This chapter is dedicated to the memory of a friend who left this earth before their time; it's hard to believe it's already been five years.
Disclaimer: I do not own BtVS, AtS, or any of the characters portrayed therein. They belong to Joss, Mutant Enemy, etc... of which I have zero affiliation. I'm just borrowing them to entertain myself for a little while.
Author's Note: Thank you again to all the people who take the time to review! I'm happy there hasn't been anyone raging about anything yet... then again I still haven't killed off Buffy, so I guess we'll cross that bridge when we get to it. ;)
I've got a more substantial update this time around, so we're back to one chapter updates, and here we go!
Chapter 14: Comme Se Noyer
It was nearly dusk The others were all still asleep, and I had been up all night pouring over more volumes to look for answers. My progress had been grim, it was starting to look like Wesley had been right all along; there was nothing we could do. I closed another book, and leaned back in my desk chair with a sigh. To engage in battle with no indication of how to overcome our opponents was not something I was looking forward to. My thoughts flew to my friends and allies asleep upstairs, how many of them would be able to survive?
I was shaken from my reverie by the Hyperion door being pushed open violently, and someone's hurried footsteps thundering through the lobby. My office door was suddenly thrown open to reveal Buffy in the doorway. Rage burned in her eyes as she glared at me silently.
She cut me off, her voice almost inaudible, if I hadn't had vampiric senses, I'm not even sure I would have heard her, "What's a Shanshu?" she asked.
I froze. My mind went absolutely blank and I simply stared at her dumbfounded as my stomach began to twist into a knot, and I prayed silently that I'd misheard her, "What?"
"You heard me." she replied flatly.
I could barely form a coherent though, "How did-"
"Lorne." she explained before I could finish, "He thought I already knew. We ended up having a very interesting conversation." she spat coldly.
Buffy had decided to go out to try and see if she could pick up any sort of buzz about what was going on. Lorne had offered to go along, believing that she'd have better luck milking information out of the demon community if she had one with her. At the time I had thought it was a good idea... in hindsight, however...
"So you find out that you have a chance at becoming human one day, and it doesn't even cross your mind to mention it to me?" she hissed.
I rose from my chair slowly, but kept the desk between us, "One day, Buffy... One day. It doesn't give a timeline, and we're not even sure if it is about me. I didn't want us getting our hopes up for something that might not happen during your lifetime... or at all." I explained.
"What's wrong with a little bit of hope?!" she exclaimed.
"You were with Riley when we discovered it!" I sighed in exasperation, "What did you want me to do? Swoop in and complicate things for you?!"
"Yes!" she shouted, "And it wouldn't complicate anything, because even back then if I'd had to choose between Riley or you, you would win! Hands down!"
"It doesn't change anything between us now. I wasn't about to ruin your chances at having a normal life because you were waiting around for me." I argued.
"I can't have normal! I'll never have normal!" she cried, "How many twenty-one year olds do you know who've died twice?!"
I sighed, trying to compose myself. I'd learned over the past two years that leaving in hopes of Buffy finding a normal life had been a flawed argument, she was destined to spend her life battling evil, standing toe-to-toe with death, there was no way she could ever hope to have the things she'd dreamed of as a sixteen year old. Regardless, the curse made it an impossibility for us to be together, and arguing about us being together after a prophecy I wasn't even sure was about me came to pass, was like beating a dead horse.
"I'm not having this conversation with you Buffy," I stated calmly.
She sighed, though it almost sounded like a growl, "I'm so tired of you keeping secrets from me."
I furrowed my brow in confusion, "What do you mean? What have I ever kept from you?"
Suddenly her eyes were filled with tears, and she looked like she was struggling to begin her sentence, "When I was... when I was dead," she started.
I felt a chill run up my spine, this was the first time I'd ever heard her say she'd been 'dead' when referring to the time she spent in Heaven. It was almost too much for me to bear, although it seemed like nothing once the next words left her lips;
"I remembered some things... things I swore I'd never forget." she explained barely above a whisper, her face looked like she couldn't decide whether to cry or be angry.
'I'll never forget... I'll never forget...'
Without her having to even say another word, I knew exactly what she was talking about. Somehow, while she was on the other side, she'd remembered The Day. I felt as though she'd just plunged a stake into my heart. I licked my lips before replying, "How?" I asked shakily, even though I wasn't sure I even wanted to know.
She merely shrugged, "It's a different plain, time didn't seem to exist... I could remember everything about my life, every little detail... things from my childhood that are barely more than a haze now were crystal clear..." she recalled, she seemed dazed, almost in awe, "And that day..." she trailed off as she hastily wiped a tear as it slipped down her cheek.
"I had to... your life was on the line..." I argued weakly.
"Isn't it always?" she replied morosely, "Well, I died anyway, so thanks for taking the one day in the past four years I can remember being truly happy and erasing it from time. I really appreciate that." she continued with a grim chuckle.
She was twisting the stake in deeper, guilt was eating away at me, "Please, I thought I had no other choice. I couldn't let you risk your life for me."
"I didn't realize it was up to you whether I live or die." she answered simply.
"It's not..." I answered. I'd just wanted to keep her safe.
"Then how dare you toy with my mind... my memories... my heart," she finished in a whisper.
I'd always dreaded the thought of Buffy finding out what I'd done. Even while making the decision to give back my humanity and erase our time together I knew if she could remember, she'd never forgive me. Seeing her walk away without a word after I'd killed the Mohra demon had felt like assurance that I would never have to have this conversation. "I was just doing what I thought was best," I explained quietly.
She scoffed, her mouth twisted into a grimace despite the tears that still shone in her eyes, "Funny, that seems to be your go-to explanation whenever you do something to hurt me."
And that was it, the final blow. I had no words to try and ease her mind, to convince her that I was in the right. "I'm sorry," I offered weakly.
"You always are," she whispered, before turning and disappearing out the door. I could hear her footsteps echo through the lobby, then rush up the stairs to her room as I sunk back into my desk chair. I felt sick, or at least what I remembered being sick to feel like... she would never trust me again.
Groggily, I opened my eyes and rubbed a hand over my face. The dreams and flashbacks of the past were getting easier to deal with, but in light of my conversation with Giles the night before, I woke with a gnawing sense of guilt.
Buffy confessing that she'd remembered our lost day, and the revelation that there was a prophecy that could once again grant me humanity that I kept hidden from her, had essentially destroyed whatever had been left of our relationship. By the time we were ready for an attack on the Four Horsemen, we were barely talking. I had wanted to apologize, to try and mend the rift, but I could neither find the words, nor an appropriate moment to talk with her. Our last days together had been strained and painful. It was no wonder her death had haunted me so.
It was then that my thoughts turned back to the conversation with Giles the previous evening;
"It already has, that's why we're in this mess, isn't it?"
I was certain it wasn't what he was referring to, but I thought back to what Dawn had said when she'd shown up unannounced the day before, how she believed Buffy had slowly shut down from the moment I left... was it possible I was partially responsible for more than one of her deaths?
She had trusted me unconditionally. Even after I'd tortured and tormented her and those she'd loved, she cared about me enough to look past that; and all I'd done in the end was throw it back in her face. Was it possible that in trying to do what I thought was right I'd only ended up betraying her? Was what I'd deemed a selfless act in reality only the catalyst that set her death in motion? Had I unknowingly extinguished the fire that had made her such a compassionate and courageous fighter?
The revelation that I could have played a part in her initial downfall left me feeling hollow. To think that all the times I thought I was doing the right thing and protecting her, I could have been digging her grave.
To think it took me over a hundred years to come to that realization.
Perhaps I wasn't as wise as some gave me credit for.
It was then that another sinking reality hit me; Buffy remembered our day. She had yet to say anything to me, and I could safely assume she would avoid bringing it up at all costs, but she remembered. Had that been why she was acting so strangely? Why she looked so forlorn on the cliffs? So frustrated that I've been offering her help but keeping her at arms length? As much as I'd spent years convincing myself that I'd done the right thing, that Buffy would move on and find someone else, the recent conversations with Dawn and Willow had informed me otherwise. Perhaps all the time she'd spent pretending she didn't know had finally wore her down.
It pained me then to realize that she had been doing to me what she'd been doing with her friends; hiding the truth to protect me. I was sure remembering my brief time as a human was as hard on her as it was on me, but she kept it to herself because she knew I took it back from her to protect her.
All this time I thought I was easing her pain, but I was really just increasing her burden.
I finally gathered the courage to pull myself out of bed, dressed, and exited the bedroom. I could tell the sun had not yet completely set, and it would probably be another half an hour before I could venture outdoors, so I opted to sit down and read for awhile, something to take my mind of the darker thoughts I'd woken to.
I settled myself onto the sofa, but barely had time to read more than three pages before my phone ripped me from the words on the page.
"Hello?" I said, bringing it to my ear.
"Angel! Thank God!" Cordelia sighed in a slightly exaggerated fashion.
"Cordy? What is it, what's wrong?" I asked.
"Nothing! Well, I mean nothing that you should panic about." she assured me.
"Then why do you sound so desperate to talk to me?" I questioned hesitantly. There was something strained in Cordelia's voice.
"Because I'm going crazy here Angel!" she whined, "Wesley has been in hyper-research-mode ever since you got him looking up that scroll, Gunn's just all aloof and Gunn...like, and I've got nobody normal to talk to!"
I smirked slightly, "Cordy, even though I indulge you from time to time, I don't really care about the latest in shoe trends, or whether or not you're considering highlights."
I hoped she would catch that I was teasing her, and wouldn't end up ripping off my head.
"No, that's not what I mean!" she waved aside my jibe, "Though, Hey! That hurts, and we're talking about it when you get home!" I could almost picture her pouting on the other end.
"Alright, alright, just tell me what you meant then."
"I just mean there's no one level headed here. We're fine for day to day cases, we can just put our heads together and eventually one of us comes up with an idea... but the big stuff we're not good at! We need guidance!"
I sighed, I knew it was only a matter of time before my team started to fall apart. Though they were all capable individuals, the fact remained that they would have never come together if it wasn't for me. They needed something uniting them, keeping their differences at bay. "I'm really sorry Cordy, but I can't come home yet. Hopefully it'll be soon." I assured her.
"It better be soon, or else the next time Wesley wanders over to me quoting nonsense from one of his old smelly books I might end up shoving it down his throat!" she huffed.
For some reason, I could sense there was something else bothering Cordelia, something other than Gunn's nonchalance, and Wesley's hunger for knowledge. She seemed irritable, and despite her strong opinions, she was generally unflappable. I couldn't help feeling like there was something else underneath her frustration. "Are you sure that's all that's bothering you?" I asked gently.
There was a prolonged silence from the other end of the line, "Yes... why do you ask?" she asked quietly.
"It's just that you usually don't get this wound up. I mean, normally if Gunn or Wesley got under your skin you'd just pick something out to tease them about, and storm away... why are you calling me?" I explained to another pregnant pause.
"... you know what? You're right, I'm overreacting! I should just-"
"Are you having more visions than usual?" I interrupted, jumping to what I was certain the root of the problem was.
She exhaled sharply, "Why would you assume something like that?"
"Because you always get irritable after those headaches." I explained. She was silent again, "Cordy, tell me what's going on."
There was another sigh, "I don't understand what's happening Angel," she confessed.
"What do you mean?"
"I have been having more visions, the headaches last longer, but I can't make sense of what I'm seeing." she explained.
"They're just too vague," she sighed in frustration.
"What can you make sense of?" I asked hesitantly, fearing what she may reveal.
"There's just... a lot of people suffering... they look, I don't know, sick, and in pain. But I couldn't tell where or when, and..." she paused again, I could almost feel the tension through the receiver, "It scares me Angel. It scares me that I don't know what it is, that I can't help these people, that I can't make the pain stop."
The fear in her voice told me she wasn't just talking about the pain the people were experiencing, but her own as well. Cordelia had been brave so far when it came to the splitting migraines that accompanied her visions, but I knew if they were getting more severe it was only a matter of time before she would break.
"Have you talked to Wesley?" I pried.
"No," she confessed, "He's doing so much already, and it's stressing him. I don't want to add to it..."
"Cordelia," I began sternly, "I want you to promise me if it gets worse, you'll talk to him."
"Promise me." I all but begged.
"... Alright," she agreed quietly, "I'll tell him."
"Good. Keep me posted, and take care of yourself."
"Yeah... you too Angel."
As I hung up the phone the panic that had been slowly growing inside me began to spread even more. If Cordelia's visions were getting worse, it meant things were closer than they seemed. In my gut I felt that Wolfram & Hart already had their hands on the scroll, and it filled me with dread; if they were already putting things in motion, I had to act quickly.
Not only for Buffy now, but to save Cordelia too.
After we lost Wesley, we walked for almost five days straight. No one asked to stop and sleep, no one complained, and almost no one spoke, unless it was to comfort Cordelia after another vision. It was as though we were both afraid of another attack, and defeated. Yet, we continued on, a fact that shocked me considering how long it had been since any of us had eaten anything. By all means we should be starving to death, but instead we trekked on, the fading hope of saving the rest of the world pushing us forward.
It was finally I who suggested we start to look for a place to rest for a day or so when I caught Dawn's eyes rolling back in her head as we walked. She instantly fought me, said she was fine to keep going, but I wasn't taking any chances. So it was then that after searching the perimeter, and making sure there wasn't anything suspicious nearby, we decided to take shelter in a deserted cottage by the edge of the ocean.
It was surrounded by what at one time must have been a thick cover of trees, which I believed kept it hidden from looters for longer than some of the other nearby houses. The doors hadn't been pulled from the hinges, and although the supplies were scarce, there was still a couple of cans of food, and some other necessities that had been left behind.
The dead vegetation still offered enough cover that the only direction we really had to keep a look-out on was the side that faced the beach. If anyone came up along the shoreline, the would see the house, and us if we were outside. I took the first shift, standing out on the decaying deck, as the others went inside to sleep. They needed the rest more than I did.
As I leaned gently on the rickety railing, staring out at the inky black ocean, I wondered how much further we'd have to go before we hit some semblance of civilization again... I wondered if civilization still existed.
I could tell from the state of the last few houses we'd past that this devastation couldn't have taken place as long ago as it had in Los Angeles, most of the houses were still intact, the damage had either been done by looters, or was a result of abandonment. I hoped perhaps the previous inhabitants had simply decided to flee, and hadn't been victims like those back in L.A.
I didn't have much longer to dwell on the other scenarios that could have caused the desertion, as Cordelia quietly snuck up beside me.
"Why aren't you sleeping?" I asked.
She shrugged, "I can't."
"You should still try. We've been travelling non-stop for five days, it's a miracle you guys are still standing" I told her.
"Yeah... it's a miracle all right," she muttered, casting her eyes to the ground.
I clenched my jaw. I knew I'd chosen my words poorly, "I know it's hard, but I think things won't seem so bleak if you actually get some rest."
"I don't want to," she answered quietly, looking back out over the ocean. She was silent and pensive for a moment, and I could see she was struggling with something. "Angel...?" she continued in almost a whisper.
"I..." she paused again, and a far-off expression washed over her face, "I want you guys to go on without me."
I studied her, speechless, for what almost seemed like an eternity, "What?"
She grimaced, and gathering her strength, tore her eyes away from the water to look at me, "I can't do this anymore Angel." tears gathered in the corners of her eyes as she spoke, but she willed them not to fall.
"Yes, yes you can Cordy," I comforted her, "You're just overtired. I'm sure if you go back inside, and-"
"No, Angel..." she interrupted, "I don't want to go on," she murmured, "I don't want to see them anymore..."
It was then that it struck me. She wasn't tired, or losing hope, or distraught from all the people we'd lost; it was the visions. The visions that were coming now at rocket pace, multiple times a day. It occurred to me then that she probably couldn't sleep even if she wanted to, the pain and suffering probably plagued her dreams just as they had mine when my soul was first returned.
I continued to study her silently, my first real friend in centuries. At first I never would have thought that I'd ever consider her anything other than an irritating acquaintance, but she had come so far in the short time I had known her. Looking at her now, she hardly seemed the haughty Prom-Queen she'd been back in Sunnydale, in fact, with all the pain and torment in her eyes, it was hard to see her as anything other than a shell of her former self. I had always feared that one day the burden of these visions would become too much for her to carry, and I had worried about what it may cause her to do. Staring into her haunted eyes, I finally realized what she intended.
"It could get better..." I stammered, more to convince myself than to convince her, for I knew there was never any convincing Cordelia Chase.
"It won't..." she whispered, "I tried. I really tried. I knew you needed all of us to be strong, but after Wes..." she paused as her voice cracked, and took a deep breath before continuing, "I don't think I could watch any more of you die, knowing that there's nothing to stop it."
Guilt was gnawing away my insides, my mind was blank. How, after almost two-hundred-and-fifty years of living, could I not know how to comfort a friend? How could I not know how to keep her from doing what I knew she inevitably would do. "Just... give it one more day," I suggested meekly, "You never know, we could be at the edge of a safe zone, or-"
"Every day, I tell myself 'just one more day'." she began, "Every day, I hope that it'll be the last one, that the visions will stop, that my head will stop throbbing, that my ears will stop ringing with the screams... with the cries... Every day I pray for the strength to keep going like this, but I can't. I don't have another day left in me Angel."
A tear finally slipped down her cheek as she finished speaking, and I reached out to wipe it away, but she pulled back and averted her eyes to the ground in shame. "I never thought I would do this..." she murmured, "I never in a million years thought this would be the way... but I want this to be on my terms. I'm not letting them break me any more."
I smiled sadly, fighting to push the lump back down my throat, "You don't have to explain yourself to me Cordy,"
"I know. That's what makes you such a good friend." she looked back to me, and I could see a tiny amount of relief on her features.
I glanced briefly back to the house, "What should I tell them?"
"Tell them... tell them not to worry, because they have the most amazing man in the world keeping them safe."
"Who? Giles?" I asked with a smirk.
For the first time in ages, she grinned, "No. You, dummy."
I smiled back, but it faded quickly as the realization that this would be the last conversation I ever had with Cordelia dawned on me. She suddenly became just as solemn and silent.
"I'm lucky to have met you Cordelia," I whispered.
"No, I'm lucky to have met you," she replied, "Looking back... I don't want to know what kind of person I would have turned into if I hadn't."
"Besides, I probably would have died a thousand times over already," she grinned.
"Yeah, maybe," I chuckled.
Silence fell over us again, and I reached out to pull her into a hug. She wrapped her arms around me, and buried her face in my chest, "I'm sorry I couldn't be stronger Angel." came her muffled voice.
I pulled away from her, to look at her one last time, "Don't be silly, you're one of the strongest people I've met."
She smiled, a genuine smile, before the tears returned to her eyes, "I'll tell Buffy she should be proud of you."
Biting back my own tears, I nodded, and with one last squeeze of my arm, Cordelia slipped past me, and climbed down the porch steps to the beach below.
I watched her take the first few strides across the sand, before averting my gaze. My eyes studied the decaying wood bannister, the rusted nails holding it together, they travelled over my hands... caked with dirt, with flecks of dried blood that I still hadn't gotten around to trying to wash off. Not that it mattered, if I lost any more of them, the blood that would stain my hands could never come clean.
I looked back up finally to see Cordelia taking her first steps into the murky black ocean. As the ebony water rose above her ankles, she stiffened, and suppressed a shiver, before taking her next slow, serene step, then another, and another, and another...
I watched until only her head and shoulders were visible above the waves. It was then that she lifted her arms above her head, and dove down into the inky depths.
For the rest of my shift guarding the house, I stared out over the ocean.
Cordelia never came back up for air.
I shuddered, and reached for my book. Cordelia had done things her way right up until the end, but I didn't want it to come to that this time around. Time was running out, and if I couldn't keep Buffy from falling, what hope would I have of saving my friends?
I suddenly found myself unable to focus on the words on the page, my thoughts kept drifting to the horrors that would be in store for all of us if I failed, to the destruction, to the pain, to the horrible gruesome deaths I would have to watch again one, by one...
Panic began to strangle me, I felt more terrified, lost and hopeless than I had in centuries, I...
I looked up towards the door, Buffy was standing there stiffly, looking as though she were afraid to step into the room any further.
"Buffy..." I muttered, realizing that I was clutching the sides of my book with excessive force. I threw it down onto the coffee table as though it would shake the fears from my soul before rising to face her.
"Intense book?" she asked, inching into the room and gesturing to the novel I'd just tossed aside.
I glanced behind me, "Yeah, you could say that... what's going on?" I questioned.
She began to chew her bottom lip, "I just... I'm sorry," she sighed.
I studied her silently, she seemed tense and on edge. There was something different about her, about the way she carried herself, and there was a look in her eyes that I hadn't seen in awhile.
It was guilt.
I hadn't seen her look at me that way since she'd been taking care of me after I'd returned from Hell, and I couldn't understand why she was looking at me that way now, surely the argument we'd had two nights prior didn't merit that amount of regret. I felt uneasy, but I remained silent and waited for her to continue speaking.
She sighed heavily, "I don't know what's wrong with me, I wish I could just turn it off."
"You don't need to to this, it's not your fault,"
"But it is!" she exclaimed, "You're just here trying to help me and I let all this craziness in my head make it hard for you."
"You've been through a lot Buffy, I understand,"
Her eyes narrowed at me, "Why are you being so understanding about this?"
Because I erased twenty-four hours from your mind without telling you? No, I didn't think that would go over very well. Besides, I knew Buffy well enough to know if she had wanted to tell me that she remembered that day, she would have already. "Because I don't want to fight with you."
If at all possible, she suddenly looked even more guilt-ridden, "You need to stop being so nice about this, you're making all this grovelling really embarrassing."
I finally drew closer to her, "Then stop. We already talked about this; it isn't easy for me to be here either, but I'd rather torture myself a little emotionally and know that you're alright, then run away and worry about you. You just need some time."
She frowned, and looked to the floor, "How much time?" she muttered, "It's already been four months since I came back... what if I never get better?"
"You will," I swore.
"It's just... you and Giles are wigging out about this scroll, and I worry that this big epic battle is going to jump out at us, and I won't be ready."
I continued to stare at her, the guilty expression on her face had not yet left, and I had a sneaking suspicion that she wasn't being completely honest about what had caused her to come here and apologize, "Of course you'll be ready. You always pull through when you need to."
She deflated, "Sometimes I wish being the Slayer wasn't a solo gig."
I attempted a smile to try and lift her spirits, "That's why I'm here to help."
She smiled back, but it didn't quite reach her eyes, "I should go."
I nodded, "Okay."
She turned swiftly, and took the few steps back toward the door, I could still feel the remorse radiating off of her as she disappeared back out into the day.
I couldn't figure out what was bothering her, but I knew there was more to it than wishing she had back-up.
For those of you who don't speak french, the title roughly translates to "Like Drowning"... obviously I thought an english title would give too much away.
I suppose I'll do my duty and issue a bit of a PSA here: while I've used suicide here as a plot device (mostly because I'm evil like Joss and I love me some tragedy), I don't think it's an answer; if you're depressed and having suicidal thoughts, get help. I guarantee there is at least one person in your life who would be devastated to lose you - sadly, I speak from experience.
On a happier note, I've finished editing the rest of this story! So it'll just be a matter of finding a few minutes here and there to upload the chapters. At any rate I'm relieved because I can put my focus back on writing!