The Trick Is To Keep Breathing
by Angelina

I'm thinking maybe I should start leaving some clothes at Faith's. There is nothing worse than wearing yesterday's clothes, even if it is only for the car journey to my house. There's just that horrible, unwashed, uncomfortable feeling that you can't quite shake. And I've spent the night at Faith's on a number of occasions already. If she dressed like a normal person I could probably borrow some of her stuff to go home in...but she doesn't. She can pull off the 'cheap skank' look. And I mean really pull it off. I, on the other hand, would not feel comfortable walking into my house wearing one of Faith's outfits. My mother would be hospitalised if she saw me in a non-designer ensemble. Plus, the pants would be too short for me. And possibly a little too tight...but I'd never say that to anyone else.

Not that there's anyone up to witness my fashion faux pas at this hour of the morning. Well, no-one important anyway -- just delivery people and...oh God, the SATs. The scores should be arriving this morning. I'm not nervous. I'm not nervous. Definitely not nervous. OK, maybe just a little bit nervous. I really want to get out of this backwater and go somewhere exciting. Yeah, Sunnydale has its share of excitement. But I was thinking more along the lines of glitzy parties and formal mixers than of near-death experiences and the occasional threat of Armageddon . And we're not talking Ben Affleck in an astronaut suit here. Mmmm, Ben, must concentrate on driving.

Anyway, I know I'm not stupid. That's a closely guarded secret of course. But really, could some dumbass cheerleader bimbo find the time to get the kind of grades I get, look as good as I do, be as adept at verbal sparring as I am and fight evil on a nightly basis? I think not. Well, the 'nightly basis' was a slight exaggeration. But I do my share. Not so much lately for some reason. Who am I kidding? 'Some reason'. That would be two reasons: avoiding Xander and spending time with Faith. But I do still chip in when I can. And I clean up after evil-fighting, a lot, so that's still helping.

Last night was pretty intense though. I've never been big on emotional scenes, unless they're all about me. But I guess that's what being in love does for you. It compels you to stick with someone when things aren't at their rosiest. I could've walked away from Faith when she told me to. That would've been the easy thing to do. But then who knows what would have happened to her afterwards. She's one little package of hurt and anger. And that kinda scares me. But last night proved that she's willing to show me parts of herself that she doesn't usually let people see. Oh...suddenly having very lewd thoughts about Faith's parts...God, Cordy, perv much? Anyway, I know that last night didn't wave a magic wand and make everything all better. But she stayed with me and she's coming back to me. And that means something.

OK, I'm nearing home...and the little flag is up on the mailbox. So they're here then. Good, I don't think I could stand sitting around waiting for them. This is best. I pull into my space in the drive...I wonder if my parents even noticed that I didn't come home last night. Wishful thinking. A brisk walk to the mailbox to minimise the chance of the neighbours seeing me in my crumpled state, grab the mail and jog to the door.

Bill, invitation for Mother, my Visa bill...that one feels a bit thick, yikes...junk mail, bill, boring tax stuff for Daddy, bill...the SAT scores. Why is my hand shaking? I've done fine, I'm sure I have. Maybe not in the Willow category, but fine. 'Ms Cordelia Chase'. I always like the look of my name on envelopes; it's quite regal and official. But it also has that Hollywood ring about it that could mean I was meant for superstardom: 'Starring Cordelia Chase'. Yeah, that sounds good. My name's Shakespearean you know...she was the good one in King Lear. But I'm totally stalling here. Just open the damn envelope.

1390! Pretty good. Pretty damn good actually. Wow. I wasn't worried though...not really. I always do well on standardised tests. I knew I'd be fine. I can't wait to tell Faith! If only the girl had a cell phone. That's what I'm going to get her for her birthday. When is her birthday? How old is she? God, there's so much I don't know about her. I wonder if she's older than me. Are Slayers all called at the same age? I don't know how old that Kendra chick was...she acted about thirty so it was hard to tell. And with Faith, sometimes her eyes hold so much hurt that I have to think she's older. Then I see her reading a comic or watching some dumb TV show and she looks like a little kid. So I could go either way. I should really ask her when her birthday is.

Anyway, now that it's been confirmed that I'm very intelligent, I need to shower and get to school. Where I will need to break up with Xander. No, not at school. That's too public. I'll take him somewhere quiet tonight and talk to him. Still haven't decided if telling him about Faith is the way to go. I will spend my shower constructively thinking of possible dialogues.


'Xander, I think we should break up' -- too abrupt.

'Xander, I think you're really your own way. But it's just never going to work out for us. We're too different.' -- too vague.

'Xander, you know how I used to berate you for looking at girls' asses? Well, I've recently changed my way of thinking...' -- no, no, no.

'Xander, I'm a lesbian, so I think we should break up.' -- that would do it. But there's no way in hell I'm saying the 'L' word in public. I'm not ready for that yet.

'Xander, I'm in love with Faith.' -- yeah right, I haven't even told her that yet, I can hardly go and say it to him.

'Xander...' -- shit, I'm going to be late for school.


I think this decision to break it off with Xander has made me feel better in a way. I really hate all this sneaking around and stuff, and I don't want to hurt him so deciding to tell him is like a load off my shoulders. So as I walk down the halls of Sunnydale High I almost feel relaxed: I have scores that should get me into any college I want to go to, I've got a fabulous, if slightly high- maintenance, girlfriend and I'm about to end the one thing that's been preying on my mind lately. I feel pretty good.

Oh there's Oz. Well, I suppose he can get to be the first to know of my brilliance.

"Hey Oz."

"Cordelia. How'd you do?"

I flash him a smile and hold up my letter. He raises an eyebrow. I think this means he's impressed. Both eyebrows mean sceptical...or is it one eyebrow means sceptical and two is impressed? I can't quite work Oz out.


"Thank you."

It appears that this is as far as the conversation is going to go.

"Soooo, have you seen any of the others yet?"

"Nope, was gonna look for Willow now...wanna come with?"

Think of excuse, think of excuse.

"Sure, why not?"

Damn. This means walking around with Oz in silence. I hope we find them soon.


There they are! At last, too long in Oz's company kind of freaks me out a bit. With the not talking, you've got to think he's thinking about stuff all the time, analysing. He could easily turn out to be a mass-murderer in later life. It's always the quiet ones. Anyway, Xander and Willow are sitting on a bench. From the look of it Willow didn't do as well as she expected. This should be fun.

"You guys get your scores?"

Xander springs to his feet like a Jack-in-the-box. What is with that guy at the moment? He rushes over to me.

"Cordelia! Willow was very sad by her academic failure."

Aha! I knew it...maybe I did better than Willow after all. Wouldn't that be a kicker? The cheerleader outdoes the school brain box.

"How did you do?"

He snags my letter out of my hand and unfolds it. He looks surprised. Gloating can start now.

"This is not good."


"What's not good?"

He's going to make some smartass comment now. If he does I might just break up with him here and now. Oh God, it's a bit early to start with the sweet behaviour. Oz is petting Willow's hair. Barf.

"Well, I'm just worried it may hurt my standing as campus stud when people find out I'm dating a brain."

Hmm, well, that was kind of a compliment. But still, it was annoying. I yank my paper back out of his hand.

"Please. I have some experience in covering these things up."

In fact I'm quite the expert at covering up. I hid Xander for a while. I'm hiding Faith as we speak. And this morning I had to cover up a rather large hicky on my shoulder. And if I don't sort this out soon I'll be covering up stress zits right, left and centre.

"Well, I can see why you'd be upset."

Oz just made my day. Oh, can it be possible? Has Willow really done badly on her SATs? Looks like all that girlie-bonding time she and Buffy spend together has finally taken its toll on her school work. I knew that would happen. She looked hurt by Oz's comment though. And that almost never happens. Oz is, like, a sensitive, touchy feely guy. Not my type at all, but you can see why girls would go for him. He'd be very unlikely to cause friction in a relationship. Of course, that would be no use for me. I need friction and problems and trauma or it just wouldn't feel right. And then there's the other sort of friction. That's kind of nice too.

"That was my sarcastic voice."

Fuck. That means that she did great. Well, it was to be expected I suppose. And I don't grudge her whatever her score is. Not at all. Really.

"You know, it sounds a lot like your regular voice."

Today is going to be one of those days when all of Xander's lame attempts at humour will grate on my last nerve. Why is Oz still at school anyway? I know there was all this talk about him being 'the highest scoring student not to graduate' and stuff, but something tells me he used those computer skills of his to make sure he was around for another year with Willow. He's a bright guy. He was almost recruited by a mega-corporation and then he fails to graduate high school? Something's not right there. Maybe he just didn't want to get a job. He strikes me as one of those slacker musician types.

"I've been told that. But we should celebrate, do something."

Oh God. A double date? Me, Xander, Willow and Oz? No. Even at the best of times that's no fun. And now is not the best of times.

"Like, the four of us?"

I try to convey my lack of enthusiasm for this idea to Xander. You'd think that mouthing 'No' would be able to penetrate even that thick skull of his. But it would appear not.

"A double date! It could have potential."

Yes, it has the potential to be the worse night of my young life. Not only will I have to pretend that things are right as rain between me and Xander, I'll have to watch Willow and Oz hold hands and share little kisses all night. Ugh. Oh wait, here comes Buffy. Maybe that'll be enough distraction for Xander and Willow to forget all about this silly double date thing. Buffy doesn't look happy. I guess she didn't get the results she was expecting. That's what happens when you repeatedly play truant and forget to hand in homework. OK, so she has a better excuse for it than most high school students, but still, you can't excuse your way through the SATs. Hmmm, Willow's apparent academic failure seems to be quickly forgotten as WonderBuff appears. You'd think she wouldn't still be excited to see her every single time after three years of friendship would you. But she manages it.

"Buffy! Hey! Did you get your SAT scores?"

Buffy nods. It's not a good nod.

"By the look on your face, I'm guessing you and I are gonna be manning the drive-through window side by side."

Oh, I forgot to ask him what his scores were. Oh well, no need to make him feel even more inferior than he usually does in relation to me. I can just picture Buffy in a fast food restaurant outfit. Something in a nice orange would suit her complexion perfectly.

"They're just test scores, right?"

Yeah Buffy, you tell yourself that. She hands her paper to Willow.

"What do they really mean, anyway?"

They mean a one-way ticket out of this hellhole. That's what they mean. Willow looks kinda nervous as she unfolds Buffy's scores. She's probably just realised that her two best friends are imbeciles, it must be quite sad for her.

"1430! Buffy, you kicked ass!"

1430? I'm really hoping I managed not to gawp in amazement there. I'm also hoping that Willow read that wrong. If Buffy's scored higher than me I'm lodging a complaint. That's so not fair.

"Okay, so academic achievement gets me a little excited."

'A little excited'? She practically had an orgasm. Over Buffy's test scores. Sometimes I think that Willow wouldn't mind having an orgasm with Buffy. But then, that could be me projecting. Cuz, up until recently I'd never have pictured myself with another girl. So Willow and Buffy may just be scapegoats in my repressed little mind. But maybe not. Hey, if I can be one, anyone can. Buffy hands her scores to Xander.

"Buff, that's amazing."

As if they didn't have enough reason to worship her already. Now we need to add 'rocket scientist' her ever-growing list of attributes. Yawn. I have to see this for myself.

"Let me see that."

He doesn't seem all that interested anyway, he hadn't even unfolded it yet.

"Yeah. With scores like that, you can apply pretty much anywhere you want."

Hmph, I show him my scores and I get a 'congrats', Buffy turns up and Oz manages to form a whole sentence. I'm not liking these double standards.

"Buffy, this could, like, change your whole future."

Yeah, you can now juggle college life with slaying instead of school life. That's a nice change of pace.

"The thought had occurred to me."

"Then why the sour puss?"

Yeah, she doesn't seem exactly thrilled by the scores. She's probably waiting for the phone call saying they've mixed up her test with someone else's. That's the only way I can see her getting that score.

"I don't know. I guess... my future. I never really thought about it. I wasn't even sure I was going to have one."

Oh well, no point in being bitter. I better do the encouraging thing. I give her one of my biggest (and fakest) smiles.

"Well, I think this is great! Now you can leave and never come back!"

Why are they all looking at me like that? That's a good thing right? I know I for one am dying to get out of this place before I... well, die.

"Well, I mean that in a positive way. Get out of Sunnydale. That's a good thing. What kind of moron would ever wanna come back here?"

Nope, still looking at me strangely. I give up. I have to get some stuff from my locker anyway.

"Well, congratulations everybody."

See, I even got that out without choking on it. I'm growing so much as a person I sometimes scare myself. I turn away from their weird- ass expressions and head to my locker. Unfortunately Xander follows me, still yammering on about that double date thing. Maybe I could go to the girls' room and hope gets bored waiting.


"C'mon. It'll be fun!"

Didn't work. He's still there. And still on this 'double date' crusade. I mean, you'd think he didn't want to be alone with me or something! Maybe it's one of those sixth sense things, you know, like dogs have. Maybe he knows deep down that I'm going to dump him the next time I get him by himself privately. Or maybe not.

"I don't know. I just thought we were gonna do know, classy?"

Hmmm, where is it polite to break up with someone? A nice restaurant?

"What's classier than bowling?"

I raise my eyebrows at him. This is who I'm dating. Bowling. God, I shudder at the thought of it. Greasy fries, fat people in bowling shirts that maybe fitted then when they were in high school...and the shoes. The shoes don't even bear thinking about...I feel quite faint when I think about whose feet have been in them before mine. And I'm sorry, but that little squirt of disinfectant stuff ain't gonna cut it.

"Apart from everything ever? Let's see..."

Nope, drawing a blank.

"Oz and Willow are down. You're the swing vote."

'Oz and Willow are down'. Well duh, an evening's bowling is probably the most exciting thing they'll do all month. My lips are forming a protest when he suddenly decides to be all cute and puppy like. He skips around to the other side of me.

"I guarantee fun!"

He really is a nice guy. And I guess I owe him this much. I've treated him really badly for the past month or so, the least I can do is go bowling with him one last time. He's still looking all dopey and sweet and I can't help but laugh at his face. Then his attention is caught by something over my shoulder.

"Hey, those are from the pier."

I glance around and see what he's looking at. The pictures stuck inside my locker. Pictures of me and him. Happy, nice, normal high- school coupley pictures. I stuck them up there a while ago...during my time spent in the lovely state of denial. For a moment I look at them too. This is what I'm giving up. Normality. Going to the pier with my boyfriend. I'm giving up being what is considered typical high school behaviour. To be with Faith, who is anything but normal. Fleetingly I consider my choice. It quickly passes. I'd rather be abnormal and happy, than normal and knowing what I'm missing.

"Yeah. Uh...I just got them developed."

Well, that was a lie. They've been up there for a while, I've just been avoiding him and he hasn't seen them.

"There's pictures. Of me. In your locker. I never knew I was locker door material."

I close my locker and shut away the images of the past.

"Well... just barely. Besides, I look really cute in those pictures."

Hardly surprising, when I look good in all pictures. But, wish I'd taken the stupid things down now. I could've stuck pictures of Faith up there...he might've got the message then. But I don't actually have any pictures of Faith. Not one. Pity, I bet she's really photogenic. Oh come cute and cuter...I guess the bowling thing just isn't going to go away.

"Hey. So what's the verdict? Do we bowl?"

Yep, I knew it. Thanks Oz. Xander looks at me with the puppy dog eyes again. Guilt makes a triumphant return as my overriding emotion and I give in.

"We bowl."

Willow gets all excited. I knew this was thrilling stuff to people like them. How sad and pathetic.

"Great! Double bowling date. I'm on Oz's team."

Hmph, what if I'd wanted to be on Oz's team? Xander can't bowl for shit. But I'm dumping him soon so I guess I can put up with losing this once. Of course, Xander's manly masculinity means that he has to make some sort of gesture. He points at Oz in a vaguely threatening sort of way.

"Yeah? Well, prepare to be crushed."

Then he remembers that he sucks and grabs me by the arm.

"Maybe we should practice."


Yeah, maybe we should practice. Or maybe I should've just got this over with and prevented all of us having to go through the hell of a bowling double date. I wonder what Faith's up to.


Having made myself appropriately gorgeous, or, you know, as glam as you can be when you're going bowling, I make my way to the science room to meet Xander. I did consider dressing as not to rub his nose in it. But then I thought, no, best to give the guy a nice memory. He has to have something to tell people when he's old and in 'Shady Pines' that isn't to do with vampires or demons. So, it'll be nice for him to talk about his glory days when he dated the most eligible girl in school.

The science room, a sexy meeting place if ever I heard one. Why we couldn't just meet at the bowling alley like normal people I don't know. Willow's probably doing something for extra credit in science. Or maybe she felt bad that we hadn't invited Buffy along on our date and is getting in as much quality time with her as possible before her whole evening spent out of her company. I wonder why their friendship irks me so much. I don't suppose I've ever really had a real friend in the way that Buffy and Willow are friends. Harmony doesn't count. So it's probably jealousy. Well, at least I can admit it. Not out loud. Ever. But admitting it to myself is still quite impressive.

I reach the hub of activity that is the science room and find it empty. And kind of...wrecked. There's broken glass and spilled things everywhere. I step gingerly into the room to get a bett...FUCKING HELL!!

I think I possibly just swallowed my tongue. I put my hand over my heart to make sure that it's started beating again after standing still for at least thirty seconds.

Oz just popped up from behind the bench. I wish he wasn't so short. He's very easy to lose in a crowd. And it's easy for him to be obscured by furniture and give people heart-attacks. He holds up some sort of herby thing.

"I think Willow was here."

I glance around at the debris and then back at Oz with my eyebrows raised.

"Doing what? Practising her best rock group impression?"

He looks at me seriously.

"We should find Buffy."

His voice really scares me. Because he sounds frightened and I don't think I've ever seen Oz frightened. He thinks something happened to them. Oh God.

"Right...Buffy...well, she has no life so she'll probably be in the library."

He nods quickly and heads out of the room and towards the library. I follow on behind him, praying that something bad hasn't happened to Xander. Or Willow, of course. Either of them. We reach the library and thank God I know how pathetic Buffy's life is. She's jumping rope. Which is a pretty wussy thing for a Slayer to get up to. Faith would never do that. Then might be fun to watch her jumping up and down and up and ... Focus, Cordy.

"Thank God you are here."

She drops the ropes quickly. Obviously embarrassed to be caught in her 'recess' moment. She comes towards us eagerly. Maybe she thinks we're going to invite her to bowl with us.

"Yeah! Not all of us have dates tonight."

Oh, and that wasn't a hint or anything. Oz cuts her off before she can give us a sob story about how she can't get it on with her dead boyfriend.

"Something's up."

Without question Buffy comes with us to the science room. Oz gives her a quick rundown on the situation but I barely hear what he's saying. I can't believe it. I finally decide to get my life in order and this has to happen. My soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend gets kidnapped and I'm left here worrying my ass off. We finally make it back to the lab.

"We were supposed to meet in here. I don't know what could have happened."

Buffy heads over to the bench with all the funny coloured liquids and things on it.

"What is all this stuff? I'm thinking weird science."

Or just plain weird. As in, supernatural. Willow and her goddamned magic! That's who did this.

"Was Willow messing with her magic tricks again? Maybe they disappeared. Maybe she turned Xander into something ishy!"

Like that time with the fish-men. I'll never forget that. When I thought Xander had turned into one of those teenage-mutant-ninja-fish thingies I thought my heart was going to break. I really did love him. Then. Especially in those Speedos. And even now, I'd never wish that on him. He hasn't done anything wrong here. I'm the bad one. I should be the one being turned into...wait, no...maybe not turned into anything. But still, he doesn't deserve it either.

"Whatever happened, there was obviously a fight."

Sherlock Holmes, reincarnated before our very eyes. I would never have figured that out from this scene of total devastation. Way to go, Buffy. The Slayer saves the day again.

"I don't see any blood."

Thank God. Buffy continues to enlighten us with her brilliant deductions.

"Yeah, either they were taken, or they ran, or maybe..."

God, make up your mind, Buffy. We could have come up with a bunch of stuff that might have happened, we need to know what did happen.

"You're having too many ors! Pick one!"

I use my authoritative voice and point at her for good measure. It works, she stops babbling.

"I don't know. I need you guys to find Giles, okay? I'm gonna look for them. Maybe they didn't get too far."

Oh yeah, Giles. Isn't in the library. I thought he, like, lived here. The one time he would actually come in handy and the guy has to go and find a social life. Just fabulous.

"Where is Giles?"

"Uh, he's at a retreat in the clearing in Breaker's Woods."

Uh...where? Luckily Oz seems to be familiar with this mysterious 'clearing'...maybe Willow's had him up there chanting or ritual sacrificing or something.

"Yeah, I know the spot, but it's like a forty-five minute drive."

Forty-five minutes!!! God, there's no telling what could happen to them in forty-five minutes!!!

"So motor!"

And for once I have to agree with Buffy's plan. So we motor.


We've been in this funky smelling van for five minutes now and that's been enough for me to come up with quite a number of scenarios. Oz hasn't said anything which is making me worse. If he was talking to me all of these scary, terrifying thoughts wouldn't keep coming into my head. I can't stand this silence any longer.

"What if they were kidnapped by Colombian drug lords? They could be cutting off Xander's ear right now! Or other parts."

Ewww. And that was one of the tamer ones. Ok...why are we slowing down? Why have we stopped? Has he forgotten that we're on a mission here?


He ignores my succinct enquiry. And now he's sniffing the air. In a really creepy way. God could this night get any worse?

"It's Willow. She's nearby."

And he can tell this by sniffing the air?

"What? You can smell her? She doesn't even wear perfume."

Despite this she always manages to smell nice. In a, well, a Willowy way I guess. Not that I go around smelling her or anything. God.

"She's afraid."

He puts the van into reverse and we back up a little. Oh, don't they say that dogs can smell fear?

"Oh, my God. Is this some sort of residual werewolf thing? This is very disturbing."

He looks at me for a moment and I'm praying that the sniffing thing is the only residue of his time as a werewolf. What if he, like, wolfs out and attacks me? To my relief he replies.

"I really agree."

Good, at least we're agreed. I edge away from him slightly though. This sniffing thing...does that mean he can smell Faith off of me? Or maybe he has recently. There was that time I came to school without showering after...


The scent must be getting stronger now, cuz he's driving faster. I'm kinda relieved that he can smell Willow. After all, you can't be afraid and dead at the same time, right? So she's alive at least. And if she's alive then Xander's probably alive with her. So that's reassuring.

Oh, wait...I know this place. This is that old factory that Spike and his Fruit-Loop were holed up in last year for a while. Before Angel went and upgraded them to that mansion. I thought this place burned down. Oz stops the van and holds his nose high in the air.

"She's inside."

Thank God. We hurriedly get out of the van and enter the big, scary abandoned factory. It's dark. Hopefully Oz has enhanced dog sight as well. dogs have worse sight than humans? How should I know? Anyway, he's in the lead so I hang onto the back of his shirt and hope he can follow Willow's scent to her. Quickly.

Finally we arrive at a door.

"In here."

Oz fiddles around with what I assume is some sort of lock. Whatever it is he manages to open it and we head down the rickety stairs.

I see them! They're alive. They're...kissing. They're kissing each other. Kissing. They don't even know we're here.

"Oh, God!"

As soon as the words leave my mouth Willow rolls off Xander and they both turn to look at us. I feel sick. Literally sick to my stomach. I can't breathe. I don't even know what I'm feeling. They both look shocked, and guilty. I can't stand it. They speak.

"Oh, God."

"Oh, God, Oz..."

Their voices just made it real. It really is them, lying on a bed, wrapped around each other, kissing. Another wave of nausea sweeps over me and I have to cover my mouth. Oz speaks to them, his voice straining.

"We have to get outta here."

I have to get out of here. I can't stand here a second longer looking at them like that, together like that. I turn around and run back up the stairs. I can't even see where I'm going because of the tears but I just know I can't stay there.

Then my world collapses. I put my foot down on a stair and it doesn't support me. It's like those half-dreams you have about falling...there's just nothing there.

And then there's something there. Something hard. Something sharp. Pain rips right through my body and then it's gone. Things continue to fall down on me. It feels a bit like snow. Soft like snow. And cold. I'm cold.


My name. Someone's calling my name.


It's coming from up...up somewhere. I look up and see...angels? Somebody. Somebody up there. I need to tell them...

"I fell..."

My voice sounds funny. Like it's coming from far away. Like the voices talking above me. Noise coming from above me. I'm really cold and it hurts.

"Cordy... Please hold on."

Someone's near. Touching me.

"Xander? I can't see you..."

It's dark. And cold. It hurts.