didn’t kill you to get that info.”
A shy but sunny smile brightened Willow’s features at the words of concern from a girl that she was sure hated her. “Thanks.” Willow said softly, feeling as if maybe Xander was right and they didn’t know all there was to know about Cordelia.
“So when I reached the edge of the cemetery I stopped to see if there was some place safe to run too. Most the houses there looked pretty empty, but one was all lit up. I figured bang on the door, get inside, call the cavalry.”
“A sound plan, but obviously not what happened.” Giles interjected her to give Cordelia a moment.
“Not exactly. Sure, I got to the house. Then I saw Angelus coming and I let myself in. The door was unlocked and believe me, that’s the last time I’ll trust anybody who doesn’t lock their front door in this miserable town.”
“The occupants of the house?” Giles asked, somewhat confused as he had thought that Angelus had been the threat last night.
“Demons! Of course, here in Sunnydale I guess it’s a given that any house you enter gives you a 50/50 shot of being in the presence of demons. But this was even beyond that. It was that stupid clan of arterial demons – and oh my God don’t you correct me Giles!”
Giles’ mouth snapped shut at the preemptive reprimand. After all, if the children wanted to flaunt their ignorance it was of no concern to him. He knew that if he repeated that philosophy enough it was sure to become true.
“I guess they got a place next to the cemetery for the meeting with Angelus. So just as I’m about to make my presence known, ’cause I certainly don’t want to get shot by some ticked off home owners, who should grab me from behind but the fanged wonder.”
Good Lord, thought Giles. This was worse than he’d originally thought. Not only did Cordelia have to deal with Angelus, but also a room full of A’toreal demons. How on earth had she managed to escape? Restraining his barrage of questions he waited patiently for her to continue.
“Angelus pulled me into a study and we cut a deal.”
“A deal? With Angelus? This is the same “Kill your family, kill your friends” Angelus that we’ve come to know and loathe, right?”
Xander’s amazement was slightly more colorful, but no less indicative of the shock flowing through the rest of the group. Angelus was not the kind of demon with whom one simply made deals. In fact, were vampires ever able to experience childhood their report cards were sure to be filled with “Does not work and play well with others” commentary. And probably a number of parent teacher conferences in which the vampy parents were gently encouraged to teach their children that it’s not good citizenship to eat their fellow classmates.
Deciding to ignore the stares of disbelief, Cordelia addressed Xander’s question. “Yes, Xander, a deal. That’s why I’m here now and not a bloodless corpse on Buffy’s porch.”
Wincing not only at the vivid imagery, but also the extreme likelihood of that scenario, Giles probed the depths of this “deal”.
“Yes, when you say deal, what exactly does that entail? I assume you gave the amulet for your safety, but how did you get that Angelus to let you go once he’d taken possession of it?”
Hearing no censure in Giles’ voice at the fact that she’d given Angelus the amulet, Cordelia breathed a soft sigh of relief and continued her story.
“Oh, believe me Giles, I didn’t trust Angelus to let me wake up this morning with a pulse, so I didn’t give him what he wanted until I was already safe.”
“You see, first we had to go make up some lame ass excuse for the demons as to why Angelus didn’t have their jewelry and why he was dragging a human around with him. Once we did that he drug me out of that house super quick. I think he was probably afraid if I opened my mouth one more time everything would go to Hell in a hand basket. Which isn’t a very long trip from here.”
“When we got back to the cemetery I told him that the deal was for me to be home. I think that he just wanted to get everything over with because he agreed and we took my car home.”
“When we got there the big, fat liar said I couldn’t go inside ’til I coughed up his stupid amulet. He was trying to intimidate me by squishing my personal bubble.”
Xander cringed at the thought. Not just of Angelus being so close to her, but the memories of all the times that he had received the wrath of Cordelia Chase for crimes against “the bubble”. If he wasn’t a sadistic, homicidal maniac who slept with the girl he’d had a crush on for over a year, Xander might just feel sorry for Angelus.
“So I let him think that I was all scared and cowering and them BAM!”
“Good Lord, he hit you?!” Giles exclaimed as he straightened to his full height intending to rush to the girl and examine here for injuries.
Cordelia rolled her eyes and waved away Giles’ concern, a look of self-satisfaction stealing over her features. “Pfft, I’m sure. Of course I didn’t mean BAM – he hit me. I meant BAM – I used my remote to the electronic locks on the front door and fell through backwards and out of insaniac’s reach.”
Xander smiled at his girlfriend. The few times he’d been to the Chase home while her parents were away he’d been fascinated with that particular security feature. Using her remote to open the door repeatedly, Cordelia finally grew bored with his childlike glee, informed him that he was a first class dork, and went for a swim. If there’s one thing to pull a guy away from a remote it’s a woman like Cordelia Chase in a bikini. Needless to say the door was abandoned in favor of frolicking in the pool.
“Yes, well, excellent thinking, Cordelia.” Giles was truly impressed. The numbers of those dead at Angelus’ hands had never been calculated with any certainty, but must surely rank in the thousands. That this young, beautiful girl, a friend of the slayer’s, had manage to walk away without serious injury was a credit to her quick thinking and steady nerves.
Unsure how to ask the next question in a way that did not sound callous, Giles heard Xander beat him to the punch. Nor had the young man discovered how to couch his question sensitively, obviously.
“So if you were safe, why’d you give him the amulet?”
As both the blonde and the redhead cringed and mentally said farewell to their friend, Cordelia’s spine snapped into an upright position as a look of absolute fury swept her face.
“Why’d I give it to him? Why’d I give it to him?” Giles winced as Cordelia’s voice crept steadily higher. “I’ll tell you why I gave it to him Mr. Xander “apparently my girlfriend is expendable” Harris.”
“Do you know what he threatened to do to me if he didn’t get his precious amulet back? Let’s just say the choices were me without my skin or me in little pieces. And most of us in this room have no doubts that he would have done it.”
“Sure, I could’ve never gone outside for the rest of my life, but then again, last night taught us nothing if not that Angelus has plenty of daytime help.”
“So what was I supposed to do, Xander? Keep his necklace on principal so that I could spend today being carved up like a Christmas turkey?!”
Surprisingly it was Buffy who cut off Xander’s stuttering reply. “I’m sure Xander didn’t mean it that way, Cordelia. You were right to give him the necklace. Withholding it just would have made you a target of God knows what kind of sick revenge plan. The most important thing here is that you made it through and you’re okay. We can worry about getting the necklace back later.”
Buffy knew that she’d shocked Cordelia the defense of her actions the previous night, but she’d meant every word. She and Cordelia may not really be friends, but she was helping them, and at great risk to herself. Being demon bait – not a super safe profession. She was in even more danger after last night’s debacle. As she could attest, catching Angelus’ eye, even in a small way was never good for a person’s health.
That’s what made this especially hard. Buffy always felt responsible for the supernatural happenings in Sunnydale. But this was more. Even if no one was saying it, she felt to blame for unleashing Angelus on the world once again.
Her friends were completely supportive, telling her that she was no way that she could have known about that stupid happiness restriction to Angel’s cure. And yet she felt the burden of every death Angelus caused and every act of evil he wreaked weighed on her soul as if she were causing it herself. All of the faceless victims surely meeting their end at the vicious vampire’s hands haunted the slayer’s dreams. She couldn’t imagine the endless nightmares she’d endure were she to have a face to put with the name. Especially one she knew well.
Dragging her thoughts from their downward spiral she soldiered on. “Now we just have to figure out how to get the amulet back.”
“Yeah, well I told Angelus that you were gonna kick his ass and take it back.”
Surprised at the ringing confidence in Cordelia’s tone, especially after how poorly last night went, Buffy’s eyes snapped to the cheerleaders and the two shared a small smile.
In the midst of the easing of tensions Xander once again threw in his two very unwanted cents.
“Here’s a thought. Why don’t we just kill Angelus and then we won’t have to worry about this amulet anymore.”
Willow expressed her opinion at that suggestion by kicking Xander under the table much harder than one would expect from such a delicate looking girl. Even Cordelia was looking at him, the unspoken “dumbass” spelt out clearly in her hazel eyes. Her words weren’t any more comforting.
“Geez, Xander, why don’t you be a little more insensitive. Oh wait, you can’t. Besides, the amulet was for the demons, not Angelus. By the time we get to him he’ll probably have given it to them, if he hasn’t already, so we’ll still have to worry about the damn thing.”
On seeing Xander’s face fall at the realization that he’d hurt Buffy, Cordelia felt torn. Her first instinct was to be mad. Xander never worried about her feelings the way that he did Buffy’s. It was exhausting sometimes to feel like you were always in competition with someone you couldn’t beat ’cause they weren’t even playing the game and it was still neck and neck. She had no illusions that Xander would stay with her if Buffy expressed an interest.
On the other hand hadn’t her boyfriend spent the entire day demonstrating how much he actually did care about her in his own dorky way? It wasn’t really Xander’s fault that he was blinded by the slayer. After all, who wouldn’t be ensnared by a genuine super hero in trampy clothing? Sometimes she truly wondered if Xander was worth all of this effort.
Still, even though she’d read him the riot act, she didn’t completely disagree with him. So, laying a gentle hand on his arm she delivered a friendly warning. “Xander, don’t wish for things that just aren’t going to happen.”
Hearing Cordelia’s words Buffy found a target that was sure to be more satisfying than Xander, and pinning Cordelia with a hard look, blew off some of her steam at a girl she wasn’t sure was entirely wrong.
“Don’t, Cordelia. You just don’t understand.”
Cordelia couldn’t suppress the laughter that bubbled up, and frankly she didn’t even try.
“Don’t kid yourself, Buffy. I understand more than you know.”
“I get that with Angel losing his soul in such a seemingly arbitrary way you can’t help that if you wait long enough something equally random will happen to bring it back. Maybe Angelus will even chow down on another gypsy girl and boom – instant Angel, just add magick and stir.”
“And while I’m not judging ’cause, let’s face it, for all I know I just gave him the key to the Hellmouth’s deadbolt, I am allowed to be a little bitter. After all, I’m the one who got chomped on by your psycho ex last night.”
If Buffy had tried to devise a better plan to get everyone’s attention off of her fantasies about saving Angel, she couldn’t have created anything more distracting than Cordelia’s last statement.
“What?” Xander cried jumping up to stare in horror at Cordelia, images of Jesse crowding his head.
Giles too felt the need to interject. “He bit you?”
Cordelia expected the reaction from Xander, but the anger and concern radiating from the watcher on her behalf warmed her heart and made her rush to set his mind at ease.
“It’s okay guys, ’cause…umm not dead here. Did you guys really think I’m wearing last season’s turtle neck to revive an ancient fashion trend?”
Willow, who’d been fairly quiet up to this point, was overcome by her ever-present need to understand.
“Why didn’t Angelus, you know…drain you. Not that I’d want him to ’cause then you’d be – well, a dead Cordelia. Ooh! Or an undead Cordelia.” Willow’s voice slowly petered out as she lost herself in wide-eyed contemplation of the unholy terror that would be a vampire Cordelia.
After a night spent dwelling on just that very thought Cordelia was quick to move away from that subject.
“Look, from what the fang happy freak told me it was just window dressing to make it easier for the demons to accept me being there.” There was no way that she was going to discuss the degrading “pet” talk. She’d never hear the end of that.
Buffy was more than willing to take Cordelia’s explanation on faith. Knowing that Angelus was that close to killing her best friend’s girlfriend was making her vaguely ill. Desperate to change the subject she did what slayer’s do best and started formulating a plan to address the immediate problem.
“So, you can show us where the demons are?”
Cordelia, also wanting to redirect the conversation from last night’s humiliations, gratefully followed Buffy’s lead.
“Yeah, but I got the feeling that wasn’t their normal place, more like a meeting place for the amulet exchange.”
Giles, with the same attention to detail that enabled him to pass as a librarian declared, “We should still check it out.”
“You bet we should.” Agreed Cordelia, already making her way to the door. “After all, I may not know what kind of mojo that amulet’s gonna let loose, but I do know that Angelus is trading it so that he can stage a hostile takeover of the Hellmouth and become the big cheese.”
As she passed through the doors on the way to her car, Cordelia missed the horrified looks on the faces of those who couldn’t seem to make their bodies move to follow her.