Running On Empty by Abby Cadabra
in the Supernova Series.
Summary: A day was just that. A day. Twenty-four hours and then done. Start again, please.
Spoilers: TVT (general), The Gift (BTVS), set in season three sometime before That Old Gang of Mine and after That Vision Thing.
Notes: Once again, thanks so much to Kelley for her beta, and Katy for her support. Both really make the fic shine. Oh, also, I forgot to mention this, but the lyrics in this chapter, and last chapter, and all chapters following this one are by Enya, "Paint the Sky with Stars."
Only night will ever
Why the heavens never show
All the dreams there are to know
Paint the sky with stars
Cordelia had heard emptiness described as many things. As an insincere gesture, or as an overlying silence, or as nothing. But she knew all of these to be false. Empty was not insincere. It was not silent. And it was not nothing. Empty, she thought as she poured the last of her milk onto her cereal — something unsweetened with oats and not enough raisins, making a mental note to herself for later (milk, cheese, tampons) — was all of those things.
It was true. Deafening in its intensity. It was everything.
She had always heard emptiness described as a black void, and knew this to be accurate. Empty was that feeling she had after auditions, when producers would say, “We’ll be in touch,” as they blacked out her name with a thick marker on The List. Empty was a vision, full of meaning and importance, and never hers. Empty was the bottom of everything, black and waiting. A well, pit, heart or soul.
Her spoon dipped beneath the milk, searching below the ever-white surface for raisin and oat treasures. It resurfaced slowly, mostly milk held in its silver groove, some oats, and three raisins — lucky her. She chewed her prize mechanically, and realized that emptiness too was hungry. It ate at things lush and beautiful, things scorched and ugly, leading all of them to the black. It ate its way up the walls, clawing and chewing like rats, until everything was devoured — that was what made emptiness inevitable. It let nothing escape, and took everything.
She was empty.
Her cereal was not. It was full of vitamins and proteins and calcium. It made her body feel a little less empty. It had a purpose, one that was moist and cold on her tongue, not at all sweet, but still good. She took another spoonful of cereal, and quickly realized it was no longer any good. Too much time had passed between spoonfuls, and now the cereal was soggy, squishy. Disgusting.
She didn’t want it anymore.
Cordelia moved to the sink slowly, her bare feet crossing the length of the kitchen under their own power, one before the other and repeat, repeat, repeat. She liked the sound of her exposed skin on the linoleum flooring, soft and natural and rhythmic. Shoes, as absolutely stunning and precious as they could be, were not necessary. And she suddenly felt the urge to go without them today. To free the aching balls of her feet from the stiletto prisons she committed them to. To make some bold statement about shoes to the rest of the world — “No Shoes, You Can Choose!”
But as she washed the contents of her bowl down the sink, the unpleasant assortment of milk and limp cereal splashing along the rise of cream porcelain, she was already planning her outfit for the day. Mentally tallying which ensemble had gone the longest without being seen by any of her immediate friends. Processing which pairs of pants were clean and what tops matched what skirts. Figuring and figuring and figuring, because wasn’t that what life was? A goddamn problem that needed figuring?
She placed the rinsed bowl into the dishwasher, cringing as the rim scraped across the blade of a stacked cutting knife, plated silver crying out against the fine china — the same china she’d had to steal from her own fucking house — in a jagged shriek, loud and sharp.
She hadn’t worn the orange skirt lately, the one with the yellow fringe, but, then again, hadn’t done laundry in weeks, so it was probably still crumbled in her dirty clothes’ hamper. As she reached for the handle to her medicine cabinet and pulled out three orange bottles, their white caps overly bright in her dark kitchen, she wished she’d had the money to buy that one really cute dress she saw at the mall last Saturday.
And then she wished that she had all of the clothes in the world, and would never have to worry about a monthly rotation of skirts and blouses ever again. And then she wished that she would win the lottery — no, better than that- she wished that she were a rich and famous and highly pursued actress with a trend setting, fan-fucking-tastic wardrobe.
She wished for a lot of things, but they never came true either.
She pressed her palms over the white cap of bottle after bottle after bottle, pushing and turning and pulling. She laid a colorful array of whites and reds and purples across her kitchen counter. Purple. Now there was an idea. Grasping her water glass between long fingers that would begin to shake and tremble uncontrollably if she didn’t take those goddamn pills already, she calculated how many weeks it had been since she wore her purple skirt, the one with the black beads that dangled from the hem. Four weeks? Five? Either way, plenty of time.
The pills slid smoothly down with the water, one and then the other and then some more, until all of them were inside of her. Breaking apart. Dissolving. Seeping into her blood. She paused, waiting. She waited for the ever-present ache in her head to dissipate like the stars in the dawn. She waited for a vision, or for an increase in pain, or for her head to explode. She waited for anything. For a difference in the hurt.
She reached again for the smallest bottle, the black V in Vicodin staring up at her from the label, ominous and tragic and fucking beautiful, and drew another white tablet out of the cotton wall it had fixed itself in.
“Another won’t hurt.”
It seemed to Cordelia that her voice sounded too loud in the small confines of her kitchen, alone and abandoned and fucking empty. The high pitch of her voice, whole and invisible like the air, carried on the oxygen, covering and consuming and casting itself to everything in its path. It stopped at the far wall, the one with the big window that would have been bright and sunny during anyone else’s breakfast hour, but wasn’t — keeping Angel’s work hours could do that — and then bounced back to her and the long, thin capsule poised in her fingertips.
Cordelia placed the pill in her mouth; its bitter taste dull on her tongue, followed quickly with a wash of rapidly warming water, and tipped her head back. Blood rushed from the front of her brain to the rear and then back again with the movement, forcing her vision black for a moment.
She chose to ignore it.
She automatically replaced the white caps to their orange counterparts, pushing and twisting each slowly around the spiraling grooves until they were securely fastened. Her hand guided the cabinet door shut as a fleeting, chronic thought occurred to her, something that she had always ignored before, but somehow couldn’t gather the will to block out today. Something she might have laughed at because, dammit, it had always been funny before. But suddenly wasn’t.
She should hide it. All of it.
Should take all of her prescriptions and steadily increasing number of CAT scans and especially those tranquilizers she stole from the hospital after Vocah fucked her up royally. Hide it all. Angel would freak if he knew that she… Yes, hiding it was vital.
She made another mental note (milk, cheese, tampons, a big plastic container for hiding) and let the concern slip from her mind. She had to get ready. Had a shower to take and a skirt to iron and a day — night? — to get through.
Just another day.
“Cordelia, are you—You look a little under the
“I’m fine, Wes. Just a little tired.”
“Do you need to take a sick day?”
“You haven’t taken one in months.”
“I feel fine. Right as rain.”
“Well, if you begin feeling ill, don’t hesitate to take leave. I’ll understand. And if you need anything, you know where I can be reached.”
“Thanks, Wes, but I’m not leaving. I’m all right.”
“Cordy—you don’t mind if I call you that, do you? Cordy,
I was, um, just watching you at your desk from over there, from behind that
plant, and thought you looked a little sad. And you’re not doing much work
here- at your desk. And I wasn’t watching as in, you know, stalking,
just observing in general. And you look tired. Are you okay? I saw you looked
sort of down, and you weren’t doing any work or anything, and thought I’d
come over and see how you were. Are you okay?”
“Fred, I’m just sitting here.”
“I know. And that’s why I’m concerned. You’re usually all over, eating the doughnuts or reading a magazine or going over files or eating something else—“
“Are you trying to call me fat?”
“What? No! Not at all. You’re not- fat. And I know fat. I was a slave to fat for five years. Fat is ugly and stupid and very, very demanding. Fat asks for hot milk and foot massages in the middle of the night. You’re not fat at all.”
“… So you’re okay?”
“But you look so tired.”
“I'll be okay, Fred.”
“Well, okay- if you’re sure.”
“Are you sure?”
“Fred! Jesus fucking Christ — I’m sure! I’m fine! Go. Away.”
“You look like shit.”
“Shut up, Gunn.”
At the mention of her name, Cordelia considered snapping. Considered yelling and screaming and kicking her legs all around like a furious, spoiled brat. And then the voice clicked into place, sudden and jolting like a realization of love, and all she wanted to do was melt into its evident concern.
A smile crossed her lips, fast and bright as lightning, gone just as quickly. “Angel.”
He slid a chair across the floor, scratching and scraping and very goddamn loud over the hard tile, gooseflesh prickling over Cordelia’s skin. He took a seat beside her, close to her, silence absorbing the air.
“You look nice.” He didn’t give her the once over or allow his gaze to wander from her eyes. A gentleman.
“A new skirt?”
They were dancing. Waltzing and tangoing and two stepping around something important. Something neither of them wanted to touch. And it was starting to piss her off.
“Get to the point, Angel.”
He sighed, glancing at his shadow on the floor, dark and formless under the soft light. “The others are worried.”
“About what?” she asked, brows knitting together in a confused mask.
She pffted him away with a wave her hand. “The others are paranoid.”
He grasped her flailing hand and brought it down to rest within his own. “I’m worried.”
She looked away. “Then I guess you’re paranoid too.”
“I’m too old to be paranoid.”
She didn’t answer. There was something about the moment, about the way he spoke to her, and looked at her, and touched her hand that made Cordelia bite down the sarcastic comment tickling her tongue. A thought occurred to her that maybe, yes, perhaps, she wanted to hear all of their reasons for concern.
Then she would know exactly what to cover up.
“What are they saying?” Her voice was like a whisper in the winter morning, soft and cold and distant.
“Just that you’re- different. That you seem more… tired.”
“Well, yeah. Angel, everyone’s tir—“
“That you’re not all there.”
Her mouth shut instantly, making a funny popping noise that neither of them found very funny. “Not all there as in just not there? Or as in crazy, delusional not all there?”
He paused. His eyes shifted to the side and back again. “I don’t know.”
It was a lie. And she knew it. She could read his heart and eyes like an autobiography, left to right, up to down. And he was lying to her about this.
“Yes you do,” she bit out, her act of vacuity wearing thin.
He sighed and it sounded heavy, like there was too much to say and not enough breath. Danger: maximum capacity exceeded.
“Angel, tell me,” she demanded. He looked at her sideways, eyes showing shock at her tone, cold like his hand. She rethought her approach, forcing herself to swallow her anger. “Please, Angel,” she entreated softly.
He took a moment, his eyes never leaving hers. She felt like he saw more than just her eyes. Like he saw deeper, saw her pain, and she prayed that he couldn’t.
Angel closed his eyes and ran a moonlight pale hand over his face. He sighed. “I really don’t know, Cordy,” he said, and the anger fell on her again.
Lie, lie, lie. There were too many lies being told. Her. Him. Their clasped hands. All of it. Lies. Honesty had passed on the wind and left her wondering if it had ever really stopped by.
And the funny part, she thought, was that all this lying, all this dancing, was being done to protect. She protected him and vice versa — through the lies. Sweetly ironic. Tragically considerate. Fucked up.
“I have to go,” she lied.
She pulled her hand out of his and piled various articles into her purse. A nail filer, a few papers, a cell phone; it was all junked together in her bag. She stood quickly in a burst of sudden haste, her expensive perfume clouding the air, heavy and musky as fresh sex.
“So soon?” he asked, standing after her.
“Yeah, I’m not feeling so hot.” She slung her purse over her shoulder. “Wes already okayed it. Just let him know I’m gone, and tell him I don’t think I’ll be in tomorrow either. Will you do that?”
He nodded. “Sure.”
A day was just that. A day. Twenty-four hours and then done.
Start again, please.
Some were easier than others. Some passed quickly. And other felt as if they’d never end. Some were uneventful, others too much so. No two were ever the same, like fingerprints or waves. Always similar, always different.
This was what Cordelia Chase knew as she shuffled around her kitchen, feet bare, motions empty, depositing her newly bought groceries in their place. Milk in the refrigerator, beside the orange juice and behind last night’s Chinese. Cheese in its own compartment with the butter. She would have to go to the bathroom to put away the tampons; she left those out for now.
Her head hurt. A soft pain that was barely there, yet always there. Just below her shopping list and everyday concerns, right above the emptiness, there was that pain. Pounding softly into each of her thoughts and molding them into something that wasn’t right. Something that wasn’t this reality. But her head always hurt, so she did her best to ignore it.
The big plastic container came next. It was discreet, flat and long and filmy white, not opaque. She thought opaque would be too this-box-is-for-hiding-things-don’t-look-here.
“It won’t fit,” a voice said suddenly, brazen and definite, startling Cordelia.
She glanced at her kitchen table, covered with papers and x-rays and prescription bottles old and new, where Buffy was seated in a stiff, uncushioned chair. Her legs were crossed, her back straight, head high.
“Oh. It’s you,” the seer deadpanned.
“You’ve got too much stuff,” Buffy continued as if she hadn’t heard her, nodding towards the collection on the table. “Too many problems to fit into that tiny box.”
“It isn’t tiny,” Cordelia said, holding the box up. It wasn’t. Slightly more than a foot long, six inches deep.
“Too tiny for you.”
“You just wait,” she said, taking the seat opposite Buffy.
“I’m telling you, Cordy. Your problems are too big to fit into that box.”
“You’re one to talk. You’re dead.”
“Exactly. That’s why I don’t have a problem anymore. My problem’s been solved already.”
Cordelia ignored her, wondering which way would be best to pack the box. Should she put the prescriptions on the bottom and the papers on top, or the other way around? If the papers were on the bottom, would they get wrinkled? Would the x-rays get scratched?
“Life’s just a big fucking problem, Cordy,” Buffy said, staring at the seer. “You know that. And each day is another chance to solve it.”
But if she put the prescriptions on the bottom, the papers and x-rays would sit awkwardly on top, and maybe get wrinkled or scratched anyway.
“You almost got your problem figured out, donchya, Cordy? Time’s getting close. Your head hurts right now, doesn’t it?”
“Shut up, Buffy.”
The blonde laughed, sweet and full, not at all condescending. “Right, right. You’re trying to think. My bad,” Buffy said, falling quiet.
“Thanks,” she muttered.
Cordelia plucked a bottle from the tabletop; pills rattling against the orange plastic, and gently positioned it against one of the interior corners. She placed the next prescription against that one and so on and so forth, until they were all piled together in that corner, taking just enough of the box to leave room for the files. Then she organized her papers and x-rays into manila folders, securing them closed with rubber bands, and filled the other half of the box with those.
“How was your day?” Buffy asked, straightening out of her seat. She ambled to the refrigerator and opened the freezer door.
“Shitty.” Cordelia’s voice was directed elsewhere, towards her printed grievances, distracted.
She sighed, leaning back in her chair, giving Buffy her full attention. “Everyone is all, ‘Are you okay, Cordelia?’ ‘What’s wrong, Cordelia?’”
“And what do you say?”
“I tell them I’m fine. That I’m just really tired.”
Buffy reclaimed her seat, a carton of Ben and Jerry’s in one hand and a large spoon in the other. “That much is true.”
Cordelia considered this. “It doesn’t really count as lying if I’m doing it for their benefit, does it?”
“You know, I’m glad you stopped by. Now I know for sure that infinite wisdom does not come with death, and can stop fooling myself,” Cordelia said dryly.
Buffy snorted, the Chunky Monkey in her mouth pasting her lips shut. Cordelia laughed too. The darkness in the kitchen seemed to brighten, and the ache in her head maybe lessened. It was a good moment, light and honest, like the window just behind her, the one that she never saw the daylight shine through.
The brunette picked up the lid to her new hiding box, now filled with her deepest secrets and lies. “Still think it won’t fit?”
“There’ll be more to add later,” Buffy said, and her words sobered the moment. Brought it crashing back down from the clouds. Painted a red ‘fuck you’ on it.
“But do you think it will fit now?”
Buffy looked straight into Cordelia’s eyes. “No.”
The confidence in her words, blunt and hard as the point of stake, made Cordelia do a double take. She glanced quickly at the plastic container, at the medical evidence of imminent death found there. She was scared now. What if it wouldn’t fit? What if her problems were too big to fit into a six-inch deep box? Where would she be then?
“Just put the top on already and see,” Buffy said, rolling her eyes.
Cordelia nodded hesitantly. She lowered the slab of plastic slowly, as if afraid it would shatter like glass in her hands at the first contact, until it collided gently with its counterpart. She continued to press down until she heard a satisfying snap of plastic and could push no more. It fit. The lid fit fucking perfectly.
“Ha! I told you it would fit!” Cordelia yelled in triumph.
Her eyes traveled across the table, past an expanse of ash-dyed wood and condiments and napkins, landing on an empty chair. Buffy wasn’t there.
“Buffy was never here,” she told herself.
There was a throbbing in her chest, gone as quickly as a passing heartbeat. It was violent in its existence, fast and hard, like a gunshot through the hand. And after it was gone, and left nothing behind, she still thought of it. Wondered what it could have been. Questioned why it had come when Buffy left, and hoped it would never return.
Shaking her head clear of such thoughts, Cordelia picked up the container by its handles, sections of orange and white visible through the plastic, and carried it into her bedroom. She dropped it on the floor and kicked it under her bed.
She stripped her clothes off, layer after layer until she was nude and natural, feeling oddly overexposed. Her skin was uncomfortable, a little too loose for her liking. She pulled an old t-shirt out of a nearby drawer, put it on, and almost immediately felt relieved to have hidden her skin, naked and real, from view. Hers, Dennis’, anybody’s.
She crawled on top of her bed and under the covers, smelling clean and manufactured. There was nothing signature about the scent of her sheets, about herself. She wished they smelt of green apples or roses or sex. Or maybe Angel.
“He wouldn’t mind,” Buffy said.
The slayer climbed into bed next to Cordelia, the sheets lying undisturbed in the wide space between their bodies, smooth and calm, like the gray of an open sky before the storm. Her presence brought no lasting scent to saturate the cotton threads of Cordelia’s sheets, no warmth.
“He’d climb right in if you let him,” Buffy continued.
“Maybe if you’d shut up I could imagine you were him.” Cordelia intended for her words to be laced in thorns, but an advancing sleep invaded the malice she had aimed for and turned her words soft. Pliable.
Buffy chuckled. “Even your pillow talk is bitchy. I like it.”
Cordelia ignored her. “’Night.”
“’Night, Cordy,” Buffy echoed, her lips stretching as she yawned widely.
Silence stilled the air of Cordelia’s bedroom as Buffy fell quiet, her green eyes fluttering shut. The image of the blonde faded gently with each breath she took as sleep wandered over her consciousness slowly, completely.
Cordelia settled into her usual position, on her back and facing the ceiling. Fatigue seemed to be engraved on her bones in sharp calligraphy, tedious and deep. She was worn, and with this exhaustion came an indifference that bordered on suicidal. She didn’t care if the sky and all of its stars were to collapse on top of her at that second. Didn’t care if slits were to suddenly appear on her wrists, grave and fatal, and slowly bled her dry. Didn’t care if she never woke.
She was tired. Running on empty.
Her eyes drifted closed, and an empty, dreamless sleep claimed her just as the beginning rays of dawn began to peek through the thick drapes covering her windows.