Life Is But A Dream by Starlet2367
Summary: Life is the dream. Death is the awakening.
Spoilers: Billy, Season Three.
Notes: Thanks to Psychofilly for the inspiration and the kind and generous beta. This story's for DamnSkippyToo. She knows why.
took the loaf of bread from the vendor, an old Latina woman with a black lace
shawl draped over her head. "Thanks," Cordy said, as she pocketed her
She'd had a vision, seen the big bad, and done the usual blah blah blah. Now they were here on Cesar Chavez Avenue looking for Mr. Spiney. Around her the crowd partied like it was 1999, but it was only the Day of the Dead celebration, swinging from day to night, from loud to louder.
Firecrackers exploded like gunfire in the fast-encroaching darkness. A brass band marched by, cymbals crashing. Someone's long, thin wail broke into delirious laughter.
In the middle of all the insanity, Fred reached over, tugged one of the bone-shaped pieces off the pan de muerto and ate it. She looked like a hungry skeleton with her long, skinny body and face painted black and white.
"If we get our faces done," she'd said, "we'll blend in better." Then she'd plopped herself down in front of the make-up artist so he could do her face up in a mask of death. And like two dogs with one bone, Gunn and Wes practically fought to get into the chair next.
Cordy rolled her eyes, watching as Gunn's face turned white and his eyes became sunken sockets. "If they spent half that much energy looking for the demon it'd be bagged and tagged by now."
She sighed as she chewed a bite of the fragrant, sweet loaf. They were surrounded by death—hell, Angel was as dead as you could get without being put in the ground. But she still didn't get the whole celebration thing.
"C'mon, Angel," Fred said. "You gotta get painted too. You're the most recognizable of any of us."
"Yeah, man," Gunn said. "Wes and I did it. You don't get out of it."
Angel protested, but he let Fred drag him to the chair where the artist waited, smiling.
Cordy stood a few feet away, watching as the procession marched down the cobblestones and past the historic monument. The band turned the corner and the sound became tinny, disjointed. In the middle of the street a row of men walked shoulder to shoulder, their enormous death's head masks glowing greenish-white in the light emitted by the street lamps.
She scanned deeper into the crowd, looking for the thing from her vision. It was human-shaped and average sized; in fact, the only things that distinguished it from human were its day-glo green eyes and a row of spikes on the back of its hands.
Deadly spikes that snuck under your skin and filled you with stinging pain, like a thousand yellow jackets.
Cordy shuddered, skin prickling as she remembered the vision. Even as she shook it off, the crowd lining the sidewalk expanded, forcing her out of her prime viewing spot. She stood on tiptoe just to get a glimpse of the next display, which turned out to be a group of women carrying banners.
Despite Cordy's impaired vantage point, the old lady in the center of the parading group caught her eye--or rather, her banner did. It was such a saturated red that even the off-kilter light couldn't dim it. It looked like the softest wool and its border of hearts and flowers cupped five bony skeletons like a loving hand.
Then the woman, draped in a shawl of black and gray striped wool, began to sing. Her voice warbled, off-key yet compelling.
Suddenly several teenage boys ran into the middle of the street. The woman kept walking, singing...until something exploded a few feet from her. Cordy's heart shot up in her throat and the boys laughed as the little knot of women in the parade zone unraveled.
"Fireworks," she realized. But it wasn't soon enough to stop the instinctive surge of the crowd. They reared back like a man at gunpoint and when they moved, Cordy was dragged down the sidewalk with them.
A familiar, cool hand gripped her arm and pulled her back. She breathed out a sigh, turned, and smiled. "Thanks, Angel," she said.
But it wasn't Angel. It was a man in a death mask.
Through the papier-mache, she could see his eyes, glowing green. She blinked, thinking it was a trick of the light.
Then it hit her.
She didn't move quickly enough to avoid the prick on the back of her hand. When she looked down, he was retracting the spikes at his wrist.
Cordy jolted like she'd been hit with an electrical charge. Her hand stung--not a thousand yellow jackets, she thought, just one really big one.
She turned to scream for Angel but her throat had gone tight and she couldn't get the words out. Then the undertow caught her and dragged her back down the sidewalk.
No matter how hard she tried Angel only moved farther away.
She blinked once, twice, trying to steady herself. Then she started pushing through the crowd, thinking, I have to get back to Angel.
But she was swimming upstream. With every step, her heart clenched in her chest and she hadn't even made it ten feet when her arm went numb to the shoulder.
What if life is the dream, a voice in her head asks, and death the awakening?
That can't be right, she thinks. Death is the illusion. Life is real. Just ask Angel. He knows better than anyone does what it means to be alive.
See how he lets them paint his face, how he laughs at the way the make-up tickles as it goes on? See the light in his kohl-dark eyes, his big dark eyes, so black against his pale skin?
White on black on white….
She steadies herself with one hand on someone's shoulder and waits for the spinning to stop.
When she blinks again, Angel is a living skull, a walking skeleton. She cringes, realizing that no matter how alive Angel seems, she's looking at his true face.
She's looking at death.
The whiz-kebang of bottle rockets startles her and the harsh clatter of cymbals rattles her bones. She doesn't bother to resist; it takes to much energy. So when the drums boom again she lets them echo in her heart and dissolve her into sound.
Now when she closes her eyes the lights look like red firecrackers, sparking and spinning. She laughs with the boys, laughs at the way the old women dance to the beat of the little paper-and-flame bombs.
Someone takes her hand and she drops the bread and spins along with them. Warm bodies, sharp elbows, soft bellies, the scent of sweat when someone leans in close.
She follows, buoyed by the upsurge, carried with the tide.
Flashes of color, of incandescence. Street lamps, the masks so tall and grinning, streamers flying. She follows, borne away on scent and sound, part of the living beast of the crowd until finally, after stepping, spinning, gurgling, she is burped out onto a street corner.
Here the crowd is less, the press of flesh gone. Ahead a door beckons, the entry quiet, dark. She is led toward it, something pulling her ….
What is that sound?
As she crosses the threshold the building takes on the form of a church. White stucco and square windows, like it's rising from the desert. And inside people are singing in hushed voices, chanting, talking to the dead.
She recognizes that part of the conversation so she follows it like crumbs from the pan de muerto until she is standing deep in the building, following a ritual of prayer and song that is unknown but still somehow familiar.
A woman stands, draped with a black and gray shawl and even though she can't see her face, Cordelia knows it's the same woman who carried the blood-red banner.
Only now she knows the woman's secret, how such an ugly voice commands her to listen.
She can see the music pouring out of the old woman's skull like cloud of golden smoke, gathering above her until it engulfs the mass below.
Cordelia closes her eyes, letting the smoke-light wash through her and over her. When she opens them, the woman's mouth is gaping wider and wider until it becomes a black maw.
Until Cordelia can walk right in and never, ever come back out.
She sways and someone next to her props her up. When she turns, she sees a skeleton, and another, and another, faces masked by death.
Her hand rises and she feels her own face, the exposed bones and teeth, the sharp jut of the ridge where her nose might once have been.
And she smiles.
Ah, death. The voice was right.
Life was the dream.
She feels herself sinking, sinking into the stone of the floor, into the music and the darkness. Incense becomes her companion, and the crackling-fire voice, and then only the cool, sweet darkness.
The woman sings her name, "Cordelia."
She nods, yes, I am Cordelia.
The old woman holds out her hand, small and square and roughened by work.
Cordelia lets herself be pulled up and out, toward the light emanating from the top of the old woman's head. It's warm and golden, like the dome of a church. She sighs happily.
Life was the dream.
*This* is life.
The man's voice startles her and she shoos it away with a flap of her hand.
She turns and sees Angel, all in black, the mask of his face enlivened by fear.
"Go `way. I'm busy," she says.
The old woman is calling, smiling, singing. The light is so beautiful.
Angel says, "Don't go."
But it's so easy, so easy to just let go and float....
"Please, Cordy. I need you."
Cordelia feels a tug on her heart then thumps back down into her body, like she's jerking awake from a fitful sleep.
She opens her eyes. Above her, Angel's face—she'd recognize it anywhere—even with the skeleton make-up. "You look silly."
His entire body eases toward her, minutely, but she can feel it. He's drawn to her the way she was to the church, pulled in by her light and sound.
In her chest, her heart races like a butterfly flying toward the light.
"I have her!" he calls.
And then the throb of her heart separates from her and becomes the thud of footsteps. Wes and Gunn and Fred run and fall next to her, faces pressing in close, a church choir of skeletons.
Hands lift her and Angel's strong arms wrap her close.
Fred's voice, sharp like the spikes on the demon's hands says, "Did he hurt her?"
"There's no blood. That's a good sign." That's Angel. He's always so certain about blood.
"How long's she been out?" Gunn's voice quivers.
She instinctively reaches out and touches his hand. "Don't be afraid," she says. "Life's the dream. Death is the awakening."
He gives her a strange look and she finds herself laughing.
The processional stops and silence expands.
Above her a skeleton's face. Angel's face.
Or is it the woman's? The black make-up dissolves into the black and gray shawl.
"Demon—" someone says.
"—kill it?" another chorister chimes.
"—must have gotten loose in the crowd and—"
"—antidote? Cordelia? Is she--?"
Voices fade. With a trembling hand she reaches out and touches the small, square, work-roughened fingers. The woman smiles, mouth becoming light and expanding into a dome that covers them all.
"Come," she sings.
Angel looked up from his book and smiled—a small, soft quirk of his lips. "Hey, back." He leaned over and fluffed her pillows gently, then handed her a glass and helped her drink. "You feeling better?"
She coughed and pulled the glass away. Images flared like a lit match then died into darkness. A church. A voice. Light. "We have to stop meeting like this."
He laughed. "Remind me next time, to kill the demon *before* the party." He settled back into the chair, which he'd angled carefully next to the bed.
A smudge of make-up was smeared under his jaw and she reached out and wiped it off with her thumb.
"Thanks," he said, and he picked up a towel, already stained with the remnants of his death mask, and scrubbed under his chin until the rest of the white was gone.
"What happened?" She took another careful sip of water, trying not to spill it down the front of her shirt. Her hands trembled, though, and Angel had to take the glass and set it on the bedside table.
"Your Mr. Spiney hit you with a spike as he worked his way through the crowd."
Oh. Right. "Then what?"
"You got caught in the procession. By the time we figured out what happened, killed the demon, and got you the antidote-- Well, let's just say, I was really close to burying two women I…care about this year."
She smiled. "Well, Buffy came back." An image flashed again. That warm light, the beautiful voice that she had followed— "And so did I."
He shook his head. "Let's not talk about it." Instead, he hiked a hip on the bed and put his hand on her forehead, like he was checking for fever. "You hungry?"
She shook her head and sat up slowly until they were shoulder to shoulder.
Angel slipped an arm around her waist and braced her against him. "First the killer visions. Now this. Maybe I should just get Dennis to lock you up at home so I won't have to worry."
She snorted, then took a long, deep breath and relaxed. He smelled so good, felt so real and all she wanted to do was crawl into that soft spot where neck met shoulder and dissolve. "This," she said, and her lips brushed his flesh. "Life. Is it the dream?"
He stroked her hair from crown to ends and lingered at the back of her neck. His fingers tangled in her hair, tickled her nape. "This feels real. I hope it's real."
Breath fanned against her temple. His lips pressed there, light against her skin.
She curled deeper into the arched dome of his body.
"Sleep," he said. "I've got you."
And as she slipped into sleep somewhere, far off, she heard a woman's voice sigh her name.