In the end I was the mean girl, or somebody's in-between girl; Now it's the devil I love; And it's as funny as real love --"Hold On, Hold On" by Neko Case
Oz is there when the nurse—a Ratchett if she’s ever seen one—wheels her out onto the hospital’s portico. Her father is not.
He’d sworn he would be—her father, not Oz; pay attention—but of course, promises in the Chase family are somewhat elastic in nature. Guess we have that much in common with the Harrises, she thinks.
Surprisingly—to her at least—the thought isn’t bitter or angry. Merely…tired. Yes. That’s it; she’s just too tired to react properly. Tomorrow, after she’s slept in her own bed, showered properly, and had her mani/pedi redone, she’ll be better able to be properly wrathful.
But in the meantime, she’s just bullied the duty nurse and half the floor staff into bringing her down here to wait for her father and she’ll be damned if she’s going to make the Walk—or Roll, as the case may be—of Shame back up to that stinky hospital room to wait for who knows how long until her father remembers she's here.
“Hey,” Oz says.
“Hey,” Cordelia says and pushes her way out of the wheelchair. It hurts like hell and the orderly moves to help her, but she waves him off. “I got it, I got it!” she says testily. Oz just looks on, thumbs hooked into his jeans pockets. She climbs up into his van like this was the plan all the time and gazes steadfastly out the windshield. Oz drives her home without another word between them.
She refuses to take to her bed like one of those moping romance novel heroines. She’s Cordelia Chase, after all, and she’s better than that. So instead she lies on the glider on her front porch with a glass of sweet tea and all the magazines she can lay her hands on.
Fingernails are all done. She's not entirely happy with them; her hands keep shaking every time she tries to do fine work and there are bubbles because she was hasty, trying to outlast her fatigue. She tried doing her toenails, which ultimately don't matter as much, but she can’t bend that far or for that long yet. As it is, her…well, hole throbs and aches all the time, even below the softening mantle of the Percocet. Irritated, hot and hurting, she kicks the bottle of polish off the glider’s arm and falls backwards, throwing her arm over her eyes. Even that gesture pulls, and she feels her eyes burn hot with something that is absolutely, positively not tears.
“Let me help you with that.” She didn’t hear Oz come up the steps or onto the porch, but at once, he’s there, picking up the nail polish and tapping her feet until she slides them out of the way. He sits, drapes her legs over his and she doesn't even have the energy to be surprised.
For obvious reasons—c’mon, Cordelia Chase here—she’s never spent much "us" time with Oz. He is the anti-Cordy; disdainful of anything resembling fashion, quiet and unobtrusive. But she doesn't mind—in the absence of anyone who might see them together. Really, she kind of needs it, now, this moment; someone who’s not jabbering at her—for forgiveness, for attention, to ooze fake sympathy all over her…
So she wonders what he’s doing here with her, but she doesn’t ask the question. Why should she? Instead, she lets him fit the foam spreaders between her toes and color them the hues of a summer sunset. Oz is unhurried and meticulous; three coats and drying time in between so the polish is even and smooth. The sun's going down by the time he finishes, burnishing his hair in bronze tones darker than her toes. Away with the spreaders and she wiggles her toes, admiring them.
“Thank you,” she says.
“No problem,” he answers.
Eventually, she realizes, she’s going to have to go back to school. So she conference calls her parents—Dad in London on business, Mom in Palm Springs (how cliché!) for stress (Cordy’s injury has been very hard on her)—and explains the need for an entirely new wardrobe.
In typical fashion, her mother agrees (“Oh, of course, darling, anything you need”) and her father vetoes (“It’s just high school, honey; for Heaven's sake…” “But you’re always saying to put my best foot forward, Dad…”). This precipitates the inevitable argument between the senior Chases and after ten minutes of politely frigid back and forth, Cordy puts the phone down and goes to the kitchen in search of Hagen Daas. When she comes back a careful thirty minutes later, they are still arguing. She just puts the receiver back in the cradle and goes to get dressed.
It takes a long time and she says a lot of impolite words in the process.
She gets exactly half a block before she realizes the angle she needs to sit at to drive just isn’t going to work. She drives slowly back to the house (nudging the curb only twice), shifts the car into park with shaking hands, turns off the ignition and puts her head down on the wheel. She’s already had her second Percocet of the day; she can’t have another for three more hours, which just seems…interminable.
Someone taps on the glass and she raises her head blearily to see Oz standing outside, his hair bleached almost blonde by the bright midmorning sunlight. He’s got circles under his eyes that look almost like bruises and for a moment, she pities him for being male and unable to avail himself of proper concealer. She blinks at him for more than a minute before it occurs to her to roll down the window.
“Shouldn’t you be in school?” she asks. She recognizes her tone’s a little rude. It’s comforting, a tiny reminder of pre-Xander Cordelia.
Oz shrugs, as good an answer as any. He doesn’t even have the excuse of a giant gaping hole in his side. “Car trouble?”
“More like whole life trouble,” she answers, and that too comes out snappily and more like herself. She tosses her hair back and ignores the twinge.
“Need a ride somewhere?”
She straightens her shoulders. “Yeah. I do.”
Trying on clothes is not nearly as much fun when every incautious movement makes you gasp or—worse—sweat, and everything looks ghastly with your skin, still sickly pale from blood loss. The distance from store to store seems much longer than she remembers, too, even with Oz’s hand light on her elbow.
Oz’s skin is very warm against hers and she can’t tell if it’s because she’s so cold—which she has been for days—or maybe something to do with his wolfy nature, but when she turns her heel and her ankle and nearly falls—because it was totally the shoe’s fault and has nothing to do with the fact that she’s feeling more than a little lightheaded—he catches her with a sure and easy strength that’s definitely a little more than human.
Oz sets her on her feet and she turns brusquely away, embarrassed. They go to the cosmetics counter, where she can lean unobtrusively on the glass countertop, and she spends entirely too much money on a lipstick Oz picks out called 'Sullied Raspberries'.
It’s not long until the constant chatter of the obtrusively friendly saleswomen starts to grate on her shredded nerves and throb in her pounding temples. “I think…” she says, swaying a little, “I think I’m ready to go home now.”
And Oz takes the bags from her nerveless fingers and says, “Okay.”
In the car, she dry swallows three Percocet instead of the usual two and lies limp and sort of stoned in the half-reclined passenger’s seat while paper bags rustle around her knees like dry flowers.
She can’t make up her mind if it’s the Percocet or simply the strange sometime-y clarity of the California air, but she finds herself looking at Oz. Really looking at him and maybe seeing him for the first time ever.
Her impression of him has always been one of stillness, and of blending. Standing behind Devon, standing behind Willow, slumped down in chairs just below eye level… But it’s not true; Oz moves constantly. It's all tiny gestures, undramatic; the watchful flick of his eyes, his ears, the sharp flare of his nostrils as he scents. Not quite coherent, she thinks, No wonder he’s quiet, and in the next second, wonders what that means.
The sun and the drugs lay her flat, heaping over her in thick golden folds. He pulls into her driveway and she’s disinclined to move. God, she’s so tired. Her hand lies over her stomach and it looks like it belongs to someone else. She moves her fingers, limply, softly, but the illusion doesn't dissipate. Oz opens her door and reaches for her. Cordelia’s breath goes out of her softly and she lets herself fall.
She wakes on her couch, wrapped in an afghan and her lashes gummed with the residue of tears she won't let herself remember. Oz is looking at her, half his face in shadow. She's not afraid.
"Hi," she says and sweeps her hair out of her face.
"Hey." He looks tired but he gets to his feet. "You want some water?"
She doesn't realize it until he asks, but her throat is dry. "I can get it," she says in a totally unconvincing tone of voice.
"Nah. Don't worry about it." He is soundless as he walks across the floor and into the kitchen where there is a tinkle of glass and ice cubes and the rubbery vacuum sound of the refrigerator door.
The water is cold and sharp in its coldness. It tumbles down her throat in an icy rush and she nods her head in gratitude and relief. She reaches out and grabs his hand—still warm, so very warm—and pulls him down next to her on the couch.
"You all right?"
She nods. "Yeah."
She doesn't know who leans first. Only that they suddenly are, like flowers drifting towards sunlight. She's sober enough to know what she's doing, but she's just fucked up enough for it to feel natural when she curls her fingers around the back of his neck and pulls Oz's mouth down to hers.
The kiss is slow. Hot, yes, and hungry, yes, but Oz kisses like he paints her toes, meticulous and thorough, like he's memorizing her through her lips, like he's getting it right. There's no urgency to this. No hesitation, no anger, no desperation. Something's being given and something's being taken and she thinks, yes, uh-huh, exactly.
The buttons on her blouse give way to the pressure of her thumb. She peels aside the plackets first and then the bandage beneath it to expose it to the air: the hole that runs through the center of her, red, raw and ugly with stitches.
Oz lays her back on the cushions and runs clever, calloused fingertips over the topography of her flesh. He looks at her like she's a new piece of music he wants to learn and leaves a slow and deep burn where he touches. It makes her remember what it's like, to feel beautiful.
"Oz," she says quietly, touches his hair, and is rewarded with the crooked curl of his lips before he butts into the touch and closes his eyes.
"Hey," he murmurs back and then he's kissing her again, her mouth, the skin of her throat. His tongue highlights the line of her collarbone before he draws aside the cup of her bra and teases the hard peak of her nipple.
The noise it draws out of her is deep, moaning and her back arches, skirt sliding up. The denim of his jeans rubs against the insides of her thighs, an annoyance, a tease, and she decides it's not fair that he's still got on so many clothes while she lies half naked underneath him.
"Shirt," she says briefly, and tugs at the hem. Obligingly, Oz shucks it over his head, and it's his turn to shiver and shake as she mouths and scratches her way across his skin. He's thinner than she thought and wirier; smooth lines of muscle and shadow, ticklish along his ribs and sensitive at navel and nipple. She traces the curve of his ass and he comes up, past the layers of fabric and defense to slip two fingers into the center of her. Her knees tighten and she gasps, "Fuck. Fuck…"
She opens and she arches and it hurts and it doesn't and she thinks she'll gladly suffer through one to have the other. "I'm sorry," Oz murmurs, as he slides her skirt higher and her panties lower to disappear away. He spreads her apart and dissolves her on the tip of his tongue until she's hoarse and stupid and the couch cushions bear love bites from all ten of her fingers and toes. Against the inside of her thigh he whispers again and again with damp, sticky lips, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry…"
And she understands. Because she's sorry too and isn't this what this is all about, really? So she drags and pulls and tugs until their clothes disappear and Oz sheathes himself deep, deep and there's only the truth and the lie of skin. It's not slow anymore. It's hard and frantic and oh, oh, oh… She's broken and he's breaking and eventually it all becomes shards that simultaneously glitter and cut to the bone too fast and too hard for her to even bleed.
When it's over, Oz puts his head down on her stomach and she combs through his hair with her fingers while he watches her and her scar breathe.
The next day, she listens to every one of Xander's messages, an endless loop of fumbling quasi-apology and annoying allusion. She cuts up every photo she has of him, of them, of this whole insane, brain damaged portion of her life and burns it to ash and gone. The cold in her is warmed by the flame.
She gathers up the detritus of his memory—a couple of mix CDs, a bottle of perfume she wore just because she knew it drove him wild, a Alan Moore graphic novel he'd insisted she read (she never had), a T-shirt he'd loaned her after a rainstorm ruined her blouse—and takes it all out to the trash. She'd set that on fire too, but her dad would probably have something to say about her melting the plastic bins.
Oz's van pulls up to the curb while she rocks on the glider and watches the sun burn color back into her skin. She watches him walk up the driveway and sidewalk and she feels something liquid and dangerous release between her thighs.
"Hey," he says.
"Hey," she answers. She gets up from the glider and they go into the house.
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