For the Scatterlings and Orphanages Africander Fiction Challenge byludditerobot.
All previous parts can be found here.
Continued from Part 47.
My jaw dropped and I stared at him.
Mr. Harris folded his arms and his grin got wider.
That’s when I finally figured out his game.
“You bastard!” I exploded.
Mr. Harris had the nerve to place a hand over his heart and ask with faux innocence, “What? What did I say? It was your idea.”
I got to my feet and pointed a trembling finger at him. “You planned all along to put me in this position.” I began to pace. “Oh, I should have known. Playing up the negative aspects of all my fine ‘choices.’ Going out of your way to play on my fears.” I stopped to glare at him. “I bet the whole business with Mr. Wyndham-Pryce having a Slayer enforcer in London is completely untrue.”
Mr. Harris straightened. “I haven’t lied to you.”
“I haven’t lied about anything since you walked into my hut,” he quickly amended. “In my defense, though, before tonight we were both lying to each other.”
“As if you would’ve acted any different had I come in and confessed everything before your shadow-play in Joe,” I defensively replied.
“If you had done that, yeah, I would’ve and we wouldn’t be here right now,” Mr. Harris hotly responded. “What it boils down to, Miss Pot, is that the kettle pointing isn’t exactly the best defense you can go with.”
I threw up my hands. Mr. Harris seemed intent on missing the point. “And I’m supposed to trust you now? After the lying and the trickery?”
“You keep forgetting that if you stay, I’d have to trust you, too,” Mr. Harris dryly responded.
“You’d have the upper hand no matter what I decide,” I angrily reminded him.
“You sound sure about that.”
I sniffed my disbelief.
“If you stay, eventually you’ll be the one with the upper hand,” Mr. Harris pointed out. “Putting you in charge of day-to-day administration would give you ample back-stabbing material, not just with Roger-Dodger, but with Giles. I’m pretty sure there’s a few things I’ve done and probably will do that’ll get Giles polishing his glasses hard enough to break the frames.”
I began to laugh at the ridiculous notion. “Oh, spare me, please. You can’t possibly want me to believe that I would have any real leverage against you should I graciously step into the role you’ve backed me into. You could turn around and blurt my secret at any time.”
Mr. Harris sighed in frustration and once more settled on the edge of his desk. “The longer you stay in Mali, the less of a threat outing you actually is. Wait a year, or hell, wait six months. I could shout your secret from the rooftops and know what? I’m the one who’ll look like a petty ass. Why? Because you’re working in the field instead of hiding in some library somewhere or shuffling paperwork. Maybe you’re not acting like a full-time Slayer, but you’re fighting the good fight in Africa. Worse, if I start making a stink about your Slayerness, the Council will probably insist that I subject myself to a truth spell to find out what I knew and when I knew it. I’d have to tell them that Giles ordered me to trick you into outing yourself. Then I’d have to say that I followed standing Council orders and gave you the choice of living life like a normal person or like a Slayer. Then I’d have to admit that you turned around and told me that you were sticking with being a Watcher. What’s more, with zero prompting from me, you offered to stay in Mali to help me because you could see that the job was too big for one Council-approved person to handle.”
I was utterly dumbfounded, not because of Mr. Harris’s sheer gall in suggesting that I had any power whatsoever in this mess, but because he was right. Suddenly Mr. Harris’s ridiculous drawn-out discussion of “my options” and his insistence that I put forward my proposal before he gave voice to the idea that he was thinking along the same lines as myself made sense. He was, to use a favorite phrase of the Council, giving me plausible deniability. If the worst happened and my true status became known to the Council at-large, everyone involved could be placed under a truth spell and they would all say exactly same thing. Even with the details thrown in — starting with Mr. Wyndham-Pryce’s schemes to destroy Mr. Harris all the up to Mr. Giles’s plot to use me against his political rival — wouldn’t change the core facts.
In short, no one would ever be able to deny that I had chosen. The fact that my hand might have been forced would be utterly immaterial. Some could and would take me to task for whatever choice I made, but not one of them would be able to say that I didn’t have the right to make it, especially since it would appear that Mr. Harris was doing nothing more than following procedure.
“Why?” I whispered. “Why would you do this for me?”
Mr. Harris shook his head. “I’m not doing it for you,” he answered.
“So you’re doing this to soothe your conscience,” I said.
Mr. Harris sighed and looked down. “Eva, I’m going to actually attempt going with the blunt here, so bear with me, okay?”
I nodded, although I wasn’t sure if Mr. Harris saw me.
“Even though you’re probably the most innocent party in this whole fiasco, you don’t exactly have clean hands. Willow’s hands are dirty. My hands are dirtier. Giles’s is even more dirty.” He looked up. “The fact is, Giles had reasons for wanting to make you the exception to the rule. Some of them were actually good ones.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but Mr. Harris held up a hand to stop me.
“Hear me out before you put in your two cents,” he pleaded.
I shut my mouth and reluctantly nodded.
“So, fine, we make you the exception to the rule, right? We slam you into the Slayer role, even though it’s pretty clear that you don’t want it. Know what that says? That says that the whole ‘Slayers get to choose’ thing can be shoved aside for ‘special cases,’ and you’ll be Exhibit A,” Mr. Harris said. “Once the Council crosses that line, I will bet my remaining eye that they’ll do it again. Maybe not next year. Maybe not two years from now. But before three years is up? Oh, yeah. There’ll be another ‘special case’ and some people on the Council will force the issue. The list of reasons won’t be as long, and they won’t be nearly as good, but they’ll still force it. My side might protest, but all the other side has to do is wave you in our faces and we’ll probably lose the argument.”
“And where there’s two, there’ll be three, and then there’ll be four, followed by more,” I said in a strained voice.
Mr. Harris solemnly nodded. “And with each brand new and exciting exception, that list of reasons is going to keep getting shorter and even shakier until the day comes when it can be boiled down to, ‘Because the Council said so.’ Then we’re right back to where we were before the First Evil blew up the old Council. It may take 50 years to get there. Hell, maybe we’ll all be dead by the time the Council gets there, but get there it will.”
I collapsed back into my chair. The only fault I could find with Mr. Harris’s reasoning was that he was being entirely too generous. I was very certain that it wouldn’t take more than 15 years for the Council to reach the bottom of this particular slippery slope.
The problem was that Mr. Harris — at least so I thought — had failed to take one thing into consideration.
“What makes you think that if you stop this from happening to me, that it won’t happen to someone else at a later date?” I blurted out.
Mr. Harris winced. “You’re right. I don’t,” he admitted. “If we go along with Giles and let him do this to you, then it definitely will happen again and we both know it. That’s one door I so very much want to keep shut for as long as possible, at least until there’s enough new blood in the Watcher brigade and enough experienced Slayers to threaten a sit-down strike if someone else tries to force an unwilling Slayer to start making with the dusting.”
“I’m not entirely sure that expecting the worst, but hoping for the best, and leaving it up to future generations to fight it out can be construed as a real plan,” I dryly remarked.
Mr. Harris actually grinned at that. “Eva? How many Slayers are outside again?”
“I don’t see how—” I began.
“Most of them already have the whole sisterhood thing down pat. Only thing they’re missing is enough experience to give them the confidence to tell the Council to go to hell if it tries something they don’t like,” Mr. Harris shrugged. “Hey, Buffy not only told the Council to stick it, she made Travers play nice with us and rehire Giles with back pay. And that was one Slayer. Do you honestly think multiple Slayers are going to react any different if a bunch of Watchers in London tell them they have zero choices about what they should do with their lives? How much property damage do you think they’d do if they visited London en masse and calmly discussed just how much they don’t like that idea?”
“Be that as it may, your Slayers still cheerfully went along with your plans for me,” I pointed out.
Mr. Harris seemed chagrined. “Because you were kind of posing a threat to village. I know you probably will find this hard to believe, but for some of the Slayers this has kind of become home, or at least a place where they feel safe. Which was kind of the whole point, actually.”
“You told them that I posed a threat,” I flatly stated.
Mr. Harris frowned at me. “Unh, yeah, because at the time it was also true. Plus, I didn’t know how you were going to react to Liwaza and Doc. Like I said, Giles already had my back on the village, so there were no worries there, but Liwaza and Doc are still vulnerable no matter what. I was having nightmares about the Council going after them.”
Much as I hated to admit it, Mr. Harris did have a rather good point. If he told them the simple truth, it was no wonder the Slayers under his care cheerfully helped to tie me in knots, even though it would serve them poorly in the long run.
I sighed and shook my head. “So our whole discussion tonight, and your attempt to convince me to stay and help with the village, is not just about self-preservation, but to also hold up an ideal that may be shattered at a later date despite your best efforts.”
Mr. Harris seemed rather embarrassed, as if I had put him in the spot. “Okay, you got me. No. Not really. At least on the ideal part.”
I blinked at him with surprise. I wasn’t trying to catch him in a lie. I was simply making sure I understood the situation.
Mr. Harris looked me in the face and forcefully said, “Fact is, Eva, I’m doing it for Giles. He might not like it, and I know he’s sure as hell not going to appreciate it. But I will be damned to the hell dimension of your choice before I let Giles’s official First Watcher portrait look like something they’d paint for Quentin Travers.”
“Mr. Travers was a good man, and, need I remind you, he led the Council under very different circumstances,” I protested.
“If you say so,” Mr. Harris evenly said, “but as far as I could see, the old Council wasn’t exactly the most helpful bunch going unless Buffy had a sword to their collective throats, and I mean that literally. If Travers was all that hot, you couldn’t tell by me, or anyone else in Sunnydale.”
I mentally threw up my hands. Clearly we were never going to agree about Mr. Travers’s or the old Council’s ultimate legacy, and there was no point in arguing about it. I had rather more pressing matters to grapple with. “Now that I’m finally clear about your motivations for doing what you did, is there anything else?”
Mr. Harris stood and shoved his hands in his pockets. “No. I think everything’s been said that needs to be said.”
“Well, my decision is rather obvious, isn’t it?” I asked.
Mr. Harris regarded me with a puzzled expression. “It is?”
“I’m staying here, aren’t I?”
“Wait. Whoa!” Mr. Harris waved his hands at me as if to fend off my unconditional surrender. “Don’t you at least want to think a little bit about it? Maybe sleep on it first? I mean, even I can see that no matter what you choose it’s a huge change. Trust me when I tell you, it’s better, and I mean way, way better, to take a deep breath before committing to a promise in the heat of the moment.”
“You seem to be under the misconception that I have a choice,” I wearily said.
Mr. Harris shook his head as if he couldn’t possibly have heard me right. “Eva, I’m not holding a gun to your head and demanding that you stay or else. You do have choices. We spent half the night talking about your choices. Sure, they not great, but they are—”
“As you so artfully pointed out, there’s only one choice I can realistically make if I have any hope of survival, and that’s staying here,” I interrupted. “Maybe you think that you’ve offered me anything resembling a choice in the matter, but the fact is, you are holding a gun to my head. You may not see it, but I most certainly can.”
To my surprise, Mr. Harris looked away from me and at the hyena mask.
“Surely you can see that,” I weakly added.
Mr. Harris bowed his head. “Yeah, I guess it does look like that, doesn’t it?”
I stood. “It’s settled then.”
Something in his manner obliged me to comply. Were it not for the steady drumbeat of rain on the roof, I would have thought that the world was holding its breath.
As I nervously fidgeted, Mr. Harris’s head slowly rose until he seemed to be staring right at the Dogon mask. I swear to you, dear reader, I was half-convinced that he was communing with that awful thing.
When he finally spoke in a soft voice, I was so startled that I almost jumped out of my boots.
“You’re right. When you’re right, you’re right.” He looked at me then. “You need at least one other real choice if it’s going to mean anything. So I’ll make you a deal.”
“A deal,” I repeated slowly.
He nodded. “If you go back to London of your own free will and announce that you’re a Slayer and that you want to be trained as one, I promise I’ll do everything I can to protect you.”
My breath caught. “You’ll talk to Mr. Giles?”
“That, too,” Mr. Harris nodded.
“Too?” I echoed.
“I’ll tell Giles that I honestly think he’s wrong by naming you Roger Wyndham-Pryce’s Slayer enforcer. I’ll have a pretty long list of arguments on why he’s wrong,” Mr. Harris slowly said. “He might believe me, but then again, the atmosphere between Giles and Roger is so poisoned that short of him finding out the real identity of Roger’s Slayer enforcer, I’m not sure he’ll even listen to anything I have to say.”
“That hardly makes the London option palatable,” I grumbled.
Mr. Harris held up a hand. “Let me finish. If Giles doesn’t listen to me, I have a back-up plan, one that I know Giles will go along with. You’ll have to move to Cleveland, though.”
“Cleveland? On top of a Hellmouth? Why on earth Cleveland?” I asked.
“Robin Wood is there, and if there’s one person in the whole Council who’ll watch your back without question, he’s the guy who’ll do it,” Mr. Harris answered. “After you hit London, I’ll put a bug in Giles’s ear that if he really believes you’re working for Roger the Terrible as a Slayer enforcer on the sly, then maybe keeping you merrie ol’ England isn’t the smartest move. I’ll suggest that he send you to Cleveland so Robin can keep an eye on you. He likes Robin, but what’s more, he trusts him. At most I’ll need a few weeks whining time to win Giles over to the idea, assuming he isn’t all over it like hot fudge on a banana split. Once he agrees, I’ll get Robin on the phone and spill everything I know. The good, the bad, and the ugly.”
“And you think that Mr. Wood will spare me from Slayer duties?” I hopefully asked.
Mr. Harris winced. “That I can’t promise. To be honest, I can’t promise you that even if you decide to stay. Sooner or later you’re going to have to pick up a stake if only to protect yourself or someone else, and because of that you’re going to have to undergo some basic self-defense training. But the same holds true for everyone working here and in Cleveland. You won’t be any different.”
My shoulders slumped. “Then how is Cleveland a viable alternative?”
“I’m sure you know Robin’s background and that he’s not just any old super-smart guy,” Mr. Harris answered. “He’ll clue in pretty fast that your headspace isn’t so much Slayer-y as it is Watcher-y. Robin’s mom got killed while he was still really young, so he’ll be the last person to force the Slayer issue on you if you don’t want it. You’ll probably be stuck doing some basic Slayer stuff, like patrols and things like that, but that’s about it. Once Robin has your back, chances are you’ll be Watcher-fuing with the books a whole lot more than Slayer-fuing with a stake.” Mr. Harris shrugged with embarrassment. “It’s not much, but it’s the best I can do.”
I regarded him with suspicion. “You’re sure you can mange this?”
“Ninety-nine percent sure,” Mr. Harris admitted. “There’s a very tiny chance that Giles won’t go for it, but I honestly can’t see any reason why he wouldn’t.”
“How do I know I can trust you?” I asked.
“I’ll swear on anything you want that I’ll do everything I can,” Mr. Harris quickly answered.
I wondered how far Mr. Harris was willing to go to set my mind at rest. “I know a few mystical oaths that would subject you to some most dire penalties if you fail to do your best on my behalf.”
Mr. Harris swallowed. “As long as I don’t get nailed for something that’s out of my control, yeah. Okay.”
I took a deep breath. I knew that this was the best I could hope for and that Mr. Harris would not likely bend any further. “That won’t be necessary. I believe you. I’ll sleep on it and give you an answer tomorrow.”
“Good.” Mr. Harris added with sigh, “Eva, I want you to know that I really am—”
“Please don’t say you’re sorry,” I wearily said.
“Fair enough. I wouldn’t want to hear it either if I was in your shoes,” Mr. Harris admitted as he pushed off from his desk. “C’mon. I’ll follow you outside so Ally and the others can see I’m not missing body parts when I tell them to give you some alone time”
Some years ago when I was a university student, I read a book called An Instance of the Fingerpost. The book is, at its heart, a murder mystery. The narrative conceit is rather simple. A woman’s murder, the incident around which the book revolves, is told from the first-person points of view of four different male characters.
The book drove me mad.
The problem, I would even go so far as to say the paramount problem, is that every single one of these men are lying about something. They are either lying about what they saw, what they did, or who they are. They are lying either by omission or commission; sometimes both. At different points in the narrative, they are lying to you, or they’re lying to themselves.
Fiction being what it is and the human mind being what it is, we need to believe one of these men is telling the absolute truth, or at least believe that one is closer to the truth than the others. It is strange to realize that believing all of them is impossible, but believing none of them is unthinkable.
In the end, it all comes down to one simple question: At the end of the day, whom do you trust?
Do you trust the man who, while possessing a certain native intelligence, blindly stumbles and bumbles his way through an unfamiliar political culture while trusting to Providence, luck, and a stubborn mindset to see him through?
Do you trust the man who, while needlessly cruel, honestly admits to his cruelty and even goes so far as to explain the cold logic behind his unforgivable actions, even though his reasons an anathema to you?
Do you trust the man who, while dedicated to the pursuit of truth and what he believes to be right, has sacrificed his very heart and conscience to the altar of what he perceives to be the greater good?
Do you trust the man who, while ultimately ineffectual, has a good heart and good soul, who is so achingly human, and who does his best to make things right for the individuals who’ve been hurt even though he knows that it affects the larger picture not one whit?
I suppose the proper answer is, “Well, it depends on the situation, doesn’t it?”
Let me counter the proper answer with this:
What do you do if all four men live within the body of a single man?
Can you trust him then?