Her hair was short. That was the first thing Xander noticed. You could see the back of her neck, now, the graceful length, supple as a swan, tanned to the perfect golden color. He wasn’t actually sure about the ‘tan’ part. The moon made everything look like grades of shadows, grey and silver and washed out faded nothing. But Xander knew Cordelia. She’d be tan.
She didn’t apologize for not coming up for the funeral. Xander didn’t expect her to, actually. Willow had told them about their dramatic entrance, full of jubilance over finishing. . . something. Some case for the intrepid demon detectives. Xander remembered that blinding smile, the way joy just shone out of her, the few times he was lucky enough to see her be truly happy. It would’ve been nice to see again.
Not here, though.
He knew Angel had disappeared. Left before Willow could even mention the memorial they were holding, off somewhere broody souled vampires went when the love of their unlife sacrificed herself to save her sister. Xander didn’t know, and didn’t really care—Angel’s disappearance was almost typical. One of the many reasons Xander didn’t like him.
“Is everything okay back in L.A.?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah.” No snappy comment about Xander not having the right to question her timing. Just a small, low voice that was rough with tears. “There was so much to do.”
“Yeah.” He kept his voice even—he wasn’t condemning her. If he’d had excuses to make, he’d have made them rather than attend the small memorial last week. It’d taken everything he had to stand there in the fading sunlight, staring at the row of smooth-hewn gravestones. Spike had gotten him home that night. If not, Xander was pretty sure he’d have been some vampire’s midnight snack. “All squared away?”
“Wesley said I should go. He cannot be trusted to actually get money from the clients who owe us, but he said. . . he said he’d handle it. He cried for her.”
Wesley? Willow had mentioned that former watcher was running with Angel’s crowd now—actually running the crowd was possibly what Willow had said—but hearing Cordelia talk about him with exasperation liberally mixed with fondness and respect actually brought the relationship home. He wondered if they’d gone back to making googly-eyes at each other.
“Of course,” she continued, “Wes is a big girl.”
Xander chuckled and moved a little closer. His shoulder brushed against hers. “Does he still make squeaking noises when he gets hurt?”
“Actually, no, not anymore.” She was remembering something, obviously. Something that put that unwavering trust in her voice. It was strange to hear it being given to Wesley, but then, it’d been two years since he’d run from Sunnydale, tail tucked between his legs.
Xander sure as hell wasn’t the same guy he was when he graduated high school.
“Too bad. He was always funny, moaning like that.”
“Meaning he gave you competition in the screaming-like-a-girl category.” That was the Cordy Xander remembered, but then she had to ruin it, adding, “Yeah. He’s kinda different now.”
Like Cordy was, and not just the shorter hair. He could see it in the lines around her eyes. The way her mouth had lost the hard, brittle edge of popularity, replaced with the kind of weariness Buffy had worn. . . before. Her shoulders were slumped, her clothes—while still fabulous, Xander was sure—weren’t the designer wet-dreams she’d adored so in high school. This Cordelia was older. Calmer.
He slipped his arm around her waist, grateful when she immediately leaned against his shoulder. Soft, human warmth tempered with something lavender soaked into his skin, warding off the chill of the night. “Tell me about her?” Cordelia asked.
Xander didn’t need to ask which ‘her’ she meant. “She was young. I think that’s what I remember the most. She was so little. And fragile.”
Cordelia snorted. She was ping-ponging from little girl to older woman to the teenager Xander remembered—it was disconcerting, but not unexpected. “I don’t remember that.”
“She never let you see that. She never let anyone see that, but me. She needed me.” He grinned even before he saw Cordelia’s skeptical expression. “Yeah, yeah, laugh at ego-man. I know she didn’t need me, Xander Harris. But she did need someone. And. . . she chose me.” He could never decide if that made it better or worse. If that made him the knight in shining armor she wanted, or the shlub she chose because he was the lesser of a whole lot of evils.
“I always thought she’d be a lesbian,” Cordy said with a shrug. She didn’t move away from his hold, though. “After a thousand years of punishing men for being, you know, men, it never made sense that she was dating one of them. Especially since she met you because you cheated on me.” There was no rancor in her voice, so Xander didn’t bother getting defensive. And, well, it was true. He and Willow had had a very embarrassing conversation about just that. Although Willow was more worried that Anya was going to rip out his intestines to tie them into knots, but the thought was there. “Were you really going to marry her?”
His cheek still burned where she’d slapped him. “Yeah. I was really going to marry her.”
“Xander Harris popping the question.” She turned in his arm, body still pressed against his but able to see his face easier, now. “Did you get down on one knee?”
“Uh, well, we were kinda just finishing getting—”
“Okay, you lose points for that. I know I taught you proper marriage etiquette. Not that marriage was ever an option for us, because, hello, I’m marrying someone incredibly wealthy. Maybe Nabbitt. If he lets me give him a make-over.” She titled her head, considering in that classically Cordelia way. “What kind of rock was it?”
The question he’d been dreading. “Well, I don’t actually make that much, you know. I mean, I’ve been promoted a couple times, but. . .” She raised her eyebrow and crossed her arms below her breasts, still managing to stay tucked against his chest. “It was cubic zirconia,” he confessed, head bowed and waiting for the blow to fall.
The sound of Cordelia’s slow breathing competed with the buzz and hum of night insects spinning around them. A breeze ruffled the trees and for an instant, Xander thought he smelled a hint of cigarette smoke.
“You bought her a fake ring.” Cordelia’s voice was flat. A hint of something tremored through the middle of it, but Xander had no idea if it was anger or laughter or tears.
“Hey!” he defended. “I could afford either a platinum band or a tiny diamond. So I figured buy the band and when I had more money, I could buy a bigger rock. I, um, do remember what you told me. I thought I got it right. Anya wasn’t complaining about the ring, anyway.” Just whether his offer was really genuine. And then, when she slipped off to where a former vengeance demon wanted to go when she was hurting, she’d taken it with her. For the memory, she’d told him in her note.
Cordelia’s face was washed with moonlight, eyes so huge and calm as she tipped her head up to him. Xander almost jumped when she threaded her arms around his neck, but was strangely calm by the time she gently pressed her lips to his.
It was a sweet kiss. A kiss between friends who wanted to comfort each other, even though the romantic part of the relationship was long dead. If it’d ever truly lived. All of that flashed through Xander’s mind the instant before he clutched Cordelia’s strangely thinner, stronger body to his and kissed her the way he hadn’t kissed anyone since Anya had left.
They were both panting when they broke apart. Cordelia’s mouth was wet, glistening in the moonlight. “Wow,” she said softly. “I, um, didn’t mean to do that.”
“Yeah, I know. I mean, it’s okay. I didn’t mean to, either. Well, no, I did, but probably for all the wrong reasons, and you don’t have some really rich football player that’s going to pound me into dust now, or anything, right?”
Cordelia smiled and kissed him again. It lasted as long as the first kiss, but was much calmer. It felt strange, kissing Cordelia again. She tasted of tears and the same cool, minty flavor that Xander always associated with money or an obsession with certs. She felt familiar, reassuring. Comforting.
Leaning her head against his shoulder, they stayed like that for a while. Arms warding off the night’s chill, the softness of her body a balm that none of Willow’s hugs or Dawn’s desperate cuddles could ever quite achieve. “I’m sorry,” she said into his shirt. “That she ran away.”
“What, no quippy comments about how she should’ve run sooner?” Xander kept his voice light, not wanting to annoy her. It was so easy to do, after all. “Thanks. I kinda can’t blame her.”
“I can.” Cordelia released him and turned back to stare at Buffy’s grave. “You know, if we’re both single when we’re 28?”
Xander coughed. “Uh, Cordy? Referencing Julia Roberts?”
Thankfully, that seemed to shake her out of her melancholy. “You could run circles around Dermot Mulroney you know.” She flashed her mega-watt smile at him—and Xander was pleased to see some of the weariness in her eyes fading. “Anyway, it's not like I'd ever run around trying to sabotage your happiness were you to get married. Wesley’s got an air of the Rupert Everett around him, doesn’t he? Anyway, my fiancé will be fabulously rich and is just around the next corner, just waiting to propose to me with his Platinum AmEx.”
Xander dug for his wallet, “I’ve got a Visa with a five hundred dollar limit in here somewhere. . . ”
“Five hundred,” she repeated. “So not. Try that number in front of millions and then you can call me.”
But her smile was softer, and Xander knew her first offer was still good. Not because he was there—a body that had the right attributes if not the right accessories. No, her offer was good, because she was Cordelia. And she never said anything she didn’t mean.
“Want some coffee?”
“Sure. And you can tell me all about your job, and how soon you’re going to be head of your own company. You know, just in case.”
Threading her arm through his, Xander chatted about his job and asked careful questions about hers, trying to stay as neutral as possible. As they walked, the smell of cigarettes and old leather hovered around them and didn’t fade until the lights of Sunnydale’s main street covered them entirely.
*From the poem Love and Friendship by Emily Bronte
like the wild rose-briar;
like the holly-tree.
is dark when the rose-briar blooms,
will bloom most constantly?
rose-briar is sweet in spring,
blossoms scent the air;
till winter comes again,
will call the wild-briar fair?
scorn the silly rose-wreath now,
thee with holly's sheen,
when December blights thy brow,
may leave thy garland green.