Just Cause
by Princess Twilite

Some things just hurt so badly that there are no words to express it. You'd have to go out and jump in an ice-cold river to feel the stabbing pain stretching, stretching, and not letting go. It's an experience, not a fucking life choice that can be recorded in words and separated by the commas of a damn dialect.

But shh---She couldn't tell ANYONE.

It was having a dirty secret at the wrong time, with the carpet burning up her thighs like so much spilled cigarette ash that she couldn't flick away. It was being Lolita sitting in the back seat with her legs spread and NOT liking the fact that someone could just peek right in and see.

Shh--can't tell.

Because then he'd know all about it and that would be just another ache for him to deal with. The man splintered enough to be a block of wood and she couldn't say a thing. And really, how bad would he feel about getting jealous over a dead woman? Buffy had been his first. Maybe she had been his second too, because there wasn't really MUCH to tell.

There could have been.

But there could have been no world to come back to after escaping Pylea, maybe just a thick brick wall that they would have run smack into. She didn't know the specifics of the situation, but there could have been.

There wasn't.

Her back was against the door, as though holding it closed on all the blood that suddenly Angel wanted to spill, with his eyes going black then yellow, and back to that obsidian, frightening color again. He was in her living room. Something dangerous and deadly was in HER living room.

And God, she wanted to cry.

Cordelia reached forward and held onto her calves, digging her nails into the smooth skin there as though gripping for something more important, something along the line of dirt over a fresh grave. She shoved her head forward into her bony kneecaps and rocked, just a little, as though someone was singing in her ear.

There wouldn't be any crying today.

Maybe tomorrow when the sun was just up, and Angel was falling into that strange, pull of sleep that Cordelia herself had never felt. She occasionally envied him, when the nightmares became too much to handle and the covers were not large enough to block it all out. She'd hold the pillow over her head long enough so that breathing was almost a past tense, and think about how much he took that pull for granted. How much he FOUGHT against it, how she'd seen him shake his head violently when his eyes began to droop.

Don't cry, she warned herself, as though it would make a difference. She lifted her head and shook it, as Angel might, but the bed blurred before her eyes when she looked, and she could feel the hot sting of salt in her tear ducts. Breath shuddered in and out of her chest as she held sobs back, air that scraped along her lungs, violent and wet.

Could he hear her? She hoped he couldn't hear her.

Fuck. Stung like whiskey in a scratch. Didn't matter that the scratch was really a big scar marring your stomach and you always wore a belly chain to cover it up. Hearts break all the time.

She wouldn't cry. She wouldn't. She didn't have the right.

This was Angel's grieving time, Cordelia told herself, wiping her eyes roughly with the back of her hand. There was no time for her own tears, she had to get out there and be a good friend. She hated being a good friend. She didn't WANT to be a good friend. Not when she still remembered him staring at her blankly, like she was an empty page and there were other things to read.

Cordelia wanted to climb into her bed, beneath the covers, and cry till her eyes were too puffy for any make-up trick to fix.

But she couldn't.

She had to go out there and pretend Buffy was a casual friend whom she had lost. She had to go OUT THERE.

Oh, God.

Angel wanted to be alone, but it wasn't a good idea. Not on a night like this, not when Wesley was walking around with his back stiff like he'd ran too far and too hard and didn't know when he could sit down again. Not when Gunn wasn't quite sure WHAT was going on, just sat so still he might have been a beautiful statue made of oak, and that REALLY wasn't a good idea around Angel.

Definitely not when she'd just had her carpets cleaned and ash was so hard to scrub out. There had been a time when she had almost hoped to wake up and step in a pile of that gray death, walk around in it and dance over his stupid grave. Maybe she had abandonment issues, because there was a few times when she'd been pretty close to staking his beige-ass herself. Now was no longer that time.

Then there was Fred, who was hanging out in some corner, shivering. That girl has more shakes in her than a druggy, and Cordy couldn't really blame her. Her upper thigh still ached where the branding iron had burned.

What did they think they could do? It wasn't like any of them were Buffy. It wasn't like any of them were good with words, besides Wesley, but he was only good with the big ones and not the small ones that counted.

As if ANY of them made a difference when the love of Angel's fucking LIFE was dead.

Dead. Ouch.

Willow. She had already left, unable to deal with the vast emotion welling up in Angel's eyes, when her own grief was still bubbling like blood from a dead animal that had been poked with too many sticks. She had made her apologies, handed out the hugs, then gotten the hell out of Dodge and Cordelia had wanted to follow, to run right out that door and not face the reality pounding down around their heads.

Buffy was dead.

Saying it again didn't make it seem any more real.

Buffy didn't die. She kicked demon-ass and was always the one to win in the end. Good prevailed, and all that crap. But it hadn't. Not this time.

And no one was allowed to fall apart but Angel.

Because if she did crumble, Cordelia would reveal too much. So many secrets, so little time. How ironic life was becoming.

Shaking from repressed emotion, Cordelia forced herself to stand up, using the door for leverage to push against. Her shirt tugged against her neck as it caught on the door handle, and she experienced a brief second of choking, like her heart was rising into her throat and trying to get out.

She let the shirt rip, just a slight tear at the neck. It was a knock-off anyway.

Forcing herself to stand properly, she held a hand to her skull. Her head ached, like Faith had punched her again. Like the vision had finally gotten off its lazy ass and put her out of her misery. Maybe the doctors would finally be right when they predicted how long she had left to live.

Visions were never around when you needed them to be.

When she could stand it, when she could breathe again, Cordelia walked into her bathroom and shut the door quietly behind her. A click would make too much sound and disturb the quiet pool of hurt in her stomach into a hurricane and she just couldn't deal.

Flicking on the bathroom light, so that it hummed loudly over her beating heart, she thought of all the things she should be doing. Getting a plumber to fix the leak under her kitchen sink, getting her phone turned back on and paying that back-bill. Maybe she should be out there right then, comforting and consoling Angel in any way she could.

"Angel," she could say. "We have a lot in common. You loved Buffy. I almost did too."

She could DO this. There were steps to take. She had to fix her make-up. She had to fix her hair. She had to play pretend and make sure he was okay, as if right then she wasn't feeling the same damn thing. She was good at acting.

She would let herself focus on the ache dead center of her chest, later.

She would let herself grieve. Later.


It was late when I saw her again, with a glass in my hand and a grudge in my gut from one too many heartaches, and a million too many headaches. Late in hours and late in years, though not many had gone by. I just don't have that many left. I was sitting in the back booth of Shaun's, a bar that I'd started going to. It was a place that I'd begun to need just to save my sanity when the world was spitting up on my shoes.

The alcohol numbed my throbbing brain, like a good, hard pity fuck in the back of a cheap smelling van with my shoes still on, banging against the metal siding. The atmosphere numbed my heart, like watching someone die, again and again until it just stopped mattering.

I could just STOP caring that my friend had turned into a stranger, that he was becoming dangerous. It didn't matter that I was stuck with HIS visions for HIS quest and HE wasn't helping. It didn't matter that I could hear the ticking of my life, mean and loud, in my ears. I couldn't even bring myself to say his name anymore; it hurt enough that I didn't want to HEAR it.

Bitter, like blood, like lemons. Not like tossing him out the window and onto a stake. Now that would just be FUN.

I didn't care easily. This was why.

The sweet scent of alcohol swam into my nostrils, as I dropped my head down and banged it lightly against the marble-topped table. It didn't help the throbbing in my brain any, but the liquor was beginning to work its magic enough already that banging my head against the table seemed like a good idea.

Billy, another regular at this brown shack Shaun called an establishment, was sitting at the bar with his ass cheeks hanging over the side and his stained shirt untucked. It dragged down past his belt to hide the rolls of fat that had gotten bigger with the holidays. Not because there was so much holiday cheer he couldn't resist that final crab roll, but because there wasn't.

An ignored cigar sat in the ashtray next to his beer bottle. A string of scented smoke curled up around his nostrils, and he could always be seen leaning forward as if to drag it up into his nose.

"Honey," he'd said to me before, when I'd asked him why he always lit the damn cigars if he was just going to let them burn out. "I don't smoke. California doesn't exactly make life easy on a smoker. Those damn 'No Smoking' signs hung up everywhere. The scent reminds me of my dead wife. 'Course she died of lung cancer --- I figure I will too, if I hang around sniffing these cigars long enough. It'll be me and my baby, sniffing that cigar smoke all the way up in heaven."

The look on his face was that of a child reaching for a mother that just wasn't there.

I hadn't been shocked so much as saddened. I started doing a lot of watching Billy, because I got the impression that he wouldn't be around for too much longer, if he had his way. What was it about love that made you want to kill yourself? I just couldn't understand the appeal. I sat with him when he wanted me to, and took this little booth when he didn't. I could always tell when he wanted company because he'd push the ashtray to the side, so I didn't have to deal with the smoke, 'clouding up my pretty face.'

Tonight it was the booth. I wanted to be alone anyway. There was just something in the air trying to speak and I wasn't in the mood to listen. All day it had been demon this, demon that, are you okay Cordelia? You're looking a bit pale.

I loved Wesley. I did! But if he asked me one more time how I was feeling, I was going to shove my migraine medicine up his lily-white ass!

A fake potted plant the size of a small vehicle hid me from view, cast shadows across my table in the already mediocre light of the room. It suited my mood, my life, and that damn counter in my heart. I didn't want to talk to anybody for at least another twelve hours and if anyone tried they could just bite me.

Three empty bottles clinked together on the table as I shifted them around so I could reach for my half-full beer. Like marionettes, they spun. The dirty, yellow light would catch them at odd angles and send a dazzling spray of muddy colors across the marble, like glitter on a whore.

Normally, I'd be drinking something sweet and flirty. Tonight it was all about not adhering to the usual. The usual was boring and I was tired of living up to myself all the time.

The first time I went to Shaun's, I walked in through the creaky, glass plated door and immediately figured the place was a dive. The walls were covered with posters of Race Car Drivers and Quarter Back Football stars, along with the occasional set of panties with American Flags printed on them.

'Red, white and blue, boys.' Nothing says America quite like getting under a woman's skirt.

It is a dive, and that's why I've started to spend so much time here.

No one would expect Cordelia Chase to be seen in a place like this, and I need my escape like everyone else. So maybe I didn't hop onto the three-fifty train to San Francisco, but I was doing something to get the hell OUT. I had hoped if I asked myself enough times what I was doing living the life I was, then maybe I would be able to leave it behind.

Nope. Wrong.

There was Wesley. There was Gunn. They needed me and occasionally I needed them too! Caring hurt. Caring led to having your friend looming over you like the dark shadow you forgot he was and you being SCARED. Terrified. But I couldn't stop caring for them. Nope, Cordelia the cold-hearted just couldn't get past what those guys would do for her.

Cordelia the cold-hearted was talking about herself in a third person.

I sighed at myself and took a sip of the lukewarm beer. It was the most disgusting thing I had ever tasted, but it gave me a sort of freedom that I wasn't going to get from the expensive wine any date with manners and two good eyes would lavish on me. While wrapping my lips around the mouth of the bottle, I could stare at the other side of the booth where engraved in wood, Jason proclaimed his love for Alan and wonder how long THAT lasted.

The pretty woman with long ropes of blonde hair and too much blue eye shadow began her nightly strut to the jukebox and back, in her tight leather skirt that cut off just below her ass. I've never spoken with her, but from what I hear, her husband ran out on her and her children and she comes in here every weekday looking for a quick fuck to feel alive.

She only ever stayed for forty-five minutes and if she didn't see anything worth touching, she'd leave and go home. There was something about her when she started walking out that door, like she was changing skins. Her shoulders would tighten up, but raise higher and her walk would become less of a strut and more of a hurried glide.

I guess she loved her children, even if she was here every night, fucking someone without a name and whom she probably wished didn't have a face. Some people had alcohol, some people had cigars, and some just had good old-fashioned pain.

Me, I just sat and drank my beer while watching these people be real and hard and everything that hurts. There was something ironic about it all. It made me wonder how The Powers That Be chose who was worth saving.

Maybe I've grown bitter, maybe I'm just sick of it all.

Naturally, I peeked through the fake leaves when the door to the bar opened with a pop, like someone had pulled harder than usual on it and the doorknob had snapped off. Stomach tumbling like I had an avalanche inside me, or my beer was already coming up, I felt shock rip through me. My mouth fell loose when I saw who it was, like a screw had been lost in my jaw and it could only hang there. The fake leaf tickled my chin as I leaned in for a closer look.

Blonde hair, tight pants, and high black boots.

She walked like she was ready to fuck or kill, not necessarily in that order.

That was Buffy all right, wearing faded jeans and a top that wasn't too bad, considering the fashion disaster she had been when I'd last seen her. I suppose being a Slayer didn't keep the clothes in tip-top condition, but hey, I've been slimed more times than a Nickelodeon guest and I still manage it. Some people have it. Some people just don't.

Granted, her fashion accessories weren't the things weighing on my mind.

What was she doing here? This was Los Angeles. She was in Sunnydale. There was a big difference, a lot more people, and well, ME. She needed to go back there and not put Angel's soul in any more danger than it already was. Not that I care, I just don't want to be eaten any time soon. If she went back to Sunnydale the natural order of the world would be restored.

The door slammed behind her with a rattle of cheap glass. Billy looked up, grunted, then ducked his head back over his beer and sniffed some more smoke up his nose. Shaun paused behind the bar, stopped wiping the counter down and licked his thin lips a little as he got a good eyeful of the new patron. Good ol' reliable Shaun. He wiped a hand over his balding hair and smiled charmingly. But Buffy didn't appear to be there for company.

She strode straight toward the bar with a no-nonsense attitude that I'd forgotten she had. She wore it well, like a boot wears snakeskin. I heard my own breath shuddering out as I stared at her; it rasped from my throat and suddenly I could see Angelus and his ugly-mug looming close, like a tongue in an ear.

Wet, irritating, and unavoidable.

"Jack Daniels," Buffy said, voice clipped and hard like a drill sergeant's. Shaun nodded roughly enough that the silver chain around his neck jerked and his dog tags jingled. Buffy gave him a tight smile that could have been fashioned with silver bullets and then looked around, eyeing the bar as though it was a possible threat. Ah, shit, I hadn't fallen into a demon trap had I? That would just make my day SO much more special.

I slid further into my booth, until the stiff and yellowed wallpaper brushed across the sensitive skin of my arm. I couldn't see her anymore and hoped I couldn't be seen, but I could hear her over the jukebox. It was just the hum of her voice that I heard, not the words she was saying. My ears pricked and my stomach tipped, because a part of me WANTED to hear what she was talking about.

Maybe she was telling yet another sob story. Buffy was self-absorbed like that. It wasn't necessarily a fault. Being the chosen one kinda made you that way.

Again, my stomach jumped.

It had been a long time since we'd last spoken.

Telling myself that Buffy wasn't going to find me, I took another swig of my drink and grimaced at the taste. Above me, a ceiling fan hung and tilted shakily as the blades spun. I asked myself again why I was so drawn to this place, like a phobic to her fear. I stared at my fingers for a moment, gripping the neck of the bottle so tightly that my knuckles stood out like white little balls. My fingers were NOT going to tremble.

I could feel tension creeping up over my shoulders, stiffening my neck. And my own morbid curiosity did me in as it always does. I had to look at her. I had to see. With a thousand questions running rampant through my brain, I could feel the need to grab a glance welling up inside of me, stinging my breastbone.

You know the feeling, like the second before an elevator stops and your stomach keeps moving? That's the one.

I was about to do something stupid.

I peeked through the leaves again, pushing a big one down with my hand. When I turned my gaze to Buffy, my heart nearly jolted out of my chest. I found that those eyes I barely remembered were looking around and locked almost immediately on my own. They went wide and the lashes spread apart, leaving the stormy irises naked. Buffy was seemingly shocked speechless. Her mouth hung open and a bottle hung limply from her fingers, halfway to her lips.

Heart pounding, I jerked back into my booth.

No, I thought, please no. I can't deal with her right now. Maybe never. Buffy was, well, Buffy, and that was enough to make me regret ever stepping foot into this godforsaken, obviously cursed bar.

I leaned my head against the leather top of the seat and found myself praying that it had all been my imagination. I didn't want to be around Buffy. That had always been such a difficult thing, with all the competition and the hate and theÉ bad hair days. There was a small hope that maybe Buffy wanted to avoid me as much as I wanted to avoid her. I certainly wouldn't blame her.

This is what I told myself, in between the curse words.

Hey, a girl has to look on the bright side of things every now and then.

But as surely as Angelus would snap my neck, I heard the telltale sound of boots clicking against the scratched-up floor. They were headed toward my direction in a familiar, firm and quick pace. Great.

I ran my palms over my hair, pushing it behind my ears and hoping I looked okay. I hadn't exactly dressed properly. I was wearing something slinky and red because I WANTED to. Everywhere I went nowadays, it was all about what I saw and not being seen.

She came closer, the click of her boots became louder and I could all but hear her breathing down my neck like a bad hickey that I couldn't hide. Obviously, there was a reason I didn't look on the bright side anymore. It just kicked you harder in the ass when it didn't pan out.

I should have learned that from my various and several failed auditions. I guess I haven't yet. After all, I had an audition Saturday, didn't I? I wasn't going to give up just because some stupid vampire's Irish sidekick decided to hand me a bottle full of aspirin and a strange craving for good, hard liquor. He got dead because he was stupid and heroic and Doyle.

I wasn't going to be him.

The clicking stopped and from the corner of my eye I could see Buffy's torso pause before me. It was still slim but I could see she had filled out a bit from the schoolgirl she had been. Her hands were on her hips, with her legs set wide apart, like she was ready to kick some serious vamp-bootie.

On a weary sigh, I turned my head toward her and tilted my chin back to look her in the eye. I didn't have to tilt it too far back, after all, if Buffy was one thing it was height-challenged. Even WITH those noisy boots.

"Buffy," I said in greeting, staring directly at her face. Not to the left, where the bartender was watching us, and not to the right, where the door loomed seductively over her shoulder. She nodded, a tightly drawn motion of her chin ducking toward her neck. I flicked an eyebrow at her, waiting for her to speak. When she didn't, I found the silence disturbing, like listening to a grown man sing Mr. Roger's Neighborhood's theme song in the shower. "Long time no-see. So how's the slay-life? I hear you've got a boyfriend. Kinda cute, a little brawny, homegrown style?"

"Had," she interrupted, the left edge of her lips turning down slightly. Her eyelashes fluttered imperceptibly, as if to shield her gaze. "As in I don't anymore."

"Oh," I coughed a little, gripping my beer tightly and shifting in my seat. What did she want me to say? She was looking at me as though she hadn't expected to find me here, but didn't really mind that I was. I expected more of a: Cordelia-how-horrible-to-see-you-please-leave. "I'm sorry," I choked out to her, my plastic Vegas-lit smile glaring at her. I could feel it stretching my cheeks, bracing my lips apart. "ThatÉsucks."

Buffy shrugged, an uneven jerk of her shoulder as if she was brushing off a bee sting. As if she was painfully allergic.

"It does," she admitted, and then was quiet again, just looking at me. She wanted to sit down, I thought, falling into depression immediately. Buffy wants to sit and have girl talk. Yippee for me.

I've done some bad things in my life. Believe me when I say Karma's a bitch.

"Would you like to sit down?" I asked her, managing to shove the words off my lips at the last moment. Say no, I pleaded with my eyes. C'mon Buff, Buff-ster, Buffy --- you don't really want to sit with me do you?

She did.

Buffy smiled, a hard-worn blade, and slid easily into the seat across from me. With her sitting down, she didn't seem quite so intimidating, but there was still an air about her. She could kill me with her pinky and has probably thought about it on more than one occasion. It was in the set of her jaw, the required ingredient to do whatever it takes.

"Thanks," she whispered and set her bottle onto the table with a clink. She didn't look directly at me as her fingers trailed down the side briefly, spreading the condensation. Then she set it away from her and tapped her fingernails against the marble. They were painted a pale pink. I had imagined they'd be red if I saw her again, like blood. "So how have you been?" she asked me, finally dragging her flitting gaze up to my own.

I don't know, praying your boyfriend doesn't kill me?

I wanted to say that, but I didn't. Maybe I have changed, just a little.

"Oh the usual," I replied, making my voice light and careless. "Getting visions, torturing information out of weasels, literally. Killing demons. MOST demons. You know. Everyday stuff."

There was a startled silence and then Buffy laughed at my bluntness and her shoulders slackened, a slow settling of muscles and bones. I smiled and took the last swig of the beer before dangling the bottle from my fingers, swinging it back and forth. It caught the light, made it dance brown across the yellow wall.

"Everyday stuff," she said after a moment, tilting her head to the side. A curtain of long, golden hair fell over her cheek. It was a darker shade than I remembered, but I don't remember well. Kinda pretty, I thought. Buffy has never been pretty before. Mostly she's been sharp edges and the skinny girl wearing clothes dragging low on her hips and stringy tank tops that slipped off of her shoulders. "Who'd have thought killing demons would be Cordelia Chase's 'everyday' when she had a choice."

My thighs clenched against the seat, and failure, like blood, burned coppery in the back of my throat. Bitch, I thought. But I kept my smile on, nodding my head in the way L.A. has taught me. I could have said: What Choice? I could have muttered: We're a little bit alike, you and I. Cursed.

"Yeah," I agreed instead, with my teeth cutting sharply into my cheek, "who'd have thought?"

Buffy stopped laughing abruptly, like someone had shot a gun and she was trapped in that brief, sickening silence before someone screamed. Then she grabbed her Jack and took a long drink, the column of her winter-white neck working up and down. I winced just as she did, as the poor tasting drink slipped into her belly like mud. She came up gasping, sputtering a little as the taste registered.

"God!" she muttered, wrinkling her nose up and holding the bottle away from her as if it had a particularly bad smell to it. "What'd they do? Fill this up in the men's room?"

I snorted and she pushed the bottle across the table, dragging her tongue across her teeth as if to scrape her taste buds away. It was an interesting sight, watching Buffy's lips snap together and her head shake as she willed the taste away.

"Don't bother," I warned her after a moment of her disgusted noises. She looked at me pleadingly, familiar, and I let out another snort of laughter. Oh, I thought, fun. "It's a taste that grows on you. A little. It has to, because you can't get rid of it once you let it into your mouth. Shaun likes to order his Jack from the worst providers."

How true those words were, she would never know.

"Like a lot of things," she replied, and that was a whole different ball game, obviously, because she shook the strange look from her face and looked me in the eyes. Hoo boy, that was something. Like being kicked in the stomach by someone wearing steel-toed boots. Buffy leaned forward, and the shadows from the fan above us moved across her face, shielding her gaze. The Slayer always had something to hide and I had always wanted to know what that something was. "So how is he?"

Her words are soft. Maybe she was unsure of herself in this question, maybe I could tell her to shut up and get on with the ass whipping. Maybe I didn't have to tell her anything.

I could laugh it off and say: In which room? On the floor or in the bed? Maybe you mean in the graveyard, because whoa, have you seen these L.A. graveyards? Talk about BIG. You could do some damage here keeping those corpses in line.

He is Angel. If I told her, I wonder if she would be able to make a difference. I wonder what it would do to her if she couldn't. I wonder why I give a damn.

I heard Billy tear himself from his seat with the usual groan. I looked over and saw him rubbing a low spot on his back. It was the same as every night, before he decided to leave. Billy tossed me a look, sighed, and walked wobbly toward the door with a ghost hanging onto his hand. I'm getting used to a lot of things and maybe I'm a little terrified that a few of those things were gonna stop being constant.

Like so many other things have.

"She's calling me," Billy had once said to me, in a monotone, with his ear turned to the ceiling where a water stain spread bigger each day. "She don't realize I'm listening. Always like that, my baby, calling me in for dinner and thinking I haven't heard a damn thing she's been yelling."

"Angel is Angel," I told her and that's not a lie, not really. "Broody. Dark. A little heavy in the forehead area." Buffy nodded but didn't laugh, instead sucked her cheeks in like she still tasted that bitter beer. She looked away from me and I realized that she was uncomfortable with the line of conversation even though she had started it. Her teeth worried her lips, leaving them pink and swollen. Her lip-gloss was long worn off.

Another thing to remember, Buffy never had a clue what she wanted.

The door creaked open and I heard Billy swear.

"Fucking doorknob's broke. Shaun! Your bar's a piece a shit!"

"Ah, fuck you, old man!" Shaun called back amiably and sat a frothy beer down in front of a man wearing sunglasses though it had long been night-time.

Then Billy was gone and I was left with Buffy staring at me like it was my turn to speak. Words weren't waiting on my tongue. Pleasantries aside, I didn't know what there was left to say. We had never been friends, even when we could have been.

I didn't know how to talk to her like this. I didn't really care to learn. Tonight was my night and Buffy barging in uninvited wasn't my idea of a good time.

"Well," I said, placing my palms flat on the table and preparing to rise. "It's been fun, but---" Her hand closed over mine, the fingers squeezing tightly around my knuckles. I frowned, lips drawn back across my teeth and glanced from her face to where her pink nails dug into my wrist. "Buffy."

Her gaze was bright, filled with a dangerous sadness. I've seen that look in my own eyes, when I towel the mirror dry after taking a hot shower. It always surprises me, how close to the edge I've come.

"A little longer," she said, and her voice was high pitched. "Then I'll be out of your way. Cross my heart."

'Hope to die,' I finished silently.

There was something about the way Buffy said it, like the screeching sound of a train pulling into the station, metal against metal. Her tongue flicked out, as pink as her nail polish, and swabbed her teeth-torn lips. Her nostrils were flared and turning red. I couldn't bear to look in her eyes, because besides the pain in my hand, I could feel sorrow radiating off of her like heat, like sweat, and like blood dripping from an open vein.

Something wasn't right in Slayer-ville.

"Okay," I complied and slowly pulled my hand from her grasp. Her fingers opened briefly, dragged across my own. And then they looked empty against the table, before they clenched into a fist and drew away toward her chest. Buffy looked down at the marble and swallowed hard enough that I heard it.

I slowly sat back down, cocking my head at her.

"Ever feel like you just need someone to talk to?" Buffy questioned me, her eyes dark with things I wasn't ready to know. The tight t-shirt she wore proclaimed: Freedom. It glittered in silver across her small breasts. "Like you've got your head full of something big, and no one is listening to a word you're saying? Or they're listening but don't really care?"

Every day, Cordelia thought but didn't say. I have my head full of death and I'm starting to think about what it feels like to make that kind of thing happen. It's so familiar that I'm no longer shocked. It's the first thing that I see when I wake up and the last thing I think about before I go to sleep. How sick is that?

"It's like there's this feeling inside of me, like time is running out and I want to tell somebody but I know they'd just start worrying." Buffy paused, cracked her neck, and then curled her lips to the side disdainfully. Her gaze flickered and fell. "I'm just so tired. Tired enough to be sitting in a bar with you, wondering if you're listening or thinking about the quickest way out the door and away from the crazy Slayer who can't hold her alcohol."

"I'm not thinking that," I whispered and she didn't mind that I was lying. "What is it Buffy? What's so bad about your life that you can't tell anyone?"

She leaned back, eyed me like she might an enemy or maybe a lover. Buffy gave me a half smile, the delirious been-around-too-long type, and crossed her arms over her chest. Her breasts pushed up against her forearms, and suddenly her shirt only proclaimed: Free.

I wanted to laugh, but the air was too thick and I knew she'd speak eventually. I didn't want laughing to ruin what she would say.

"I'm dying," she said dryly, red lips pressing together and apart as she spoke. "Or so all the books say."

I felt my own eyes go wide, startled, dismayed and irritated all at the same time. Who was she to drop a bomb like that? Who was SHE to be dying when I had that privilege myself? Fuck, Buffy always got the good stuff first. She'd be the damn martyr and everyone would remember the things Buffy had done to save the world. I just see people die in my head.

Yay, Cordelia, right? Her super power was taking ten ibuprofens at once.

My epitaph isn't going to be: She saved the world.

My epitaph IS going to be: She complained about migraines. Too bad we never listened.

"Yeah," I huffed and grabbed my beer bottle. It was slick in my hand as I slid from the booth. I heard the leather squeak and ignored her puff of angry breath as she slid from her seat as well. "Well, we all are. Books or not."

Suddenly I was second best again and it felt like everyone was watching. I stomped to the bar and tossed the bottle at Shaun. He caught it with ease and his eyes flickered around me, through me, to where Buffy was surely standing, tapping her foot and being ignored. By me, anyway.

Damn it, Shaun.

It was all about Buffy to everyone else. She was the reason why I stopped looking through my yearbook and had packed it away into a box I kept in the back of my closet.

Beside my picture, someone had written: Stay cute. I bet she had tons of people writing things like: Thanks for saving my life. I bet people meant it when they said to her in flowery, yellow ink: I'll remember you forever.

"Shaun?" I grouched, smiling tightly and waving a hand in front of his face. He blinked and stared at me dumbly with those puppy-dog eyes of his. "Yeah, Scout, over here. Remember me? It's your loyal customer speaking. I want something hard and I want something that burns. Got it?"

Shaun looked at me for a moment, in brief concern before he shook it off and nodded. If he had one rule, it was to never give a damn, not a proper one anyway. Everyone was comfortable with that, as long as the tap never ran dry.

I don't know what he poured from that green bottle, but when I picked up my shot glass and tossed it down my throat, it was as if someone had ripped a hole in my esophagus. I liked it. Buffy tapped on my shoulder and I shrugged her off, slamming the shot glass back down onto the bar hard enough that it was in danger of shattering.

Shaun frowned at me, but I simply raised my elegant, demanding eyebrow. The green bottle came out again, winking at me from under the weak lights. He could get in major trouble for doing the things he does. But the poor bastard just couldn't choose between furnishing beer or liquor.

"What the hell are you DOING?" Buffy hissed into my ear, grabbing me by the elbow hard enough that I knew tomorrow I would roll over and lay my arm across the bed and it would HURT. She dragged me toward a dark corner, and a pair of those patriotic panties brushed against my cheek. I cringed and moved slightly away from the wall. Buffy stopped me by holding onto my shoulders and glaring up at my face.

"What, Buffy --- not in the mood for a drink?"

"Christ," she whispered, staring at me hard. I wanted to ask her when she'd found a new religion and if it was any better than getting fucked over by the Powers That Screw You Over. "You're no easier to talk to than they are. I don't know what I was thinking, coming here. You're still the biggest bitch I know, throwing snits over something as incomprehensible as someone wearing the same nail polish as you."

I blinked, unable to comprehend. The corner smelled like sweat, like the walls had spent their time bathed in heat and were withering away beneath the posters of men who deluded themselves into thinking they were famous.

"What?" I gasped, taken aback. I tried to shrug off her hands, but they dug in. It was like ten branding irons, jabbing angrily into my flesh. You know that thing I thought about Buffy killing me with just her pinky? I bet she could do worse with all ten fingers. "You came to L.A. to see ME?"

Buffy rolled her eyes.

"Well, YEAH. Not just you, but I figured with what Willow had said about you, maybe you could give me a little insight."

"Want your fortune read?" I snarled and shoved her hands off of me. I heard someone cough discreetly. Shadows or not, we could be seen clearly enough in a bar that wasn't that well lit in the first place. "Go to fucking Miss Cleo."

"That's not what I meant," Buffy murmured quietly. She tilted her head to the side and watched me shift from one foot to the other. Her eyes touched briefly on the balled up fist at my side. "What's got you so riled up Cordelia? Is there something you're not telling anyone? Did I hit a nerve?"

"Leave it be, Xena," I growled. Buffy's eyes narrowed and then she stuck her tongue into her cheek, stepping back into the low lighting. Her face curved softly, I noticed, but her chin was like the sharp end of a stake. That was Buffy all right, the most contradictive bitch on the west coast.

"That's fair," she said to me as though I hadn't really won anything, and I forced myself to unclench my fingers and move away from the wall. The scent of sweat stayed with me, like a memory of the locker room after cheer leading practice.

I watched, from my perch next to the bar, as Buffy walked casually to the jukebox and dragged her fingers lazily over the titles. Something country-western was worming its way from the speakers at the moment, and Buffy's hips swayed a little, the worn fabric over her ass moving gently against her skin.

Then I realized I had stared at Buffy's ass and had a serious 'what-the-fuck' moment.

After an eternity of searching, her shoulders jumped a little and I knew she had found something she wanted to listen to. She reached into her back pocket, digging her hands into the faded jeans and bending her elbow. She pulled out a quarter at a time and I knew everyone had to be watching her, so why shouldn't I?

Buffy was a one-woman show: small and blonde like any man's fantasy and a few women's too. I was average height, with big tits, and dark hair. Every man had to have more than one fantasy.

I tried hard not to smile when the Rolling Stones came spiraling out of the speakers, singing about not getting any satisfaction. Shaun hummed at my side, bouncing his head a little and making the hair he had combed over his skull flap from side to side.

Buffy turned, tossed me a glance, and strolled over to take a seat on the squeaky stool beside me. I continued leaning against the bar, staring with feigned boredom toward the other patrons. Sally, with her large, red hair was swinging her leg gently, from side to side and staring at Shaun. Some people just didn't have a clue, I thought, some people just couldn't put two and two together.

"You know," Buffy began, and she didn't sound like she was dying, "I didn't expect you to tell me my fortune." At her words, I glanced at her hesitantly. I wasn't up for any elaborate explanation on her part. I didn't want to know how she had found me in this bar, if she'd been watching me, or what she was here for. "I just figured you'd be someone to talk to who wouldn't really care enough to go crazy. Guess I was wrong."

I laughed, incredulous. I thought of the green bottle and wanted my shot, but I didn't think it was a good idea to get drunk when Buffy was in a say-anything mood. There were things I wouldn't even say to myself and I wasn't about to pop out with a sob story to her.

My life sucks, sure, but I've got more class than spilling it over the rim of a dirty glass at Shaun's.

When I didn't say anything, Buffy continued, "I thought maybe you'd empathize a little. Being a Seer."

"A Seer isn't a Slayer, Buffy," I explained, as if to a child. I stared toward the door, wishing I was anywhere but here. I shouldn't have stayed. Shouldn't have let Buffy's neediness drag me down into my seat and into her mouth. She'd been a black hole all my life, and I had fought so long and hard not to be sucked into her. I wasn't Buffy's sidekick, I wasn't Buffy's love interest, and I wasn't about to be her priest. "There's not even a comparison."

She looked sad and her eyes fluttered shut for mere seconds before they re-opened and looked defiantly bitter.

"Good thing," she retorted.

I could have said something back, but I was too tired of it all. The clock on the wall said that it was long past time I returned to my cozy apartment and Dennis, my friendly ghost. I sighed and rolled my head toward her, my neck aching at the position. Buffy's lips were drawn in a hard, flat line.

In the background, the song switched over and Sally drew her gaze away from Shaun.

"What do you really want, Buffy?" I asked her, near begging. I just wanted to leave. I was sick of living outside normal, and hanging around the Slayer wasn't exactly the epitome of normality. She wore on my nerves, like a slow-sawing job. One day, I might just float away into dust.

Buffy ran her fingernails across the over-used counter top and frowned.

"I'm not sure," she whispered, with something like heartbreak. "Every time I want something it goes away. I'm so damn sick of running after everything and having it flying off into the distance without looking back or giving me a chance to work things out in my head."

Maybe Buffy had been right. Maybe there WAS something to emphasize with. But I still wasn't sure why she'd singled out me, of all people. I was a little glad I didn't know. "Things are so crazy right now. I just want things to stop spinning and sit still for a little while."

"Price of being the Chosen One," I reminded her. "Nothing stops spinning."

Buffy smiled ruefully.

"Cordelia," she replied, and her tone was anything but happy. She didn't say anything more, just cut herself off at my name. Our eyes met, held, and I was the first to look away, confused. I watched the lights play on the jukebox. Red, green, and blue.

"I just think you've come to the wrong person," I confessed, even though it wasn't a secret. Buffy nodded, face bland. "I can't help you, I've got my own problems to deal with and I may be excellent at human relations, but I can't do everything."

Buffy tipped her head forward, staring down at the bar's surface. Her hair caught my eye again, and I wondered if she was still dyeing it or if I was finally seeing its natural color. The idea seemed strangely personal, so I forced my wandering gaze away.

"Jason loves Alan," she said softly, lifting her hand and running a finger over the wood. I jolted and leaned over, bringing my face close to hers as I stared down at the engraved words.

"Still?" I muttered, shocked. "Now that's love."

Buffy turned her face just as I turned mine and our eyes met, so close it hurt to keep them open. Her breath fanned out across my mouth, alcohol-sweet. I swallowed down a thick lump I didn't recognize and drew away from her. Buffy blinked, glanced one more time at Jason's vow, and sat back up.

Something fierce held her still and tight.

"I don't know what I'm doing," Buffy said finally, gripping the edge of the bar tightly. She didn't look at anyone, couldn't seem to. Her lips worked over words, fought with them as she tried to piss them off enough to come out right. "The world needs a Slayer right now, more than ever, and my bratty little sister needs a mother, and vampires need an obsession, and Giles needs a daughter, and I can't be all of those things."

"Then don't," I said simply. "It's easy. Just start living down to their expectations and they'll start cutting you a little slack."

Buffy turned her head toward me, a frown line on the bride of her nose.

"Is that what you do?" She inquired, always nosy. "Let people down until they stop wanting more from you?"

"Basically," I admitted, ignoring the sting of her words. I kept thinking about all the things I'd never done that I could have. All the ways I could have been loved that I haven't been. "The only thing people expect from me is to be well-dressed, easy on the eyes and in between the sheets, all the while being a massive bitch."

"Maybe part of that's true," Buffy conceded and it felt odd to have her defending me, although maybe it was more of an insult. Somehow the world had titled upside down and I didn't have anything to hold onto but the speculative look in her eyes. It was similar to Billy's when I got cynical and he told me to shut up and think of someone other than myself for a few minutes. "But not all of it."

"Which part isn't?" I asked her, thinking about what I knew about myself and what she might possibly. Buffy chose not to answer, instead caught Shaun's eyes and motioned for a shot of whatever he was serving.

"So I'm dying," she said, as though starting a joke. I wrinkled my nose at her and then looked away, out the window where cars passed doggedly through the pothole-ridden street. "And I keep reading all these things about the darkness in Slayers, keep hearing about having a death wish."

Cross my heart. Hope to die.

I shivered, rubbed my sore elbow carefully, away from her sight, and wondered if everyone had a death wish, Seers included. And then wondered if everything would always be a competition between us, even who died first.

"Imagine that," Buffy murmured in quiet awe as she stared up toward the ceiling where the stain continued to grow. "Knowing death so well that you start to want it. Crave it a little. I mean we all want to know what's on the inside of chocolates right? We all want to know if it's coconut or peanut butter. What's the difference?"

"Do you?" I ask, and she takes the shot glass Shaun hands her. Their fingers brushed and she rolled her eyes at him when he wiggled his eyebrows. "Want it, I mean?"

"Maybe," Buffy shrugged and looked suddenly sick, as though she'd been thinking too hard about things that she shouldn't. I pulled away from her a little, just in case. I had on something new. "Maybe."

I could have told her I was going to die too, but I didn't. I could have told her that I didn't want to die, but I kept my mouth closed. After all, I was beginning to wonder about my own motives. Why wasn't I searching for a way out of these visions anymore? Sure, they helped Wesley and Gunn, but it wasn't MY cross to bear.

Why should I be crucified for the women Angelus raped and murdered? Why, when sometime, someplace, I could become one of them? It didn't make sense, but here I was, sipping something strong and mean like gin, in a bar with Buffy, contemplating the best way to kill myself.

A knife was too messy.

A hanging was too ugly.

A gun was too cold

Anyway, I wasn't in the mood to die. Besides, if I ever was, there's going to be a vision one day that will blow out the back of my head, and I can feel it coming on like a bad case of the cramps. Choices of proper death etiquette won't matter then. You know you've grown cold to death when the image of your own last minutes, of how you will probably die, doesn't make you flinch and doesn't make you sick.

Buffy stared down into the bottom of her glass, scowling.

"You're right though. We're all dying of something." Then she tossed the rest of the drink down and ended up coughing indelicately into her own hand. I was prepared to duck for cover if she blew chunks, but she managed to keep it down.

She WAS pretty, this side of her. Pretty like a black and white image of a homeless woman, staring sightlessly into the camera lens. Pretty like a hooker smoking a cigarette during a cold, winter night.

Pretty, like pretty is in the dark.

Truthfully, Buffy's beautiful. And I've always hated her for it. Even when she was all ribs and bony legs, she had something powerful and elemental about her. If strength could be captured by a human pose, it would be Buffy holding her shot glass and leaning her breasts against the bar with her hair falling down around her shoulders and her eyes wide open.

She could see everything, it seemed. That had always terrified me. Because what if, and this was one of my biggest fears, Buffy could see that little part of me that thought she was better than everyone else and wanted her for it? What ifs are dangerous things.

I couldn't remember if she was old enough to drink, not that Shaun gave a damn, and that's why I figured one of these days Shaun's wasn't going to be a bar as much as it was going to be an abandoned room, with woman's underwear nailed to the wall, crassly and without style.

Still, it'd be a room I remembered. One where I would think, hey, maybe I should buy myself a matching set with the colors of the flag and then offer them up to Shaun, just to see what he'd say.

"You ever have GOOD sex, Cordelia?" Buffy asked me out of nowhere, and suddenly her eyes were laser-bright on mine. The kind of sharp that could run someone through if it was in the early hundreds. I looked at her blankly. Never had a person been able to confuse me and astound me so many times in one night. "You know, earth-shattering, headboard-banging, fuck-me-dry sex?"

Buffy could talk dirty. I pressed my thighs together and wished I wasn't smart enough to not ask Shaun for another round of whatever the hell he was serving.

"Yep," I answered, thinking about too many times when it hadn't. Thinking about being fucked raw against the wall by a man with too much stamina and too little reach. It was almost a lie, but not completely. My earth has been shattered plenty of times, but never by pleasure. Usually by the sight of the ceiling and how many times I could count the notches on his bedpost while he humped me and said things into my ears that I told him I liked hearing. "You?"

Buffy's chin tipped down and she blushed a little. Buffy could be shy.

"I guess," she answered weakly. "Kinda."

"What type of answer is that?" I demanded, because suddenly I wanted to know more than anything if Buffy had been fucked good and hard. I NEED to know how she came and what she thought about when he pinned her to the bed and moved sharply inside of her.

I didn't give a shit who HE was as long as I got my answer.

"An honest one," Buffy shot back and had the grace to look confused. Once again, Buffy had started a conversation she wasn't prepared to finish. Color me surprised and then not the fricken' sarcasm. "I've only been with a couple of people."

I should have said: I've only been with a couple-ten.

There are a lot of things that I should have said.

The jukebox came on again and I craned my head to look over my shoulder. Sally stood at the machine, red lights surrounding her like a blood-tinted hollow. It was something soft and sweet, the kind of music you would hear before rolling over and falling asleep in someone's arms. Buffy's eyes met mine and we began to laugh together.

Cynical to the core.

I wished for a moment that Billy was there to tell us to get over ourselves.

She slammed her palm onto the bar, and demanded another round. I quirked my brow and watched as she batted her eyes at poor Shaun and licked her lips happily when she was served.

On shot one, Buffy's face remained bland. On shot two, she developed a slight tick below her left eye. On shot three, she winced and shook her head, gagging a little.

"God," Buffy gasped, pushing her glass down the bar. We both watched it slide, Cheers-like across the nicked surface. "This is sorta fun!" I didn't reply, but my silence was enough of an answer for her because she abruptly turned and spun around on her stool.

Buffy was more than a little tipsy.

How many drinks had she consumed? I'd lost count somewhere between two and eight. I laughed AT her when the stool tipped over and she landed on her ass. Luckily she was a Slayer and probably hadn't broken anything that wouldn't mend before it was needed.

"Ow," she grouched, standing creakily and rubbing her behind. A slow pout formed on her lips. "Hurts. Can't kick the hell-bitch's ass when mine is so sore!"

I had no clue what she was talking about and didn't feel like unraveling Slayer code. One look at Shaun told me that it was time to get Buffy out of the bar. I helped her stand up and she leaned heavily against me.

"Call a cab," I told Shaun. He nodded and I watched him walk over to the phone. Buffy was a lot harder to maneuver than I expected, a dead weight pressing into my side.

"Bye Shaun," I said, as I began moving toward the door.

"Yeah," Buffy sang out happily. "By' Shaun!"

I rolled my eyes and pulled her along, even as our thighs brushed together and feet got tangled on more than one occasion. The music followed us out into the muggy night and I felt Buffy snuffle a little against my shoulder. I sighed and held her a little more firmly, gripping her arm around my neck so that she wouldn't fall over and bang her skull against the cement sidewalk.

It was hard to wait for a cab with a fidgety Slayer moving against your body like a cat stretching. Except more constant, more irritating, and definitely more distracting. I've never considered myself sexually attracted to other women, except for the occasional fleeting throb of my groin that I thought was more about sex than tits and ass. But with Buffy rubbing against me like something in heat, with her strong fingers wrapped up in my short hair, I grew nervous and edgy.

I began to get a little pissed off.

She was as drunk as shit and she wouldn't remember a thing she'd done; but I would, and it was going to terrorize me, I knew it. The things she'd said to me in the bar, about death and sex, and the fact that she had probably never had a GOOD orgasm, would be just another sleepless night to deal with.

Where was a fucking cab when you needed it? At the time, I would have even accepted a driver who didn't speak English and didn't know how the hell to use a stick shift. I could probably teach him, as much as I'd honed that skill myself.

Then Buffy became really still, like someone had smacked her upside the head and she had a moment of lucidity. I glanced down at her where her head had been hanging low on her shoulders, to make sure she was alive. Instead of dragging along, Buffy was suddenly strong and visceral, eyes wide open and needful.

"Cordelia," her lips opened around my name and I felt my pulse skitter out of control. Look away I told myself, this is crazy. "Am I going to die?"

My heart fell into my stomach and I felt tears sting behind my nostrils.

"No," I whispered, and the words cracked in my throat. "No, you're not going to die."

Buffy peered up at me through a tangle of lashes and hair. The streetlight hung over us, yellow and dirty, and I could have used a good rain shower right about then, to wash away the feeling I was having. Like I could teach her some of the things I'd taught myself about my own body and use it on HER body.

I didn't like Buffy that way. I HATE Buffy. She was the reason I couldn't look back on my high school days with fondness. She was the reason Angel went wacky, at least, I figured she was. And she was definitely the reason I felt the need to try and be just as good, just as fast, just as damn DEAD as Buffy wanted to be.

"Why?" Buffy begged of me and I felt something tighten, like a string being tugged inside my stomach. A clench of my heart and I wanted to be sick all over the sidewalk and those shiny, black boots of hers. Not my own shoes of course, because rip-off or not, they had cost a pretty penny that I couldn't afford to waste. "Why won't I die, Cordelia, tell me?"

"Because," I began on a breath that shuddered out dangerously across the hair on her forehead, causing it to flutter away from her face and leave her bare to my gaze. "Because you're Buffy and Buffy doesn't die. She kicks ass and beats up the bad guys until they run away or die, and she does it ALIVE. Okay?"

Buffy looked at me for a long time, bottom lip trembling, before she nodded and hugged her arm around me tightly, dragging me by my neck down to meet her lips. It was a relatively short kiss, like the burn of salt in a cut. There wasn't any tongue, but I could feel her teeth banging against mine as she tried to grind our mouths into one entity and then her dry lips pulled away from mine. I couldn't see anything as she sighed across my skin. The puff of air was like a slap and I jerked my eyes open.

I hadn't realized they were closed.

Buffy's eyes burned into my own and I felt stripped naked, furious and shaking. Then Buffy just shut her eyelids and loosened her hold. She bent her head down and rested her cheek against my shoulder. I stayed still for a quiet moment where the tension drew out bowstring taut and tried to get my heart under control.

Eventually, her even breaths lulled me into believing it had all been some twisted fantasy. I dragged us both to the curb and spent nearly half an hour trying to hail a cab. My luck holding, I got a driver who didn't speak English after all.

The ride to my apartment was short and bumpy, Buffy's breasts kept bouncing beneath her t-shirt and I didn't even want to think about what mine were doing. I crossed my arm over myself and stared out the finger-streaked window as the buildings flew by, quick as birds escaping into flight.

The streetlights snaked into the windows, highlighting Buffy's face as she stared straight ahead, like a corpse that could breathe.

Shit, I thought, oh SHIT.

We both knew that I had probably lied when I said Buffy wasn't going to die. But again, Buffy didn't seem to mind. Another new thing about her, she'd grown used to the comforting lies and learned to take them as they were meant. Comfort.

But a part of me realized I was lying to myself as well. I didn't want Buffy to die anymore than I wanted to die.

Mortality was a bitch.

In my apartment, after the short but uncomfortable walk, I gently placed Buffy on the couch. I hadn't been carrying her or anything, because hello, not a Slayer here. But she had pretty much fallen asleep on the way down my hall and she'd dragged herself along only by gripping onto my shoulders tightly.

Buffy was immediately out, unconscious as a hibernating bear, but without the ass plug. I lifted her jean-clad legs onto the couch and set her head onto one of the throw pillows. Then I pulled the blanket from the edge and dragged it down across her.

I was being gentle with Buffy. Stranger and stranger.

Dawn was creeping in through the windows as I watched her for only a second, then got freaked out and went to my own bedroom to undress and pass out against the cool, fresh sheets. Except I couldn't pass out because the kiss kept circling in my mind like a vulture set on a fresh-kill. Headlights flashed across my ceiling, dragging out shapes and morphing them into horrible spiders and long limbed giants.

I watched the horror show with eyes that grew bloodshot and prayed for sleep to come. It got to the point where light was breaking through my glass and I was punching the pillows, trying but not able to get some damn rest. Near tears, I must have eventually found something like unconsciousness because the next thing I knew the sun was baking down, hot on my bare shoulders, and I had the sheet kicked down to my feet.

Great, I thought. If anyone had walked in, the first thing they'd see would be my ass hanging out.

Immediately, I remembered the night before and swallowed with difficulty.

Never gonna drink again. Never.

The phone rang and I glared at it through crust-coated eyes. Grumbling, I reached out blindly and grabbed it off the hook. It was Wesley, wondering where the hell I was. Sleeping off a binge, I told him. How are you?

He was a little angry. Oh well.

Stretching, I got up from bed and wrapped a robe around my body before tiptoeing toward the door and slowly pushing it open. It creaked and I winced, hoping she hadn't heard. My feet sank quietly into the thick carpet as I made my way out of the bedroom and into the living room. I walked carefully, not wanting to wake her as I crept behind the couch to peek over the side.

I expected to see a grumpy Slayer with tousled, blonde hair.

I was greeted by unfolded blankets, a pillow with her head-depression in it and a lone white t-shirt with Freedom scrawled across its breast-stretched front. My heart began to throb, ache and clutch itself when I reached down and picked up the soft cotton. I brought it to my nose and inhaled so quickly that I couldn't stop myself. It smelled like sweat and some sweet, soft perfume that went with pink nail polish.

Then I tossed it out of my reach in self-disgust. It flew easily across the room, slapping against my television screen and falling to the floor without a sound. I stood with my hands on my hips, shaking my head, back and forth, like a child's toy. It was way too hot and sweat trickled down my spine, an itch that I refused to scratch.

SOME people have control. I was one of them.

When I would have turned, walked away without a backwards glance, I noticed a small, torn off piece of newspaper lying on the coffee table beside the couch. Curious, I walked around the piece of furniture and took a seat on it. I picked up the paper and read what was scrawled across Brad Pitt's face.

"Stole one of your shirts because mine smelled, but you can have it if you like. Thanks for the oddly enlightening conversation. - Buffy." I read it aloud once, then again, and found myself re-reading it a third time. That was it? No apology? No mention of how she'd thrown herself at another woman?

"Fuck her," I growled and tossed the note where the shirt had gone. "Just fuck her."

It registered much later that Buffy had probably gotten a nice glimpse of my bare ass, and even later that I wasn't ever going to get my classic, Donna Karan tank top back. But not before I realized that Buffy had added another admirer to her list and this one definitely didn't want to be there. "FUCK HER."


She went back to Shaun's once after Buffy's death, since they'd been told about the dying AFTER the funeral took place and she didn't want to go anywhere near that grave anyway. Cordelia sat on the stool, with her legs crossed tightly and a nervous tick in between her shoulder blades.

She didn't ask for anything to drink, just looked around and felt the ache radiate from her heart to her fingertips.

The stain encompassed the entire damn ceiling and it could cave in any minute. Shaun said that they were trying to shut the place down; he'd gotten busted on serving minors and supposedly the entire building was a health hazard. He also said, when she asked him about Billy, that the old guy just didn't come around anymore.

"I don't know," Shaun said, scratching his balding head. "One day he just didn't show up at his usual time and I thought a little of it but not much. The next was the same and he hasn't been in since. I tell ya, I didn't like him that much, but with this place going to hellÉ I kinda miss the bastard."

He smiled at Cordelia, his teeth perfect. "Then again, I kinda miss you too so I ain't got much for taste, now do I?"

Cordelia had tried to respond in kind, but her lips felt chapped and dry and all she could think about was Billy talking about his love and how it was just gonna take him away one day.

"My baby," she could hear him whisper. "My baby."

Shaun cleaned those glasses in the exact same way as always, fidgety and abrupt. He shoved them down like they weren't fragile onto the counter and pushed them into cupboards like they weren't still dirty.

Cordelia thought of Angel, who she'd convinced to go off to a retreat for a while to work out his feelings. Oh, she wanted him to get better, but dammit, she needed some time too. Being selfish wasn't something new to her, so she didn't feel all that bad. Just alone.

Wesley was getting worried, but she didn't really give a fuck anymore. She'd go kill some demons and get it out of her system for Angel's triumphant return. If that EVER happened because Cordelia wasn't so sure that it could.

"I'm dying," Buffy had said, eyes weary and head tilted.

Cordelia wondered if anyone had ever believed her. She wondered if the sorrow had continued to pour from Buffy's skin like red-hot streams of lava. Cordelia couldn't help but wonder if anyone knew that Buffy had been more than willing to jump off a tower and into something destined to kill her.

Was it suicide still? Did anyone think to question Buffy's 'just cause?'

Buffy wanted death and it found a way to have her.

"You're not going to die," Cordelia heard her own voice echo back to her when she looked around the bar, at the aging jukebox and the panties hanging high and blunt across the walls. She never had given Shaun a pair of her own.

Everything looked different during the daylight. Ashes looked silver in the moonlight, but they just looked gray beneath the sun.

"You okay?" Shaun asked her, when he noticed her eyes had filmed over with tears and she'd dragged a hand through her messy hair. That was a sign of something wrong if anything was. Cordelia was never in disarray.

"Yeah," Cordelia muttered, staring away from him, at the door where it swung loosely open and shut as someone left. There was a cigar in her back jeans pocket, sticking out as she bent forward and set her chin into her hands. Her hair tipped forward, concealing her eyes, as she spoke in a voice like faded blue jeans across Buffy's thighs. Smooth and more than a little worn. "Just thinking that today's one of those days when the dead decide to make a few phone calls home."

"My baby," Billy's voice taunted her. "She just won't let me alone."