High Cost of Living

by Sheila Perez

Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket-safe, dark, motionless, airless-it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
-C. S. Lewis

Oz had found a new place to go, since the library was no longer an option. There was an empty lot near the school where the stoners and various others hung out when not in class. It wasn't a pretty place, littered with discarded cans and shopping carts, weeds running rampant everywhere. Fitted his mood rather well.

He put on some headphones and leaned back against a tree, wondering why he had even bothered leaving his room. Class had been a waste of time, which wasn't really shocking, 'cause school generally was a big waste of time. If he really wanted to learn something, he could go to a library. Or watch t.v. Something. School also had the decided disadvantage of having Willow. Which, once, had been a good thing. But when it was Willow and Xander doing cute couple-y things together, it got on his nerves. So, okay, he was being a "poor loser". But it really got to him.

He shut his eyes against the glare of the sun and tried, for a few minutes at least, to forget. When he opened them, there were legs in front of him. Long, tanned legs. "Hey, Cordelia. Could you go away?"

"No. We're going to be miserable together. And maybe vindictive and bitchy."

"You're good at that, I hear."

Cordelia sniffed, and grabbed his hand, pulling him up. "Stop being an ass. It's not like you."

"You'd be really surprised what I'm like."

"You're a nice guy." Cordelia didn't miss the frown that crossed Oz's face. "What? It's a good thing, I swear."

"Right." Oz brushed off the back of his jeans.

"It is," she insisted.

He shrugged. "What did you want to do?"

"Oh, well I haven't exactly thought that far ahead. Just...stuff. Not involving..."


She brushed her hair back and sighed. "Yeah. Think we'll be able to?"

"Not think about them? No." He opened the van door for her, and Cordelia slid in, smoothing her skirt carefully. Oz smirked a little.

"Well, aren't you Mr. Look On the Bright Side?" She glanced over at him as he pulled himself into the van. "No offense, but I didn't think you cared that much. You never seem to get mad or anything. I was starting to wonder if you cared at all."

Oz shrugged and started the van. "It's like...every time I close my eyes I can see her there kissing him. And then I feel like someone's just ripped out my insides and is using me as a pinata. With a large bat. There are spikes on the bat. With barbs. That sort of thing."

"I was going to say 'hurt,' but yeah, I guess that applies too." Cordelia pulled out a mirror and looked at herself critically. "Do I look like I've been crying?"



"Show no fear?"

"Something like that."


She stared at him for a moment. "Yeah, I think you do."

Oz smiled briefly. "Fight the good fight, or something."

"Would you be mad if I got into a knock-down, drag-out fight with Willow?" Cordelia rummaged about in her purse, looking for concealer.

"As mad as you'd be if I beat Xander silly." Oz navigated the streets of Sunnydale.

She smiled. "So that's out. I have alcohol."

"Sounds good."

Minutes later, they pulled into the Chase driveway. Cordelia got out, and shut the door. "I'll be back in a few minutes. I wanna grab the stuff and put on other clothes."

Oz made a faint attempt at humor. "Gonna put on something more comfortable?"

"Just for you, baby." If Oz could try, so could she. She wondered how he was handling everything so well. Cordelia was ready to have a screaming hissy fit. How could he be so calm about everything? "I'll be right back."

"Okay. I'll be right here waiting. With bells on."

She walked up the drive, opening the door quietly. Cordelia did not want her father to catch her doing something "bad." Because then he'd be angry, and where would she be?

Out of a lot of money, respect, and the ability to do whatever she wanted, that's what. No, couldn't have that.

Cordelia climbed the stairs, looking around at all the trappings of her life. There she was, a bright smile on her face as she won her first contest. Popularity, naturally. Being loved - she snickered to herself - could be such a bitch sometimes.

But that was okay. She could be too.

She walked into her room, tossing her jacket onto the bed and opening the closet doors. What to wear, what to wear? Only the best for lounging around a teenaged stoner boy guitarist turned werewolf's room. Jeans. Yes, jeans. And a blouse. Nothing too fancy, 'cause while Oz was less of a fashion victim than...Cordelia closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She could do this. Oz was less of a fashion victim tha--. No. She couldn't. Not yet.

She finished pulling on her clothes and brushed her hair, while glancing out the window. Oz was still there. He was sweet. Odd, but sweet.

Cordelia grabbed a backpack and a jacket before heading back down the stairs. Liquor cabinet was in Daddy's study. Daddy was at work. Thus, the liquor was up for grabs. And God...she needed it.

She crept into the study, closing the door behind her. The key was under the desk. Daddy didn't think she knew where it was. And she wouldn't, if Mom hadn't believed in the medicinal value of vodka. Ah well. It came in handy sometimes. Like after Kevin died.

No. Not going to think about that either.

A little bit of scotch (over ten years old, of course), Mom's vodka, gin or brandy? Decisions, decisions. Cordelia shrugged. No one would really notice. No one ever did.

She walked out into the hallway, setting her bag on the table before going upstairs and knocking on her mother's door. Separate bedrooms. How medieval. "Mom?"

"Cordelia, dear, get me my pills."

Cordelia set her jaw before walking in quietly. She made her way into the bathroom and grabbed the tray of medicine bottles. "I'm going to be out again tonight. At Willow's. We're...studying."

"That's nice. Get me a glass of water, would you?"

She handed her mother a glass of water. "Bye, Mom."

"Good-bye, dear."

The door closed behind her with a faint click. Cordelia went down the stairs and out the front door, grabbing her backpack on the way. She jogged out to the van and smiled at Oz as she set the bag down carefully.

"I thought I was being stood up." His lips curved into a faint ghost of a smile, one that didn't reach his eyes.

"By me?" Cordelia placed a hand over her heart. "I should be offended."

"Yes, by you. Given your previous track record with guys and all. And the way you broke poor Devon's heart. Shame. Shame."

Cordelia blinked, wondering if Oz was being serious. With him it was so hard to tell.

Oz kept a serious expression on his face for as long as he could. But then Cordelia turned to him, and in perfect seriousness asked, "Did I really break his heart?"



"I don't think Devon has a heart."

She smiled slowly. "He's kinda..."

Oz smirked a bit. "A vapid whore?"

Cordelia smacked him soundly on the arm. "Very funny, Oz. Notice how hard I'm not laughing."

"I'm sorry. It was a low, crass thing to say."

"Yes it was." A tiny smile then. "But he is, isn't he?"



Oz slammed the back doors of the van shut and locked them. He picked his guitar case up off the ground and nodded toward the house. "Shall we, milady?"

"Yeah. What's with they milady stuff?"

"Ever read the Three Musketeers?"

"That thing with the De Mornay lady?"



"Never mind then."

She looked at him, baffled. He shrugged and opened the door.

"Well, well. It's my son. How are you, son?"

Oz sighed as he shut the door behind him. "Dad, this is Cordelia. Cordelia, this is my dad."

"A girl? You actually think I'll believe this shit?" Oz's father glared at his son. Cordelia blinked. Okay, this was a weird place. They looked nothing alike. Oz was...a typical teenage male. One with skater tendencies. Oz's father was a... businessman? He looked relatively normal. His hair was dark, pretty obviously natural. He was like...the anti-Oz. It was very weird.

He slid an arm around Oz's shoulders and Cordelia saw Oz flinch away from the contact. "What's wrong, boy? Am I keeping you from your make-over?"

Oz blinked. Fuck this. He was not in the mood. "Come on, Cordelia."

"Yeah, we want to make sure we're pretty for all those guys out there."

"Whatever, dad."

Cordelia followed him up the stairs. That was good. Oz didn't think he could've said another word right then without having some unfortunate emotional thing happen. And that just couldn't happen.

He made his way up the stairs, very obviously not looking back. Never look back. It was a good motto. Or at least, Oz thought so. Certainly a painless one, once you got past the whole not looking back on the good stuff. Not that there was a lot of good stuff. Or any at all. Oz shrugged and opened the door to his room. He quickly checked everything to make sure that nothing embarrassing was out in the open before stepping aside and letting Cordelia into the room first. Manners never hurt anybody.

A tiny voice in the back of his mind whispered that courtesy and patience had certainly hurt him. Oz growled, low in his throat, telling it to shut up.

Cordelia glanced at him, raising an eyebrow in inquiry.


"Okay." She looked around the room, noting the books lining one wall and the music...stuff lining the other. His bed was under the window. She couldn't help noticing it was rather large. And the blanket looked oddly like velvet. Black though. Posters covered the walls - bands, and movies, and what looked like comic book covers. She smiled at Oz. "Aren't you a bit old for comic books?"

"No." His look challenged her to say anything more.

Cordelia wisely decided to say nothing. About the posters. The bedspread, however, was not spared. "Velvet? Why is your bedspread velvet?"

He looked at her again. A tiny smile graced his mouth. "My Goth phase."

"You had a Goth phase?" Cordelia was incredulous. "You're kidding me."

She sat down on the bed, running a hand over the material appreciatively.

"Nope." He nodded toward her bag. "Debauchery in a bag?"


"The alcohol, Cordelia. Remember?"

"Not till you tell me about this Goth phase."

Oz slid down, so that he was sitting on the floor with his back supported by the bed. Cordelia handed him the bottle of vodka. He grimaced and reached for one of the glasses sitting on his nightstand. It was bad that this was the third night he'd gotten drunk off his ass.

It was also the only thing that let him sleep at night. But no one else had to know that. No one else had to know a damned thing.

"So. Goth. Spill." Cordelia pulled out the scotch and poured it into a glass.

"Careful with that stuff. It burns," noted Oz as Cordelia took a healthy gulp. She coughed violently. He blinked. "Told you."

She didn't deign to answer. She just smacked him.

He smiled. "You wanna know about my Goth phase?"

Cordelia stretched out on the bed. "Yeah. I somehow just can't picture it." Oz was silent as he reached under the bed and pulled out a photo album. He rummaged through it briefly before pulling out a picture and handing it to her. She looked at the picture and then at him and whistled. "You look...nice."

Oz smiled again and ran his fingers through his hair. He stood up suddenly, moving over to the stereo system set up in the corner. He flipped idly through the c.d.'s stacked there before choosing one and popping it in. Loud, harsh guitar filled the air. He walked back to the bed and sat down on the ground, filling the glass with vodka and drinking.

Finally, he spoke. "It's not over."

She raised an eyebrow. "What's not over?"

"The Goth thing. I still do it sometimes."

"Really. Who knew?"

"Well...you. And my family." Oz took another sip and slouched down. "It's fun. Sometimes. Being what I'm not, I mean. But I am. Sort of."

"Oz?" Cordelia propped herself up.

"Hm?" Oz tilted his head back onto the bed, so he could look up at Cordelia.

"You're babbling."

"Oh. Okay."

Cordelia slid off the bed to sit next to Oz. They sat there, thinking deep thoughts or whatever it was that two people who had just gone through a messy - though quiet - break up thought. Oz reached for the bottle of scotch. It was becoming a welcome friend. He liked it. It made the bad things go away.

"Why was your dad such an ass?" Cordelia let her head fall back onto the bed and she turned it slightly towards him.

He frowned slightly, hunching his shoulders forward. "Dad thinks I'm gay."


Oz shrugged. "I dye my hair. Paint my nails. Never have sex with girls here. Something."

"Oh. Are you?" She slowly lifted the nearest bottle to her mouth. At some point using a glass had seemed pointless. Oz reached under the bed, groping blindly for something. He grinned and pulled out a bag of chips.

"Gay?" Oz tilted his head and felt the thoughts swim around slowly. God, sometimes he loved getting drunk. It made thinking much easier... "I don't think so. 'Cause...I like girls. I really liked Willow." He nodded, smiling at the floating sensation it produced. Everything was so much slower and easier to grab a hold of. "Chips?"

Cordelia nodded, reaching in and grabbing a handful. She drew her knees up to her chest. "Do you like me?"

"Like you as in how?"

"Don't know."

"As in 'Let's have wild, passionate sex on the floor,' or 'You're a good person, Cordelia Chase'?"

"Neither." She frowned. "Both. I don't know."

Oz sat up and turned to face her. He reached up, smoothing a thumb over the lines caused by her frown. "Yeah, I do like you. You're honest."

"Honesty doesn't seem to be high on a list of virtues shared by our 'friends.' Sarcastic quotes."

"Yeah, well, it's important to me." Oz reached under the bed again, pulling out a bag of cookies.

Cordelia smiled. "You've just got a grocery store in here, huh?"

Oz tilted his head. "Only non-perishable foods."

"Okay." She grabbed another handful of chips. "So, you like honesty."

"It's a virtue."

"Yeah. But not an important one." She pouted slightly. "Everyone gets mad at me for being honest."

He smirked, grabbing her ponytail and tugging on it gently. "It's not your honesty that people get mad at you for. It's your tactlessness."

"I'm not tactless!" She crossed her arms across her chest and gave him her best You-Are-Lower-Than-That-Icky-Stuff-I-Just-Scraped-Off-My-Boot look.

Oz just raised an eyebrow.

"I'm not!"

"Of course not." He looked down slowly, attempting a leer and failing miserably. "You have the most incredible breasts I've ever seen."

Cordelia smacked him.


"You're being a pig. Don't be a pig."



"Just call me Wilbur." Oz reached for a cookie, munching on it contentedly.


"Charlotte's Web. The pig's name is Wilbur."

She glared at him again, suspiciously. "Are you trying to make me laugh?"

"Am I that obvious?"

"You know you're not." She frowned down at the bag of chips. "Do you know how much salt is in these things?"

"A lot?" Oz slid down further, until he was lying on his back. He wriggled a bit, working his way under the bed, searching for something that Cordelia couldn't see. He began tossing books out from under the bed, still looking for whatever he was looking for.

"Yeah. Do you know how bad salt is for me?"


"Don't be smart."

"Can't help it. It comes naturally." Oz made a small sound of triumph, emerging with a shoebox.

"More food?"

"God, no. Pictures. And a zippo."

She looked at him expectantly. He smiled blandly at her. Cordelia began to glare. Oz just smiled some more.

"Fine, I'll ask. What are we going to do with those?"


"Bless you."


"I thought so."

"The American Heritage dictionary defines it as a purging of the emotions as a result of experience; especially a dramatic work of art. A purgation of pity and fear." Oz shrugged. "Or something like that."

"Uh-huh." She stared at him some more.

Oz frowned. "I know you're not stupid, Cordelia. Don't pretend to be." He stood up, swaying a bit before he regained his sense of balance and held out his hand. "We can't beat them up, so we do the next best thing."

She took his hand and he pulled her up, steadying her. "What's that?"



They stood next to each other, watching tendrils of smoke curl up into the sky.

Cordelia rubbed her arms, shivering slightly. Oz didn't move, didn't take his eyes off the tiny fire burning in the barbecue grill.

"Oz, can we go back inside now?"

"Hm?" He still didn't move.

"Can we go inside? It's kinda cold out here."

"Yeah...sure. Sorry, I got lost for a minute." Oz shook his head slightly and offered her his arm.

"No problem." She touched his shoulder. "Are you gonna be okay? You looked really weird."

"I'll be good. M'just...tired, I guess." He glanced up at the house, something sad and quiet and scared lurking in his eyes. It was only there for a moment, replaced quickly by his usual calm. Cordelia squeezed his shoulder, trying to offer him support and friendship. God only knew it was something they both needed. He reached up and grabbed her hand, holding it tightly in his own.



"It'll be okay."

Oz smiled. He didn't believe her. That was fine. She didn't believe herself.

"Let's go inside, Cordelia."

She followed him quietly.


"Did you love him?"




The room was dark, the only light coming from the glow of the streetlamps outside. Cordelia's head rested on Oz's shoulder, one arm wrapped around his waist. She could feel the beat of his heart and the steady rise and fall of his chest. It was soothing. Xander had been a lot of things. Soothing was not one of them.

"Did you ever tell him?"


"Why not?" He paused. "You don't have to answer, you know."

"I know." She closed her eyes and sighed. She felt him lean over and, very gently, kiss her forehead. "I was afraid." Despite herself, Cordelia could feel the tears start to well up again. She curled up, burying her face into his shoulder. Oz pulled her onto his lap, wrapping his arms around her and holding her tight. "Why didn't Xander want me? I mean, I'm pretty. I have money. And he liked me. He said he did." Cordelia curled up tighter, tears sliding down her cheeks. Oz begin to rock her back and forth, stroking her hair and whispering soothing nonsense.

"He's an ass, Cordelia. And you deserve so much better."

She only began to cry more. "I don't understand...what did I do wrong?"

"Nothing...he's an idiot...please don't cry..." Oz held her tighter as she cried. "Shhh..." He kept stroking her hair, lending her what little strength he had. Eventually the tears slowed, giving way to shaky breathing and the occasional hiccuping sob. "Please don't cry, Cordelia. Crying scares me."

Cordelia smiled, brushing tears away. "Scares you?" She sat up, trying to fix her hair in the dark. Oz pushed her hands away and kissed the top of her head again.

"Yeah, I never know what to do." He frowned as she tried to fix her hair again, grabbing her hands in his own and putting them down on the bed. "Cordelia, no one is going to care what your hair looks like right now, okay?"

"I know that. But it's habit. And ow."



"Ah. Want some Tylenol?"

"Yeah...that'd be good. Thanks." Cordelia rubbed her head. Drinking and crying and then sitting up far too quickly was never a good combination. Never, never, never.

"Cordelia?" Oz sat down on the bed next to her, handing her a bottle of Tylenol and a glass of water. "Are you okay?"

"This is why I don't drink that often." She tossed back a few pills and washed them down with the water. "Doesn't it bother you?"


"Anything at all."

"Yeah. Stuff bothers me." Oz fell backwards onto the bed, flinging an arm across his eyes.

Cordelia leaned over him and picked his arm up. "Like what? What in the history of the world has ever bothered you?"

Oz turned his head to look at her. "What do you think?"


"Yeah." He closed his eyes. "No offense Cordelia, but I don't want to talk about it."


"So, I don't want to talk about it."

"Tough. I talked about it, so you've got to." Cordelia leaned against the wall, resting a hand in his hair.

Oz turned his head away from her. "It hurts every time I look at her. It rips me apart every time I see them together. I worshipped her. I would have given everything I owned to make her smile. And it wasn't enough." He sat up suddenly and yanked open the drawer on the nightstand. He pulled out several bottles of nail polish and some remover. "It wasn't fucking enough. Happy now?"

"I'm sorry. But you're not the only one hurting."

"I know. But I'm me. If that makes sense." He pulled out some cotton balls and proceeded to change nail colors again. Matte black.

Cordelia smiled. "It does. Sorta." She watched him for a while before asking, "What are you doing?"

"Gonna go clubbing tomorrow night."

"You're going to go clubbing?"

"Yeah. Why is that so hard to believe?"

"Because it's you." Cordelia got up and turned on the lights. "You're not the type to go to a club and dance the night away."

"Who said I'd dance?" Oz didn't look up, he just kept painting his nails.

"It's generally what you do at a club."

"Not a dance club." He looked up at her and shuddered delicately. "I'm not going to dance."

"Then what?" Cordelia curled up on the bed, still watching him. "Going Goth?"

"Something like that. Wanna come?" He glanced up at her, a dark and challenging look in his eyes. "I want to do something that will shock them all. Perhaps involving meaningless sex. With multiple partners. In a consequence free environment."

Cordelia blinked.

"I figure, I waited to make things right and good and special. Well fuck it all to hell, I'm not going to die a virgin. And I also think it's a self-destructive impulse that will kick me in the gut and wake me up. I don't know. I just need to do something other than sit here and be miserable."

"Oh." She sat up and wrapped her arms around his waist, resting her chin on his shoulder. "So why don't we have sex?"

He turned his head, looking at her quietly before turning around completely and cupping her cheek in his hand. Oz leaned forward, brushing his lips lightly against Cordelia's. She slid an arm around his neck, pulling him closer as they deepened the kiss. After a moment, they pulled away from each other and Oz smiled. "That's why."

Cordelia grinned. "Wow. No passion at all. I'm impressed."

"Yeah, well, no offense Cordelia, but you're very much not my type."

"Darn, break my heart."

He started to laugh. "Oh God..."

"What? I have a heart!" Cordelia hit him on the arm.

"No, it's just...can you imagine us having sex?"

"Not really." She glared at him some more. "Why?"

"Nothing. I swear." He chuckled again. "It's a fun picture."


He grinned unrepentantly.


"Yeah, Cordelia?"

"If I agree to go to the club with you, will you help me get ready?" She closed her eyes, waiting for the rejection. Oz probably wanted to be alone, and it wasn't like they were best friends or anything. Why should he want to go with her or help her or anything?

"Of course." Oz touched her cheek gently. "It'll be fun. We'll bond."

"Thank you."

He was silent for a moment. "You're a friend, Cordelia. Possibly my only one. And unlike some other people, I try not to treat my friends like crap."

She looked down at the bedspread, picking at a loose thread. "Do you think they ever loved us?"

"I don't know. I'm guessing I never will." He shrugged. "I'm not sure I want to know. It's easier to believe whatever it is that I believe about them."

Cordelia sighed and lay back on the bed. "I want to know why."


"I'm not kidding. I want to know."

"You're still a masochist."

"Yeah, well, wallowing in self pity isn't the best thing to do either." Cordelia glanced at him. "Confront them with me? Please?"

"M'scared." He lay down, his head resting on her stomach. "I'm scared that if I talk to her, I'll say something that will hurt her. And I don't want that."

"Better her than you."

"No." He sighed. "I don't want her hurt."

Cordelia stroked his hair. "Maybe your not talking to her hurts her too. Maybe she'd be able to apologize or something and feel better."


"Please, Oz. Things need to be finished. You know that as well as I do."

"I know, Cordelia. But I don't want to hurt her and I don't want to be hurt anymore. And I'm just a big coward." Oz closed his eyes. "For you."


"I'll confront them for you. Because you'll need a friend that's not on their side. And because it does need to be over."

Cordelia reached down and grabbed his hand, squeezing it. "Thank you."

He covered his eyes again. "I'm not good with thanks. I blush. It's not pretty."

She tugged on his hand, pulling him up alongside her. They curled up, arms wrapped loosely around each other. They fell asleep like that, giving each other comfort and friendship and refuge from the world outside. And for a while, it was enough.

It's part of the whole thing. And there is a whole thing out there. And it's all part of living...the good bits and the bad bits and the dull bits and the painful bits...
-Death: The High Cost of Living, by Neil Gaiman